The NFL season is finally upon us. Every 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: Jimmy Garoppolo
Michael Baumann [12:28 A.M. ET]: “Cut off the snake’s head and the body will die” doesn’t apply to the New England Patriots — because the whole team is a snake’s head. Suspend Tom Brady and knock Rob Gronkowski out with a hamstring injury, and Bill Belichick will just conjure some dunce off the bench to distribute the football to his army of Wes Welker types.
Garoppolo played Carson Palmer to a draw, throwing for 264 yards on 24-of-33 passing, with one touchdown, no interceptions, and a lost fumble. He ran much better than Tom Brady would’ve (which is to say that he ran at all) and he looked like a competent NFL quarterback (which was by no means a guarantee heading into the game). In fact, he threw a couple of pretty balls, including a 37-yard touchdown to Chris Hogan on the Pats’ first drive, and a 32-yarder to Danny Amendola to keep the game-winning drive alive.
And so, despite the big stage, and despite Brady’s absence, and despite Larry Fitzgerald and Michael Floyd skinning New England’s defensive backs and turning their hides into a rug, and despite a pissed-off Chandler Jones dirtying Garoppolo’s uniform, the Patriots are still 1–0. For everyone expecting New England to suffer without Brady, this must be a tough reality to … Garoppol with.
Losers: Kameron Canaday, Drew Butler, and Chandler Catanzaro
Michael Baumann [12:17 A.M. ET]: Sometimes it takes a village to shank a game-winning field goal.
The Cardinals stoned Jimmy Garoppolo on a third-and-5 run to hold the Patriots to a go-ahead field goal, then Carson Palmer and Larry Fitzgerald scythed through the New England secondary to set up one of their own with less than a minute to go. In the middle of the drive, NBC’s Michele Tafoya reported that Catanzaro had hit a 59-yard field goal in preseason and told her that he felt comfortable “from 60 yards and in” before the game.
Friends, that’s what I like to call hubris.
Palmer set up a 47-yard attempt with an 18-yard completion on third down. But while Catanzaro might have been confident, a field goal is a delicate operation that relies on strict timing and intricate choreography. Arizona’s rookie long snapper, Kameron Canaday, chucked a frisbee slider through his legs, and the holder, Drew Butler, trapped it with both hands like a child trying to catch a frog.
Catanzaro never had a chance: “Erramos o FG e perdemos o jogo” was a near certainty before he pulled the ball left. But hey, it would’ve been wide left from 60.
Loser: Andrew Luck
Ryan O’Hanlon [8:35 P.M. ET]: First, let’s chalk up a sub-Loser loser to People Who Thought That Andrew Luck Actually Wasn’t Good. The dude is a subtle force of nature, a ballerina in a bull’s body. There’s an anxious-but-unhurried energy behind every Luck snap, and after a tepid start, it overwhelmed the Lions: four passing touchdowns, 385 yards in the air, 8.2 yards per attempt, plus three rushes for 21 yards.
Except, today was same old same old for Luck: He tries to win the game by himself, almost does, and then you remember that, despite Luck’s capabilities, quarterbacks can’t play defense too. Indianapolis lost half its already threadbare secondary to injuries, got lit up by Matt Stafford, and allowed the Lions to go 50 yards in 25 seconds to set up a game-winning field goal from Matt Prater. With a healthy Luck, the Colts still might be the best team in the AFC South — but in their fifth year with their new franchise signal-caller, the expectations have to be a little higher than that.
Winner: Victor Cruz
Katie Baker [8:29 P.M. ET]: It was almost two years ago that Victor Cruz last played a down of football, a fourth-and-goal from the 3-yard line in Philadelphia. The ball sailed through his hands in the end zone as that dreaded pop-goes-the-knee sound reverberated in his ears. Since then, Cruz had sort of turned into the Zack Wheeler of the New York Giants: once special, forever in the process of returning, but never actually coming back. His knee sidelined him for the rest of the 2014, and a calf injury last year lingered on and on, pushing back his comeback until he was forced to punt on the season altogether. As recently as this August, he was battling an injured groin.
