By early Saturday afternoon, the stage already had been set for an NFL Sunday unlike any in history. Not 24 hours after speaking at a rally in Huntsville, Alabama, where he urged team owners to fire any player who kneels for the national anthem—saying to “Get that son of a bitch off the field!”—President Donald Trump continued his barrage against the league by posting a series of tweets, including one that suggested players who don’t stand during “The Star-Spangled Banner” should “find something else to do” professionally.
Players responded in short order. The league’s most socially active voices led the way, with Packers tight end Martellus Bennett tweeting that Trump’s comments confirmed that “[the president] thinks [playing football] is all I can do as a black man.” Seahawks wide receiver Doug Baldwin released a statement saying, “[Trump] has shown, since the beginning, his dehumanized nature.” Eagles safety Malcolm Jenkins, one of four NFL players who sent a memo to commissioner Roger Goodell asking for the league’s support in player activism to raise awareness about racial inequality issues and criminal justice reform, wrote, “More than ever we remain committed to advocacy 4 equality & social justice 4 all!”
And those initial outcries were just the beginning. On social media, in showings of solidarity on the field, and in postgame interviews, players exhibited the combined strength of their platform. Given the climate that had been created, the widespread protests that took place in NFL stadiums on Sunday were hardly surprising. But that expectation made the scenes no less striking. Trump’s attacks on the league and its players ensured that Week 3 would be the NFL’s most visible slate in recent memory. As a community, players came together and put their best foot forward.
When the Seahawks announced that they had decided not to take the field for the national anthem before Sunday’s matchup with the Titans, the news wasn’t shocking. By that point in the afternoon, the early set of games was nearly done; players had knelt for the anthem in unprecedented numbers; and Goodell had already released a public statement. Yet when the anthem began in Nashville and neither team was on the sideline, their absence was both powerful and surreal.
“It meant everything,” Seahawks defensive end Michael Bennett told reporters afterward. “It was us coming together beyond football and just recognizing that as human beings there is something bigger than this.”
The collection of player images from Sunday’s anthems comprised a breathtaking mosaic: in London, the Jaguars and Ravens kneeling in unison on sidelines before most of America had had its morning coffee; in Landover, Maryland, outside the nation’s capital, nearly the entire Raiders roster linking arms while seated on the bench; in Charlotte, future Hall of Fame defensive end Julius Peppers remaining in the locker room during the anthem, only to take the field alone moments later.
Julius Peppers now walking onto the field pic.twitter.com/Iagr5WKgYp— Bill Voth (@PanthersBill) September 24, 2017
“There’s only a few times in a man’s life where you have a chance to stand up for something you believe in and make a statement,” Peppers said after the game. “So today I thought that was that chance, and I took it.”
Other figures around around the league—from commentators to executives to owners—also made statements, but some were met with a reasonable amount of skepticism. Giving much credit to former Jets and Bills coach Rex Ryan or to Patriots chairman and CEO Robert Kraft for expressing their respective disappointment with the president’s comments feels justifiably difficult given that the former campaigned on Trump’s behalf and the latter’s company donated $1 million to his inaugural committee. And there was considerable irony in the image of so many owners taking part in an extension of the protest Colin Kaepernick started nearly 14 months ago when the quarterback still can’t find work in the league.
The most influential NFL player of the past year was nowhere to be found on Sunday, but his presence could be felt in 14 stadiums on two different continents. And as the scope of social activism in the league grows—and the list of motivations for it expands—it’s worth remembering what first sent Kaepernick to a knee during the 2016 preseason, months before Trump was elected to office. Kaepernick’s statement was a means of protesting police brutality and the way that minorities are treated in communities across the nation. Sunday’s demonstrations may have been inspired by Kaepernick, but they were also a unified showing against the intimidation methods of an attention-seeking president who’s done all that he can to make activism in the NFL another issue mostly about him.
Yet even if the players’ message of denouncing hatred has become more varied, a collective message still existed on Sunday, and its impact was undeniable. The fact that it was expressed on a weekend when the league’s product was at its finest—featuring a last-minute touchdown grab in New England, a game-winning 61-yard field goal in Philadelphia, and overtime heroics in Green Bay—was only a bonus. Week 3 will go down as a time when NFL players reminded the world exactly who they are and what they can be.
