Every week this NFL season, we will celebrate the electric plays, investigate the colossal blunders, and explain the inexplicable moments of the most recent slate. Welcome to Winners and Losers. Which one are you?
Winner: Extreme Unlikelihoods
I urge everybody in New Orleans to buy Mega Millions tickets. A $1.6 billion jackpot! Odds say you’re less likely to win than you are to have a cartoon piano fall on your head, but I assure you, it will be a sound financial investment. Something just as unlikely just went New Orleans’s way on Sunday.
The Saints led the Ravens 24-17 in the game of the weekend, a matchup between New Orleans’s top-scoring offense and Baltimore’s top-scoring defense. All the excitement was focused on that offense facing that defense—not so much on perpetually scattershot Joe Flacco against the Saints defense. But that was the important matchup at the crux of the game, and—miracle of miracles—Flacco came through. He led the Ravens on a six-play, 81-yard scoring drive in the game’s final two minutes, knotting the game at 24.
Or, uh, coming close to knotting the game at 24. Flacco threw a touchdown to John Brown to make the score 24-23, and then it was time for Justin Tucker to kick an extra point. And Justin Tucker literally always makes extra points. He’d made all 222 he’d attempted in his career. Actually, that’s gotta be a lie: I’m entirely confident Tucker had made at least 250,000 extra points in his career. He’s the most accurate kicker of all time, drills 50-yarders like they’re chip shots, and believes he can hit a 70-yarder. He’s the most talented kicker I’ve ever seen, and I pay attention to stuff like that! Don’t ship things with UPS: Pay Justin Tucker to kick your items across the country, and they will arrive exactly where you want them to within a few seconds. (You might not want to ship valuables this way.)
Surely, there was no way he’d miss an extra point at such a critical moment. That’d be like if gravity stopped working. It’d be like if gravity stopped working at the exact moment I really needed to throw a bag of my dog’s poop into a trash can, and instead the poop just floated upward and smacked me in the face. That’s how unlikely and unfortunate that miss would be.
Tucker was such a sure thing that the announcer could surely talk about how sure of a thing he was right before attempting the kick. There was no way he could miss.
Yeah, he missed.
I don’t know exactly what happened on this kick. Tucker seemed to hit it fine, and about 25 yards into its flight, the ball’s Waze app told it to make a right. And that was that. Tucker had missed his first-ever extra point, and the Ravens lost.
Tucker widened his eyes as wide as he could possibly widen them, with his eyelids flying off the top of his forehead and into outer space.
There’s some precedent here—a few years back, Stephen Gostkowski missed his first extra point in nine years in a playoff game the Patriots lost by two. But that wasn’t on the last kick of the game like Tucker’s. This is a football unlikelihood on par with Tony Romo’s botched hold, although the importance of the game is obviously lesser here. The simplest thing, with such a high chance of success, went wrong at the exact moment it couldn’t. We shouldn’t expect anything like it ever again—although of course, that’s why it will be just as fascinating the next time football throws us a loop this strange.
Loser: Most of the Eagles’ Soccer Players
Alshon Jeffery scored a touchdown in the Eagles’ game Sunday, and then he scored a goal. And that’s when things got problematic:
We’ve talked repeatedly in this space about how the Eagles are the masters of the post-touchdown celebration—a mastery that I believe helped them to a Super Bowl. They went bowling; they played baseball. But this soccer celebration shows why things are amiss for Philadelphia this year. Let’s break down what’s wrong here:
- First off, let’s talk about the defensive strategy of Nelson Agholor, the player at the far left of the defensive wall. He sticks both of his arms directly upward into the air. If Agholor were to block Jeffery’s shot with his hands during an actual soccer game, he would almost certainly get punished with a red card for a deliberate handball, resulting in his ejection and likely a penalty for Jeffery’s team. Just awful strategy.
- The Eagles made the odd decision to let Jeffery’s goal come at the expense of his own teammates. He’s not just scoring—he’s scoring over his fellow receivers, and past quarterback-turned-goalie Carson Wentz, who dives to save the imaginary shot in vain. Why would the Eagles choose to have one of their players embarrass so many of his teammates in an imaginary sport?
- In spite of the fact that all the Eagles players are hypothetical opponents of Jeffery, they all instantly decide to celebrate his goal. The Eagles think that the important thing is celebrating their teammate’s accomplishment, not acting out the soccer game. But their actions serve the opposite purpose: Instead of making it look like Jeffery scored a cool goal, they reveal that the entire soccer game was a sham.
This celebration reveals all sorts of problems with the Eagles: They have a lack of attention to detail. Jeffery might have scored a goal, but we don’t even know what this team’s goals are supposed to be—are the non-Jeffery Eagles trying to stop Jeffery or were they rooting for him all along? This is a team without a clear direction.
In the fourth quarter, the Eagles gave up 21 unanswered points and lost, and it’s not surprising. A team that can’t commit to a celebration can’t commit to winning.