It seemed like the closest the 29-year-old Cruz might come to ever playing football again was playing himself on Ballers. (Last summer, on New York radio station WFAN, he said that he’d been taking acting lessons and hoped to one day win an Oscar.) Sunday, though, Cruz finally reprised an old role: back in a regular season football game, wearing patriotic cleats and receiving passes once more. When Eli Manning hit him for a 23-yard gain during the two-minute drill to end the first half, you could hear it, even on the road in AT&T Stadium: Cruuuuuuuuz. Midway through the fourth quarter, with the Giants trailing 19–13 and facing third-and-goal from the 3-yard line, Manning found Cruz in the middle of the end zone. Again came the Cruz cheers — and this time, they were a soundtrack to the touchdown salsa dance that, for awhile, had felt like something we might never see again.
Winner: Shane Vereen
Bryan Curtis [8:05 P.M. ET]: I’m guessing Shane Vereen got slightly less attention in your fantasy draft than Ezekiel Elliott. Mine too. And yet on the Giants’ game-winning drive, Vereen looked like the fourth-overall pick, while Elliott was an afterthought.
When the drive began, there were just over 10 minutes left in the game. Troy Aikman noted how few yards the Giants had racked up in the second half. (They were at 41. Then they got a false start on the first play, lowering that total to 36.) Vereen took over. He caught a pass for 10. Three plays later, he ran for 10. Then he ran for 2. Then he ran for 9, all the way to the Cowboys’ 3-yard line. For some inexplicable reason, the Giants decided to throw it three times to get it into the end zone.
The Giants’ O-line is, as they say in the sports-cliché business, much maligned. But head coach Ben McAdoo slowly figured out that the Cowboys D-line was, too. And, worse, it was thin. Big chunks of the second half featured Nebraska rookie Maliek Collins with hands on his hips.
Zeke Elliott ran 20 times for 51 yards, which is the perfect stat line for an unmemorable debut. Vereen had a tidy line of six for 38, plus another 23 yards receiving. I know which one I’ll remember.
Loser: Dak Prescott, Savior
Bryan Curtis [7:58 P.M. ET]: I watched Cowboys-Giants with my two uncles, so I can report — according to a source close to the process — that the expectations for Dak Prescott were insane. It wasn’t just Prescott’s sterling preseason, which featured a game in which he put up a perfect QB rating. It was the idea of moving on from the sputtering Romo Era. One of my uncles predicted Romo would never take another snap; Dak would be that good.
Prescott came in on the game’s first series and he was … bus driverly. He scrambled and threw to Dez Bryant for 8. He threw to Jason Witten for 17. On third-and-4, Prescott ticked through his progressions and found Cole Beasley for a first down. The drive lasted 15 plays and ate up 8:25. Cowboys 3, Giants 0.
There was a lot of über-competent play like that. The next drive lasted 15 plays and netted another field goal. At one point during the third drive — featuring a really nice Prescott keeper on a zone read — the Cowboys led in time of possession 20:43 to 4:01.
Calling a quarterback a “bus driver” is an insult in pro football unless your last quarterback was the bus driver from Speed. Even though the Cowboys trailed at halftime, there was — and, again, this is per my source — a sort of calm in Cowboy fandom. See, Prescott wasn’t throwing the killer interception like Romo.
The problem was that Prescott, for all his close-range efficiency, wasn’t able to throw the ball downfield. For the game, he averaged just over 5 yards per attempt. (His one nice deep throw to Dez Bryant was overturned after a review. Imagine that, a major Dez catch falling prey to the officials.) Even his final pass to Terrance Williams — the one in which Williams inexplicably failed to get out of bounds and let the clock expire — went for a modest 14 yards.
This is where it’s mandatory to cite the Bill Parcells quote about putting away the anointing oil — a koan that was intended to tamp down the initial excitement about Romo. The Cowboys have their most exciting QB prospect in years. He isn’t yet as exciting as the guy he replaced.
Winner: Every NFC Team Outside the Pacific Northwest
Ryan O’Hanlon [7:40 P.M. ET]: The early returns from the Post-Lynch Era in Seattle are in, and while the record says “1–0,” the subtext is “mediocre football team.” The list of problems is already too long: (1) Against Miami, Seattle’s best player was Cassius Marsh, who is a real person and not a collection of polygons spit out by the Madden draft generator; (2) Ndamukong Suh, as Ndamukong Suh does, stepped on Russell Wilson’s ankle, hobbling Seattle’s QB for the rest of the game and possibly even longer; (3) despite setting a career-high in pass attempts, Wilson was played toe to toe by Ryan Tannehill; (4) all-world safety Earl Thomas looked lost, like he’d been tricked into studying a fake playbook during the offseason; (5) The gaggle of sub–Beast Mode running backs couldn’t crack 3.5 yards per carry.
