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: Eddie Jackson
On October 22, 2016, Eddie Jackson broke his leg in Alabama’s game against Texas A&M, ending his college career. A highly regarded draft prospect as a junior, he decided to come back to school, an apparently catastrophic decision, as the injury sent his draft stock tumbling. He seemed heartbroken: “Everything I worked for, I feel like it was taken away from me,” he told reporters. “When I got hurt, people forgot about me.”
On October 22, 2017, Jackson had one of the most impactful games a defensive player has ever had in the NFL. First, he scooped up a bobbled pitch for a 75-yard score:
(I’ve praised the option, so now it’s time for me to point out that the option did not work very well here.)
And when a Cam Newton pass was popped up in the air, Jackson scooted under it and ran 76 yards for a second touchdown:
He became the first player in NFL history with two 75-yard defensive touchdowns in the same game, and the first player with a scoop-and-score and pick-six in the same game since 2007. He didn’t just score two touchdowns: He scored the only two touchdowns in this game, a 17–3 Bears win.
Both of Jackson’s plays, to be honest, were kinda fluky. He was in the right place at the right time after a major offensive mishap, and then again after a great play by a teammate. But football, by nature, is fluky — a game of random bounces and breaks. Sometimes those breaks look to ruin a player’s career; today those bounces made a random rookie into a superstar. Congrats to Jackson for persevering.
Loser: The Kansas City Chiefs, and Everybody
The Chiefs were the darlings of the early NFL season. They stunned the football world with a 42–27 win over the Patriots on opening night, then jumped out to a 5–0 record with a motion-based offense perfectly crafted for the unique talents of the team’s skill-position players.
But now the Chiefs have lost two straight. And with the Patriots’ Sunday night win over Atlanta, they have caught up to Kansas City in the AFC standings. And that awesome offense that took the league by storm? Guess what, it’s New England’s now. Look at this touchdown on a jet sweep from New England’s 23–7 victory, the shortest touchdown pass Tom Brady will ever throw.
Cooks with the receiving TD. Gronk with the assist. pic.twitter.com/int9hWUrRl— Patriots Militia (@PatsMilitia) October 23, 2017
Here is that exact same play when the Chiefs ran it a few weeks ago:
Look at what you’ve done, Kansas City. You thought you were smart. You knew the Patriots were an asteroid with the potential to wipe out all human life, so you designed this devious plan to use a nuclear bomb to blow them up. It worked in Armageddon, but all you’ve done is taken a regular asteroid headed towards earth and turned it into a radioactive asteroid. Not everything you see in the movies works in real life — unless you’re the Patriots, in which case you can take any play you see an opponent run in film study and then run it with Tom Brady.
Winner: John Fox
As time has passed forward, the forward pass has become more and more integral to football. Virtually every year, teams pass the ball more often and more effectively than ever before. Unfortunately, the Bears’ quarterbacks are Mike Glennon, the world’s wealthiest giraffe, and Mitchell Trubisky, a rookie whose touchdown tally has yet to surpass the amount of S’s he used to spell this word. But as The Ringer’s Kevin Clark wrote, it’s possible for teams to win in 2017 without throwing, and that’s what John Fox’s Bears did Sunday.
The Bears beat the Panthers, 17–3, thanks to those two Jackson touchdowns while Trubisky went just 4-for-7 passing. It was the first time a team had thrown fewer than 10 passes in a game since 2011 — when Tim Tebow went 2-for-8 in a win over the Chiefs. Denver’s coach in that game? John Fox. It was the first time a team had thrown seven or fewer passes in a game since 2006 — when the Panthers beat the Falcons 10–3 on the strength of a 4-for-7, 32-yard performance by Chris Weinke. Carolina’s coach in that game? John Fox.
There have been seven games since 2000 in which a team has thrown fewer than 10 passes and won, and three of those games are by Fox’s teams. John Fox is setting football back 100 years, and I mean that as a compliment.
Loser: Mike McCarthy
The Packers played their first game this season without Aaron Rodgers, and as much as I tried to dig deep to find out everything I could about Brett Hundley, he was an unknown entity before taking the field Sunday.
