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: NFL Overtime
In May, I criticized the NFL’s decision to shorten overtimes from 15 minutes to 10. The official reasoning for the move was “player safety,” which seemed like an odd justification for a rule that would shave five minutes or fewer off of roughly five games per season. The rule will likely result only in an increase in ties, and while I appreciate a good tie now and then, most American leagues have gone out of their way to eliminate them.
Sunday, two games went into overtime: Jets-Jaguars and Cardinals-49ers. Both games came up right against the end of the 10-minute overtime session. But instead of two ties, the two games ended with game-winning plays.
The first five possessions of overtime in New Jersey ended in punts, but with 28 seconds separating the two teams from a tie, Chandler Catanzaro kicked a game-winning 41-yard field goal that gave the Jets a 23-20 victory.
Meanwhile, San Francisco used up the majority of the overtime session with a field goal drive that took 7 minutes and 36 seconds, giving the 49ers a 15-12 lead. (Yes, regulation featured four field goals from each team. It was quite a day for field goals.) In a 15-minute overtime session, time would not have been a factor. But the Cardinals had to launch into a two-minute drill to stay alive. Carson Palmer went 4-for-4 for 50 yards on his first four passes of overtime, and the Cardinals won on a touchdown pass to Larry Fitzgerald with 32 seconds remaining:
I still think from a competitive perspective that longer overtimes are better, and that player safety was a bunk reason for shortening them. But Sunday showed us the true value of the shortened overtime period: Saving us from five extra minutes of games like Jets-Jaguars and Cardinals-49ers.
Loser: Everybody Who Has Ever Tried to Pick the NFL
Some headlines from this offseason:
“Patriots headed for perfect 16-0 season?” —USA Today
“Why the Patriots Really Could Go Undefeated.” —The Ringer
“Can the Jets really go 0-16?” —NJ.com
“The Jets are bad, but are they 0-16 bad?” —FiveThirtyEight
“Here’s the week-to-week roadmap of the Jets’ 0-16 season.” —New York Daily News
All those articles were based on facts or reasonable analysis. Most came to the conclusion that a 16-0 or 0-16 season was pretty unlikely, but all also reached the seemingly obvious conclusion that the Patriots would likely have a much better record than the Jets.
Anyway, the Patriots are 2-2 and the Jets are also 2-2. Don’t listen to anything anybody tells you about what’s going to happen in the future of this dumb sport we love. Just enjoy the wonders as they happen.
Winner: Jay Cutler
Sure, Jay Cutler and the Dolphins got shut out in London. Pretty big bummer, if you’re a diehard Miami Dolphins fan.
But you know who isn’t a diehard Miami Dolphins fan? Jay Cutler, a guy who got a call from the Dolphins a few weeks before the season begging him to take $10 million and start at quarterback. On Sunday, Cutler set an NFL record for least motion in a single play while the Dolphins ran a play out of the wildcat offense.
Cutler really selling his role in the Wildcat at the bottom of the screen pic.twitter.com/WgHxXvxlHL— Mike Tunison (@xmasape) October 1, 2017
Ideally, Cutler was supposed to block here. But quarterbacks in this role have failed to block before. Still, Cutler could have been a useful part of this play by doing anything to draw the attention of a defender. Wave your arms, Jay! You don’t even have to move! Just make it look like you might receive a pass! Instead, he just stood akimbo, wishing football pants had pockets for him to put his hands in.
The Dolphins, who lost 20-0, are 1-2 and have scored six combined points against the Jets and Saints, two of the worst defenses in the league. But Cutler’s gonna keep getting paid all season as long as he shows up, which makes him the real winner.
Loser: Jeff Fisher
The Rams offense is good. 40-point efforts against the Colts and 49ers could be scoffed at, but on Sunday the Rams beat the Cowboys on the road, 35-30, taking down a team expected to be an NFC contender. The Rams are alone in first place in the NFC West and lead the league in scoring. Jared Goff is third in the NFL in quarterback rating—behind Tom Brady, ahead of Drew Brees. Todd Gurley is perhaps the most productive running back in the NFL, with seven touchdowns and 596 yards from scrimmage in four games.
