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: The Cleveland Browns
I have watched all five Cleveland Browns games this season, and I’m not even a Browns fan. It’s just that the Browns have discovered the recipe to being the most exciting team in the NFL week after week. No, not the best team in the NFL—far from it. Just the one that figures out how to make everything it does interesting.
For example, I’m going to tell you right now that the Browns kicked a game-winning field goal to beat the Ravens. Spoiler alert, right? But even telling you that the Browns kicked a game-winning field goal can’t prepare you for what this game-winning field goal looked like.
This is what I mean about the Browns. They can take a seemingly mundane thing like a made 37-yard field goal and turn it into an odyssey. The Browns started the year with a kicker named Zane Gonzalez, who in two games missed game-winning and game-tying field goals to give Cleveland an 0-1-1 start. Then they signed Greg Joseph, who apparently specializes in knuckleball field goals (Exhibit A, Exhibit B). Sunday’s was his physics-defying masterpiece. I thought it got deflected at the line of scrimmage or hit a pigeon in midair. Nope: It was just a weird kick that never got higher than 15 feet in the air but stayed above the 10-foot crossbar and gave the Browns a win.
Even in victory, the Browns left me scratching my baffled head. The Browns probably could have won in regulation, but Jarvis Landry decided to fight for an extra few yards inbounds rather than ducking out of bounds with under 30 seconds to go, forcing Cleveland into a 50-plus yard game-winning attempt. (It missed because it’s hard to throw a knuckleball 50 yards.) Even after the Browns had hit their sudden-death game-winner, coach Hue Jackson seemed to believe there was still time on the clock.
In 2016 and 2017, the Browns earned a reputation as the team who lost every time they played. Well, they won one game, but 1-31 is pretty close to losing every game. This year, it’s impossible to have any idea what the Browns will do regardless of opponent. In five games, they have one regulation win, one overtime win, one overtime tie, one overtime loss, and one regulation loss. That’s the full set of potential outcomes. They have pulled off two 14-point comebacks; they have blown a 14-point lead. They’re 2-2-1, but they could easily be 5-0 or 0-5, or even 1-0-4. (I can’t figure out how their Week 3 game against the Jets would have resulted in a tie, or else I’d say they could be 0-0-5.)
No, I’m not a Browns fan. Only Clevelanders get to bear that mark of masochism, having stood by their team through years and years and years of losses. But I’m certainly a fan of watching the Browns. We all should be. The Cleveland Browns should be America’s team.
Loser: Eli Manning
Sunday began with Odell Beckham Jr. appearing on ESPN’s pregame show to talk about why the Giants are bad. Lil Wayne was there, playing roughly the same role DJ Khaled plays on Lil Wayne songs (saying three or fewer words, generally leaving everybody confused about why he was there). Beckham didn’t exactly say what the problem was with New York’s offense … except he kinda did.
Odell Beckham Jr.: “I don’t know” if El Manning is the reason for the Giants’ struggling offense.https://t.co/lpU0vmD8Q7— Adam Schefter (@AdamSchefter) October 7, 2018
In the NFL, saying “I don’t know” if the quarterback is the problem is basically saying “I have never hated anybody as completely as I hate our quarterback.” You can know your quarterback sucks and still put on a straight face and say, “Mike Glennon is our guy.” We’ve all known that Manning has been a problem for the Giants for a few years now, but now the highest-paid wide receiver in the history of the sport is willing to furrow his brow and publicly say “hm” in Manning’s direction.
The actual football on Sunday hurt Manning, too. He threw some brutal interceptions:
That pick was on a pass intended for Sterling Shepard, who earlier in the game beat up a bench:
Odell Beckham Jr trying to calm down an irate Sterling Shepard pic.twitter.com/GoZZaLg6Wy— Rob Lopez (@r0bato) October 7, 2018
Beckham, who famously had run-ins with a kicking net, was the one trying to calm Shepard down. What’s worse: that Manning has inspired two wide receivers to start fights with inanimate sideline equipment, or that one of those two receivers was needed to calm down the other one here?
But worst of all for Manning: The Giants ran a trick play that called for Beckham to throw a deep ball to Saquon Barkley … and Beckham nailed the pass:
When Manning is quarterback, the Giants throw a million slants to Beckham and hope he breaks loose. Beckham, apparently, is the player who has an arm good enough to throw the deep ball. At the time, it was the deepest touchdown pass in terms of air yardage the Giants had thrown since Week 5 of last year. (Manning later threw a 33-yard touchdown to Beckham that traveled farther.)
Beckham’s bomb demonstrates the team’s current situation pretty well: On the day the team’s star wide receiver smirkingly hinted at the QB being a problem, the QB threw a couple of wobbly picks while that star wide receiver threw a deep dime. As important as Manning has been to the past 15 years of Giants football, Beckham means more to the team’s future, as Manning’s contract expires after next year while Beckham’s runs through 2023. Maybe Beckham should start at QB next week.