Winner: Mitchell Trubisky’s Legs
Do you know the legend of Crazy Legs Trubisky? The Carolina Camaro? It is unfolding in front of our very eyes. The Chicago Cheetah had the greatest run of his career on Sunday. It went 8 yards, or maybe 70 yards:
But Trubisky’s running Sunday wasn’t all horizontal—he also had a 39-yard run, the second-longest by any quarterback on the season.
Trubisky finished the day with 81 rushing yards, the most of any player in Bears-Patriots and the second most by any quarterback this year (Dak Prescott had 82 last week). This isn’t a weird outlier! Trubisky is a legitimate dual-threat QB. He ran a 4.67 at the combine (.01 seconds behind elite runner Deshaun Watson). The Bears have themselves a true playmaker!
Loser: Mitchell Trubisky’s Arm
One problem: Trubisky made some of the worst red zone throws imaginable. He threw two interceptions on Sunday, but it could’ve been three or four or five:
Another risky throw for Trubisky to end zone pic.twitter.com/Gfw5sicguS— Matt Waldman (@MattWaldman) October 21, 2018
Mitchell Trubisky: This RZ behavior has to stop. pic.twitter.com/vy10dCmKFT— Matt Waldman (@MattWaldman) October 21, 2018
Same drive, same issue for Trubisky. Broken recor...err, corrupted downloa...you get it. pic.twitter.com/7P3vcEanhj— Matt Waldman (@MattWaldman) October 21, 2018
The Bears had a chance to tie the game on a last-ditch Hail Mary, and Trubisky’s throw was actually caught … short of the end zone.
On the one hand, Trubisky threw the ball 60 damn yards in the air, and it landed in a teammate’s hands. That’s the hard part of Hail Marys! On the other, he threw a Hail Mary that did not have enough power to make it to the end zone, which is really the whole point of Hail Marys. It almost feels more embarrassing to throw a Hail Mary that gets caught and winds up short than to throw one that just flops to the ground hopelessly, even though the throw was a miracle.
It’s sort of a metaphor for the whole game: We should be happy that the Bears offense was almost good enough to beat the Patriots, the best team of the millennium, in a game where New England got two special teams touchdowns. They did the hard part, and yet Trubisky’s failures make the whole thing so much more frustrating.
Loser: The Reputation of Long Snappers Everywhere
If you hear a long snapper’s name, it is bad. Long snappers have one job: snapping the ball quickly and accurately on field goals and punts. (Really, it’s two jobs, but they’re very similar.) Normally, they are mentioned only when they snap the ball poorly and it leads to a botched attempt. But that didn’t even happen to Cowboys snapper L.P. Ladouceur, who was either the culprit of an unusual penalty at an unforgivable time or the victim of a massive miscarriage of officiating justice.
Dallas was lining up for a game-tying 47-yard field goal to send the game to overtime, but before the kick, long snapper L.P. Ladouceur was called for a “snap infraction.” That turned the 47-yard game-tying field goal attempt into a 52-yard game-tying field goal attempt, and that 52-yard game-tying field goal attempt doinked as the Redskins won, 20-17.
Dan Bailey's somewhere sitting back & laughing at the Cowboys right now pic.twitter.com/sMRKs6EBBF— New Account (@ftbeard_17) October 21, 2018
Soon, the scurrying began: What, exactly, is, a “snap infraction”? Unfortunately for anybody who looked, those two words don’t appear anywhere in the rulebook. Essentially, it’s an official-sounding way of talking about a false start committed by the center, and goes down in the official game book as a false start. The rulebook says that offensive players aren’t allowed to make any “quick, abrupt movement” to “simulate the start of a snap,” and that also applies to the center. According to the league’s officiating office, Ladouceur did this when he slightly tilted the ball before his snap:
One problem, though: Ladouceur does this every time he snaps the ball, and he snaps the ball every time the Cowboys kick a field goal or extra point, and the motion never gets called.
I don’t think Ladouceur did anything illegal. He made a nonquick, nonabrupt motion that did not simulate the start of a play. But when he did, a Washington player sprinted across the line of scrimmage. That player should have been called for going offside; instead, the official blamed Ladouceur.
This stunned the Cowboys. Ladouceur has been the team’s snapper since 2005 and has never botched a snap. (“Best snapper since Thanos,” USA Today’s Cowboys vertical said this summer.) Ladouceur, too, was stunned: In his words, he’s never been called for this. “Exact same thing I’ve been doing for 14 years,” Ladouceur said. “Never had that before.”
However, I must report that the Cowboys’ long snapper is a LIAR. He has been called for false starts at least three times, according to Pro-Football-Reference.com: once against the Broncos in 2005, once during a 2011 Thanksgiving game, and once during a 2014 playoff game against the Packers. I watched the video of both, to confirm that Ladouceur has been called for similar pre-snap motions.
I don’t know whom to believe. I thought the official pretty clearly made a wrong call, but then I fact-checked Ladouceur’s claim that he’d never been penalized. I’m not sure I can ever trust a long snapper again.
