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The Winners and Losers From NFL Week 9

Zeke Elliot wins on the field despite off-field headlines. Plus: Travis Kelce’s ejection, Jason Witten’s trustworthy hands, and the triumph of mediocre football.

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Getty Images

Week 9 of the NFL season is here, bringing highs, lows, and everything in between. And each Sunday, throughout the day, the Ringer staff will be celebrating the insane plays, admonishing the colossal blunders, and explaining the inexplicable moments of the NFL season. Welcome to Winners and Losers. Which one are you?

Winner: Ezekiel Elliott, the Player

Bryan Curtis: First, the absolute joy of watching Zeke Elliott, rookie, light the NFL on fire:

Today, the Cowboys were playing the Browns in Cleveland. For Elliott, who played at Ohio State, it was a home game. The crowd was chanting “ZEEEEEKE.” Zeke was doing “O-H-I-O.” Elliott’s “feed me” celebration might be ridiculously overused, but the Fox cameras caught a couple of Cowboys fans in the front row, shoveling imaginary cereal into their mouth in time with their hero. It’s a thing now.

On the Cowboys’ third drive, Elliott was running down the right sidelines. As he got close to the end zone, he leapt and at the same moment shifted the ball from his right hand to his left, which allowed him to extend the ball across the goal line. On the next drive, he used his speed to beat the exiled ex-Patriot Jamie Collins to the edge on third-and-1. He later scored his second touchdown of the game by stepping over Browns DB Briean Boddy-Calhoun like he was a character in Madden.

So, where’s the rain cloud? Well, this week, USA Today reported that a woman called police in February to tell them that Elliott had pushed her against a wall. (According to the paper, “the case was not forwarded to prosecutors for review.”) It was the first of two reports the woman made against Elliott. In July, she claimed that Elliott assaulted her multiple times and posted photos of her alleged injuries. Elliott and various witnesses denied the allegations; no charges were filed.

Moreover, CBS reported last week that Jerry Jones buttonholed the NFL special counsel who handles domestic violence issues at the league meetings. It was as weird and unseemly as Bill Clinton trying to kibitz with Loretta Lynch when the FBI was investigating his wife. (I’m purposefully omitting Elliott’s visit to a weed store from this litany of woe, because who cares?)

I love watching Zeke Elliott run. On Halloween night, I wore a “Dak-Zeke ’16” T-shirt, which got a nice, bipartisan cheer in Texas. But there are now enough allegations circulating that we’re forced to think hard about a new question: What kind of person is Zeke Elliott?

This is a tough one. Elliott hasn’t been and may never be charged with a crime. But as we know, or should, domestic violence often occurs in a gray zone, and Elliott’s innocence or guilt may never be spelled out convincingly. (Worse, the evidence to make such a judgment might not come anytime soon.) Elliott may face a “lengthy ban” from the league (as CBS said was a possibility) or he may never be suspended at all. To which I’d say: The NFL’s police power is a separate matter of morality, and if you’re thinking, “Gee, this could cut into the Cowboys’ playoff run,” you’re thinking the wrong thing.

Cowboys fans have a wealth of experience trying to square the unbelievable player on the field with the flawed man off it, with Hollywood Henderson, Michael Irvin, and many others. It’s not fun. It can take the shine off a swell win over the Browns. But it’s what you’ve got to do. Otherwise, you’re the team and the NFL’s mark, plugging your ears and chanting, “Feed me.”

Loser: Travis Kelce

Rodger Sherman: I am sad Vine is dying, because this is on Vine:

Kelce is the loser in this scenario for two reasons:

First, Kelce got so mad at a referee for failing to call what he thought was pass interference that he was flagged, causing him to yoink a towel out of his butt pocket and throw it at the referee. That earned him another flag (although the referee had already used his flag, forcing him to use his hat) and ejection from the game. Kelce had to leave the field, will probably get fined, and, worst of all, he got made fun of by the Jaguars as he left the field.