The situation brought to mind something Ron Jaworski wrote about a conversation he’d had with Peyton Manning’s offensive coordinator about why the Colts weren’t giving practice reps to their backup QBs: “If 18 goes down, we’re fucked. And we don’t practice fucked.”
But Packers coach Mike McCarthy insisted Green Bay was fine. When asked whether the team was looking to sign another quarterback to help the Packers during Rodgers’s absence — namely, Colin Kaepernick — McCarthy insisted the team didn’t need to. “I’ve got three years invested in [backup turned starter] Brett Hundley. Two years invested in [practice squadder turned backup] Joe Callahan. The quarterback room is exactly where it needs to be.” McCarthy was an offensive coordinator before he was a head coach, and a quarterbacks coach before he was an offensive coordinator, so grooming players like Hundley and Callahan is his forte.
Hundley was awful in his first start Sunday, going 12-for-25 with 87 yards and an interception. And this was against the Saints, consistently one of the worst passing defenses in the NFL ; they hadn’t allowed fewer than 90 passing yards in a game since 2010 before Sunday.
Normally, I’d feel pity for the Packers. I wouldn’t expect any team to win games after an injury to a franchise superstar. But McCarthy urged fans to blame the loss on him. He’s insistent that with the quarterbacks on the roster and his QB-coaching talent, the Packers should be able to win games. It’s nice to see a coach take full responsibility, but if I were McCarthy, I’d be looking into signing a free agent instead of dying on Hundley Hill.
Winner: God-Human Drew Kaser
I don’t know who punting experts believe to be the best punter in football. I don’t need to. Chargers punter Drew Kaser is the best punter in the NFL, the best punter who has ever lived.
Look at this fucking punt.
Holy hell, guys. Punting from his own 30-yard line, a 70-yard punt resulting in a touchback would have been a great result here — a 50-yard net is excellent.
But Kaser didn’t settle for excellent, instead nailing a perfect kick that made no sense. It boomed 69 yards, reached the doorstep of the goal line, and then suddenly popped skyward. It’s like he hit a driver that rockets 450 yards to the green, then suddenly reveals wicked backspin to avoid passing the hole. I refuse to believe Kaser is this good at punting: The only explanation is that he is a sorcerer who possesses the power to manipulate foreign objects with his mind. I’d like to think that if I possessed that skill, I’d come up with some cooler/more lucrative way of using it than punting. But look at Kaser celebrate. He seems happy with his choice.
Loser: The Chargers’ Stadium, but in a Different Way Than You’d Expect
It was a great day for the Chargers’ special teams. Before Kaser’s wonder-punt, Travis Benjamin returned a Broncos punt 65 yards for a touchdown. Later in the game, Benjamin scored again, this time on a 42-yard pass, and that’s when things went wrong, for him and everybody who tried to help him:
Oh cool the Chargers pretended they were on a slip n slide for a TD celebration pic.twitter.com/EoPbMZO1IZ— Will Brinson (@WillBrinson) October 22, 2017
The NFL loosened its rules surrounding group celebrations this season, which has led to players pretending to be baseball players, bobsledders, and more. It’s been awesome. On this play, the Chargers were apparently pretending to be lemmings. RIP, little furry guys.
Thus far, the most criticized feature of the Chargers’ temporary home at the StubHub Center is its utter lack of Chargers fans, and that trend continued Sunday.
Very embarrassing look for Chargers & NFL for a home game to look like this. 95% Broncos fans. pic.twitter.com/GgCFaMykcb— Zach Bye (@byesline) October 22, 2017
But perhaps worse is the apparent decision to coat the edges of the field with butter.
Winner: Jeff Heath
There’s nothing in football more interesting than what happens when teams lose their specialists — kickers, punters, long snappers, et al. Because, well, they’re specialists. They specialize in something nobody else can do, and when nobody can do that thing, football gets weird.
On Sunday, Cowboys kicker Dan Bailey got injured. Often in this instance, a team’s punter will take over, since punters have strong legs and have probably at least tried placekicking at some point. But not Dallas — coach Jason Garrett told ESPN last year that punter Chris Jones was “not really a great option for us.”
