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: Everybody Who Watched Seahawks-Texans
The game of the year took place in Seattle on Sunday: The Seahawks won 41-38, but Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson confirmed he’s perhaps the most exciting player in the league just a couple of months into his rookie season. That might sound like hyperbole, but YO, LOOK AT THIS THING THAT ABSOLUTELY DESERVES HYPERBOLE:
Confirmed: Deshaun Watson is a wizard. pic.twitter.com/EsJ5GgZdyA— CBS Sports (@CBSSports) October 29, 2017
Watson threw for 402 yards and four touchdowns, to go with 67 yards on the ground as well. The last player with 400 passing yards, four touchdowns, and 50 rushing yards in a game? Nobody. Watson’s the first guy ever to do it. No matter how cherry-picked that stat is, Watson’s a damn superstar. A full 224 of those yards were on passes to fellow Clemson grad DeAndre Hopkins, who finally has somebody good throwing to him. Another 125 were to Will Fuller, who is tied with Hopkins for the league lead in receiving touchdowns despite missing the first three games of the year. Watson likes deep balls.
But he was beaten by Seattle’s Russell Wilson, who threw for 452 yards and four touchdowns while running for 30 yards. Wilson was a one-man team: Seattle’s vaunted defense had its worst game in years, and the team’s running backs combined for 5 yards on 16 carries. But Wilson did everything, officially accounting for 482 of his team’s 479 total yards. (That’s not a misprint, thanks to sacks and negative carries.)
But the mere stats don’t tell the story of this wonderful game. The final 10 minutes featured four touchdowns, four lead changes, and two turnovers. Begone, punts! Scram, turnovers on downs! Go to hell, field goals! No football filler here! The Texans took a 38-34 lead with just under five minutes to go on a 72-yard Hopkins catch-and-run—just the seventh time Seattle has allowed 38 points since Pete Carroll became coach in 2010, and four of those games took place in 2010. But Wilson led an 80-yard drive that ended with this Jimmy Graham TD.
WHAT A GAME IN SEATTLE!!!!— Titanic TD (@TitanicTD) October 29, 2017
RUSSELL WILSON'S GAME WINNING TOUCHDOWN PASS TO JIMMY GRAHAM IS EVEN BETTER WITH TITANIC MUSIC!!!
(I don’t think we’ve posted any Titanic highlights on The Ringer yet. This game deserves it.)
The NFL hasn’t been much fun this year. Its most exciting players are hurt, its best teams seem mediocre, its marquee matchups have been duds. With that in mind, Seahawks-Texans reminded me to say: Holy hell, football is really freakin’ cool sometimes.
Loser: The Vast Majority of Americans, Who Didn’t Get to Watch Seahawks-Texans
There were only two games on during Sunday’s 4 p.m. Eastern broadcast window: the spectacular one, and a dismal rain-soaked snoozer between Dallas and Washington. As we’ve outlined in past weeks, the Cowboys are ratings steroids for the NFL. So Fox, which had the rights to broadcast a doubleheader Sunday, showed the Dallas game to almost the entire country. CBS had the rights to Seahawks-Texans, but got to broadcast only one game on Sunday, and most affiliates across the country chose not to compete with the Cowboys game. Basically, the only places where Seahawks-Texans was on broadcast TV were Seattle, Houston, and cities where CBS decided not to compete with a team’s early game on Fox—the places in blue on this map. By my count, 16 of the 25 biggest cities in the nation didn’t get to see the best game of the year. (Unless you paid for Sunday Ticket, RedZone, went to a bar, or committed an evil crime by accessing a stream of questionable legal merit.)
You know how Seahawks-Texans just reminded me to say how freakin’ cool football is? Well, thinking about how many people didn’t get to watch this game also reminded me how the league that organizes professional football is really freakin’ dumb sometimes.
Sunday was a gross day in the Eastern half of America, wet and windy with no let-up. It was a rough weekend for anybody who needed to go outside for any reason, including football players and my dog, who steadfastly refused to poop for 29 consecutive hours due to the rain. I didn’t take a picture of her wet, frustrated, unhappy face after her third consecutive unsuccessful trip outside, but luckily, CBS’s cameras got this image of Jets coach Todd Bowles, which roughly sums it up.
