Every week this NFL season, we will celebrate the electric plays, investigate the colossal blunders, and explain the inexplicable moments of the most recent slate. Welcome to Winners and Losers. Which one are you?
Winner: The Cinderella Browns
I have a lot of questions, but most importantly: What the hell did I just watch?
To summarize: The NFL team that’s tied for the most Super Bowl victories had a playoff game against the franchise that has never won a title and has, in recent history, become synonymous with crap. (Their team name is even poop-adjacent.) The crap team, which lost 38-7 to the good team earlier this year, was unable to practice for most of the week due to a team-wide COVID-19 outbreak. Because of the NFL’s COVID-19 guidelines, the crap team’s head coach was locked in a basement and several of the team’s best players were ruled out of the game. And the crap team came out and absolutely dominated the good team from the opening kick, forcing five turnovers and taking the largest first-quarter lead in NFL playoff history.
The Cleveland Browns have won a playoff game for the first time since before Baker Mayfield was born. They obliterated a Steelers team that often mocks them from the other side of the Ohio-Pennsylvania border, taking a 28-0 lead in the first quarter. On the very first play of the game, Pittsburgh pulled a Browns, snapping the ball into its own end zone. Cleveland would recover the ball for a touchdown:
The Steelers battled back, with Ben Roethlisberger throwing for 501 yards and four touchdowns against a Cleveland team so delirious with joy that it probably forgot it had to keep playing defense. But the Browns won 48-37.
Let’s sum up the Browns’ uphill battle with the story of one position: left guard. The Browns were without Joel Bitonio, the team’s longest-tenured player and a three-time Pro Bowler, after he tested positive for COVID-19. Bitonio literally played 100 percent of Cleveland’s offensive snaps during the regular season. His backup was a guy named Michael Dunn, a 26-year-old out of Maryland who had never played in an NFL game. He started against the Steelers, making his NFL debut in the postseason—then got hurt. That forced the Browns to replace a guy making his NFL debut with another guy making his NFL debut—a player Baker Mayfield called “a guy named Blake.” That guy, a former undrafted free agent out of Northwestern whose legal name is “Blake Hance,” was signed last week, and because the Browns hadn’t practiced all week, Hance didn’t meet Mayfield until before the game.
And they won. By a lot. Like I asked: What the hell did I just watch?
And now, back to those questions.
- Does practice matter? The Browns had only one practice this week due to COVID-19 protocols. You’d think not practicing would lead to crazy screwups like, I don’t know, the center launching the ball over the quarterback’s head. Instead, Cleveland looked sharper and better rested—and the team dominated. The same thing happened earlier this season, when the Titans weren’t allowed to practice due to COVID-19 protocols and demolished the Bills 42-16.
- Do head coaches matter? Browns coach Kevin Stefanski wasn’t allowed to be with the team on Sunday and instead watched the game at home, forbidden to contact the team during the game. It was only the second game all season in which a team’s head coach was ruled out due to COVID-19. The other was an absolute joke of a game between the pitiful Lions and the playoff-bound Buccaneers, but this was the first time a competitive team was coachless—and it apparently didn’t matter.
- Did the Steelers screw up by resting their starters last week? Pittsburgh had already clinched a playoff berth heading into Week 17 and chose to rest many of its starters in a game against the Browns. Cleveland would have been eliminated from the playoffs with a loss, but the team eked out a win against Mason Rudolph and the backup Steelers. By allowing Cleveland to win, Pittsburgh may have sealed its own fate.
- Is this proof that tanking works? We’re only three years removed from the Browns making a mockery of multiple seasons by going 1-31 in pursuit of picks. They had 10 first-, second-, or third-round picks in 2017 and 2018 combined, resulting in four critical players: Myles Garrett, Baker Mayfield, Denzel Ward, and Nick Chubb. But four of those former picks aren’t on the team anymore. How much would the Browns be achieving right now had they not tanked?