They went with safety Jeff Heath. Heath had kicked in high school, once drilling a 49-yard game winner that apparently brought all fans and players in attendance to tears. Several Division I schools offered him soccer scholarships, but he turned them down to play football at Division II Saginaw Valley State.
On the first touchdown after Bailey’s injury, the Cowboys went with a two-point conversion attempt instead of letting Heath kick. But Heath boomed the ensuing kickoff, and with the game well in hand — the Cowboys beat the winless 49ers 40–10 — Dallas let Heath keep kicking. He doinked in an extra point, missed another, and made a third. Since extra points are from 33 yards now, those were the longest kicks any non-kicker has made since 1979. He also had two touchbacks on kickoffs, which might be more impressive than the extra points.
Heath said it was “the most fun [he’d] had playing football in a long time.” Unfortunately, it won’t happen again — either Bailey will return to action next week or the Cowboys will bring in a kicker off the street. But I’ll remember Heath’s kicking turn, even if I wasn’t reduced to tears like all those high school fans.
Loser: London’s NFL Fans
I don’t think Americans appreciate how hard it is for foreigners to love American football. But they do! Even though our sport isn’t a huge part of their cultures, they fight to care about it, staying up until weird hours to consume this weird thing their friends don’t even know exists. I’d compare it to American soccer fandom, but that’s mainstream in comparison. It’s why I’ve come to appreciate the NFL games in London — they allow foreign fans to feel like an integral part of the thing they’ve previously experienced only as a niche passion.
And this year, they’ve gotten the worst damn games we can send them. Let’s go down the list:
September 24: Jaguars, 44, Ravens, 7. Joe Flacco went 8-for-18 for 28 yards, earning the lowest passer rating of any starter this season. The score was 44–0 before Baltimore backup QB Ryan Mallett led a meaningless scoring drive with three minutes to go.
October 1: Saints 20, Dolphins 0: There were 19 penalties and 20 points in this game. The score was 3–0 at halftime. Jay Cutler opted to avoid playing football for a play.
Sunday: Rams 33, Cardinals 0: I’d had hope for this game, because it would be played at 1 p.m. Eastern as opposed to 9:30 a.m. to reduce jet lag for the two Western teams. It didn’t work. Carson Palmer suffered an injury and his backup, Drew Stanton, was absolutely abysmal, going 5-for-14 for 62 yards with an interception. Adrian Peterson looked great last week, but had 11 carries for just 21 yards Sunday.
The combined score of the three games is 97–7 in favor of the winning teams; the losers have managed only one score, and it was in garbage time. The closest game was still a horrible shutout.
Why is only one team capable of competing in London? Shouldn’t the awkward travel situation affect both teams equally? Is the NFL sending two teams overseas, or are we putting some rugby dudes in pads to save on travel expenses?
And next week, we’re sending the 0–7 Browns. This is the lowest point in America’s relationship with Britain since President Billy Bob Thornton flirted with the girl the prime minister had a huge crush on.
Winner: Matt Moore
I thought it was weird that the Dolphins responded to Ryan Tannehill’s injury by paying $10 million to bring Jay Cutler out of retirement just weeks ahead of the NFL season, and I’m not a person paid by the Dolphins to play quarterback. I can’t imagine how it must have felt for Matt Moore, who has been Miami’s backup for the entirety of Tannehill’s career, and who even put together a not-awful performance in last season’s playoff game against the Steelers. He was suddenly usurped by a man who spent most of the offseason admiring the ocean in the nude.
Cutler left Sunday’s game against the Jets with a rib injury and the Dolphins trailing 21–14, pressing Moore into action. Things looked bleak, as Moore’s first two drives ended with a punt and a pick. But the Dolphins scored 17 fourth-quarter points to pull off a 31–28 win, with Moore throwing two touchdowns:
I can’t say for certain whether Moore or Cutler is a better option for the Dolphins — Cutler has had some bleak moments this season, and it’s hard to assert that Moore is better when he’s taken only a handful of snaps in the past half decade. But I do think Moore probably deserved a shot at winning the job rather than watch it be handed to whichever retiree the Dolphins could rustle up. Sunday, he got to shine.