Second, Kelce was the loser of another battle. I like to view this Vine as a spontaneous competition among four different humans to throw the weirdest thing they could find. Just watch it enough times, and you’ll see — and you’ll also see the clear order of finishers:

  1. Hat ref. You’ve gotta be a real weirdo or Bobby Shmurda to throw a hat.
  2. Flag ref. Gotta admit — it’s pretty weird to have a little bit of sand attached to a sheet of cloth in your pocket.
  3. Aaron Colvin, a.k.a. imaginary flag guy. Ideally he’d have something, but I admire the spirit of imagination.
  4. Kelce. Throwing a towel isn’t cool. It means you’re giving up. Even throwing nothing, but pretending to throw something, beats this last-place maneuver.

Winner: Mediocrity

Sherman: If you love aggressively average football, Week 9 was for you.

  • The 3–5 Chargers beat the 4–4 Titans, to make both teams 4–5.
  • The 3–4 Ravens beat the 4–3 Steelers, to make both teams 4–4.
  • The 4–4 Lions beat the 5–2 Vikings, to make the Lions 5–4 and the Vikings 5–3.
  • The 2–5 Panthers beat the 3–4 Rams, to make both teams 3–5.
  • The 3–5 Colts beat the 4–3 Packers, to make the Colts 4–5 and the Packers 4–4.

I’m amazed at the way the NFL is finding perfect mediocrity. With every slightly-below-average team beating a slightly-above-average team, the league is consolidating its overwhelming blandness.

The 2016 season will end with two good teams (the Patriots and … ???), two bad teams (the Browns and … ???), and 28 teams sitting between 7–9 and 9–7. Somebody will make the playoffs, and somebody will get the third pick in the draft. Who? I have no idea.

Loser: Ben Roethlisberger’s Early Return to the Steelers’ Lineup

Danny Kelly: Don’t let Ben Roethlisberger’s final stat line deceive you. Yeah, he finished Pittsburgh’s 21–14 loss to the Ravens with 264 passing yards, a passing touchdown, and a rushing score, and yeah, Pittsburgh put itself in a position to challenge late in the game before its hilarious onside kick blunder, but for the vast majority of the game, the Steelers’ offense couldn’t do anything.

Getty Images
Getty Images

Roethlisberger completed just seven of 14 pass attempts for 50 yards in the first half. Through three quarters, the offense had produced 69 total yards. And after Baltimore blocked a punt and returned it for a touchdown on the Steelers’ first possession of the fourth quarter, Pittsburgh’s 12 drives to that point had produced the same amount of first downs (two) as turnovers.

It wasn’t until that fourth quarter, trailing by three scores, that Big Ben and the Pittsburgh offense finally started to string together some big plays, but it was too little, too late. Three weeks after having arthroscopic surgery on a torn meniscus in his left knee, Roethlisberger struggled to shake off the rust — he was often tentative in the pocket and inaccurate on his passes — and Baltimore’s defense did a great job of confusing him with creative scheming. The Ravens sacked him twice, picked him off once, and knocked down eight of his passes (a few of which should’ve been intercepted), holding on for a big win that pulls them into a tie with the Steelers for first place in the AFC North.

While Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin said he never considered benching Roethlisberger in favor of Landry Jones, you have to wonder whether the backup could’ve had more success than a clearly injury-hobbled Big Ben.

Winner: Chuck Pagano

Kevin Clark: The Indianapolis Colts were heavy underdogs in a game that would have dropped them to 3–6 and perhaps put an end to the tenure of their coach, Chuck Pagano. And so the Colts, one of the most unpredictable teams in the NFL, went ahead and played their most impressive game of the season in their 31–26 win over the Green Bay Packers. Despite 297 yards and three touchdowns from Aaron Rodgers, the Colts were able to boss around the Packers, at one point leading 31–13 in the fourth. The Colts defense held the Packers to 4-of-12 on third down and, for most of the game, made the Packers receivers’ look worthless. Now 4–5, the Colts are squarely back in the AFC South race and Pagano has saved his job for at least a few weeks. Perhaps the team to start worrying about is not the Colts, but the Packers, who are now 4–4.

Chuck Pagano’s still here. Fire up the clichés! Keep chopping wood! The next game is the most important game because it’s the next game! So what, now what!?

Winner: Marquette King

Rodger Sherman: In the third quarter of Sunday Night Football, the Raiders punter dropped a majestic punt on the Broncos’ 2-yard line. He rode his pony in celebration:

On the very next drive, he booted another beaut, again downed at the 2-yard line. He did one of Von Miller’s dances:

You should love Marquette King, for a variety of reasons. For one, he celebrates like this. Punters are often forgotten and rarely call attention to themselves. King is one of the few who acts like a star, letting the world know how wonderful his punts are.