It’s especially amazing because last year the Rams were dead last in scoring. They were held to 10 or fewer points in nine of their 16 games and scored 30 points only once. Goff looked like an immediate bust. Gurley had only six touchdowns the whole season.
This reflects most hilariously on Jeff Fisher, the phenomenally uninspiring coach who helmed the Rams from 2012 to 2016. (Actually, it is pretty inspiring that he kept NFL head-coach jobs for so long despite being Jeff Fisher.) Fisher developed a reputation for mediocrity and milquetoast offenses, but swore 2016 would be the end of “7-9 bullshit.” Sure enough, his team started 4-9, he got fired, and as soon as the rest of Fisher’s staff disappeared, the Rams became competent. L.A. is currently being coached by Sean McVay, a teenager who has spent most of the season convincing the team’s older players to buy him vodka. And he’s made the team miles more effective. Every time the Rams put up points like this and win should make Fisher’s future employment seven to nine times more unlikely.
Winner: JuJu Smith-Schuster
Some kids pretend to be NFL players scoring touchdowns. Some kids pretend to be comic book or anime characters. A lot of the time, those kids are the same kid. Steelers rookie JuJu Smith-Schuster got to live out both of those fantasies Sunday, scoring the second touchdown of his career and then powering up a ball of energy with his hands and firing it outwards like Goku from Dragon Ball Z:
(Don’t tell JuJu this, but he did not actually push out an enormous ball of energy from his hands. He chest-passed a football about 7 yards.
JuJu Smith-Schuster hit em with a Kamehameha after scoring a TDpic.twitter.com/kq5wNeiFfw— NFL Retweet (@NFLRT) October 1, 2017
But hey, playing make believe is great. Even for NFL players.)
Winner: The Option
Deshaun Watson was exceptional at Clemson as both a passer and runner. Some of that running came out of option plays. Stunningly, those option plays also work when Watson runs them for the Texans, as he did several times against the Titans on Sunday.
The team’s first touchdown—the first of many, as the Texans Heinzed the Titans with 57 points—came on a speed option, with Watson pitching to running back Lamar Miller:
Later the Texans ran another speed option, but Watson kept it himself:
Option plays also work against the Texans, as the Titans scored their first touchdown of the game on a read option:
I assume none of these touchdowns counted, because I’ve been told multiple times from NFL analysts that option plays don’t work in the NFL.
The main reason the derision for option football in the NFL upsets me is that I don’t think a lot of people even know what they’re talking about when they downplay the strategy. I saw and heard a few people call Watson’s first touchdown here a “read option.” It’s not! The third play here is a read option, where the quarterback “reads” an unblocked defender and decides whether to keep the ball or give it to a running back; the speed option involves the QB and RB running in the same direction and gives the quarterback the option to pitch.
Option concepts work because NFL defenders do not possess the ability to teleport. You don’t have to base your entire offense around them, as evidenced by the fact that the Texans offense scored 36 points off of non-option plays today as well. They’re just another way for talented quarterbacks to succeed, and I’m glad the Texans and Titans realize that.
Loser: Carl Lawson
Bengals rookie defensive end Carl Lawson apparently decided the mouthpiece was not an essential piece of football equipment. His teammates told him this was an incorrect opinion. He did not listen, and now he has fewer teeth than he used to.
“It didn’t hurt,” said Lawson. “I just saw my teeth in the air.” Of course, Sigmund Freud posited that dreams about teeth falling out are a sign that the patient is anxious about having to play for the trash-ass Bengals.
Loser: The People Who Booed the Ravens
This is not a blurb about players kneeling during the national anthem. This is a blurb about the thing the Baltimore Ravens did and the way their fans reacted.
