The NFL season is finally upon us. Every week, 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: The Jacksonville Jaguars
The Jaguars were the team that got to benefit from playing against Tom Savage, taking a 19–0 lead into the half against Houston. Deshaun Watson, who replaced Savage in the third quarter, performed slightly better but led the Texans on only one scoring drive and the Jaguars hung on for a 29–7 win Sunday.
The result? The Jaguars are above .500 for the first time since 2011. They haven’t been 1–0, they haven’t been 2–1, and they haven’t been 3–2. Since their last day above .500, the Jaguars have changed coaches five times (Jack Del Rio, Mel Tucker, Mike Mularkey, Gus Bradley, Doug Marrone) and changed owners. We’ve had two presidential elections, three Taylor Swift phases (country, pop, random industrial noises with spoken word over it for some reason) and four iPhone iterations. I was in college the last time the Jaguars were over .500, and this is my second full-time job.
Six years is a long time without ever getting to feel above average. I hope the Jaguars savor it, because their quarterback is still Blake Bortles, and they won’t play Tom Savage every week.
Loser: The Cleveland Browns (of Course)
Punt-protection teams in the NFL are really, really, really secure. Last year there were 2,334 punts in the NFL. Seven were blocked. Two were returned for touchdowns. There should be a 1-in-300 chance of any individual punt getting blocked, and a 1-in-1,000 chance of a punt turning into a score via block.
Here’s the first punt of the Cleveland Browns’ season:
After their first attempt to punt in 2017, the Cleveland Browns have already been eliminated from the playoffspic.twitter.com/jf5a7PsHNU— NFL Retweet (@NFLRT) September 10, 2017
Cleveland actually played a pretty good game, losing 21–18 Sunday in rookie QB DeShone Kizer’s first start. Honestly, if this ball would have bounced normally, the Browns might have won. But after a few hops backward, it swerved left just before the end of the end zone. If the ball had simply skipped out of the end of the field, the result would have been a two-point safety. Instead, it curled conveniently to where the Steelers could recover it for a seven-point touchdown. It’s an unlucky bounce that cost the Browns five points in a game they lost by three. Of course, there was an easy way to avoid it — not committing an extremely rare error on your very first punt.
Winner: Cole Beasley
Beasley made the play of the week in the Cowboys’ 19–3 win over the Giants on Sunday. He bobbled a tipped pass behind his back, then snagged it off the nape of his neck with a jackknifed left arm:
The mind boggles. The ball was dropping behind his back. It was falling out of his range of vision, so he had to blindly flail his non-dominant hand at the ball. He had the luck to find the ball and the dexterity to grasp it from the top without slapping it to the ground. Instinctually, he pinned it against his shoulders, securing one of the sillier catches you’ll ever see.
Loser: The Person Who Drafted First in Your Fantasy League
They probably took David Johnson, the consensus no. 1 fantasy pick. In Arizona’s 35–23 loss to Detroit on Sunday, Johnson had 91 combined yards and no touchdowns, lost a fumble, and sprained his wrist, likely keeping him out for several weeks.
If the person who drafted first was a contrarian, they probably took Le’Veon Bell instead. In Pittsburgh’s win over, Bell had just 32 yards on 10 carries, plus 15 receiving yards. Maybe it’s just a slow reintroduction after his holdout; maybe this is a trend.
Johnson and Bell were smart picks. They should’ve gone first and second overall, or accounted for about a third of a team’s budget in an auction league. But fantasy football is also stupid and completely unpredictable. Also, forget I said that fantasy football is stupid and unpredictable if I win any of my fantasy football leagues.
Winner: Everybody Who Argued That Colin Kaepernick Is Good Enough to Play in the NFL
The predominant cottage industry of this NFL offseason was Colin Kaepernick Arguments. People tend to match their opinions about Kaepernick’s political stances with their opinions about his playing ability. There are a lot of people who think Kaepernick is right to take a stand for racial equality and who believe he is good enough to play in the NFL; there are a lot of people who think he is wrong to sit during the national anthem and who say he is not. There are also a lot of people who would prefer not to take a stance and who have a vested interest in arguing his talent is not enough to make it back to the league, avoiding the awkwardness of saying his political viewpoints are keeping him out of the NFL.