Defense wins championships, they say. But it seems hard to believe in 2018, when every possible record for offensive efficiency is being broken and the teams in the last Super Bowl combined for over 1,100 yards.
Sunday was a good opportunity for a referendum on the offense-vs.-defense debate. The Chiefs, who have torn every team they’ve played limb from limb with gunslinger Patrick Mahomes II—“gunslinger” is a football cliché, but when I watch Mahomes play I’m convinced he’s actually throwing various advanced weaponry around the field—played the Jaguars, whose defensive line and secondary are both poop-inducingly frightening. Kansas City led the league in scoring with 36.3 points per game; Jacksonville had allowed opponents just 14 points per game, fewest in the league.
So who won this offense-vs.-defense battle? Easy: Offense, comfortably.
Kansas City won, 30-14. Mahomes had his worst game of the year, throwing two interceptions and no touchdowns after throwing 14 touchdowns and no interceptions through the first four games of the year. But KC still put up 30 points, and it was easier for the team with the good offense to simulate a defense than it was for the team with a good defense to simulate an offense, as Blake Bortles threw four interceptions.
It was the sixth time in the past seven meetings between the no. 1 offense and no. 1 defense that the offense won. That’s past the point of this being a trend. The two best offenses in the league are also the last two undefeated teams, and that’s not a coincidence. Offense beats defense. Offense wins championships.
Loser: Offensive Lineman Helmets
Sunday afternoon, Blake Bortles threw a critical red zone interception that bounced off of the helmet of right guard A.J. Cann:
The Chiefs defense celebrated by simulating that gag the Harlem Globetrotters do where they form a line and repeatedly pass the ball off the backboard until the final one dunks it. Truly a monumental moment for the Globetrotters—for years, we have celebrated their flashy dribbling and scoring ability. This might be the first time they’re being mentioned in conjunction with a great defensive performance.
However, Bortles was not the only quarterback to help the opponent by aiming at his teammate’s head. Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill gave the Bengals a pick-six courtesy of the face of tight end Durham Smythe:
"Blake Bortles threw the worst interception you will ever see."— NFL Retweet (@NFLRT) October 7, 2018
Tannehill: Hold my beerpic.twitter.com/CoCgHJwGf9
These plays might seem like flukes, but for both of them to happen in the same day—to teams from the same state, no less—proves it’s a trend. For years, quarterbacks’ biggest fear was fumbling after slamming their face into a teammate’s ass. Now we know the real biggest problem is quarterbacks doinking the ball off of their own teammates’ heads.
NFL teams need to think smarter to avoid these catastrophes. Start measuring offensive linemen’s heads at the combine, and only draft the guys with tiny ones. If your quarterback is standing behind a bunch of dudes with pumpkins for skulls, he’s obviously going to throw the ball into their heads. Alternately, linemen could ostrich their heads in the sand instead of blocking, giving their QB clean lanes to throw in. It’s the only way to stop the scourge of skull-assisted interceptions.
Winner: Linval Joseph
The Big Guy Touchdown is well known to football fans as one of life’s greatest joys. We all cackle when the beefy boys who play this sport get moving, whether it’s the offense giving a defensive player a goal-line carry, or a fumble flopping to a lineman. But not all Big Guy Touchdowns are created the same, and Sunday, we got a true epic in the category from Linval Joseph.
Linval Joseph has to be the fastest 330-pound man in the galaxy pic.twitter.com/6nboP0hmZm— Drew Mahowald (@DrewMahowald) October 7, 2018
Joseph isn’t just big: He’s a nose tackle, the biggest position on the football field, bigger than offensive tackles, bigger than even other defensive tackles. He weighs in at 329 pounds.
And this wasn’t just a touchdown: He went 64 yards. Chase Stuart of Football Perspective rightfully nominated this run for the Fat Guy Long Touchdown Hall of Fame, as Joseph is the biggest guy to score from over 50 yards in over a decade.
Linval Joseph joins the Fat Guy Long TD Hall of Fame pic.twitter.com/Vu6oZ72SHy— Football Perspective (@fbgchase) October 7, 2018
Joseph’s run was beautiful. His teammates blocked out the running backs and tight ends giving chase, but Joseph actually created separation from the various offensive linemen trying to catch up to him. I think he actually accelerates about 30 yards into his run. After transporting his hundreds of pounds and a puny football into the end zone, he sat down, put his sunglasses on, and strapped on an oxygen tank:
"Sunglasses and Advil (and oxygen), that touchdown was mad real." -Linval Joseph probably pic.twitter.com/rNt65RhHAw— Jeff Eisenband (@JeffEisenband) October 7, 2018
Never, ever, ever think the big dudes on the football field are out of shape. If anything, their tremendous size makes the things they can do more amazing. Linval Joseph probably weighs as much as two of you, and he could probably beat you in a sprint.
