In the United States, football is as much a Thanksgiving tradition as turkey, parades and arguing politics with family members. The NFL has been playing on Thanksgiving Day since the league was founded in 1920, back when the Columbus Panhandles and Elyria Athletics fought to a 0-0 tie (a game I’m sure was just as riveting as it sounds). In total, there have been 222 games played on the holiday,1 for an average of about two and a half turducken-worthy contests per year.
But as much of a Thanksgiving fixture as the NFL is, are the games really all that good? This year’s slate is better than most, but it’s more the exception than the rule.
The typical NFL game is staged between teams with an average Elo rating (FiveThirtyEight’s pet metric for estimating a team’s quality) of 1500. For Thanksgiving games, that number only goes up to 1518 — meaning the league’s big holiday showcases are really only a little bit better than any run-of-the-mill game. Compare that to the average for prime-time games:2 Although those also have their share of duds, the typical prime-time NFL contest has an average Elo of 1539, or 39 points better than an average game. That’s more than double the gap between the typical Thanksgiving game and an average game.
One big reason for this is that most of the NFL’s Thanksgiving games are traditionally played by a few specific teams. At least one of the Chicago Bears, Dallas Cowboys, Detroit Lions or Green Bay Packers have appeared in 68 percent of all Thanksgiving matchups, with Detroit participating in a league-high 34 percent of those games.
Three of the four teams — the Bears, Lions and Packers — are classic franchises whose origins date back to 1930 or earlier; the Cowboys have probably earned/branded their way into that group, too. And for their part, the Cowboys, Bears and Packers usually put a good product on the field. Together, the three teams have had an average Elo of 1561 going into their Thanksgiving Day appearances — a very strong rating.
|FRANCHISE||GAMES||WINS||LOSSES||TIES||WIN %||AVERAGE ELO|
|Green Bay Packers||36||14||20||2||41.7||1555|
|New York Giants||14||7||4||3||60.7||1567|
|Kansas City Chiefs||10||5||5||0||50.0||1573|
But the Lions are helping to hold Thanksgiving back. Although they’re having a decent year in 2016, they haven’t been consistently above average since the early 1970s, and their average Thanksgiving Day pregame Elo of 1485 pales in comparison with those of their fellow holiday mainstays. If the NFL cut down on appearances by Detroit and a few others (the Bills, Broncos, Eagles and Jets have played 33 Thanksgiving games combined, with an average Elo of 1476), it could elevate Thanksgiving much closer to the standard the league sets in its other showcase time slots.
The NBA is a good point of comparison. Since Christmas Day basketball became a national-TV fixture in 1983, the typical NBA game on the holiday has featured an average Elo of 1569, about 50 Elo points higher than the NFL’s standard Thanksgiving fare.3 Some of that owes to basketball’s built-in advantage as a sport of superstars and more dominant great teams than can be built in the NFL. (The best teams are more reliably great in the NBA than in the NFL.) But even if we account for this by normalizing each sport’s Elo ratings to a common scale, the NBA’s average Christmas-game participants are still about a half-standard deviation better than their Thanksgiving NFL counterparts.
The NBA simply does a better job of making sure that its best teams are scheduled for the holiday, often using the previous season’s NBA Finals matchup as a starting point and going from there. There’s also the advantage provided by scheduling additional games on the holiday (five Christmas Day NBA games versus three Thanksgiving NFL games) — although the league has to try to come up with more good games, a single bad matchup doesn’t spoil the day. And it helps that the NBA doesn’t link specific franchises to its Christmas games, except for occasionally the New York Knicks4 and Los Angeles Lakers.5 So, when you watch the NBA on Christmas, you can be pretty sure that you’re seeing the cream of the crop. For the NFL on Thanksgiving, it’s less certain.
This isn’t to say that the NFL’s more tradition-based approach to holiday scheduling doesn’t have some advantages. There’s something reassuringly familiar about powering up the TV with relatives and seeing the teams you grew up watching on Thanksgiving year after year. But if the NFL wants to guarantee better holiday matchups — rather than having them be happy accidents, like this year — it might make sense to tweak the tradition a little and take a page from the NBA’s playbook.
Check out our latest NFL predictions.