Well, if you think Kaepernick is simply not good enough to play QB in the NFL, Sunday was a rough day for you. Some performances from around the league:
- Savage went 7-for-13 for 62 yards with no touchdowns or interceptions. He seemed more or less unaware that the Jaguars were trying to tackle him, taking six sacks for a loss of 33 yards. That’s a net total of 29 yards on 19 dropbacks. He lost two fumbles, one of which was returned for a touchdown by the Jaguars, who won 29–7. Savage, who had beaten out Watson for the Texans’ starting job, was benched at halftime.
- Colts QB Scott Tolzien went 9-for-18 for 128 yards while throwing two pick-sixes in a 46–9 rout against the Rams. A backup forced into action due to a lingering injury to Andrew Luck, Tolzien was eventually benched for Jacoby Brissett, who has been with the Colts for eight days.
- Combined, Savage and Tolzien led 19 drives that resulted in three points for their teams and 21 points for the opposition.
- Bengals QB Andy Dalton went 16-for-31 for 170 yards with four interceptions in a 20–0 shutout loss to the Ravens. I know Kaepernick wouldn’t have taken Dalton’s job, because Dalton is the undisputed starter in Cincinnati and has a big contract. But still.
You know how I know Kaepernick would not have played this poorly? Because Kaepernick was in the NFL last year, and did not play anywhere near this poorly. He threw as many picks over 12 games as Dalton did Sunday. Kap didn’t throw any pick-sixes last year — he has thrown only four in his career. And he’s lost only one fumble for an opposing score, back in 2014. Even at his worst, Kaepernick has never been anywhere near as destructive to his team as these players were to theirs on Sunday.
It is easy to use vague justifications to explain why Kaepernick is not in the NFL — oh, he’s just not good enough, he’s not a pocket passer, he wouldn’t work as a backup because his style of play is too different from most starters, etc. It will be a lot harder to keep this argument up as the year goes on and guys like Scott Tolzien play like Scott Tolzien.
Loser: Mike Mularkey
The Titans coach had a great idea. Maybe he came up with it Sunday morning, maybe he came up with it last week, maybe he came up with it in February. He was going to start the year off with an onside kick. Nobody had done this in eight seasons. It might catch the opponent off guard! They’ll be too excited for the season to start — they’ll never expect it!
The Raiders expected it.
Oakland got the ball on the 50-yard line and scored a touchdown in four plays. The Titans spent most of the second half trailing by two scores — boy, it would’ve been nice if they were trailing by only one score! — and lost 26–16. Maybe football teams would be better if they didn’t have coaches.
Winner: Jacoby Brissett
The Colts revealed themselves to be the worst team in the NFL on Sunday, losing 46–9 to the Rams. It was tough to tell whether the Rams were actually good, or whether every good thing about the Rams was just magnified by the intense crappiness of the Colts.
Everybody played awfully, except for one guy: backup QB Jacoby Brissett. Just last week he played the greatest preseason game of all time for the Patriots, but he got traded when the Colts realized they were about to start Scott Tolzien in an actual regular-season NFL game.
Tolzien, as previously described, was completely garbage. They had to bring in Brissett, even if he hadn’t had time to change the Patriots gear from his Twitter pictures. But they had nothing to lose, and it paid off: His first pass was a 50-yard bomb to Donte Moncrief:
Jacoby's first play for the Colts, a 50 yard bomb pic.twitter.com/X3dkwfhnzf— OffTheMonsterSports (@OTMSportsBOS) September 10, 2017
One play later, the Colts scored. It’s obvious that Brissett hasn’t had time to learn the Colts’ playbook, because he had no idea how to run the “throw a pick-six” play that Tolzien was running in the first half. He finished the day 2-for-3 for 51 yards — sadly not every pass he throws can go for 50 yards — and is probably Indianapolis’s starter from here on out.