The Seahawks won, essentially, for no other reason than “They played the Dolphins.” Unfortunately for Seattle fans hoping to see their team win another conference title, Miami plays in the AFC.
Loser: Rex Ryan
Kevin Clark [5:08 ET]: What the hell was that? On the surface, the Bills had plenty of problems on defense, Ryan’s area of expertise. Their most dominant force, Marcell Dareus, is suspended. Their first-round pick, Shaq Lawson, is out after shoulder surgery. Rookie Reggie Ragland, who they thought could be solid at linebacker, is also out. So there are excuses. But here’s the problem with the Bills: They scored seven points. LeSean McCoy averaged 3.6 yards per rush. Sammy Watkins had 43 receiving yards. Tyrod Taylor threw for 111 yards. This was not supposed to happen. We are not even sure that the Ravens, who won 13–7, are even good on defense. If the Bills can’t get any meaningful contributions from their offensive playmakers, they could have a disastrous start to the season. And in a year when Rex needs to win or perhaps leave town, the pressure will be on starting with Week 2’s matchup against (gulp) the Jets, Ryan’s old team.
Loser: Proprietor, Revis Island
Sean Fennessey [4:49 ET]: There once was a beautiful island destination. Like St. Kitts or Nevis, but with fewer tourists, no insects or dangerous wildlife, and a service staff ready to answer your every beck and call. This resort town was called Revis Island and it was where wide receivers went for some rest and relaxation, never bothered to think about work, let alone receptions. This island has been destroyed by tropical storms, infested with exotic rodents, and reduced to a sandbar in a vast ocean of touchdowns. A.J. Green embarrassed Darrelle Revis, and his island, to the tune of 12 receptions, 180 yards, and one touchdown. He did this on 13 targets — the one dropped pass was underthrown by Andy Dalton, but Green very nearly snatched it from the mouth of the turf to secure a shoestring-style catch at a critical moment in the game.
Overstating the decline of Darrelle Revis has become a common pastime for Jets fans of late, and Green is an extraordinary player, both agile and fast, skilled and super-charged. But Revis looked undeniably slower and less powerful in today’s game. Where once he was an island, now he is merely a devotion upon mergent occasions.
Winner: Carson Wentz
Chris Almeida [4:49 ET]: Coming into Week 1, the bar for Carson Wentz was not set high. He came from an FCS school and he locked himself in a bathroom. Top pick Jared Goff, Wentz’s closest contemporary, failed to secure even the second quarterback spot on the Rams depth chart, which took the pressure off Wentz to secure a starting job, something that has become the expectation for top rookie quarterbacks in recent years. Until Sam Bradford was traded to the Vikings little more than a week ago, it was expected that a bewildered Wentz would be able to avoid certain embarrassment by blending in on the sideline. But, then, of course, Bradford was traded, and Wentz was given the keys to the NFL’s 26th-best offense.
It wouldn’t have been shocking if Wentz had failed this week. But he didn’t: Wentz completed nearly 60 percent of his passes and threw for 278 yards en route to a 29–10 win over RG3’s Browns. Of course, this all came against a defense that was the fourth-worst in football last year. But a win’s a win. Beautiful touchdown passes are beautiful touchdown passes. And this week Wentz had two:
Winner: Jameis Winston
Kevin Clark [4:20 ET]: Offseason jumps are hard to read. For every “Here comes Ryan Tannehill!” false alarm, there are legitimate leaps made. This seems to be the case with Jameis Winston, last seen with a modest 22-touchdown, 15-interception performance in 2015. There were no real signs that he could break into the league’s elite in 2016, just stories about weight loss and how he’s more focused than ever — typical second-year-quarterback fare.
Before we get to the performance, let’s preface it: The Falcons cannot tackle or sack the quarterback, and probably most importantly, the player they drafted to fix a massive hole in their secondary, safety Keanu Neal, was out Sunday with a knee injury. Having said that: Holy crap, Jameis Winston was awesome. He threw four touchdowns and one pick in the Bucs’ 31–24 win over Atlanta. Winston’s third-quarter 45-yard pass to Mike Evans is one of the highlights of his young career; he easily avoided Atlanta pressure then placed the ball perfectly to Evans, who was just a step ahead of Robert Alford. No one is ever going to confuse Winston with a player who will go for weeks at a time without an interception — he still throws plenty of weird and just plain bad passes — but his ability to throw players open is now showing, and if he has more days like Sunday, we’ll be talking about the Bucs threatening the Panthers in the division.
