Love it or hate it, the NFL plays games on Thursday night. This is not a new practice, however, as games have been played on a Thursday since 1934. Of course, those were Thanksgiving Day games.
In the late 1980s/early 1990s the NFL began to play some games in December on Thursday night. This was in no small part due to the fact that ESPN (and TNT for a bit) and the NFL had begun the now strong tradition of Sunday Night Football. In turn, the NFL began playing December games on Thursday, Saturday, Sunday, and Monday. Talk about NFL all the time.
December 5, 1996, was the first time the Colts took the field for a non-Thanksgiving game. The game was played in the RCA Dome and saw the Colts host the favored Philadelphia Eagles.
I had a lot of fun researching this game. Not so much because of the outcome, but because of all the notable players and personnel involved in this game.
The Colts were coached by Lindy Infante. As both coach of the Green Bay Packers and Colts, Infante had semi-successful teams. Never great, but never truly terrible (well his 1997 season in Indy was forgettable). However, history tends to forget Infante. Why is that? I speculate it’s because he preceded legends.
In Green Bay, Infante was fired prior to the 1992 season. The man who took his place was Mike Holmgren. And a few games into the 1992 season, the Packers star QB, Don Majkowski was injured. This, of course, led to a young gunslinger by the name of Brett Favre to enter the game and take over the franchise.
After the 1995 season, which saw Jim Harbaugh lead the Colts to the AFC Championship Game, Infante was named head coach. After the 1997 season, he was fired and replaced by Jim Mora. The Colts also ended up drafting some guy named Peyton Manning. So you can see why Infante has been somewhat forgotten.
There are others whom you may have heard of on the sidelines of this game. The Colts defensive coordinator at the time was none other than the late, great Jim Johnson. Yes, the same Johnson who went on to build a consistently great defense in Philadelphia.
He would be playing a chess match against the Eagles Offensive Coordinator Jon Gruden. At this point, Gruden was in his second year with the Eagles, and two years later would be named Head Coach of the Oakland Raiders. Interesting to note, that the Eagles Offensive Line coach was Bill Callahan, who would replace Gruden in Oakland.
But on to the game itself.
I mentioned that the Eagles were favored to win. They were coming in with an 8-5 record, while the Colts, the home underdog, entered with a 7-6 record.
The Colts got out of the gate quickly with a touchdown run from Marshall Faulk in the first quarter. The Eagles would add a field goal from none other than Gary Anderson in that first period, but that was as close as it got.
By halftime, the Colts had extended their lead to 23-3 behind three Cary Blanchard field goals, and a pick six from Jason Belser, who had two interceptions on the day.
In the second half another Faulk touchdown and a grab from rookie (yes rookie) Marvin Harrison gave the Colts a comfortable 34 point lead.
The Eagles would tack on a touchdown before the game ended when Mark Rypien hooked up with Irving Fryar for a late score. The Colts would win by the final margin of 37-10. So much for home underdogs.
The Colts and Eagles both left that Thursday night game with an 8-6 record. The Colts would split their final two, and finish 9-7, while the Eagles would win out to finish 10-6.
Both teams would qualify for the playoffs as a Wild Card. The Colts had to travel back up to Pittsburgh, where their season had ended the year before. The end result was the same, as the Pittsburgh Steelers blew through the Colts in the opening round of the playoffs. The Eagles would travel to San Fransisco, where they would be shut out by the 49ers.
And there you have it, the Colts first non-Thanksgiving Day game was a win. In fact, overall, the Colts are 11-1-1, all-time, on Thursday games. Hopefully they can increase that win total tonight.