- What is Odell Beckham Jr. up to? He tweeted some spoon emoji during the game. Can we get an OBJ cam for future playoff games?
- How much farther can the Browns go? They just dominated a team that started the season 11-0, and next week they’ll get back Bitonio and starting cornerback Denzel Ward, who missed the game due to contact tracing. They’ll also be able to practice, and they’ll have a head coach. That said, they’re playing the Chiefs next. Yikes.
And most importantly: What the hell did I just watch? I’ve watched football for a lifetime without seeing the Browns succeed, and I think I can watch for a lifetime more without seeing a win so dominant from a team that seemed so likely to get dominated. No victory is worth 25 years of waiting, but this miraculous performance by the Browns comes close.
The Browns were not the only long-maligned NFL team to get a win this weekend. Saturday started with a Bills home playoff game against the Colts. During that game, Josh Allen continued to look like an Unstoppable ThrowGod, making a variety of plays no other human on earth could pull off:
Allen threw for 324 yards and two touchdowns and led the Bills with 54 yards rushing and another TD on the ground. Buffalo won 27-24, the team’s first playoff win since 1995.
And the Buccaneers, reinvigorated under Tom Brady, beat the Washington Football Team 31-23, marking the team’s first playoff win since 2003:
Cleveland and Tampa Bay had the two longest active playoff droughts in the NFL entering this season, and the 17-year drought the Browns snapped was tied for the longest ever under the current playoff format. (The Bills also recently had a 17-year playoff drought, from 1999 to 2017.) Now, all three teams have not only qualified for the postseason, but won. In two days, three of the six longest postseason victory droughts in the NFL have been snapped.
The league prides itself on its parity, but it still tends toward dynasties and duds. We’ve seen 20 years of the Patriots winning while some franchises have trudged through decadelong deserts that seemingly no number of high draft picks can fix. Seeing recently cursed franchises break out makes the league a hell of a lot more fun—maybe someday the Lions can even win a playoff game! (Ehh, probably not.)
Somebody had a strange idea for the wild-card round of the playoffs: Simulcast one of CBS’s games on Nickelodeon, a kids’ programming channel, along with kid-friendly graphics and explanations. I tuned in just to see how weird it would be with the intention of tuning away a few minutes later. But much to my surprise, I stayed for the entire game. Nick’s presentation was great.
Some of it, to be fair, was gimmicky. There were CGI slime cannons every time a team got into the end zone (a.k.a. the Slime Zone):
After the game, Saints head coach Sean Payton also agreed to be slimed, ruining a perfectly good pair of Jordan 11s.
There were some cringe-worthy moments on the broadcast, like when it cut away from game action so some of the teenaged hosts could do various impressions. And early on, Nickelodeon really struggled to make the slime-colored lines stay in the right place:
The lines, uh, the lines are not official. pic.twitter.com/uUChyWPeZo— Timothy Burke (@bubbaprog) January 10, 2021
But overall, it was easily the most entertaining thing about a lifeless 21-9 Saints win against the Bears. And more than that, I thought it was useful—and something the league should do more often.
There is a reason kids play soccer. The rules are “kick the ball in the net, don’t use your hands unless you’re the goalie.” Meanwhile, American football is the most complicated sport I know. The NCAA football rule book is 235 pages long; the NFL rule book is shorter, but with thousands of needless differences. There is infinite debate about what “a catch” is. There are probably about 20 different ways to spot a ball that goes out of bounds, depending on how and where it goes out of bounds. There are seven refs and countless levels to the sport’s complexity. I think about football full time and write about stuff that is probably ridiculously obscure to some casual fans, but even I would be completely lost trying to keep up in a high school defensive strategy meeting. And yet all fans are subjected to the same telecast, which discusses the sport at a level that is far too complex for a first-time viewer but not nearly sophisticated enough for intense fans. While some of us have gotten to a point that we click on 5,000-word recaps of NFL football, I wonder how many potential fans get turned off because they don’t understand what the hell is happening.