Winner: Alshon Jeffery
Shea Serrano [4:20 ET]: Two reasons: First, the Bears receiver went for 105 yards on four catches in the first half alone, including a 54-yard bomb, which is longer than any pass he caught all last year. And second, his last name is Jeffery, and Young Thug’s name is Jeffery, so that’s basically like if his name was Alshon Jesus Christ or Alshon da Vinci or Alshon Luther King Jr. (The best part of Jeffery catching that very long jump ball against a much shorter cornerback was that it prompted the Fox commentator to remark that sometimes a quarterback has to “put it up on the top shelf where the kids can’t get it.”)
Loser: Blair Walsh’s Confidence
Jordan Ritter Conn [4:20 ET]: They said they weren’t worried about the yips. Never mind that Blair Walsh missed a field goal that would have won the Vikings their wild-card game against the Seahawks in January. Never mind that it was only 27 yards, that it inspired Gary Anderson flashbacks all across the Twin Cities, and was so excruciating that it prompted a class of first-graders to send Walsh letters just to make sure he was OK. Never mind, either, that Walsh had a history with inexplicable slumps, dropping from 87 percent to 60 percent between his junior and senior years at Georgia.
The Vikings were not concerned. “I pretty much move on,” Mike Zimmer told ESPN.com. Walsh wouldn’t let it get in his head. He would be fine.
And then Sunday arrived; and Walsh missed a 37-yarder; and then a 56-yarder; and then, after two nerve-settling makes, he blew an extra point. The Vikings dusted off a lethargic first half to dispose of the Titans with ease. And yet you couldn’t shake the feeling, mounting with every Walsh miss, that January’s shank may stick with the former All-Pro kicker deep into the fall.
Winner: Terrelle Pryor, Wide Receiver
Jordan Ritter Conn [4:20 ET]: Terrelle Pryor was known as a high-maintenance recruit, until he was known for getting discounted tattoos, until he was known for mostly mediocre quarterback play spliced with occasional flashes of athletic brilliance. And then, last summer, when it began to look like he would never make it as a consistent starting NFL quarterback, Pryor quietly mentioned that he’d be open to trying wide receiver.
Little more than a year later, he’s doing this:
The Browns looked bad. RG3 looked no better. But out wide, Robert Griffin III had a 6-foot-4 and 223-pound former phenom who started to look like, at 27 years old, he may have finally found his calling.
Winner: Brock Osweiler Believers
Shea Serrano [4:20 ET]: Anyone who thought (or hoped) (or prayed) that it was going to take Brock Osweiler, quarterback savior for the Texans, longer than three passes to throw an interception was sorely disappointed. Because it took Brock Osweiler, quarterback savior for the Texans, only three passes to throw an interception. But there’s a positive spin: It took Brian Hoyer one pass as the Texans QB to throw an interception last year. So that means Brock is already 300 percent better than him. The Texans won. The current Texans QB is 300 percent better than the discarded previous Texans QB. So all is well.
Winner: The New York Jets Defensive Line
Sean Fennessey [4:20 ET]: The New York Sack Exchange was not a clever nickname. If you’re doing it right, you’re not exchanging sacks. You’re delivering them. The Jets’ vaunted 1981 defense, led by the Sack Exchange, combined for 66 sacks, delivering the most in the league. Today, the Jets’ D-line was responsible for seven sacks of the Bengals’ Andy Dalton. Here’s some math: 16 x 7 = 112. Dalton was terrific, tossing for 366 yards, but he had human Tonka truck Muhammad Wilkerson, anthropomorphic feline mutant Leonard Williams, and recently signed ex-Steeler Steve McLendon, who resembled the BFG, in his torso all day. The team didn’t even have Sheldon Richardson, who was suspended one game for a 2015 off-the-field incident. Richardson is the arguably most athletic player on the whole line. Will the Jets pile on seven sacks and several tackles for loss every week? No. But they might be better than the greatest unit in the team’s history.