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: Ryan Fitzrandom
Ryan Fitzpatrick is the NFL’s trickster god. I don’t want to call him a good quarterback or a bad quarterback, because he’s neither. He will rise to whatever level of play is needed to create the silliest story line possible. His Harvard degree is in chaos theory; his beard is made of fibers taken from Satan’s bedroom rug. He doesn’t create quarterback controversies; he creates quarterback scandals.
It seemed as if the Fitzpatrick story arc of this season was done. He was on fire in September during Jameis Winston’s suspension, but just when it seemed like the Buccaneers would be foolish to bench the hottest quarterback in the league, he put up a dud of a performance Week 4 to allow Tampa Bay to uneasily return to its supposed franchise player. Winston took over, but on Sunday, he played one of the worst games of his career, going 18-for-35 with four interceptions, including a pick-six.
Down 34-16, the Buccaneers turned to Fitzpatrick, who played 17 minutes of essentially perfect football. He led four drives, three of which resulted in scores, including a touchdown and two-point conversion to tie the game with about a minute to go.
The Bucs lost 37-34 as the Bengals kicked a field goal after Fitzpatrick tied the game. Perhaps they should not have waited until the end of the third quarter to play their best quarterback.
One of their quarterbacks can barely play without hurling the ball to the other team. He didn’t start the first four games of the season, but he is still tied for league lead in interceptions. The other is a charismatic comeback machine. The problem is the Buccaneers have heavily invested in one, and the other is a 35-year-old career journeyman. The valuable one has a QB rating worse than Blake Bortles’s; the castoff has a QB rating better than Patrick Mahomes II’s.
The choice should be easy, but Fitzpatrick will not make it so. I wrote this about Fitzpatrick in Week 1, and I think it’s so accurate that I’m just gonna go ahead and say it again:
He’s a walking contradiction: a seventh-round pick in his 14th NFL season; a 21st-century man who looks like an old-timey prospector; a Harvard grad who believes his head should be used as a battering ram. At 33, he set the Jets’ single-season passing touchdown record. At 34, he got benched for Geno Smith. He’s had a six-touchdown, no-interception game; he’s had a no-touchdown, six-interception game.
If Fitzpatrick remains the backup, he will keep entering the game and showing Winston up. If he becomes a starter, his brilliant performances will dry up and turn to dust. The NFL is better off with Fitzpatrick, its greatest agent of chaos.
Loser: The Coolest Thing in Football
There’s nothing better in this beautiful sport than Aaron Rodgers with the ball, a small amount of time, and a small deficit to conquer. Football’s a team sport, but Rodgers always does the damn thing himself. His teams generally have no running game to speak of, and his head coach either doesn’t understand basic football strategy or actively hates Rodgers and is willing to ruin his own life to destroy Rodgers. But in those critical moments, Rodgers still shines: He scrambles for his life, hurls miracle balls downfield, and somehow ends up with a win.
It’s not even November, and we’ve already had two vintage Rodgers comebacks: Week 1 against the Bears on Sunday Night Football, he rallied Green Bay from 17 points down on one functioning leg. And last week he pulled the drive of the year to down the 49ers on Monday Night Football. Sunday could have been his masterpiece: In the marquee game of the week, Rodgers faced off against the undefeated Los Angeles Rams, who were foolish enough to kick a go-ahead field goal with 1:56 remaining. Sure, they had the lead now, but one-possession leads are but dreams for Rodgers to destroy. He appreciates the challenge.
But Rodgers never got the ball. Because Ty Montgomery fumbled it away:
I have no idea why Montgomery even decided to take this ball out of the end zone. Entering Sunday, there had been 382 kickoff returns this year, and six of those have been for touchdowns. Montgomery has never returned a kick for a touchdown in his pro career. Even without the fumble, this was a bad return—by kneeling, he could’ve gotten the ball at the 25, but instead got tackled at the 20-yard line while taking several seconds off the clock. The return had the potential for disaster with little chance for success and an unhelpful average result.
Rodgers had the empty stare of a dad who got mad the first 14 times his kid got a C-minus but just doesn’t have it in him to get worked up about it anymore.
Aaron Rodgers’ reaction to the Ty Montgomery fumble— IKE Packers (@IKE_Packers) October 29, 2018
It’s just a damn shame. Rodgers makes magic when he gets the ball in his hands in the game’s closing seconds. And Montgomery’s blunder ensured he never even touched the ball.