Some highlights from around the league: Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan fumbled three snaps, two of which were recovered by the Jets:
The Jets repaid the favor, as return man Jeremy Kerley fumbled a punt that would have given New York the ball down two points with seven minutes remaining:
You get the bag and fumble it— Atlanta Falcons (@AtlantaFalcons) October 29, 2017
I get the bag and flip it and tumble it! pic.twitter.com/20Q2fAfCaD
Andre Roberts of the Falcons also fumbled a punt, and so did Travis Benjamin of the Chargers. Although the weather had nothing to do with what he did next:
Here's Travis Benjamin with the worst punt return of all time. pic.twitter.com/L850O7L4h2— Joe Giglio (@JoeGiglioSports) October 29, 2017
Raiders punt returner Jalen Richard didn’t actually muff this punt, but he did slip on his ass and fumble the ball when he tried running with it:
And Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott fumbled for the first time all season.
All in all, the soggy Sunday was a great day to sit on the couch and watch RedZone. But it made all those games to watch on RedZone kinda unwatchable. Viewers didn’t win, but rain definitely did.
(If you must know: My dog finally pooped on her walk in between the end of the afternoon games and the start of Sunday Night Football. There was so much.)
Loser: Travis Benjamin
Hold up, let’s go back to that Travis Benjamin play from the Chargers’ loss to the Patriots:
Here's Travis Benjamin with the worst punt return of all time. pic.twitter.com/L850O7L4h2— Joe Giglio (@JoeGiglioSports) October 29, 2017
Let’s start with the beginning: Benjamin sprints toward the sideline to field a punt at the 11-yard line. Already a questionable decision! That ball is probably going to bounce out of bounds quickly or angle into the end zone. Benjamin is trying to make an over-the-shoulder catch of a sky-high punt in a rainstorm to save his team a few yards.
Anyway, he fumbles it. The ball bounces backward, and he scoops it up. He has failed in his job, and probably should cut his losses. Instead, he runs back to the middle of the field—another bad idea. That’s the direction the Patriots are coming from!
And he runs backward. No! No! Travis! You’re not fast enough to outrun an entire team like this! Travis! No!
And he specifically runs backward into the end zone. If you’re a punt returner and you’re in your own end zone, something has gone drastically wrong. Benjamin got tackled for a safety, giving two points and the ball back to New England and leading to this beautiful moment:
I couldn’t remember the last time a punt returner committed a safety. You know what’s better than my memory? Pro-Football-Reference’s Play Index! I searched the PI database (which dates back to 1994) for plays that (a) were a punt, (b) resulted in a score, and (c) resulted in a score that was a safety. That brought up 48 plays. Twenty-one were punts that were blocked; 19 have the description “punts no gain, safety,” which seems to also be a descriptor for punts that were blocked; five are plays where the punting team committed a holding penalty in the end zone.
That leaves three plays where a returning team was called for a safety: a 2001 play where Dallas’s Reggie Swinton fumbled the ball into his own end zone and a teammate was penalized for illegally kicking it; a 2003 play where Tennessee’s Justin McCareins was hit as he caught a punt, which bounced back into the end zone and a teammate was penalized for an illegal forward pass; and a 2000 play that seems to have been wiped out for fair-catch interference. (I’d guess that a gunner illegally hit the punt returner before he caught the ball, leading to a fumble.)
As far as I can tell, no football player has ever caught a punt, run backward into their own end zone, and been tackled for a safety. Travis Benjamin, you are a fool and an innovator.
Loser: Zach Miller, the Bears, and Everybody Involved With Football
Bears tight end Zach Miller dislocated his knee while attempting to make a catch in the end zone Sunday. When you hear the word “dislocating,” you probably think of various minor injuries where a wrist or finger pops out of a joint and doctors pop it back in. Dislocating a knee is not like that. Dislocating a knee happens in car accidents. Typically your knee is held in place by four ligaments, including the ACL and MCL. You know these ligaments from various season-ending injuries. If your knee is dislocated, that means several of these ligaments have been damaged. Teddy Bridgewater’s injury last preseason was a dislocated knee; it led to doubt that Bridgewater would ever play again. Over a year later, he still hasn’t.
If you’d clicked on a post entitled “Watch an NFL Player’s Leg Rebel Against Nature and Completely Lose Its Normal Form,” I’d embed the video here, but you didn’t. If you must see it, click here. It’s disgusting, and not in a cute Halloween way. It’s a person’s body breaking. Miller is 33. That gruesome GIF might be the last image of Miller playing football.