The Nickelodeon broadcast took pride in explaining the details of football to any first-time viewers—what a “first down” is, what “holding” is, and more. Former NFL wide receiver Nate Burleson, who filled in as color commentator for the game, did an exceptional job of summarizing the most basic aspects of the sport in a way that was simultaneously smart and engaging.
Nate Burleson saying moving down the field is like homework and the red zone is the test is honestly the best football explanation I've ever heard.— Chris Vannini (@ChrisVannini) January 10, 2021
(I also enjoyed Burleson’s diplomatic method of discussing Mitchell Trubisky’s skills without being overly mean with all the kids listening—“getting benched is a bit like getting grounded, because your parents want you to do a better job!”)
The NFL clearly should experiment more with broadcasts like this on all ends of the spectrum. Too often, the league simply assumes that fans will fall in love with the game because everybody else in America has. The Nickelodeon broadcast was a welcome departure from that thinking—and also, it had slime cannons. That can’t hurt.
Loser: Inaugural NVP Winner Mitchell Trubisky
Although Sunday’s Nickelodeon broadcast was clearly aimed at children, I get the sense a lot of people watching may have been adults on Twitter making jokes about Legends of the Hidden Temple and other shows that haven’t had a new episode since 1995. And unfortunately, Nickelodeon operated under the assumption that all the people watching were kids—sweet, innocent children, who would never rig an online vote to highlight the tragicomedy of the Chicago Bears’ disastrous 2017 NFL draft.
Nickelodeon decided to give out a slime-based trophy for the game and called it the NVP. They said NVP stood for “Nickelodeon Valuable Player,” which I guess honors the player who most embodies Nickelodeon’s values. The award was decided via online votes. Alas, the internet is not a place for kids. At one point, Nickelodeon aired the live results of the vote, and revealed that Mitchell Trubisky was winning, despite the fact that the Bears were getting their asses absolutely handed to them. This alerted viewers to the fact that Nickelodeon would actually give the trophy to Trubisky if he won the vote, and his lead increased. He eventually won the first NVP trophy with nearly half of the vote:
Mitchell Trubisky became the first player to win NVP (Nickelodeon Valuable Player) after the Bears-Saints playoff game that was televised on Nickelodeon. pic.twitter.com/hmA0LCPKQu— Bleacher Report (@BleacherReport) January 11, 2021
Normally, organizations holding online votes reserve the right to overrule voters—but Nick’s sideline analyst assured us that Trubisky (or someone named “Mick Tribusky”) would receive the trophy regardless of his team’s loss.
Rough day for Mitch Trubisky pic.twitter.com/MVPpdGwiwj— Vikings Blogger (@firstandskol) January 11, 2021
Oddly, Trubisky’s NVP victory seemed to embolden him. He was confirmed as winner with roughly two minutes left and Chicago trailing 21-3. From then on, Trubisky led Chicago on a stunning 99-yard, two-minute drive, culminating with a touchdown pass to Jimmy Graham with no time on the clock. (As Bears plus-11 bettors found out, touchdowns scored with no time remaining do not require an extra point attempt—a rule put in place after another Saints playoff game.) It was one of the strangest endings to a game I’ve ever seen—Graham, who may have been playing in his final NFL game, ran straight off the field, seemingly unaware that he caused a fictional slime eruption.
We close with Jimmy Graham scoring a TD and running off to the locker room pic.twitter.com/Dktc2FcEnD— CJ Fogler #BlackLivesMatter (@cjzero) January 11, 2021
It’s unclear what’s next for Trubisky, whose rookie contract with the Bears is up. But his legacy as one of the worst draft picks in recent NFL history is cemented, considering the Bears traded up to draft him while Patrick Mahomes and Deshaun Watson were still available. (Sorry to bring it up again, Chicago—but the good news is that if Trubisky leaves, you may never have to hear about this again.) (JK, you’ll hear about it for decades.) If this is it for Trubisky in Chicago, it’s hard to imagine a more fitting curtain drop. His Bears career ended with online trolls ensuring he won a made-up award while he continued trying to score in the closing moments of a long-decided blowout. The CGI slime cannons exploded, but nobody celebrated.
