Pro football is longstanding Thanksgiving Day tradition

Here is my Thursday article on the Thanksgiving football. This article runs in the Thursday sports section of the Santa Rosa Press Democrat.

Football on Thanksgiving is a tradition and a burden.

Let’s start with the tradition.

Thanksgiving football precedes the NFL by more than 40 years. Princeton and Yale played each other on Thanksgiving 1876, and the University of Michigan played every Thanksgiving from 1885 to 1905.

The Detriot Lions first played on Thanksgiving in 1934. Before them, all kinds of NFL teams played on Thanksgiving — the Staten Island Stapletons, the Pottsville Maroons, and the Dayton Triangles, just to name a few.

The American Football League had its own Thanksgiving games, and the Raiders played in four of those — 1963, 1966, 1967 and 1968. But in the NFL from 1945 to 1965, the only game on Thanksgiving was the annual game in Detroit. Period.

In 1966, the Dallas Cowboys finagled their way into hosting a second NFL Thanksgiving game, and they’ve been hosting that game ever since (except in 1975 and 1977 when the St. Louis Cardinals somehow finagled the game away from the Cowboys).

In 2006, the NFL added a third Thanksgiving game, a night game. It continues, but no one team gets to host it every year.

It’s an honor to play on Thanksgiving with most of the country eating turkey and giblets and cranberry sauce, and watching. The Raiders get that honor today. Besides the Thanksgiving games in the defunct AFL, the Raiders had the honor twice before in the current NFL — 1970 and 2009. The 49ers have had the honor four times — 1966, 1969, 1972 and 2011.

But playing on Thanksgiving also is a burden.

The biggest burden is the soreness, especially for the older players. Many of the Raiders still were stiff and sore from last Sunday’s game with Tennessee when they boarded the plane Wednesday for Dallas.

Forty-Niners’ fullback Bruce Miller knows what the Raiders are facing. “On Day 2 (after a game), I’m the sorest,” he said. “On Days 3 and 4, it’s still working its way out.”

“You sometimes play sore even on Sunday games,” said Raiders’ tailback Rashad Jennings. “Unless you’re not playing hard,” he added with a smile.

The Turkey Day burden goes beyond the soreness.

The Raiders didn’t have a single full practice this week. “You give up the full-speed reps,” said Raiders’ head coach Dennis Allen. “(Monday) was basically a walk-through. (Tuesday) was a little bit more uptempo, but still not a grind-it-out practice.”

During a typical week, the Raiders have full practices on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday, and a walk-through on Saturday. This week, the Raiders had one walk-through and one jog-through. If they’re lucky, that was enough time to get looks at the Cowboys’ blitz packages, and maybe their offensive and defensive schemes for third down and the red zone. All other onfield prep got cut.

In order to give the players accurate looks at the Cowboys’ blitzes and schemes, the Raiders had to assign coaches to start preparing for the Cowboys early last week while most of the coaching staff was preparing for Tennessee. Each NFL coaching staff now has offensive and defensive quality control assistants who are in charge of breaking down the opponent’s game video. Those are the people who do the advanced prep for a Thanksgiving game.

But they hardly have any time to relay their insights to the players because the teams cut short most of their meetings as well as their practices.

There are compensations. Now teams prepare players by putting the video breakdown and the game plan on iPads. Yes, iPads.

“It’s great now with the iPads to have the opportunity to leave the facility but still have your playbook and the computers with you to watch the film,” said 49ers fullback Miller. “We get them uploaded to the iPads right after the game, so we do film study on the way home. You can cut some drag and do a lot more on your own with the iPads.”

“I think that definitely helps,” said 49ers’ head coach Jim Harbaugh. “That technology advancing helps. It’s convenient. You want to chill at home, as the guys say, and be on the couch and watch the iPad.”

To help their players prepare for today’s game, Raiders coaches uploaded film of the Cowboys in the Raiders players’ iPads Sunday night. So, theoretically, the Raiders should know the Cowboys well enough by now.

If the Raiders looked unprepared today, chances are the players didn’t watch the film at home on their iPads. Maybe they watched a movie.

Grant Cohn writes sports columns and the “Inside the 49ers” blog for the Press Democrat’s website. You can reach him at

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