In the locker room at FedEx Field, just 14 miles from the White House, Washington cornerback Josh Norman spoke with reporters for more than 20 minutes Sunday about Trump and the action the president’s comments spurred among his team and others. Norman reiterated what so many did: that these demonstrations had nothing to do with the military or the people who have done so much to protect America’s freedoms. “It’s about what we’re being faced with right now,” Norman said, “and that’s being [torn] down from in the White House, behind the podium, behind the presidency of the United States of America. That can’t go down.”
In a league where players’ voices have so often been muted, this Sunday produced a shared, booming outcry. Together, more than 200 men from 28 teams expressed that they would not stand idly by while their freedoms were threatened. Within a span of 48 hours, NFL players were challenged and given a chance to show everything that they can represent—and they took it.
The Starting 11
A look at 11 big story lines, key developments, and interesting tidbits from this week in the NFL.
The 1 p.m. ET slate of Week 3 games was an onslaught of ridiculous moments and “Umm … what the hell just happened?” finishes. Four outcomes were decided in the final 30 seconds of the fourth quarter or in overtime, and three came down to the final play. And that doesn’t even include a back-and-forth contest that might have swung on a schoolyard prank. To kick off this section, let’s take a look at five small, bizarre, and pivotal moments that helped shape the day’s results.
1. Texans safety Corey Moore nearly picked off Tom Brady two plays before the Patriots’ game-winning touchdown. Much will be made of Houston head coach Bill O’Brien’s decision to kick a field goal on fourth-and-1 from the New England 18-yard line with 2:28 remaining in the fourth quarter. In the moment, though, the Texans’ choice to extend their lead to five points and force the Patriots to beat them with a touchdown felt understandable. For Houston, Moore’s near-interception on the seventh play of the Pats’ last drive was a more heartbreaking turning point. Brady wasn’t shy about hoisting desperation heaves down the stretch, and if Moore could have come down with an (admittedly tough) catch before Brady completed a heave to Danny Amendola on the next play, the Pats would be 1-2 and the conversation surrounding the team this week would be very different.
Instead, Brady’s 25-yard bullet to Brandin Cooks in the corner of the end zone sent New England home with a 36-33 win, and the cracks in the Pats’ roster are likely to be met with healthy concern rather than an impending sense of panic. Brady finished with a gaudy stat line (25-of-35 passing for 378 yards with five touchdowns) and was predictably ice cold with the game hanging in the balance. Still, it’s worth noting that 85 of his yards came on four throws during the final drive; another 133 came on just three completions. New England’s offense was far from a picture of efficiency. It survived by gashing the Texans on a handful of big plays, and its banged-up line was overwhelmed by a Houston defensive front that sacked Brady five times.
Far more troubling for the Pats was their inability to slow a Texans offense that looked hapless through its first two games. Houston’s Deshaun Watson easily could have been sacked a dozen times on Sunday, but he made some seemingly impossible escapes in the backfield. Picking the best moment out of his magician act is tough, but I’ll go with his 35-yard, crossfield cannon to Ryan Griffin after somehow wiggling away from two different Patriots.
New England managed its own escape on Sunday, but it’s hard to come away from the game without being a little worried about the Pats and all sorts of impressed with the Texans rookie quarterback.
2. Lions wide receiver Golden Tate’s shocking—and correctly called—non-touchdown sealed Detroit’s 30-26 loss to Atlanta. Matthew Stafford and the Lions were inches from further solidifying their status as the NFL’s fourth-quarter comeback kings when Tate’s would-be game-winning catch was overturned on a review and a 10-second runoff then ended the game. This came after a controversial call went in the other direction, as Detroit’s final drive included a mystifying defensive holding penalty on Atlanta cornerback Desmond Trufant on a second-and-30 and negated what would have been a game-sealing interception.
Super slow-mo of the Tate TD. You can make an argument he doesn't have complete control of the ball until he crosses goal line pic.twitter.com/MDrYrjvp6w— Isaac (@WorldofIsaac) September 24, 2017
By the time Stafford hit Tate on a slant all of that was irrelevant, though, and the officials’ ruling that Tate was down erased what would have been a cringe-worthy loss for the Falcons. Matt Ryan’s three-interception day looks much worse on paper than it was in reality; two of his picks came on tipped balls, including a brutal drop by Mohamed Sanu that would have given Atlanta, up 30-26, a first-and-goal with about eight minutes left to play.
The reversal also ensured that a fantastic day from Falcons running back Devonta Freeman didn’t go to waste. Freeman finished with 21 carries for 106 yards and a touchdown, and added a drive-saving 18-yard reception in the red zone that helped Atlanta punch in its first touchdown. Minus Ryan throwing a face-palm-inducing pix-sick, the Falcons continued to look a lot like the class of the NFC, while the Lions showed that their 2-0 start wasn’t a fluke.