Winner: Taylor Heinicke
It’s not just that the 7-9 Washington Football Team had to play a former XFL guy at quarterback in their first playoff game in five years. It’s that they had to play an XFL backup in their first playoff game in five years.
Washington went into the postseason with Alex Smith as its starter, but he suffered a late-season calf strain that turned out to be more serious than the average calf strain because a lot of his calf was removed and transplanted into his other leg after his horrific compound leg fracture in 2018. The team’s backup should have been Dwayne Haskins, but Washington cut him in Week 16 due to his terrible play and terrible off-field decisions. Kyle Allen had been Washington’s most effective QB during the season, but he suffered a season-ending injury in November.
So that left Taylor Heinicke, a 27-year-old who was starting just his second NFL game. There was little reason to expect Heinicke to play well. In 2012, he won the Walter Payton Award for the best player in college football’s second tier, the FCS, after totaling 55 touchdowns as Old Dominion’s quarterback. But he went undrafted in 2015, and failed to win backup jobs in Minnesota, New England, Houston, and Carolina. Prior to this season, his NFL starting experience was limited to a one-touchdown, three-interception game in 2018 with Carolina. It wasn’t enough to impress then-Panthers head coach Ron Rivera, who cut Heinicke ahead of the 2019 season to carry Allen and Will Grier on Carolina’s roster instead. Even on the XFL’s St. Louis BattleHawks, Heinicke wasn’t the guy—current Lions fourth-stringer Jordan Ta’amu was the starter and took every snap until the league folded. It seemed like the only reason Heinicke was on Washington’s roster was because they had suffered a legitimate QB catastrophe. Rivera—now the head coach of Washington—just reached out to any guy he was vaguely familiar with. Heinicke had been taking online classes to try to complete his degree at ODU when Washington called after Allen’s injury.
Sure, every once in a while, there’s a situation when a backup QB gets forced into playoff action and it works out. We all know Nick Foles! But there’s a big difference between players like Foles—a team’s primary backup—and teams’ third- and fourth-stringers, like Heinicke. When teams have to play a deep bench option in a playoff game—like Ryan Lindley with the 2014 Cardinals or Connor Cook with the 2016 Raiders—it typically goes poorly.
Instead, Heinicke was incredible. He made an amazing dive to score this rushing touchdown in the third quarter:
TAYLOR. HEINICKE.— NFL UK (@NFLUK) January 10, 2021
An unbelievable effort.
We will be seeing more of him next season... pic.twitter.com/BMV0awWzF0
And he separated a joint in his non-throwing shoulder while reaching for the pylon … but he stayed in the game and threw this absolutely perfect touchdown pass to Steven Sims:
Heinicke delivers a dime to Steven Sims for the TD!@WashingtonNFL makes it a one-possession game. #WashingtonFootball #SuperWildCard— NFL (@NFL) January 10, 2021
: #TBvsWAS on NBC
: NFL app // Yahoo Sports app: https://t.co/yWHeL8jeLS pic.twitter.com/aEytuJcYsw
Heinicke had a chance to tie the game late, but his team ended up losing 31-23. He finished with 306 passing yards, a touchdown, and an interception. It’s pretty wild, considering Washington had only 300 passing yards in two games this year (and one was against the Lions, the worst defense in the NFL). Washington had one of its best offensive performances of the season in the playoffs with its fourth-string quarterback. The worst team in the playoffs almost beat Tom Brady. I thought the team would regret cutting Haskins and needing to turn to an XFL backup in a critical game. Instead, I’m wondering whether Washington would’ve been better off starting Heinicke instead of Haskins or Smith all season long.
