Every week this NFL season, we will celebrate the electric plays, admonish the colossal blunders, and explain the inexplicable moments of the most recent slate. Welcome to Winners and Losers. Which one are you?
Winner: Kiko Alonso
In the fourth quarter of Atlanta’s 20–17 come-from-ahead loss to Miami, Falcons receiver Taylor Gabriel tried to catch a pass. Alonso caught the 5-foot-8, 167-pound Gabriel. Suplexing an opponent is a penalty, so Alonso just decided to carry Gabriel for about 10 yards before letting the little guy go.
Kiko Alonso is the absolute best pic.twitter.com/hyZU1nOVCD— RedZone Fan® (@JuMosq) October 15, 2017
Now I’ve … had the time of my liiiife. … No, I never felt like this befooooooore.
If Gabriel had caught the ball, the play would have been whistled dead for forward progress. Let’s change that. I think that if you catch an opposing player with the ball out of the air, you should become the ball carrier. All the regular catch rules apply—you have to have two feet down inbounds, the opposing player can’t hit the ground, and you have to complete the process of the catch, whatever that means. But if you catch an opponent, you can run wherever you want with him.
It would add an entirely new element to defense. Honestly, this could save football—if you could force a turnover by gently catching the opponent, maybe there wouldn’t be so much emphasis on massive concussive hits. Think about it. I see no way this can go wrong.
Loser: The NFL
Aaron Rodgers broke his collarbone in Sunday’s 23–10 loss to Vikings and might miss the rest of the season. To say the Packers are a loser here is too obvious: Quite frankly, Green Bay hasn’t been that great in any category recently besides Having Aaron Rodgers. Rodgers proved last week that he can be a one-man team. He’s capable of winning games in spite of his coaches, defense, offensive line, and any other Packers that feel like underperforming on any given day. It was easy to imagine the Packers making a run to the Super Bowl with Rodgers; it’s hard to imagine them making the playoffs without him.
Through six weeks, the NFL has lost some of the league’s true superstars:
— Rodgers, probably the game’s best player at its most important position.
— J.J. Watt, the league’s best defensive lineman—perhaps the league’s best defensive player overall—done for the season with a knee injury.
— Odell Beckham Jr., perhaps the league’s best wide receiver, or at least the most exciting, done for the season with a fractured ankle.
Can you think of an NFL ad without one of these three players? Um … there’s one with Clay Matthews and his dad, I think? There’s the one where Rob Corddry talks about how a Niners offensive lineman isn’t particularly well-known! Oh, wait, that doesn’t help here.
There’s a reason for that. In a sport often devoid of individuality, Rodgers, Watt, and Beckham are three players whose dynamic talents and personalities make them stand above the rest. They’re not just better than the other players at their position; they play the game differently than anybody else tries to play it. They’re superstars, and it’s too early in the season for so many to be gone.
Nobody wins with these types of players out. Their teams lose, the league loses, we lose. Everybody who loves football is worse off when the bodies of the best players on the planet break.
Winner: NFL Announcer Ron Burgundy
I’m so proud of him for finally getting his dream job.
Loser: Anybody in Georgia Who Believes in Probability Charts
The Falcons took a 17–0 lead into halftime against the Dolphins on Sunday. That makes sense, because the Falcons have a recent MVP at quarterback and the Dolphins have a recent retiree at quarterback.
The Dolphins won 20–17:
The Falcons had a 1.8 percent chance to lose early the 3rd quarter, according to ESPN win probability. They lost. pic.twitter.com/fqFgN7URE5— Darren Rovell (@darrenrovell) October 15, 2017
If that chart looks familiar, it’s because you’re a Falcons fan, and when you close your eyes you see this, because in February a demon snuck into your head while you slept and tattooed it on the inside of your eyelids, and there are no non-lethal forms of inner-eyelid tattoo removal. You can be mad at me for bringing it up, as if without my saying these things you’d be able to avoid thinking about it.
Winner: Laquon Treadwell
If you’re an NFL fan, you are in one of two camps with regard to Laquon Treadwell: You have either never heard of him or you know that he is a bust. Treadwell was the first-round pick of the Vikings last year, and promptly did jack squat for them. First-round wide receivers are supposed to be physical freaks worthy of instant playing time, but Treadwell had just one catch in his rookie year. That is the same number of catches as the team’s quarterback, Sam Bradford. He wasn’t even injured for most of the year; he was just buried on the depth chart behind former fifth-round pick Stefon Diggs, former undrafted free agent Adam Thielen, and others.
Sunday, he showed that there’s hope yet. He had catches on every pass he was targeted for, thanks to hands that are apparently glue sticks:
Treadwell blocked Green Bay cornerback Lenzy Pipkins through my television screen.
I DON'T KNOW WHAT AN NFL PENALTY IS, CASE no. 372:— Randy Scott (@RandyScottESPN) October 15, 2017
Shoulder to chest block pic.twitter.com/dujVxKxoFP
He blew off blocks and avoided flying bodies before putting on the jets to catch Clay Matthews on a fumble return, eventually catching Matthews 60 yards from the start of the play and forcing a fumble by sneakily tapping the ball out from his arms.