Sunday, the Ravens knelt before the national anthem to pray for “kindness, justice, unity, and equality.” They then stood up for the anthem to avoid offending those upset by previous protests.
They were booed vigorously:
Why were the Ravens kneeling? Colin Kaepernick and those who knelt with him last year were specifically protesting police brutality and racial injustice. Was the Ravens’ kneel even a protest?
And what were the Ravens’ fans booing? Were they booing the Ravens who knelt last week? Were they booing Colin Kaepernick in absentia? Were they booing the general concept of kneeling?
I have some theories about what these boos truly meant, about why these primarily white fans booed these primarily black athletes even though they weren’t interrupting the anthem or discussing anything controversial. But I don’t want to put words in those fans’ mouths, so I’ll just have to presume they were booing prayer, kindness, justice, unity, and equality.
Winner: Greg Zuerlein Fantasy Owners
Fantasy football doesn’t need kickers. It’s not an actual football team! We don’t need a special teams unit! But alas, fantasy football does have kickers, so we use our last pick on some rando and hope his team’s offense is good enough to get into scoring range but not good enough to score touchdowns.
And in the history of kickers, few have had a day as good as Greg Zuerlein on Sunday. He accounted for 23 actual points in the Rams’ 35-30 win over the Cowboys and 27 fantasy points—7-for-7 on field goals, including four 40-yarders, plus two extra points. It’s the third-best fantasy performance by a kicker in history, behind Rob Bironas’s eight-FG game in 2007 and a 2010 game when Jay Feely drilled five field goals and scored a touchdown on a fake.
Zuerlein was projected to be one of the worst fantasy kickers around because the Rams offense was not expected to be good. ESPN ranked him 29th, and right now he’s owned in 37 percent of Yahoo leagues and 14 percent of ESPN leagues.
Congratulations to everybody whose inadvisable decision to have Zuerlein on their roster has paid off massively. You probably won this week, and that win was because of tremendous luck rather than your own intelligence. (This also describes basically every fantasy football victory ever, but I pretend it doesn’t when I’m the one winning.)
Loser: The Los Angeles Chargers
I feel like I mention this every week, but goodness, everything about the Chargers is cursed. After falling 26-24 to Philadelphia on Sunday, the Chargers are 0-4 with three one-possession losses. Some things don’t change when you move.
But what’s worse is the situation at StubHub Center, the soccer stadium the Chargers will call home until their shared stadium with the Rams is completed in 2020. It seats 27,000, but the Chargers consider a crowd of 25,374 to be a sellout, because they appear to be using tarps to reduce the stadium’s seating.
In NFL's smallest stadium, seats are covered...wow pic.twitter.com/RA3kwV35EH— Les Bowen (@LesBowen) October 1, 2017
Tarping up a stadium is a classic ploy used by unpopular college programs in oversized stadiums for games against even less popular college teams. (I’ve attended a Northwestern home game against Rice. I know how this works.) It’s also used by the Raiders. This is an NFL team playing in the smallest stadium any NFL team has played in since the Packers moved to Lambeau Field in 1957. (The Chargers insist they aren’t covering seats, but it’s unclear what other purpose tarps would serve. There are much better ways to decorate the place!)
Regardless, the stadium still looked empty.
Chargers in legit trouble. Check out amount of empty seats in the best sections of StubHub Center (27,000 capacity) pic.twitter.com/2jb8GLGJSv— Darren Rovell (@darrenrovell) October 1, 2017
And worst of all, many of the people in the stands were Eagles fans.
The Chargers' home has been overtaken by Eagles fans. pic.twitter.com/rxljQZ7bIh— Sporting News (@sportingnews) October 1, 2017
In what has to be a league first, the visiting team egged on the crowd to provide noise to intimidate the home offense.
The Chargers were similarly outnumbered last week by Chiefs fans. Is this just every week for the rest of the Chargers’ existence? Does playing for the Chargers mean playing in front of hostile crowds 16 weeks a year? Will the Chargers ever be un-sad?