It’s deserved, King is one of the NFL’s best punters. Bleacher Report’s punter scouts — yes, they have punter scouts — fawn over King, voting his leg the best in the league. This season, he ranks in the top five in both yards-per-punt and percentage of punts inside the 20 yard line. When the Raiders gave him $16 million in February, nobody thought it was weird.

You’ve probably noticed that most kickers and punters are white. King is black—in fact, the only black kicker or punter in the NFL, and only the fifth black punter in the league’s history. There are a variety of factors why, some societal, some financial, and some caused by plain ol’ stereotyping. But King’s talent has overcome all of them.

Given that he is the punter for the Oakland Raiders, you may not have heard of King. But Oakland is great this year, and that means King is going to shine on national TV.

Winner: Jason Witten’s Hands

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Getty Images

Shea Serrano: Jason Witten had eight catches (on just 10 targets) for 134 yards today. That’s more yards than he’s had in any two games combined this season (and also more catches than in all but one game). Granted, it was against the Browns, who have not won a game this season, and possibly not a game in franchise history, but still. The point remains: I trust Jason Witten so much. More specifically: I trust Jason Witten’s hands so much. I would throw my baby out of a skyscraper window if you told me Jason Witten was on the ground waiting to catch him.

There was this movie several years ago where Kevin Costner played a rescue diver and about two-thirds of the way through it a bartender tells a story about how, one time on a rescue mission, a cord snapped as Costner and the guy he was rescuing were being pulled up to the rescue helicopter. As the guy began to fall, Costner reached down and caught him by the fingertips. They couldn’t get the thing that was supposed to reel them up to work so they just dangled out of a helicopter for, like, 20 fucking minutes or something. The tendons in Costner’s arm tore, he dislocated he shoulder, and just wrecked all of his everything. But he never let go. He never dropped that guy. That’s Jason Witten to me. Jason Witten would’ve caught that guy, too, same as Costner did. Matter of fact, he probably would’ve ran that guy in for a touchdown after he caught him.

Loser: Jared Goff

Kevin Clark: How bad is Jared Goff? The more you watch the Rams offense, and the more you consider that the first overall pick can’t get on the field, the more unfathomable the whole situation becomes. Case Keenum quarterbacked the Rams in their 13–10 home loss on Sunday — the lone Rams touchdown coming in the final minute on fourth down. This did not placate the home crowd:

The only entertainment Keenum provided is that, on the Rams’ final drive, under pressure from the Panthers’ defensive line, he threw the ball left-handed:

The fun stopped there. It’s clear Goff is not going to be a rookie sensation like Dak Prescott or Carson Wentz, and may not even be as productive as Cody Kessler this season. The only way that this is a justifiable coaching move for Jeff Fisher is if Goff is legitimately terrible in practice. If that part is true, it’s a massive failure of quarterback evaluation in a deep QB draft. If it’s not true, then Fisher is practicing coaching malpractice.

Loser: Chris Boswell

Sherman: In 2013, Rice kicker Chris Boswell did something amazing.

With a little more than two minutes to go against Houston, Boswell ran up to the ball as if he was going to kick it deep, then at the last second, swung his kicking leg around his plant foot and jackknifed the ball sideways. In soccer, this move is known as the “rabona,” and since Boswell’s dad lived in Brazil for a while, Boswell grew up playing soccer. In football, this move is known as “HOLY CRAP I DIDN’T KNOW THAT WAS POSSIBLE WHAT?!?!?!?!!” Houston was completely unprepared for the sudden directional shift, and Rice recovered.

In the years since, others have attempted to emulate Boswell’s success. Dolphins kicker Caleb Sturgis tried it, Kansas State attempted it a couple of seasons ago, and Saturday Florida kicker Eddy Pineiro tried it. But the rabona is difficult — even soccer players can look like total idiots when they try it — and nobody else has managed to pull off Boswell’s feat.

Now Boswell kicks for the Steelers. And trailing late against the Ravens, he had a chance to show off his special move once again.

