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: Former Patriots
The Patriots lost 34-10 to the Titans on Sunday. That’s not supposed to happen! The Patriots had lost just one game by more than 20 points this decade, a 41-14 loss to the Chiefs in 2014. (I remember that game! It launched a million think pieces about how the Pats, then 2-2, were done as a dynasty. They won the Super Bowl that year.)
The Pats are now 7-3, with double-digit losses against the Jaguars, Lions, and Titans, three teams with a combined record of 11-16. (It’s 8-16 if we remove the wins against the Pats.)
There’s no good explanation for this: The Pats still seem like a contender in a league thin on elite squads, and they keep farting away games against teams you’d never expect them to lose against.
Well, there’s one explanation: Maybe Bill Belichick is being nice to his old friends. The Lions are coached by Matt Patricia, an assistant with the Pats from 2004 to 2017, winning three Super Bowls. The Titans are coached by Mike Vrabel, who played for the Patriots from 2001 to 2008, also winning three Super Bowls. Both are rookie head coaches—perhaps Belichick is trying to boost their reputations early in their coaching careers. It’s entirely plausible, except for the fact that Belichick is a soulless husk of a man who does not experience joy, let alone friendship, and would strangle a kitten if it meant the Patriots punt coverage would be better. After all, Belichick has a history of absolutely crushing his former assistants.
But it’s also possible that this success isn’t based on Belichick throwing games, but on ex-Pats’ familiarity with their former organization. It makes sense that Vrabel and Patricia would be more knowledgeable about how the Pats run things than most coaches. The Titans also have a team filled with recent Patriots—defensive backs Logan Ryan and Malcolm Butler, as well as running back Dion Lewis. Lewis, for one, relished the victory:
Maybe these flukey wins against the Pats stem from Belichick’s kindness. But it seems more likely that they stem from Belichick’s utter lack of kindness and the fact that everybody spurned by New England seeks vengeance.
Loser: Bill Belichick’s Trick Plays
Something really funny happened in the Super Bowl this year. The Patriots ran a trick play—a reverse wide receiver pass thrown to a quarterback on a wheel route. It was a play they’d run before—actually against the Eagles—but in the big game, it failed. The Eagles ran a nearly identical trick play, and now there’s a statue of that trick play. My coworker has a tattoo of it.
After the Super Bowl, I wrote about why one play worked and the other didn’t. The Eagles ran the trick play on the goal line, as dozens of college teams have done for over a decade. That’s the best place to run a play where a quarterback needs to make a catch: Quarterbacks aren’t often particularly good at running or catching, so it’s best to have them make the catch while standing absolutely still, with no need to advance down the field. The Patriots, meanwhile, ran the play at midfield, meaning Tom Brady had to try to make the catch on the run in hopes of picking up a chunk of yardage. This is a bad idea for most quarterbacks, but especially Brady, one of the least mobile quarterbacks in the league. (He has the fourth-slowest combine 40-yard dash time among all quarterbacks since at least 2000, tied with nearly-300-pound Jared Lorenzen. And that was 18 years ago.)
Sunday, the Pats ran the same trick play—and once again, they ran it from midfield. And once again, Brady’s lack of mobility cost him.
This time, Tommy Tortoise caught the pass, but when he was supposed to run downfield, he stumbled. With nobody in front of him and nothing to do but run, his feet flailed, apparently incapable of finding the ground below him. He looked like QWOP.
And once again, the Pats were one-upped. A few minutes after Brady’s pratfall, the Titans ran the same play, with the much more mobile Marcus Mariota making a magnificent catch. (Really bummed there are no synonyms for “catch” that start with “m.”)
Vrabel said the play was meant to show New England up a bit:
Vrabel on throwback to Mariota, just after NE threw to Brady: "I wanted to see if ours looked better than theirs." Smirks.— Travis Haney (@travhaney) November 11, 2018
The Patriots’ insistence on messing up this play is baffling. Belichick is a genius in all aspects of football, but especially in designing trick plays that emphasize the unique skills of his players—like having college quarterback Julian Edelman throw or having former rugby player Nate Ebner do drop kicks. Why does he keep asking his lead-footed, middle-aged quarterback to do the one thing he can’t?