Heinicke’s teammates seem to love him. Chase Young in particular takes a great deal of pleasure from yelling HEINI-KEYYYY and took a moment to make sure NFL cameras caught the name on the back of Heinicke’s jersey after one of the QB’s scores:
Never heard guys praise a teammate quite like Washington's players praised Taylor Heinicke on Saturday. pic.twitter.com/y1FHbJaZGZ— Nicki Jhabvala (@NickiJhabvala) January 10, 2021
It was a life-changing game for Heinicke, who will likely make millions of dollars because of his performance on Saturday. He probably won’t be an NFL starter, but he’ll surely catch on as a backup somewhere. He might even have a future in Washington. But it’s probable that nothing he does in his career will erase what he did Saturday. He came in an XFL backup, and he left an NFL player.
Sometimes, the analytics nerds can be a little bit overzealous. Yes, NFL coaches should know that it slightly increases a team’s win probability to go for a two-point conversion when trailing by 15, but let’s not crucify everybody who hasn’t figured it out yet. It’s fun to watch humans coach the sport, evaluating their team’s situation and sometimes coming to a different conclusion from a robot with a headset attached.
But sometimes, coaches make decisions so dumbfounding that it crosses the line from “questionable” into “wrong.” And Sunday, two of the NFL’s most respected coaches opted to punt while trailing in the fourth quarter, sacrificing valuable opportunities to score much-needed points in pursuit of field position that was quickly lost.
First up was Mike Vrabel, whose Titans were trailing 17-13 late against the Ravens. They had a fourth-and-2 from the Baltimore 40 with about 10 minutes to go—and they punted. Here’s the reaction from the horrified crew on ESPN+:
Here's the ESPN + room when the Titans chose not to punt and the analytics discussion, speechless Marcus Spears is something pic.twitter.com/12o47O1XbA— CJ Fogler #BlackLivesMatter (@cjzero) January 10, 2021
Vrabel has a reputation as a guy willing to take risks—after all, he did say he would cut his dick off for a Titans Super Bowl win. If that’s not a risk, I don’t know what risks are. How are you willing to risk your genitalia but not go for a fourth-and-2?
It was immediately clear that this was a terrible decision. According to the Surrender Index—a formula calculated by SB Nation’s Jon Bois to determine the saddest punt of all time—this was the worst punt of the entire 2020 season.
TEN decided to punt to BAL from the BAL 40 on 4th & 2 with 10:06 remaining in the 4th while losing 13 to 17.— Surrender Index 90 (@surrender_idx90) January 10, 2021
With a Surrender Index of 138.87, this punt ranks at the 100th percentile of cowardly punts of the 2020 season, and the 99.92nd percentile of all punts since 2009.
It was also arguably the worst punt in playoff history.
This is the first time in our database (complete back to 1994) that a team in the playoffs punted on 4th and 2 from this field position, down by one score in the 4th Quarter https://t.co/DNdUZL4fzw https://t.co/LLUp1yMUgt— ProFootballReference (@pfref) January 10, 2021
The results were terrible. The punt went 25 yards, and Baltimore gained 40 yards on its first four plays of the ensuing drive. Vrabel’s reasoning is that he trusted his defense. The Titans were having a particularly rough day on offense—they had a season-low 209 total yards, and picked up just one rushing first down despite having Derrick Henry. But that’s all the more reason Tennessee should’ve capitalized on the fact that it was in such good field position. The drive on which Tennessee punted was just the offense’s second time across midfield in the second half. The Titans had the ball only one more time after the punt, and Ryan Tannehill threw a pick. Now their season is over.