Winner: The Jacksonville Jaguars
It has been a stunning fall for the Jaguars. The dudes from Duval appeared in last season’s AFC championship game and started 2018 3-1 with a win over the Patriots—you know, the team that won last season’s AFC championship game. It wasn’t unreasonable to think the team with the league’s best defense could be en route to the Super Bowl. And now they’re 3-4, with three straight multiscore losses. On Sunday, they fell 20-7 to the Houston Texans, and it was the third straight game in which the Jags were shut out in the first half.
But wait: I just said the Jags were shut out in the first half, but the final score was 20-7. How’d that happen? Simple: In the second half, the Jaguars benched quarterback Blake Bortles and put in backup Cody Kessler.
The Cody Kessler touchdownpic.twitter.com/Yk1JK7KuLu— Dov Kleiman (@NFL_DovKleiman) October 21, 2018
Kessler is not the answer to the Jaguars’ problems. His career numbers, primarily with the 2016 Browns are … well, you really don’t need to know what they are, you just need to know they happened with the 2016 Browns.
But I’m still massively encouraged by Sunday, because for the first time in Bortles’s entire career, the Jaguars considered a pathway to success that doesn’t involve Bortles. Bortles entered Sunday ranked 28th in the NFL in QB rating, 27th in adjusted yards per attempt, 25th in interception percentage, and—hold on, it’s getting hot in here!—24th in touchdown percentage. Pro Football Focus, apparently the Bortles optimists, see something in Bortles that the stats don’t, grading Bortles out at a skyscraping 23rd best in the league. The Jaguars should be good—entering Sunday, they were allowing just 4.9 yards per play, the third best in the league—but they’ve been starting Bortles. Same story last year: Jacksonville’s defense was the best in the league, and its quarterback was Bortles.
And yet the Jaguars have doubled and tripled down on Bortles. He got a major contract extension in the offseason, and on Sunday, Adam Schefter reported that the Jags’ front office believed Bortles was “the least of [Jacksonville’s] issues.” He is, uh, arguably the biggest of Jacksonville’s issues.
We’re in an era when quarterback-efficiency records are getting broken weekly. There’s not a dearth of talented quarterbacks, but a glut. With the right scheme, you can win the Super Bowl with a backup. It’s not that the Jaguars are incapable of succeeding with Bortles—they were really close to making the Super Bowl with him last year! But it’s foolish that the Jaguars have invested so damn much in him in spite of the fact that he’s never been an even average quarterback. He’s replaceable. And Sunday, the Jaguars realized that, if only briefly.
Loser: People Who Like Sleep and Have Melvin Gordon in Fantasy Football
The weirdest thing about the NFL’s London games is how commonplace they seem. The league is choosing to play games overseas, a production that involves sending hundreds of players, staffers, and referees as well as literal tons of equipment across an ocean, and it’s not for a special occasion. It’s not a big season-opening game, as has happened in the NHL and MLB. It’s not a preseason tour, as big European soccer clubs do in the United States. It’s not an exhibition game, as the NFL used to do in Japan. It’s just regular-season games—not even particularly special regular-season games. Just regular ones, a few times per year. I suppose that’s the point: Someday, the NFL hopes that games in foreign countries will be so accepted that they’re just part of the NFL routine. But for now, it’s strange that they play games on a different continent and it’s just supposed to be one of the hundreds of notable things about an NFL game day.
Another weird thing about the NFL in London: They haven’t figured out what time the games are supposed to be. There have been 23 NFL London games, and 10 of them have been at 9:30 a.m. Eastern time (to account for the fact that it’s five hours later in London than it is in the Eastern time zone) and 11 have been at 1 p.m., the same time as all the other games. The league has considered getting rid of the 9:30 a.m. starts, but has kept them for some games, because the league enjoys having four full game windows on Sundays, and that time slot allows for viewership in Asia.
Long story short: We’ve come to stop noticing when there are games in London, and even when we do know that there are games in London, we don’t know what time they are. I’m an NFL writer and I didn’t realize there was a game at 9:30 a.m. Sunday until I checked the upcoming schedule on a whim Saturday night.
All this to explain why Sunday morning, hundreds of thousands of fans across America woke up to find that their fantasy football Sunday had been ruined. Melvin Gordon, the second-most-valuable fantasy football player this year (fifth in total fantasy points, second among flex players behind Todd Gurley) was ruled out of the Chargers’ Sunday-morning game in London about an hour and a half before kickoff—8 a.m. on the East Coast, 5 a.m. on the West Coast. Gordon had shown no signs of injury in recent weeks—he posted 33 fantasy points last week—and wasn’t even listed as questionable on the Chargers’ injury report until Friday after he hurt his hamstring in practice.
I think this is one of the greatest fantasy football catastrophes in history. Most Gordon owners had no reason to suspect he could be pulled from the game, and even those that did probably had little idea that they needed to wake up four hours earlier than usual to set their fantasy lineups. Congrats to those who won their matchups because of this unusual confluence of events; congrats to everybody else on the sleep. It’s Sunday: You’re supposed to sleep. Or watch 15 hours of football.