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: Bill O’Brien
I’d say that O’Brien’s future as an NFL head coach will come down to whether or not Deshaun Watson proves to be a good quarterback. O’Brien’s selling point as a coach is that he’s good at developing quarterbacks. In the first three years of O’Brien’s tenure, the Texans’ quarterbacks were Ryan Fitzpatrick, Case Keenum, Ryan Mallett, Tom Savage, Brian Hoyer, T.J. Yates, and Brock Osweiler. Perhaps the only thing worse than that list of quarterbacks was O’Brien’s consistently poor decision-making about which awful quarterback to play at which time. A quarterback guru unable to develop a good quarterback is useless. Therefore, when the Texans drafted Watson in the first round this year, it was somewhat of a challenge and ultimatum for O’Brien. Watson is the quarterback O’Brien has needed, and also the one whose failure could kill his career.
Luckily for O’Brien, Watson is freakin’ incredible, and was again on Sunday night against the Chiefs. He threw this 48-yard touchdown pass that would have been a sack for … well, every single one of those other quarterbacks O’Brien has coached with the Texans:
Watson now has 11 touchdown passes in his past three games. He’s thrown for at least four touchdowns in half of his four starts. The Texans have lost twice since he started playing, but they scored 33 and 34 points in those losses to the Chiefs and Patriots, who are both good. (The Patriots are good, right?)
Is Watson great because O’Brien has coached the hell out of him over the past few weeks and months, or because Watson was already great? I don’t know. But one thing’s for sure: It is embarrassing that O’Brien thought at the beginning of the year that Savage might be a better option.
Loser: The Sport of Football
The NFL relaxed its celebration rules this season, which has been great and universally lauded. But the league needs to have an emergency session to reinstate some punishments for certain celebrations after this week.
First, the Eagles did a pitch-perfect rendition of a baseball player hitting a home run: Nelson Agholor pitching, Torrey Smith batting (with a football as a bat), Alshon Jeffery catching, Carson Wentz serving as plate umpire, and LeGarrette Blount as the overlooked second plate umpire.
I’ve never seen a catcher, umpire, and second umpire celebrate a homer so raucously. That’s bad for one of you, and the other two are supposed to be indifferent!
Later, the Packers felt the rhythm and the rhyme for imaginary three-man bobsled time:
Packers preparing for the bobsled in the Winter Olympics pic.twitter.com/SMoyY88XzA— Clay Wendler (@ClayWendler) October 8, 2017
This is a big problem for The Shield. Football is already struggling to retain viewers, and now its players are using their highly visible celebrations to advertise their passion for other sports? Unless Roger Goodell puts a stop to this, Sunday Night Bobsled is going to start outdrawing the NFL.
Winner: The NFL’s Ratings, Presumably
There has been a lot of talk about the NFL’s declining ratings partly because it’s fascinating that America’s most profitable sports league is apparently waning in popularity, and partly because the president of the United States is feuding with America’s most profitable sports league, and the president of the United States believes television ratings are extremely important. Every Monday, people rush to tweet whether each of the networks that airs NFL games had an increase or decline in viewership in comparison to games from last year, and the results are cited as evidence that either the NFL or Donald Trump is winning. (Never mind that Trump hasn’t bashed baseball or hockey or NASCAR, all of whom are experiencing declining ratings like football without the protests that many claim are the bane of the NFL.)
The numbers, if you actually look at them, are scattershot. Every network’s ratings were down in Week 1 except for NBC. CBS and NBC declined, ESPN and NFLN had a slight increase, and Fox had a major jump. In Week 3, Fox’s ratings crashed while CBS stayed relatively stable and ESPN’s Monday Night Football broadcast showed a whopping 67 percent increase. Last week, Fox’s ratings increased while everybody else’s declined.
I’d like to add an important variable: which station the Dallas Cowboys are playing on. In Week 1, the Cowboys were on NBC, which is why NBC’s ratings increased over last year’s Week 1, when the Cowboys were not on NBC. In Week 2, Fox had the Cowboys, as they did last year. In Week 3, the Cowboys were on MNF, which explains the massive increase for ESPN’s ratings. In Week 4, the Cowboys were again on Fox, the only station whose ratings did not drop off.
I always thought the “America’s Team” moniker was a sarcastic joke, since I know more people who hate the Cowboys than people who love them. But regardless, America watches the Cowboys. Dallas had the four most-watched regular-season games last year and five of the top six; in 2015, Dallas had the three most-watched regular-season games despite going 4–12; in 2014, Dallas had the most-watched game and two of the top three; and Dallas had the most-watched game and five of the top 10 in 2013 and four of the top six games in 2012.
