For Patriots, tradition is on the menu today

History in forefront as coaches prepare

By Shalise Manza Young
Globe Staff / November 25, 2010

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It has been 11 seasons since the Detroit Lions posted a winning record, and 12 seasons since they were postseason participants.

But for 71 years, they’ve had NFL football on Thanksgiving.

In New England, Thanksgiving is a day for high school football, with crosstown rivalries and schoolboy pranks as much a part of the day as a turkey-induced nap. Elsewhere around the country, only a few high school teams play on or near the holiday, as it’s playoff time.

It was the idea of owner G.A. Richards, who purchased the Lions in 1934 and moved them from Portsmouth, Ohio, to Detroit, to play on Thanksgiving. That year, despite being undefeated, the Lions were not selling out University of Detroit Stadium. But for their first Thanksgiving game, they hosted the Bears, also undefeated under legendary coach George Halas, and turned away fans at the gate.

Richards also persuaded the NBC Radio Network to carry the game on 94 stations nationwide.

And a tradition was born.

Two other Thanksgiving games were added over the years: Dallas began hosting a mid-afternoon game in 1966 and the league began a third, floating prime-time game to be broadcast on the NFL Network a few years ago. There seems to be a growing sentiment that the struggling Lions franchise should give up the Thanksgiving game, but it still resonates with many, particularly some of the men who will be involved in today’s matchup.

“This has been a tradition,’’ said second-year Lions coach Jim Schwartz. “It’s been a long time standing in Detroit. There have been some memorable games. There has been a lot of magic involved in Thanksgiving.

“We need to pick that up from a tradition standpoint and make it very difficult on opponents that come here to play on Thanksgiving.’’

Patriots coach Bill Belichick spent two years very early in his career as a Detroit assistant coach and knows first-hand what the game means to the people of the city.

“That is a great day for everybody to be with their family and eat turkey and watch football,’’ he said. “It doesn’t get any better than that.

“Having been in Detroit, I know what a big game this is for the Lions and how much it is a part of that city and that franchise and the tradition that has been there.’’

On Wednesday, Belichick implied that he would not be in favor of taking the game from the organization: “I think it’s a great game for Detroit, the Lions, the city and for football. I think it adds a lot to the holiday. It’s a big day there for them.’’

The Patriots are playing Detroit on Thanksgiving for the third time; in 2000, the Lions won, 34-9, in a game that is notable because it marked the debut of one Tom Brady. Then a rookie, Brady came on in mop-up duty and completed one of three passes for 6 yards.

The second meeting was a 20-12 New England win in 2002, though as Brady noted this week, it was an uneven game for the offense. Tedy Bruschi returned an interception for a touchdown in that one.

“It’s an early game, earlier than we normally play [12:30 p.m.],’’ said Brady, who is listed as questionable for today because of his foot injury. “The crowd will be amped up and ready to go, and we’re going to have to go out and play really well.

“I’m excited to see what this team can do on a short week and show what kind of toughness we have.’’

Schwartz is trying to make the Lions relevant once again and return the team to respectability, and despite their 2-8 record, they seem well on the way, with only one loss coming by double digits, and four by 3 points or fewer.

That includes a return to Thanksgiving dominance as well. The Lions have lost six straight games on the holiday and eight of the last nine. The current downturn was preceded by a stretch in which they won six of seven.

With nothing to lose and a foundation to build for the future with talented young players, Schwartz noted that now is as good a time as any for his team to get back on track.

And his team could do it against the man who gave him his start in the NFL. Schwartz was a personnel assistant on Belichick’s staff in Cleveland from 1993-95.

“I’ve tried to take a little bit from every coach I’ve been around, and I’ve been very fortunate: Bill Belichick, Marvin Lewis, 10 years with Jeff Fisher down in Nashville — all three very excellent coaches,’’ Schwartz said.

“Being around Bill Belichick in the beginning of my career, getting that opportunity to not only work for him but to learn from him, has probably guided my career the most along the way.’’

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