On a much less important note, let’s talk about the result of the football play in which Miller got injured. I said he was hurt while “attempting to make a catch,” but by any reasonable attempt at interpreting what happened, he did make a catch. He caught the ball, held it through his contact with the ground, rolled over, and then let go of the ball as he reckoned with the fact he was experiencing physical pain unlike any he’d felt in his entire life. A player going to the ground has to “complete the process of the catch,” and Miller did that when he hit the ground and held onto the ball. The act of rolling over happened after the play should have been considered over. As confusing as the league’s catch rule can be, this call should have been easy.
Miller’s play was ruled a touchdown on the field, and somehow the NFL’s centralized replay officials overruled the initial call and declared the play an incomplete pass. Fox’s Dean Blandino, the league’s former officiating czar, said the overturn “wasn’t the correct call.” Officiating blog Football Zebras called the reversal “inexplicable,” saying the ruling “warps the time element [of the catch process] to a degree that it was never intended.” I can’t remember the last time I saw multiple officiating analysts completely baffled by a ruling—normally, if they disagree with a call, they’ll at least try to explain why the official on the field thought he was making the right judgment call. Here, everybody flatly disagreed.
To summarize: A brutal, hideous injury led to a score being taken away from the suffering player because of complete misapplication of a rule for reasons nobody understands. I can’t imagine a worse advertisement for football.
Loser: JuJu Smith-Schuster
The Steelers rookie is breaking out, and not just because he had 193 receiving yards and a 97-yard touchdown against the Lions on Sunday Night Football. He’s also the NFL’s most celebrated celebrator. He began the year rolling dice; fulfilled a childhood dream with a Dragon Ball Z “Kamekameha!,” and his hide-and-seek game was probably the most popular celebration of the season.
Sunday? He got to be a bench:
On that primetime workout plan. pic.twitter.com/vFKPmG1WD7— Pittsburgh Steelers (@steelers) October 30, 2017
The NFL’s players have become great actors this season, but I think Smith-Schuster is the first person asked to play an inanimate object. The Eagles didn’t have somebody pretend to be a bat or a ball when they hit a home run; none of the Packers were the bobsled when they went bobsledding. Not only did Smith-Schuster have to be lifeless, he actually got sat upon as part of his role.
To be fair, he finished the night strong—after his own touchdown, he completed the saga of his stolen bike by placing locks on the team’s exercise bike.
JuJu locks up the exercise bike on the sidelines pic.twitter.com/OlqTtOetRG— CJ Fogler (@cjzero) October 30, 2017
But I’m worried that JuJu is getting squeezed out of the acting gigs he deserves. Clearly, he’s a star, and the Steelers are casting him in back-end-of-a-two-person-horse roles.
Loser: Everybody Who Got Emotionally Invested in ‘Hard Knocks’
Including me! Often, Hard Knocks feels like it’s foisted on a crap team with nothing going for it—there’s literally a rule that allows recent playoff teams to opt out of the show. But while the Bucs hadn’t been to the playoffs recently, it really seemed like things were coming together for a squad led by a young star in Jameis Winston, an offensive-minded coach in Dirk Koetter, and a slew of playmakers fit to Winston’s talents.
But something’s not right with Winston. He’s got a bum shoulder that forced him out of the team’s Week 6 loss to the Cardinals, and he reaggravated it last week against the Bills. He threw 38 passes for just 210 yards Sunday, throwing two picks and no touchdowns. Mike Evans had 60 yards on 10 targets; DeSean Jackson had 37 yards on eight.
The Bucs lost 17-3, their fourth straight. In a league where virtually every team is within a game of .500, Tampa Bay is 2-5, the only NFC South team with a losing record. Maybe they’ll break out next year.
Winner: Philip Rivers
Sunday, however, I witnessed Philip Rivers experience pure, unbridled joy. The Chargers were down eight and driving with less than a minute to go against the Patriots. Rivers completed a pass to running back Austin Ekeler in the middle of the field with about eight seconds left, meaning the Chargers had to run up to the line of scrimmage and spike the ball. They did with just one second on the clock—and Rivers was ecstatic:
Never have I ever seen somebody so excited to clock the ball.
Nothing came of this. On the next play, the last of the game, Rivers hurled a desperation heave into heavy coverage, resulting in a game-ending interception.
But I’m just happy to see Philip Rivers happy. He’s on a team forced by its owners to abandon its fans and play 16 road games, and his team specializes in excruciating losses. (They finally won two close games in recent weeks, but two close wins after two seasons of close losses won’t cleanse a man’s soul.) At 35, he’s probably realizing he’s accomplished most of the things he’ll ever accomplish. This spike was his Super Bowl. Sometimes, it’s the little things.