Winner: Big Balls Dickson
It’s not often that punters are given genitalia-related nicknames. (Besides, of course, Jeff “Half-Punter, Half-Horse” Feagles.) Heck, we can’t even pronounce Sam Koch’s name the way it’s obviously supposed to be pronounced. But in just a few months, Seahawks rookie Michael Dickson has already become a legend.
Dickson is legitimately a punting revelation. He was named MVP of Texas’s bowl game in December and—I cannot stress this enough to those of you who did not watch this bowl game—he absolutely deserved it, knocking seven punts within the 10-yard line with zero touchbacks. After that game he decided to skip his senior year so he could declare for the draft … and it worked, because he got drafted in the fifth round. He’s stunned not only with his punting ability, but also his versatility—the Seahawks have used the Australian to take rugby-style dropkicks several times, including on onside kicks.
But Sunday, he had his greatest play yet.
Up 14, the Seahawks faced a fourth down just a few yards from their end zone. Pete Carroll actually wanted Dickson to take an intentional safety on this play—up two touchdowns, Seattle was willing to trade two points for field position—but Dickson saw an opening and ran.
This is the type of stuff only Australian punters do. Punters from Australia are cut from a different cloth than their American counterparts. They come from a land of murder spiders and marsupials and tend to play sports where they’re asked to hit people as kids, unlike American punters who start punting at a young age and just keep punting.
This was a tremendously bad idea. If Dickson didn’t pick up the first down, Detroit would’ve been just a few yards from the end zone. Seattle was literally willing to sacrifice actual points to preserve field position, and Dickson nearly threw it all away. (Ran it away?)
But it worked, and now Seattle has a new folk hero:
Michael Dickson: “Yeah, I’ve got big balls. They call me Big Balls Dickson.”— Matt Calkins (@Matt_Calkins) October 28, 2018
It’s unclear from this (maybe not-real) quote whether other people actually called Dickson “Big Balls Dickson” before this, whether he self-anointed himself “Big Balls Dickson,” or whether he just said “They call me Big Balls Dickson” for comic effect. Either way, it is now his official nickname. Plus, I got to write the word “balls” next to a word that starts with “dicks” and my editor isn’t going to make me take it out.
Loser: Todd Bowles, Again
In Week 4, we wrote about some galling decision-making by Jets coach Todd Bowles. Most notably, with his team trailing 25-12 with five minutes to go, he had his team punt, after which New York ran just a single offensive play. It’s hard for a team to win when it trails by two scores with under five minutes remaining; it’s harder when that team voluntarily cedes possession of the ball.
In Week 8, Bowles’s Jets were in almost the same scenario—trailing the Bears 24-10 with 5:37 to go. Apparently Bowles didn’t read this column, because he did the exact same thing. The Jets punted, the Bears ran nearly four minutes off the clock, and New York got the ball back needing to score two touchdowns in under two minutes. (It did not.)
By punting in these scenarios, Bowles is taking what little chance the Jets have of winning and happily hurling it to the other team. Even if their chances of picking up a first down were low, they have to take those chances because there isn’t enough time left in the game to give the opponent the ball. It’s frustrating to watch as a Jets fan.
Sure, I know that the Jets’ chances of winning these games are slim, but I watch to see them try, and Bowles has decided he’d rather give up and try again later.
Winner: Larry Fitzgerald’s Son
Nothing ever changes about Larry Fitzgerald. He has been playing for the Arizona Cardinals, who have gone to the Super Bowl and gone 5-11. He has caught touchdowns from 14 quarterbacks, from Hall of Famers like Kurt Warner to Pro Bowlers like Carson Palmer to just random dudes who I’m not sure actually played quarterback in the NFL but according to the record book they did, like Brian St. Pierre. Like the Grand Canyon, we know that the passage of time has an effect on him, but it happens so slowly that we mortals cannot truly witness it.
Fitzgerald scored twice in the fourth quarter against the 49ers on Sunday: a touchdown and a two-point conversion that helped give the Cardinals an 18-15 win, their second of the year. This was not particularly noteworthy; time after time after time we have seen Fitzgerald embarrass players who were born while he was in middle school. But after the two-point conversion, something strange happened: He celebrated.
It was not a particularly exciting celebration—he just spiked the ball. But for Fitzgerald, this was a stunning outpouring of emotion. Historically, he has prided himself on just flipping the ball to a referee—after all, he’s been there before. In fact, he’s been there more than virtually any player currently in the NFL. And he used to work as a ball boy. He explained to media after the game that he had never spiked a ball before, but he was particularly frustrated on Sunday and needed to let his emotion fly.