3. Jake Elliott’s 61-yard miracle field goal gave the Eagles a 27-24 win over the Giants. As long as we’re discussing teams that managed to avoid stomach-churning losses by the skin of their teeth, let’s go to Philly. The Eagles defense shut out the Giants for three quarters on Sunday, but then the floodgates opened up. New York’s Odell Beckham Jr. and Sterling Shepard carved up a depleted secondary down the stretch: Beckham had his way with cornerback Jalen Mills for two touchdowns, while Shepard scored from 77 yards out after exploiting a bad angle taken by safety Chris Maragos (who was replacing injured starter Rodney McLeod).
Philly’s defense—which also lost defensive tackle Fletcher Cox and Jordan Hicks to injury in Week 3—will be fine when healthy, but the same can’t be said about the offense. Quarterback Carson Wentz finished 21-of-31 passing for 176 yards; his longest completion went for 19, and that only came when he was forced to chuck it deep with seven seconds left in regulation. The Eagles’ passing attack hasn’t shown the growth some anticipated in Wentz’s second season, and its two biggest offensive plays came courtesy of pass interference calls on cornerback Eli Apple that went for a total of 80 yards.
Yet even as Philly repeatedly tried to hand the Giants a win, Eli Manning’s bunch refused to take it. Then Elliott, a little-known rookie kicker, drilled a 61-yarder as time expired. An 0-3 start could be enough to sink the Giants’ playoff hopes, and with Manning approaching his 37th birthday, both the franchise’s short- and long-term outlooks are riddled with questions.
4. Von Miller’s shenanigans cost the Broncos a chance to mount a game-tying drive in an eventual 26-16 loss to the Bills. Watching this happen in real time was incredible. With Denver trailing 23-16 and 7:43 left in the fourth quarter, Miller worked his way into the backfield on a third-and-8 and brought down quarterback Tyrod Taylor as he was letting go of a pass. The Bills, now facing fourth down, should’ve been forced to punt. Instead, Miller stuck his hand out for Taylor only to suddenly yank it back, like a kindergartner who’d just discovered comedy.
Let’s be clear: That move at that point in the game shouldn’t warrant a flag. The only penalty in this situation should come for Miller using a joke fit for a 6-year-old. Nevertheless, the unsportsmanlike conduct call gave the Bills 15 yards and a first down, and ultimately set up a chip-shot field goal that put the game out of reach.
Miller’s penalty aside, Buffalo was the better team all afternoon. The Bills peppered Trevor Siemian with a variety of interior blitzes and goaded the Denver quarterback into a pair of awful interceptions. After turning in two masterful showings to open the season, the Broncos looked out of sorts offensively from the start on Sunday.
5. Bears cornerback Marcus Cooper stopping just shy of the goal line on a blocked field goal at the end of the first half prevented a touchdown in Chicago’s win over the Steelers. The experience of witnessing this while surrounded by Bears fans was profoundly strange. Everyone seemed both confused about what had happened and resigned to an “Oh, those Bears” attitude; it made me want to move to an Airstream in the Montana wilderness. Somehow, though, the four points the Bears threw away in the second quarter turned out not to affect the outcome.
Thanks to the efforts of running backs Tarik Cohen and Jordan Howard, Chicago knocked off a Steelers team that seemed to be sleepwalking for the entirety of a 23-17 contest. Pittsburgh’s offense sputtered all afternoon, and the Bears gouged the Steelers on the ground for four straight quarters and overtime. Howard, who gained just 7 yards on nine carries in a Week 2 loss to Tampa Bay, hammered Pittsburgh for 138 yards despite having an injured shoulder that nearly forced him to come out of the game. Cohen tacked on 102 all-purpose yards of his own, including a 36-yard run that almost went to the house two plays before Howard finished off the victory.
Losing to an 0-2 Bears team while looking painfully sluggish is the type of egg the Steelers have occasionally laid on the road against lesser foes, but this couldn’t have been the start to the 2017 season that Pittsburgh wanted. An offense that was high-powered last year is averaging only 21.3 points per game; running back Le’Veon Bell has tallied just 236 yards from scrimmage through three weeks after totaling at least 130 in 12 of 15 games last season (including the playoffs); and receiver Martavis Bryant has yet to get much going since returning from last fall’s suspension, even dropping a potential touchdown on Pittsburgh’s first possession Sunday. The Steelers still have a ridiculous array of offensive talent, but they’re a long way off from being the scoreboard-destroying group to whom we’ve grown accustomed.