It’s actually kind of impressive the effort that Treadwell put in to poking the ball out of Clay Matthews hands pic.twitter.com/YYQpZkjBjM— xtina (@cyvonne1229) October 16, 2017
The fumble went out of bounds, but Treadwell might have saved a touchdown.
Treadwell didn’t have the most productive game in NFL history — three catches for 51 yards. But after a rookie season that bad, Vikings fans had to have serious questions about Treadwell — not just his talent, but everything, down to his work ethic. When he was chasing Matthews, he needed to make up a lot of ground and there were a lot of obstacles in his way. But he kept chasing until he got where he needed to go, and that’s awesome to see.
Loser: The Vikings, After That Treadwell Hit
By the way, Treadwell got flagged for that massive hit. The Vikings were already facing a first-and-25 after a previous foul, so the 15-yard penalty brought up … FIRST-AND-40.
It was the longest yardage needed on first down since a Saints-Raiders game in 1997 featured a first-and-44.
Winner: The Ravens Kickoff Return Team
Ravens return man Bobby Rainey got tackled on this play, but he scored. That’s because the Baltimore Ravens are brilliant football innovators:
When the Bears saw Rainey go down, they presumed the play was over. But the player who knocked Rainey to the ground was Ravens linebacker Tyus Bowser. Therefore, Rainey wasn’t down by contact and could keep running. The brief stop gave him a step on the defense, and he was basically home free the rest of the way.
Clearly there’s a massive advantage to be gained by convincing an opponent that a play is over. Tackling your teammate is a real gambit, and there’s no better place to disguise a hit than in the high-speed chaos of a kick return. The Ravens will pretend this was an accident. Bowser certainly gives off the impression that it was, as he mopes around after making the hit on his teammate. But I see right through this — all Bowsers do is concoct devious plans.
Winner: James Harrison
It sure had seemed like Harrison’s career was over. And I don’t just mean because he literally retired three years ago, I mean because he’d finally fallen out of the Steelers’ game plan in recent weeks. The 39-year-old had taken just seven snaps this year before Sunday, and was inactive for each of the team’s last two games.
But Harrison played Sunday against the Chiefs, and speeded past Kansas City left tackle Eric Fisher for a sack to force a fourth-and-18 on Kansas City’s final drive. One play later, the Chiefs’ undefeated season was over.
If Harrison needs a place to move after he retires, I’d recommend the massive swaths of real estate he owns in Fisher’s head. The ancient one also bullied Fisher in last season’s playoff game between these two teams, forcing Fisher into a critical holding call that essentially ended Kansas City’s season.
The easy explanations all point to this being the last incredible thing we’ll ever see Harrison do. It seems possible that he got playing time Sunday only because of his recent history against Fisher. I also wouldn’t be surprised if at this point in his career Harrison needs three weeks of inactivity to summon the energy for one exceptional play.
But maybe Harrison is capable of this type of play regularly, even nine seasons removed from his Defensive Player of the Year award. It seems impossible, but this would be the third or fifth or eighth time I’ve incorrectly assumed Harrison had reached the end of his rope.
Loser: Wee Willie Smith
The Bears are now playing Mitchell Trubisky at quarterback, which means they need people besides their quarterback to throw touchdowns. Last week it was punter Pat O’Donnell. In Sunday’s 27–24 overtime win against the Ravens, it was 5-foot-6 sparkplug running back Tarik Cohen:
LOL YES! Tarik Cohen touchdown PASS! pic.twitter.com/E6TER2DKXF— The Ten-Yard Line (@TheTenYardLine) October 15, 2017
Quarterbacks are typically tall, or at least not extremely short. Cohen became the first 5-foot-6 or shorter player to throw a touchdown since Wee Willie Smith:
Tarik Cohen is the first person 5-foot-6 or shorter to throw a TD pass since Wee Willie Smith in 1934 for the Giants (also 5'6") https://t.co/hYUMQ8Zlk4— NFL Research (@NFLResearch) October 15, 2017
This is devastating for Smith — not only does his distinction lose some cachet, but also people across the globe remembered that a guy was named “Wee Willie Smith.” Our most prominent modern Will Smith recorded an album called “Big Willie Style.” There was also a basketball player named Wee Willie Smith, but that was a joke because he was actually very large. Wee Willie, the football player, was called Wee Willie because he was wee. I wonder if he was OK with it, or whether he tried to convince fans, teammates and reporters to call him “Owner of a Very Expensive Sportscar Smith” or “Some People Actually Prefer It That Way Smith.”
Winner: The Sport of Football
Last week I wrote about the urgent threat to the NFL posed by players celebrating touchdowns by mimicking other sports. Football is struggling enough as it is without its players glorifying competitors.
Clearly that message was received.
The official justification for this flag on Le’Veon Bell was not that he was showing up the NFL by promoting boxing, but that he was using the upright as a prop. Suuuuuuuure. Got it. [Winks.]