Why was he so emotional? Because of how poorly the Cardinals had been playing? The strategies of new coach Steve Wilks? The firing of offensive coordinator Mike McCoy? The feeling that he’s wasting the final years of his incredible career for a bottom-tier team that cares more about developing rookie QB Josh Rosen than getting Fitzgerald a career-defining Super Bowl? No, none of these. He explained that he was upset that his son chose to go to the Arizona State Fair instead of attending his game.
“My feelings were a little hurt, so I was carrying that around all day,” he said. “So, when I got in there, I kind of let it out. To all the kids that are watching, I’m sorry. I set a bad example today.”
I thought Fitzgerald’s career was winding down. After all, he’s 35. But now I’m starting to think it’s just getting started: Now that his sons are old enough to upset him, Fitzgerald can use his tremendous disappointment to fuel performances that nobody his age should be able to pull off. I hope Fitzgerald’s son enjoyed the fair and that he finds new ways to convince his dad to do incredible things.
Loser: Whoever Was Responsible for Painting the Rams’ Field
Have you ever watched those videos where the stadium staff at a sports arena turns over the stadium for a new sport? They’re magical. The work done by arena employees—generally in the dead of night, with nobody watching, for little money—is incredible.
I would like to watch a time-lapse of whatever happened at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum between Saturday’s USC home game and Sunday’s Rams home game.
Centerfield at the Coliseum looks real bad pic.twitter.com/EISbaArAGL— Riley McAtee (@Riley_McAtee) October 28, 2018
The stadium crew didn’t even try to fully obscure some of the on-field USC imagery, and when they did, they apparently used transparent paint that still allowed viewers to see the stuff painted under it. Considering the amount of visiting fans in the stadium, I wasn’t sure whether I was watching a Rams home game, a USC home game, or a Green Bay home game. It’s the worst paintover I’ve seen since Kenyon Martin decided he didn’t want Trina’s lips tattooed on his neck anymore.
This is the first time the Rams and USC have played home games in the Coliseum on the same weekend this season, although it did happen multiple times last year, and I don’t recall the field being semi-Trojan. There are a lot of teams with similar arrangements! The Steelers share Heinz Field with the Pitt Panthers, the Dolphins share Hard Rock Stadium with the Miami Hurricanes (somehow, Hard Rock Cafe, a restaurant chain based on the idea that people are willing to pay a lot of money to eat regular food near a bass used by Whitesnake in 1983, still exists and has enough swing to sponsor an NFL stadium), the Buccaneers share Raymond James Stadium with the USF Bulls, and the Eagles share Lincoln Financial Field with the Temple Owls. And yet I can’t recall seeing a field so sloppily dealt with. Sure, you might see faint remnants of the college hash marks on the fields, nothing like this. It felt like a college football team had been trapped under the stadium by a pro football team and was trying to send a signal for help via subliminal end zone messages.
Maybe try opaque paint next time. I don’t even know why they sell transparent paint.
Loser: Everybody Besides Todd Gurley
Scoring is too easy for Gurley. Sometimes he decides not to score to spice things up a bit.
A moment that sports bettors will never forgetpic.twitter.com/IVUzdPpz8Q— The Action Network (@ActionNetworkHQ) October 28, 2018
Gurley stopped running because the Rams were up by two points with under a minute left. If he’d scored, the Rams probably still would’ve won—they would’ve gone up nine, which would have forced the Packers to score a touchdown, recover an onside kick, and kick a field goal with no timeouts—but hey, better safe than sorry. Because he held up, the Rams were able to end the game by kneeling.
However, Gurley’s decision had major impacts outside of the Coliseum.
- The spread in this game was Rams -7.5. If Gurley would have scored, the Rams would have covered, even without hitting the extra point. But he didn’t.
- The over/under in this game was 57. There had been 56 points scored when Gurley was running. Even a field goal would have pushed the game over, but by picking up a first down and remaining in the field of play, Gurley ensured that the game would stay under.
- And of course, Gurley is the most important fantasy football player in the NFL. He had another dominant day, giving the lucky jerks who got the no. 1 pick in their leagues a solid 25.5 points. But they could’ve had six more if he’d just kept moving forward. Surely, fantasy matchups across America were decided based on Gurley’s choice.
Players have passed up touchdowns to seal wins before, but I can’t remember a choice as impactful as Gurley’s. It flopped every possible way we degenerates have invented to make football more interesting, ruining the days of exactly half of the people who cared.