6. The Vikings have one of the best, most underrated receiving duos in the NFL. When the Buccaneers signed wideout DeSean Jackson to a three-year, $33.5 million deal this offseason, the idea was that pairing him with cornerback-destroying superhuman Mike Evans would give the team two pass catchers who could take over games on their own. That may very well happen down the road, but on Sunday it was a pair of receivers on the opposing team’s sideline who dominated a game from start to finish.
Minnesota’s Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen dazzled in a 34-17 win, even with Case Keenum filling in for the injured Sam Bradford at quarterback. The lines for each player—eight catches for 173 yards with two scores for Diggs; five grabs for 98 yards for Thielen—were excellent, although those numbers don’t come close to explaining how great both guys were. Nearly every one of Diggs’s snags was a contested catch that required some type of show-stopping maneuver. The highlight of his first touchdown—a leaping 17-yard reception over Vernon Hargreaves III—looks fake. Combine that tandem with budding star running back Dalvin Cook, and the Vikings have one of the most dangerous collections of weapons the NFL has to offer.
7. The Jets terrorized Jay Cutler with a flurry of defensive-back blitzes, and it paid off in a convincing 20-6 win. Head coach Todd Bowles and his staff sent a continuous wave of extra rushers at Cutler all game, and it helped the Jets completely wreck the Dolphins offense. Four of Cutler’s five longest completions on Sunday came in the fourth quarter with Miami then trailing 20-0. Take those out, and Cutler went 22-of-40 for 148 yards, which comes to an average of 3.7 yards per attempt. Two of New York’s three sacks came from defensive backs Buster Skrine and Jamal Adams, and safety Terrence Brooks also took Cutler to the ground. This was an aggressive, creative plan from a team much in need of ingenuity.
8. Jacksonville routed the Ravens 44-7—and its Week 2 loss to the Titans suddenly doesn’t look so bad. The Jaguars found a loose thread on Joe Flacco and the Ravens offense in London, and they didn’t stop pulling it all Sunday morning. Flacco turned in a historically terrible outing—8-of-18 passing for 28 yards and two picks—as a Jacksonville unit prone to feasting on opponents smelled blood in the water from the start. While Blake Bortles isn’t going to throw four touchdown passes every week, head coach Doug Marrone’s defense is stacked and should cause issues all fall.
Meanwhile, by beating the Seahawks 33-27, Tennessee proved just how lethal its offense is going to be week in and week out. Maybe the Titans’ 37-16 demolition of the Jags last Sunday said more about Tennessee’s upside than it did about Jacksonville’s flaws.
9. This week’s line-play moment that made me hit rewind: Carl Lawson’s utter domination in Green Bay. The Bengals’ rookie pass rusher controlled Sunday’s matchup against the Packers, to the point that Aaron Rodgers and Co. escaping with a 27-24 overtime victory feels like it shouldn’t have been possible. To put it simply: Lawson ruined Green Bay’s offense for a huge chunk of the game. He finished with 2.5 sacks and three quarterback hits, and seemed to be bothering Rodgers on every dropback.
Lawson racked up seven quarterback hurries while flashing the type of refined pass-rushing skill that made him so dangerous at Auburn. He may not be a speed demon around the edge, but his understanding of leverage and when to hit his inside counters goes well beyond his years. Lawson’s go-to move in Week 3 looked like a hybrid between a long arm and a hump move, and it sent Packers left tackle Kyle Murphy flying more than once. This guy already looks like a fourth-round steal.
10. This week in tales of the tape: A pair of the league’s top left tackles prove that big guys can move. Tennessee and Washington both used their offensive linemen’s mobility to their advantage on Sunday, turning a pair of short screens into huge gains. Pro Bowl tackle Taylor Lewan and the rest of the left side of the Titans’ line sprung Rishard Matthews for a 55-yard score in the third quarter of a win over the Seahawks, while all-world left tackle Trent Williams led the way on Chris Thompson’s back-breaking 74-yard reception in the third quarter of a 27-10 win over the Raiders. Both Lewan and Williams are among the best blindside protectors in the game; watching them smoothly navigate into space and track down guys 100 pounds lighter was a beautiful sight.
11. This week in NFL players, they’re absolutely nothing like us:
We’ve run out of ways to describe just how absurd Odell Beckham Jr. is.