Sunday, the Cowboys played the Packers, the NFL’s other ratings multiplier: The Packers were responsible for three of the top 10 games in 2014, two of the top three in 2013, and two of the top 10 in 2012. When the Cowboys play the Packers, the ratings are ridiculous. Last year’s playoff game between the two was the most-watched divisional-round game ever; their regular-season matchup was the third-most-watched game of the year in 2016 and the third-most-watched game in 2015.
And not only did the Packers and Cowboys play on Sunday, but it was also freakin’ awesome, with Aaron Rodgers yet again leading a last-minute comeback to beat Dallas. Fox’s ratings will be huge, at least compared to last year, when Fox broadcast a Falcons-Broncos game in Week 5. Do not attempt to cite this as evidence about anything besides the fact that the Cowboys and Packers were playing. As much as Trump would like to make the NFL’s fluctuating ratings about himself, they will often reflect which football teams are playing.
Loser: Cowboys Stadium Glare
There was one problem with Packers-Cowboys: the damn sun.
The ancient folks who built Stonehenge and the pyramids and various Mesoamerican temples used precise measurements to get the sun to shine through their buildings at equinoxes or solstices. Those people might have lived thousands of years ago, but they were much smarter than Jerry Jones. Of the eight regular-season Dallas home games, roughly two are screwed by the fact that Jones’s $1.2 billion stadium features a gigantic window that allows the sun to spew light onto the field during inopportune moments. Last year, Jason Witten had an uncharacteristic drop when Dak Prescott’s throw brought him into the sunlight, and Washington might have missed a field goal during last year’s Thanksgiving game because of the glare.
Most football stadiums are built with the field oriented north to south to prevent one team playing directly into the setting sun. The field at AT&T Stadium goes east to west, which should be fine because it has a retractable roof. But there happen to be big windows above the west end zone that funnel light onto the field of play during the late afternoon — which is usually when the NFL has the Cowboys play. (Remember the thing about ratings?)
It’s ridiculous that with the amount of money and planning that went into making this stadium as marvelous and grandiose as it is, nobody thought about the sun. You know, the blazing star that sustains all human life? The east-west orientation of the field is unnecessary, and so is the window that ruins that setup.
The building’s architects insist it’s not a design flaw because the stadium was built with the anticipation that other buildings would be built outside the west end zone that would block the sun’s rays. Well, those buildings haven’t been built yet, so for now it’s a design flaw.
Winner: The Chargers
Holy hell, the Chargers won a game! They won a close game! Holy hell! How did that happen?
Loser: The Giants
The Giants’ wide receiving corps had an absolutely brutal day: Sterling Shepard suffered an undisclosed ankle injury, Dwayne Harris broke his foot, Brandon Marshall sprained his ankle, and Odell Beckham Jr. broke his ankle and wept while being carted off the field. No team is built to handle so many injuries at the same position. By the end of the game, the Giants had only one available receiver: Roger Lewis Jr.
The Chargers scored with 2:58 remaining in regulation to take a 27–22 lead. Typically, this is when a Chargers opponent would drive the field and score with 45 seconds remaining, allowing the Chargers enough time to drive down to attempt and miss a game-winning field goal. But the Giants didn’t have the personnel to mount a go-ahead drive. They came onto the field for their final drive with Lewis, running back Shane Vereen, and three tight ends. That’s a package for picking up a third-and-1, not for a two-minute drill.
Vereen ran the ball three times, Eli Manning threw to Vereen three times, the Giants committed two penalties, and Manning threw a comeback-killing interception.
I have seen few teams more doomed. And several of New York’s injuries on Sunday were serious. The Giants can nab some signees off the street to form competent football formations, but I can’t imagine their offense will be significantly more effective.
Winner: A.J. Green
Green was the best player for the Bengals on Sunday, which makes sense. He had seven receptions for 189 yards — the most for any wide receiver this season — including a touchdown on this 77-yard sprint:
Green also had a 47-yard catch that set up a touchdown.
But Green was also the best player for the Bills: It’s hard for a wide receiver to be responsible for three turnovers in one day, but Green did it, fumbling after a catch and dropping two catchable passes that turned into interceptions.
When most players in the league repeatedly screw up, it’s a sign they deserve a benching. But there are a spectacular few who are so talented that you just have to keep feeding them, even if some feedings result in projectile vomiting. Green is one of those players, and the Bengals got a 20–16 win because of it.
Winner: Myles Garrett
The no. 1 pick in the 2017 NFL draft missed the first four weeks of the season with an ankle injury. He made his debut Sunday, and it was the best debut possible. No, the Browns didn’t win — don’t be silly. But Garrett did record a sack on his very first play:
That alone would’ve been an excellent debut — no no. 1 overall pick had recorded a sack in his first game since 1992. But Garrett added another sack later, and celebrated like Cleveland legend J.R. Smith:
Lifetime contract for Myles Garrett after doing the JR Smith celebration: pic.twitter.com/B4WMRr62XM— Cleveland Sportsline (@CLEsportsline) October 8, 2017
Smith, of course, came to the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2015 and just one year later won the city its first major pro championship in any sport since the 1960s. In case you don’t watch the NBA much, let me assure you J.R. Smith was solely responsible for the Cavs’ championship.