But Vrabel was potentially one-upped by Mike Tomlin, who tried to have his team punt its way out of a 28-0 hole on Sunday night. I mean this literally: While down 28-0, Tomlin punted from the Cleveland 38-yard line. But that wasn’t his worst punt of the game. In the second half, Pittsburgh got a bit of momentum, scoring touchdowns on back-to-back drives to cut Cleveland’s lead to 35-23. Then, on fourth-and-1 from Pittsburgh’s own 46-yard line, Tomlin took a delay of game penalty and punted. The Surrender Index was a bit kinder to this decision than Vrabel’s, but not by much:
PIT decided to punt to CLE from the PIT 46* on 4th & 1* with 14:52 remaining in the 4th while losing 23 to 35.— Surrender Index 90 (@surrender_idx90) January 11, 2021
With a Surrender Index of 9.29, this punt ranks at the 94th percentile of cowardly punts of the 2020 season, and the 92nd percentile of all punts since 2009.
The kick went into the end zone for a touchback. It took the Browns six plays to drive 80 yards and score a touchdown, giving them a three-score lead and putting the game out of reach.
These are the playoffs, when a single loss ends a team’s season. And on this stage, these two coaches made two of the worst fourth-down decisions of the entire season:
There have been over 2,500 4th down decisions in the 2020 NFL season.— Computer Cowboy (@benbbaldwin) January 11, 2021
Coming into today, only 7 of them cost their team at least 7 percentage points of win probability.
But we've seen 2 such mistakes today!
These aren’t borderline calls. They are indefensible choices. The numbers said to go for it, and so did common sense. Both coaches desperately needed points, and sacrificed the opportunity to score in order to push the opponent slightly farther from the end zone. They didn’t trust their own offenses, and—in the greatest offensive era in NFL history—felt that moving the ball 25 or 34 yards downfield provided a significant advantage. (It didn’t.) These teams worked too hard for too long to see their seasons end because their coaches were too scared to think straight.
Winner: Legendary Trash Talker C.J. Gardner-Johnson
We got to see a legend in Sunday’s Bears-Saints matchup. No, not Drew Brees, who will finish his career toward the top of virtually every NFL passing leaderboard. Nor Alvin Kamara, who tied an NFL record earlier this season with six touchdowns in a single game. No, I’m talking about C.J. Gardner-Johnson, the Saints’ third-most-famous cornerback behind Marshon Lattimore and Janoris Jenkins.
The second-year defensive back out of Florida is a critical part of a New Orleans secondary that led the NFL in interceptions this season. He started 13 games in the regular season, primarily playing as a slot corner, and he picked off one pass and finished the regular season with 13 passes defensed. But his true value may have nothing to do with his on-field production: The man was born too late to dominate the competition on the Wilmer Valderrama–hosted MTV show Yo Momma and has instead turned his talents to becoming the best trash talker in NFL history.
Our story begins with the Saints’ first game against the Bears this season, a Week 8 contest that New Orleans won 26-23 in overtime. Early in the game, Gardner-Johnson stole wide receiver Javon Wims’s mouthpiece and threw it on the ground. Wims had to sit on the bench for a while after that, but when he came back into the game about 15 minutes later, he made a beeline for Gardner-Johnson and punched him. Gardner-Johnson ate the hit, avoided the temptation to respond, and ensured that the refs would eject only Wims. The call didn’t just remove Wims from the game—the 15-yard penalty ensured that when the Saints later picked off Nick Foles, they got into field goal range, a critical distinction in a game that New Orleans eventually won in overtime. The entire experience was beautifully chronicled in this Twitter thread.
Even before that game, though, Gardner-Johnson was famous. He also made headlines when he got his own teammate, Michael Thomas, to punch him in practice this season.
So, after losing a game in part due to a cornerback pissing off one of their wide receivers, the Bears took time ahead of Sunday’s playoff matchup with the Saints to warn players about Gardner-Johnson’s ability to annoy.