Loser: The Jets
The Jets and the Browns as losers — it’s nice to have football season back.
To my great surprise, my beloved Jets made a great play early in their game against the Bills on Sunday: Juston Burris intercepted a Tyrod Taylor pass in the end zone and brought it out with room to run. Room, sadly, that his Jets teammates decided to run into:
The play was almost a fumble recovered by the Bills — since no Bill tackled him, the play was still live as Burris crouched on the ground. Bills lineman Eric Wood realized this and laid the most vicious hit he could on Burris, jarring the ball loose. But since Burris’s knee was down, the play was dead the moment Wood crashed into him, before the ball popped out.
It’s easy to get caught up in the moment and make a good football play, but the Jets need to stay focused on the important thing: being as awful as humanly possible and finishing the season 0–16. Great job by Burris’s teammates for interfering with potential success in the name of destiny. The Bills won, 21–12.
Winner: Giorgio Tavecchio
Before today, only one man had kicked a field goal for the Oakland Raiders since 2002: Sebastian Janikowski. But Janikowski has a back injury, and he was placed on injured reserve Saturday. So the team called on Italian-born kicker Giorgio Tavecchio, a 27-year-old Cal alumnus who has spent each of the last four preseasons with the Raiders, but has been cut each year for Janikowski. He’s probably not the best kicker on the free-agent market, but he’s worked with the team before, and, like Janikowski, he’s a lefty, meaning the team’s snapper and holder don’t have to recalibrate.
Tavecchio played awesomely on Sunday. He drilled all four field goals he attempted, and became the first player to hit two 50-yard field goals in his first game, a 26–16 Raiders victory over the Titans. He got the game ball:
The game ball goes to Giorgio. What a debut.— OAKLAND RAIDERS (@RAIDERS) September 10, 2017
Watch his speech: pic.twitter.com/7uKZfyY84p
I feel comfortable saying this is the greatest game played by an Italian native in NFL history.
Tavecchio also got hurdled by opposing kick returner Adoree’ Jackson:
OK, so that second highlight isn’t so awesome for Tavecchio — but getting embarrassed performing a basic football task is a fundamental part of any NFL kicker’s life. And Tavecchio has waited quite some time to officially become one.
Loser: California NFL Attendance
Saturday night, 77,000 people attended USC’s victory over Stanford at the L.A. Coliseum. Sunday afternoon, this many people attended the Rams’ victory over the Colts at the Coliseum:
Tickets for Colts vs. Rams were $6 and still nobody showed up. pic.twitter.com/RND1DmDOof— Jordan Heck (@JordanHeckFF) September 10, 2017
Ah, but the Rams are new in town; perhaps it’ll take them time to establish their fan base. Someday, they’ll be like the mighty San Francisco 49ers:
There’s somewhat of an explanation for that picture — it is very hot on that side of the stadium at Levi’s, because the people who spent a billion dollars on the stadium did not think about the fact that the sun exists. Fans often leave during halftime rather than bake.
Please, fine people of California, do not consider this a criticism of you. You’re the smart ones for not attending football games. This is a criticism of the people who have moved football teams to cities and stadiums where they shouldn’t be. They’ve figured out how to make more money off empty-ish stadiums than they did full ones elsewhere.
Winner: Austin Hooper
Surprisingly, the Bears played a pretty decent game in their narrow 23–17 loss against the defending NFC champion Falcons. They really just made one awful play — but boy, was it awful.
The Bears couldn’t quite describe how many ways they screwed up on this play. The players weren’t lined up, and head coach John Fox said the defense was executing a different play from the one called. The beneficiary was Falcons tight end Hooper, who had a county to himself in the middle of the field.
But the confusion on the play wasn’t the whole story. One Bear, Quintin Demps, caught up to Hooper, and Hooper pushed him into the Chicago sewer system with a stiff arm:
Hooper described the play as an out-of-body experience, claiming he “blacked out” for most of it. Being really good at football seems like a great drug.