Loser: Every Offensive Player and Coach in the Dolphins-Titans Game
Tennessee and Miami played an offense-optional football game. Miami is paying $10 million to rent Jay Cutler’s occasional attention, and Sunday, he went 12-for-26 passing for 92 yards with one touchdown and an interception. Throw in an incompletion on a trick play by tight end MarQueis Gray and a 14-yard sack, and the Dolphins had 78 yards on 28 dropbacks, a whopping 2.8 net yards per attempt.
The Titans are playing Matt Cassel after an injury to Marcus Mariota. (They also opted to sign Brandon Weeden, whose NFL career has been rejuvenated by a league ruling that he can use a walker prior to the snap so long as he doesn’t touch it during plays, instead of Colin Kaepernick, who reportedly asked to work out for the Titans.) A big problem with Cassel is that he apparently does not know how to throw a football:
Cassel finished 21-for-32 for 141 yards and was sacked six times for 22 yards. That’s 38 dropbacks for 119 yards, 3.1 net yards per attempt. Both teams struggled on the ground, too — the Titans averaged 3.5 yards per carry, the Dolphins averaged 3.2 — yet both teams still managed to be more effective with their average run play than their average pass. The longest plays of the game were two 17-yard throws: one from Cassel to Rishard Matthews and one from Cutler to Jarvis Landry. This has to be some sort of record for the shortest longest play in a game since the 1930s.
The game ended with Cassel throwing a checkdown 80-plus yards from the end zone:
Matt Cassel's game ends in complete and total failure, throwing the ball into the middle of the field with no timeouts. pic.twitter.com/U8lhzkXaZu— Clay Wendler (@ClayWendler) October 8, 2017
Winner: Ed Dickson
Cam Newton had the best game of his season Sunday, throwing for 355 yards and three touchdowns. His most reliable target? Somehow, Ed Dickson, the backup tight end filling in for an injured Greg Olsen. Dickson, who is owned in 5 percent of Yahoo fantasy leagues, had 175 receiving yards:
Dickson’s been in the league since 2010. His career high before Sunday was 79 receiving yards. He had more yards against the Lions than he did in each of his 2010, 2014, 2015, and 2016 seasons. Sunday’s total was the sixth-most receiving yards by a tight end in the Pro-Football-Reference database. Everybody above him on that list was a Pro Bowler; Dickson has barely been targeted in eight NFL seasons.
Some tight ends are just big bodies for end zone targets. Dickson seems dynamic! All of his catches came on plays that started on Carolina’s side of the field, and he had room to run. He caught a ball thrown well behind him, found seams in Detroit’s zone, beat a linebacker in man coverage, and kept running after defenders got their hands on him. Olsen’s out for a while; little did the Panthers know they had a 30-year-old budding superstar backing him up.
Loser: DeShone Kizer
While the rookie QB named Deshaun prospered, the rookie QB named DeShone flailed. Kizer got the Browns inside the Jets’ 5-yard line twice. The first time, the Browns ran a speed option, and the pitch to running back Isaiah Crowell was botched:
Here's the pitch from Kizer to Crowell. It's not great. pic.twitter.com/DbQvgSQbJj— Dan Labbe (@dan_labbe) October 9, 2017
(Last week, I wrote about how NFL teams should not be afraid to use the speed option. Well, maybe not if you’re the Browns. Then again, what plays do work for the Browns?)
The second time the Browns got inside the 5, Kizer threw a pick on which Jets safety Marcus Maye looked like the intended receiver. Caught it in stride!
Kizer was the first player with multiple giveaways in one game inside the 5-yard line since 2009, and he did it in just one half. The Browns got zero points in the first half, and opted to bench the rookie for backup Kevin Hogan.
Hogan looks much better than Kizer. The second-year player out of Stanford went 16-for-19 with two touchdowns and an interception, averaging 10.2 yards per pass, while Kizer went 8-for-17 with no touchdowns and the pick while averaging 5.1 yards per pass. The Browns are 0–5 and headed nowhere fast, so wins shouldn’t be important. What is important is deciding whether Hogan or Kizer is the young quarterback who deserves reps. It’d be hard to argue for Kizer after Sunday.
Winner: Leonard Fournette
LEONARD FOURNETTE WAVED ON THE HIT! pic.twitter.com/5MaNCZ5zMd— Big Cat Country (@BigCatCountry) October 8, 2017
Steelers safety Mike Mitchell appears to think he was the winner here. Personally, I’m gonna say the guy who called Mitchell out and then rolled over Mitchell’s body for the first down was the winner. You don’t get points for obedience, and all Mitchell did was obey Fournette’s request to come get some.