Matt Nagy said the Bears took precious time out of their days during the week to show clips of Saints DB C.J. Gardner-Johnson in order to reinforce that’s he’s a huge instigator and to warn players not to take the bait. Anthony Miller didn’t get the memo.— Jeff Dickerson (@DickersonESPN) January 11, 2021
A reporter even asked Bears wide receiver Anthony Miller about Gardner-Johnson, though Miller made it seem like a nonissue:
Anthony Miller was asked about Gardner-Johnson’s chatter this week. He initially said, “who?”... then downplayed it. Ejected.— StaceyDales (@StaceyDales) January 10, 2021
But when the game started, Gardner-Johnson got in Miller’s face—and despite all the prior warnings, Miller couldn’t restrain himself. He punched Miller and got ejected:
CJ Gardner-Johnson has beach front real estate— PFF (@PFF) January 10, 2021
Gardner-Johnson was given an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty for his role in the altercation—but only Miller was ejected. That left Chicago without its no. 2 and no. 3 receivers (Darnell Mooney was injured) and the Bears’ offense fell apart, failing to score a touchdown until the game’s final play. Gardner-Johnson continued taunting Miller even after the game ended:
2 for 22 I see why you mad. Boy can’t get open ♂️— Ceedy Duce. (@CGJXXIII) January 11, 2021
Who knows what Gardner-Johnson is saying to these guys on the field. Maybe he’s hitting his opponents with deeply cutting, personalized insults; maybe he’s telling them that Pitt the Elder was a better prime minister than Lord Palmerston. Regardless, this is clearly a skill. Gardner-Johnson is a fist magnet: The man can get anybody to punch him. And since punches come with an ejection in the NFL, this can be put to great use.
Gardner-Johnson shouldn’t be playing slot corner—he should be lined up against the opposing team’s best receiver every week, telling them their mother was a hamster and their father smells like elderberries. When the Saints win the Super Bowl (after Travis Kelce or Stefon Diggs punches Gardner-Johnson with 14 minutes to go in the first quarter), he’ll win MVP.
Loser: Brian Schottenheimer
Just about 100 percent of the time, the blame for a pick-six falls on the quarterback. But Saturday’s game between the Rams and the Seahawks saw an interception so unusual and spectacular that you could hardly blame the QB. Midway through the second quarter, L.A. cornerback Darious Williams busted through the line of scrimmage and picked off a screen pass from Russell Wilson to D.K. Metcalf. Metcalf might be famous for chasing down a cornerback to prevent a pick-six, but he didn’t have a chance of catching Williams:
Screens are generally conservative plays with relatively low chances of failure. NFL quarterbacks threw almost 800 wide receiver screens this season. None of them were intercepted, let alone returned for touchdowns. Because screens are thrown behind the line of scrimmage, defenders usually can’t make a play on the ball—unless they do what Williams did, and decide to spring into the backfield the instant the ball is snapped. If the play had been anything but a screen, Williams would have been screwed. How did he know to be so aggressive?
As Steven Ruiz explained at For the Win, the Seahawks had lined up in this formation just twice all season. Both times, they ran the same play, a run-pass option in which Wilson could either give the ball to a running back or throw a wide receiver screen. The blame for this pick-six doesn’t fall on Wilson, who made a fine throw and had no other receiving options on the play. It falls on Brian Schottenheimer, the Seattle offensive coordinator who’s famous for making Wilson’s life harder than it needs to be.
The amazing thing about Schottenheimer, who has been an NFL offensive coordinator for 12 years, is that he’s virtually never been good at his job. After several years serving as quarterbacks coach for his dad, Marty Schottenheimer (first in Washington, then in San Diego), he was OC for Jets teams with dominant defenses and anemic Mark Sanchez–led offenses. Next he coached some awful Rams teams, then he stepped away from the NFL to go to the University of Georgia, whose offense instantly dropped from eighth to 85th in scoring. Since 2018, he’s been in Seattle, where he has been widely criticized for choosing to emphasize the team’s subpar run game instead of letting Wilson be the superstar.