Anyway, I’d like to thank Roger Goodell for reading this column. And hey, listen, Rog — wow, didn’t mean to call you Rog! I don’t really love it when people call me Rog, but I guess I just jumped because I never get a chance to meet other Rogers, LOL! We have so much to catch up on! — give me a call sometime. I have lots of other ideas that I think can help improve this league.
Loser: Mike Gillislee
Gillislee opened the season by scoring all three of the Patriots’ touchdowns against Kansas City, and followed that up with a fourth touchdown in Week 2 against the Saints. And we’re probably never going to see him again: Gillislee lost a fumble in the first quarter of Sunday’s game against the Jets.
In the previous three seasons, the Patriots had only one run play result in a lost fumble. Bill Belichick does not like fumbles, and he sees running backs as expendable. Remember, the guy benched a player who had 201 yards and four touchdowns the previous week because he overslept for practice.
Gillislee, who had 49 more carries than any other player on the team through its first five games, didn’t get another touch until late in the third quarter. Dion Lewis would get the team’s lead in carries (11) in the 24–17 win, including the goal-line touches Gillislee was favored for early in the year. Belichick is going to force Gillislee to live the rest of his days on a small, uninhabited island.
Winner: Joe Flacco
Early in the fourth quarter against the Bears, Flacco tried scrambling, but soon found himself with no options. There was a stronger, faster defender about 2 yards away, and Flacco had no momentum, so escape was impossible. Getting tackled would be a failure, since it was third-and-goal. And he was past the line of scrimmage — about 2 yards past the line of scrimmage, actually — so he couldn’t pass anymore.
He paused. He thought about it. And he decided that in spite of the rules, he was going to throw. He completed a pass Mike Wallace, who scored a very illegal touchdown.
Joe Flacco awareness rating = 0— Andrew Ites (@sportswithjim) October 15, 2017
(Line of scrimmage is the 10-yard line) pic.twitter.com/QegAZP48Pc
Flacco had a horrible day. He threw 41 passes for just 180 yards, with no touchdowns and two interceptions. The Ravens lost in overtime to the Bears, 27–24, and made it to OT only because of two return touchdowns.
But in that moment? Flacco didn’t care. He knew he was breaking the rules, but decided that he wouldn’t be boxed in and defined by what others said and thought. The play was not actually a touchdown, but it didn’t matter. In that moment, Flacco was free.
Loser: The Alex Smith MVP Campaign
I had a lot of trouble over the first five weeks of the season figuring out what had happened to Alex Smith. How did the league’s perennial Checkdown King turn into a deep-bombing gunslinger? Where were these throws hiding in the first 12 years of Smith’s career? What happened to the brain and arm of the player we knew?
I guess he’s still in there somewhere.
This GIF is not hiding any context. There were no Steelers defenders within a few city blocks of the Chiefs wide receiver, Demarcus Robinson. Smith wasn’t under great pressure. This play started on the 15-yard line, so it wasn’t a particularly deep throw. A bad pass scores a touchdown here; Smith threw an awful one. He made the 6-foot-1 Robinson look like Wee Willie Smith.
Alex Smith missed a few critical passes badly — and didn’t connect on other throws when he should have. He finished 19-for-34 passing for 246 yards and a touchdown in the 19–13 loss. Not so bad, but Sunday made it clear that some parts of the old Smith haven’t gone away.
Ryan Fitzpatrick, who went to Harvard, came in for an injured Jameis Winston in Sunday’s Buccaneers-Cardinals game. He did pretty well, turning a 31–0 deficit into a 38–33 loss. But most importantly, he threw a touchdown to fellow Harvard alum Cameron Brate:
Finally. For too long, Harvard grads have had to settle for massive wealth and positions of tremendous power. (Also: Big NCAA tournament upsets and four Ivy League championships in the last six football seasons. But mainly the wealth and power.) It must be so fulfilling to see two of their own finally combine for an NFL touchdown.
Loser: The Browns, of Course, Again, Always
Cleveland pulled quarterback DeShone Kizer at halftime of last Sunday’s game against the Jets. Kizer had been pretty poor to start the season, with three touchdowns and nine interceptions, and backup Kevin Hogan led the team back with 16-for-19 passing and two touchdowns in the second half. And so this week, the Browns decided to officially bench Kizer. It’s a strange move for an 0–5 team to bench a rookie quarterback, but Hue Jackson went with Hogan.
Folks, meet Kevin Hogan:
Against a Texans defense that had lost Watt and Whitney Mercilus last week, Hogan threw three picks while averaging only 2.8 yards per dropback after accounting for sacks. Meanwhile, Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson — whom the Browns decided not to pick twice in the first round of this year’s NFL draft — had another incredible game, throwing for three touchdowns for the third week in a row. (Actually, he threw for five last week and four the week before, but three isn’t bad.)
It’s one thing to be extremely bad. The Browns can tolerate that. I’m not sure they should be benching their rookie quarterback to be extremely bad.