Loser: Mason Crosby
Football is a team game, and you can rarely pin losses on one player. But I think we can safely say that Packers kicker Mason Crosby lost Green Bay the game on Sunday. He missed four field goals and an extra point; the Packers lost by eight.
Crosby was the first kicker to miss four field goals and an extra point in a game since 1980. He changed cleats after the third miss; it didn’t work. He called the outing “an anomaly in life,” and he’s right: He’d never missed more than two field goals in a game. He’s been Green Bay’s kicker since 2007 and an excellent one, too—he won them a playoff game two seasons ago by booming back-to-back 50-yard field goals against the Cowboys. But things aren’t going well for Crosby, who also missed a game-winner against the Vikings Week 2.
It was easy for the Browns to cut Gonzalez and easy for the Vikings to cut their rookie kicker who missed multiple huge kicks. We’ll see whether the Packers drop the greatest kicker in team history or believe him about this being an anomaly.
Winner: Graham Gano
Hey, do you guys want more kicker talk? Too bad. All I talk about all day is kickers.
Remember that Browns game-winning kick? The one that made you think, “Hey, maybe I could do that?” Allow me to present Graham Gano’s game-winner for the Panthers, evidence that you absolutely could not be an NFL kicker.
Gano drilled a 63-yard field goal to win the game for Carolina, tied for the second-longest field goal in the history of the league. (The longest is 64 yards.) Sixty-three yards. That’s a city block. Imagine standing on a street corner and kicking something to the end of the street on the fly—not just on the fly, but on the fly and over 10 feet in the air and accurately, too.
Since 1994, there have been 59 attempts of more than 60 yards. Fifty of those came in the final 10 seconds of halves, because if the kicker misses, the opponent gets the ball near midfield. And they’re going to miss: Kickers are just 11-for-59 on those kicks, 19 percent, in a league where the average on field goals is over 80 percent.
But maybe the Panthers should let Gano test that leg of his a little more. This didn’t just go in from 63 yards—it was a majestic boomer that went in with room to spare. Compare it with the Browns’ 37-yard game-winner. I’m not even sure the Browns kicker plays the same sport as Gano.
Loser: Trent Dilfer
Sean McVay made a smart call on Sunday. The Rams were up by two points with under two minutes left and were facing fourth-and-inches. Conventional logic calls for punting, because going for it on fourth down is risky. But as it turns out, it’s not that risky. You’ve got a really good chance of picking up fourth-and-inches, and if you pick up fourth-and-inches with under two minutes left and the lead, you win. Quarterback sneaks pick up fourth-and-inches over 80 percent of the time. McVay called a QB sneak, Jared Goff picked it up, and the Rams won.
One person really liked the call: Super Bowl–winning quarterback Trent Dilfer. He chose to express his admiration in an interesting way:
I have heard people call other people bold by talking about their genitals. “He’s got brass balls!” “The cojones on that guy!” So I get that. I think that’s what Dilfer was going for. I think he’s trying to say (a) McVay’s balls are so big they frequently get injured, or (b) McVay is so willing to take risks that he’s damaged his penis in a variety of ways that resulted in scabs. I think he’s comparing the fourth-down decision to sticking your penis in a wood chipper.
However, Dilfer defended his metaphor, and in doing so, got into two separate arguments. In the first, he tried to argue that it is normal to say somebody has “scabs on their private parts,” an expression that I have never heard.
You’re an obvious idiot and didn’t understand the metophor, but I corrected it to satisfy your other stupid friends on Twitter. Again though, please come up to me in public and try to punch my fing face off. Will be fun to humiliate you in public.— Trent Dilfer (@DilfersDimes) October 7, 2018
Eventually, Dilfer blamed “the PC police” for the response to his tweet, as if people were weirded out at it because he was politically incorrect. I mean, the main reason everybody was weirded out was because none of us have ever heard anybody talk about dick scabs as a positive before. Or, to be honest, ever.
But the second Dilfer e-beef is the really impressive one. In this argument, Dilfer tried to make the case that McVay’s decision to call a QB sneak was, in fact, not the smart call, telling several ESPN statisticians that their data was flawed.
I doubt that is true. Please give me 20 more examples of similar situation in “real football” examples. Taking %’s of 4th/1 conversions is not enough to make it realistic.— Trent Dilfer (@DilfersDimes) October 8, 2018
His point, I think, was that going on fourth-and-inches isn’t good because it is analytically sound and gives a team the best chance to win. In fact, he thinks it wasn’t the right call, statistically speaking. But he’s still praising the move, because it was ballsy. And the balls are weird and deformed.