This year, Schottenheimer seemed to have seen the light, as he finally Let Russ Cook. About halfway through the season, Wilson looked like the NFL’s MVP. He threw for at least two touchdowns in each of Seattle’s first eight games, racking up 28 total touchdowns by the season’s halfway mark and averaging 318 yards per game. But then things changed. Wilson didn’t throw for 300 yards in any of Seattle’s final eight games and threw multiple touchdowns in only three of the eight. Opponents adapted to Seattle’s game plan and Schottenheimer’s adjustment was to go back to running the ball more.
Saturday’s game was a disaster from a play-calling perspective. Seattle ran the ball on the first play of four of its seven first-half drives. The Seahawks scored only one first-half touchdown, and it came on a scramble drill by Wilson and Metcalf rather than a designed play by Schottenheimer.
Soon, Seattle was trailing big, and Schottenheimer didn’t have a plan to get the team out of the hole. Head coach Pete Carroll expressed his displeasure:
Carroll says he wishes team "would have adapted better'' to the way defenses started to play them differently in second half of the season.— Bob Condotta (@bcondotta) January 10, 2021
Carroll isn’t going anywhere—it’s hard to fire a head coach that has won a Super Bowl and made the playoffs in all but two of his 11 seasons as head coach. But it’s increasingly hard to justify employing the offensive coordinator with whom Seattle has won nothing. Schottenheimer didn’t just keep Seattle from scoring on Sunday—he called a play that helped Los Angeles put seven points on the board, and now Seattle’s promising season is over. How many more years of Wilson’s prime does Seattle plan on wasting?
Winner: Logo Dancing
If there’s one thing that makes football players madder than when you get into their painted areas of grass at the ends of the field, it’s when you go to their painted areas of grass in the middle of the field. Surely the Baltimore Ravens would have played just as hard on Sunday had they been going up against any of the league’s 30 non-Titans teams. But they have little bit of beef with Tennessee. The Titans knocked the top-seeded Ravens out of last year’s playoffs and ruined Lamar Jackson’s MVP season. And when the teams played against each other in Week 11 this season, the Titans starting a ruckus on top of the Ravens’ midfield logo and eventually beat Baltimore 30-24 in overtime.
Whether motivated by revenge or … uh … the desire to win the Super Bowl, the Ravens dominated the Titans in a 20-13 win on Sunday. Baltimore’s defense held Tennessee to a season-low 209 yards; Derrick Henry had a season-low 40 yards on a season-low 2.2 yards per carry. Lamar Jackson had more yards than Henry on just this one play, a stunning 48-yard touchdown run:
And after a Tannehill interception that more or less ended the game, the entire Baltimore defense came out to midfield to celebrate—on Tennessee’s midfield logo.
I count 18 Ravens on the midfield logo, a solid third of the 53-man roster. Obviously Baltimore received a penalty for this—you’re not allowed to come off the bench to celebrate! And you’re not allowed to celebrate at midfield! But they happily took the 15 yards to let everybody know they hadn’t forgotten the Titans’ act of disrespect.
The tradition of running out to midfield to celebrate dates back to Terrell Owens stomping on the Dallas midfield star and getting tackled by an infuriated George Teague. And who can forget Baker Mayfield claiming Ohio Stadium in the name of Oklahoma? But it’s been quite a season for the midfield dance. In the fall, Steelers wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster started a tradition of doing pregame dances on the opposing team’s logo and putting the videos on TikTok, but he stopped after the Steelers went on a late-season three-game losing streak.
The consensus, apparently, is that dancing on logos makes opponents mad, and eventually gives them extra competitive fire. Maybe the Ravens wouldn’t have beaten the Titans if it weren’t for the Week 11 dancing. And maybe the Ravens’ decision to dance on the Titans’ logo will motivate Tennessee to beat them 73-10 when they play sometime in next year’s playoffs.
Football is not a game. It is a war. The men who take the field every Sunday are gladiators who live and die for the sport. It is extremely serious. They would absolutely not spend months fuming because another team did a dance routine in the wrong place.