Robert Sabo/NY Daily News via Getty Images

From the Butt Fumble to Clint Longley's epic comeback game, remembering some of the NFL's wildest moments from Thanksgiving day's past.

By Conor Orr
November 23, 2017

Happy Thanksgiving, everybody.

In lieu of a hot take du jour, here are my five wildest Thanksgiving NFL moments for you to enjoy while awaiting the inevitable political trigger word that ruins this federally mandated holiday for you and your loved ones. (And here’s the schedule of today’s Turkey Day games.)

5. New York Jets vs. New England Patriots, 2012: The Butt Fumble

The Rex Ryan era had already crashed. This was the beginning of “the lost years” between Ryan and Todd Bowles.

With New England already leading 14–0 in a night game at MetLife Stadium, Sanchez took a snap out of the I formation, frantically faked a pitch to his tailback and a handoff to his fullback. He was alone now in the backfield, seeming to realize at that moment the play was horribly busted.

His instinct? Run.

Four yards in front of Sanchez, Brandon Moore, perhaps the most underrated player of the Ryan era, was working against Vince Wilfork. The two were in a sumo-style grapple when Sanchez tries to wrap around Moore’s backside and keep pushing the ball upfield. Moore is pushed back just slightly, and the sudden change in direction and velocity forced Moore’s butt to literally twerk into Sanchez’s face. Sanchez falls to the ground like Michael Spinks and Steve Gregory, a Patriots defensive back, is there to take it 32 yards for the score.

As a young beat reporter for The Star-Ledger at the time, I missed Thanksgiving dinner with my family in Pennsylvania that night to cover the game. But I saw a grown man knocked out by another grown man’s butt. And in a lot of ways, that was better than any turkey dinner.

4. Chicago Staleys vs. Buffalo All-Americans, 1921: Pre-Deflategate NFL stupidity

Back in 1921, the Buffalo All-Americans were rolling. They’d beaten everyone—the Columbus Panhandles, the New York Brickley Giants, the Rochester Jeffersons and the Dayton Triangles. They also beat the Chicago Staleys 7–6 on Thanksgiving in a game that broke wide open on Waddy Kuehl’s 40-yard reception.

The Staleys, sore that the game had broken up their perfect record, asked the All-Americans for a post-season exhibition rematch. The Staleys won said rematch and, according to “Who Really Won in 1921” by Ken Crippen, “Buffalo claimed that the second game was just a post-season ‘exhibition’ game, and it should not count in the final standings. Chicago claimed that the Association did not have a set date for the end of the season, therefore the second game could not have been held in the ‘post-season.’”

The Staleys essentially pulled out the Rustin Cohle “time is a flat circle” argument—what is the end anyway?—and leveraged the rematch victory to earn themselves the championship.

Imagine how much more complicated your drunk Thanksgiving uncle’s NFL takes would be without a clear dividing line between the regular season and playoffs.  Thanks, Staleys.

3. Dallas Cowboys vs. Philadelphia Eagles, 1989: What is a kicker’s life worth?

Once upon a time, player bounties appeared quite common. Leading up to a ho-hum matchup between the 1989 Buddy Ryan-led Eagles and the Jimmy Johnson-led Cowboys, Ryan apparently wanted to ensure a few Cowboy players would not be making it through the game.

One was Troy Aikman. According to The Dallas Morning News, knocking the young quarterback out would result in payment of $500.

The other was kicker Luis Zendejas—Luis Zendejas!—who was worth $200. Poor Zendejas.  

From the News:

“Afterward, in his news conference, Johnson claimed Ryan had placed a $200 bounty on Zendejas and a $500 bounty on Aikman. Zendejas told reporters Eagles special teams coach Al Roberts and Philadelphia punter John Teltschik warned him before the game he would be targeted. Once the Eagles put the finishing touches on their victory, Johnson wanted to confront Ryan and discuss the matter.

“I would have, but he wouldn't stay on the field long enough,” Johnson said that day. “He got his fat rear end into the dressing room.”