And he messed up so, so badly:

Poor Chris. Some will remember that he once executed one of the most impressive onside kicks of all time. Unfortunately, that was in a Conference USA football game three years ago. He just messed up in an NFL game watched by way, way more people, who will remember him as the doofus who failed a silly soccer move.

Loser: Pursuit Angles

Kelly: As the name suggests, the safety is often the last line of defense, the deep help over the middle, the guy that keeps everything in front of him. He makes everyone else on the team feel safe. His compatriots can take chances, try to jump in front of passing lanes, or blitz, and know that deep down they’ve got some support over the top. For the Eagles, Steelers, and Jaguars, that trust was shattered on Sunday.

Odell Beckham Jr. got the party started when, early in the first quarter of the Giants’ matchup with the Eagles, he beat cornerback Leodis McKelvin off the line to catch a pass on a slant route. With McKelvin in the dust, safety Rodney McLeod was the only man deep for Philly. But, instead of flying into the screen to make the tackle, he took a terrible angle on one of the fastest players in the league and Beckham screamed into the end zone.

Late in the first quarter of the Baltimore-Pittsburgh tilt, Ravens receiver Mike Wallace ran a quick slant route from the 5-yard line, beating cornerback Artie Burns to catch a bullet from Joe Flacco. When Burns dove at Wallace and missed, it came down to Steelers safety Mike Mitchell to save the day. He came downhill too quickly, fell for a stutter step to the inside, got stiff-armed … and Wallace was gone.

Even when safeties were taking good angles on Sunday, the results were disappointing. In Jacksonville’s 19–14 loss to the Chiefs, Tashaun Gipson’s tackle-whoever-has-the-ball-no-matter-what philosophy cost the Jaguars a sure turnover. As Prince Amukamara looked to corral an errant Nick Foles pass, Gipson lit him up, dislodging the football. Oops …

Winner: Terrible Decision-Makers

Sherman: Ryan Fitzpatrick — who went to Harvard — has somehow run for a first down. This rarely happens in Ryan Fitzpatrick’s NFL career, and when it does, it typically winds up with him hurling his brain into an opponent and getting concussed. (He went to Harvard, so he knows he has extra brain cells to lose. It’s smart that he even thinks about it that way, and you can tell he’s smart because he went to Harvard.) Instead of taking the first down and being satisfied, he wildly hurls the ball backwards to running back Bilal Powell, who is not expecting it at all.

Powell somehow snags it and the Jets retain possession. Fitzpatrick isn’t punished for his foolishness, and perhaps some announcer somewhere even points out that a non-Harvard QB might not have had the wisdom to consider such a reckless but ultimately successful play.

Meanwhile, the other New York team did something almost as dumb. Jason Pierre-Paul blocked a field goal, an NFL rarity that kept the Eagles from scoring on a drive that the probably deserved three points for. Janoris Jenkins recovered it, and as he got tackled, he tossed the ball up too:

The Giants recovered, and if they hadn’t, the ball would’ve gone right back to the team they had just brilliantly managed to stop.

Life and football don’t always make sense. Good things happen to bad people, great things happen to idiots, and reliable kickers go on to miss the exact field goal that will break your heart. There’s no rhyme or reason, and these are two plays that exemplify that.

Loser: Completed Invisible Cutlery Sets

Serrano: Each time Ezekiel Elliott, running back for the Dallas Cowboys, does something good, he celebrates by pretending to eat. (He pantomimes scooping food out of a bowl.) Each time James Harden, point guard for the Houston Rockets, does something good, he celebrates by pretending to cook. (He pantomimes stirring food in a pot.) And each time either one of them does it, all I can think about is the other. I wonder: Did they both get their invisible cutlery from the same invisible cutlery set? Like, perhaps they were both out shopping at Target and came across the last set of invisible cutlery, and both thought it would be good to use pieces of it for in-game celebrations, so then they had to figure out a way that they could both have parts of it because neither of them would back down? “Well, I plan on doing a cooking thing, so I really just need the invisible pot and the invisible stirrer,” Harden said. “That’s perfect, because I plan on doing an eating thing, so all I really need is the invisible bowl and the invisible spoon,” said Elliott, and then they invisible bought it and invisible divvied it up in the visible parking lot. I don’t know. All I know is that some invisible pieces of the set are in Houston and other invisible pieces of the set are in Dallas and that makes me a little sad.