A great line from the broadcast team of John Madden and Pat Summerall after Aikman was leveled by Britt Hager a few seconds after the whistle, leading to a massive brawl in the end zone (the whole broadcast is here):

Summerall: We need the Marquess of Queensberry here!

Madden: They need a cage to put these guys in. A cage match!

Summerall: Maybe they forgot it’s Thanksgiving.

2. Detroit Lions vs. Pittsburgh Steelers, 1998: Head tails, the third side of a coin

Then 7–4, the Pittsburgh Steelers were taken to overtime by an underwhelming, Bobby Ross-led Lions team. What happened during that game is not important. What happened just before the Lions got the ball and scored in overtime is.

Referee Phil Luckett looks at both sets of captains and shows them the coin: Heads, tails, tails heads. Call it, please, in the air.

Jerome Bettis says “Head-Tails!”

Luckett, with beautifully unintentional comedic timing: “Heads is the call!”

Bettis: “I said tails.”

Luckett, on the microphone for everyone in the stadium to hear: “He said heads! It is a tails.”

Bettis looks over at the television camera, eyebrows raised. Luckett, for the rest of the season, is berated by players during the coin toss who scream their intended choice over and over again. The world continues to be an unfair place.

1. Cowboys vs. Redskins, 1974: The legend of gun-slingin’, teammate-punchin’ Clint Longley

How can you not get fired up about this after hearing the NFL Films intro?

On Thanksgiving Day, 1974, Tom Landry and an obscure rookie quarterback witnessed what appeared to be a horrid chapter in Cowboy history. Trailing the Redskins 16–3, the Cowboys’ only hope was Roger Staubach, a savior of lost causes. But neither saviors nor saints could deter a man who knew the only sin was losing. When the Redskins knocked captain comeback unconscious in the third quarter, all that stood between them and victory was a baby-faced rookie quarterback named Clint Longley…

The segment, which will remain on YouTube until the end of Net Neutrality forces us to scramble for it on VHS, shows a retrospective Longley looking like a period-specific Kenny Powers/Pablo Escobar mashup detailing his heroic night. Despite the narrator’s insistence that Longley had no “concept of the Cowboys’ offensive system, ignoring keys and coverages” he chucked a 50-yard, game-winning touchdown to Drew Pearson in the fourth quarter.

There is so much incredible detail here. All of the players basically saying Longley came in and ran a backyard football offense for 30 minutes. All of the backhanded complements. But the reason this makes my list? According to Longley’s Wikipedia page (and a dated citation from the Dallas Morning News), he sucker punched Staubach while the legendary quarterback was putting on his shoulder pads during training camp the following summer. Cowboys exec Gil Brant traded Longley to the Chargers for the No. 2 pick in the 1977 NFL Draft (Tony Dorsett!) and, according to NFL Films, “the last thing we heard, (Longley) was selling carpet remnants out of the back of a van in Marfa, Texas.” Clint Longley forever!

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HOT READS

NOW ON THE MMQB: Kalyn Kahler does football in America, Pittsburgh Style … Andy Benoit talks about his borderline-Machiavellian (if not hilarious) quest to prevent his family from watching live football on Thanksgiving … and more!

LATER TODAY ON THE MMQB: Peter King talks to Chargers head coach Anthony Lynn about what he’s thankful for…I wrap up Thursday’s games after emerging from a gravy-induced slumber


PRESS COVERAGE

1. Washington head coach Jay Gruden sticks up for Giants head coach Ben McAdoo, using the one cop-out McAdoo can’t.

2. Josh Gordon returns to Browns practice! Follow up question: Why is the team’s social media arm so excited about this?

3. While still technically a member of the Bears, Alshon Jeffery guaranteed his team would win the Super Bowl. Now, he wants credit for it as a member of the Eagles.

4. The team at Pro Football Focus has updated their college quarterback ratings. That plucky Baker Mayfield will look wonderful in Green and White.

5. Bill Belichick’s take on the Miami Dolphins quarterback situation? “Outstanding.”


THE KICKER

The New York Times digs back into its archives for a Thanksgiving dinner preview from 1932: Turkey Dinner for Five Planned for $5.42; Same Repast Cost $7.09 Last Thanksgiving.

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