Winner: Matt Barkley’s MVP Candidacy
The 2018 Buffalo Bills have probed the depths of offensive failure. In a season when offensive innovation has sent scoring and passing efficiency to unforeseen heights across the league, Buffalo has tunneled back in time to an era when the forward pass and telephone were considered gimmicks. The team entered Sunday last in points and yards per play but first in turnovers. The Bills had thrown for just three touchdowns in nine games while throwing 16 interceptions. (The three touchdowns, of course, were dead last in the league, with nobody else throwing fewer than seven. The 16 picks trailed the Buccaneers by one, but, but Tampa Bay has also thrown 23 touchdowns, which is a lot more than three.)
No Bills quarterback could do anything good. Nathan Peterman entered the year as starter but threw seven interceptions on just 81 passes. Rookie Josh Allen took over but also threw more interceptions than touchdowns before getting injured. The Bills signed Derek Anderson off the street; he contributed four interceptions and no touchdowns. Sunday, the team turned to Matt Barkley, and it seemed hopeless: Barkley hadn’t thrown a pass since 2016, and when he had played, he was pretty bad: On his career, he had just eight touchdowns and 18 interceptions.
I was so excited to watch Matt Barkley play Sunday. An already-crappy quarterback, signed off the street less than two weeks ago, starting a game for a team with wide receivers with feet for hands and bricks for feet, behind a papier-mâché offensive line? It had to be a disaster.
The Bills scored 41 points.
Matt Barkley to Zay Jones pic.twitter.com/C6ZDgQTqid— Bills QB Watch (@BillsQBwatch) November 12, 2018
Forty-one points. They’d scored 33 in their past four games combined. Barkley had 232 yards with two touchdowns and no interceptions—the first game all season in which the Bills threw multiple touchdowns, and just the second game in which the Bills failed to throw an interception.
No, Barkley’s statistics are not exactly MVP material—he ranked 10th in passer rating and 14th in passing yardage on the day—but if MVP truly means “most valuable player,” I will consider no argument against Barkley. Without Barkley, the Bills offense is excremental filth, a crime against humanity. With Barkley, the Bills are a juggernaut. He may have come into Sunday as a forgotten backup, but now we know the truth. Barkley is football Midas, and somehow he’s capable of hurling a gold football far enough for his wide receivers to catch it.
(Or maybe the Jets are just really bad? I’ll look into it.)
Winner: Trick-Shot Hero Cody Parkey
Cody Parkey had one of the greatest games in NFL history Sunday, depending on whom you ask. If you ask a fan of the Bears, the team Parkey kicks for, they’d probably tell you that he sucks. Parkey missed two extra points and both field goals he attempted, making Chicago’s game against the Lions tighter than it needed to be.
But if you ask me, Parkey made magic happen. He didn’t just miss four kicks—he missed four kicks off of the uprights.
All 4 of Parkey's attempts off the upright and that wonderful sound of the ball hitting the pole pic.twitter.com/4e0bNSjUbY— Vikings Blogger (@firstandskol) November 11, 2018
Here is a list of potential results for a field goal, ranked by how likely I think they are.
- Missed field goal: Yes, professional kickers hit more than half of their field goals—84.8 percent this year coming into this week, to be exact—but think of how many ways you could miss a kick. You could kick the ball anywhere to the right of the uprights, anywhere to the left, or miss short. I could totally miss a field goal, which makes it the easiest option.
- Made field goal: The uprights are 18 feet, 6 inches wide. An NFL football is 11 inches long, so you could fit about 20 footballs tip-to-tip between the uprights. You don’t have to hit a kick perfectly to make the uprights.
- Hitting the uprights: The uprights are under four inches in diameter. They’re virtually impossible to hit! It’s easy for soccer players to kick a ball into the goal, but really hard for them to intentionally hit the framework!
- Getting the ball to come to a complete stop on top of one of the uprights: I have never seen this happen, but I imagine it’s hypothetically possible.
The NFL agrees with my rankings, to an extent. Missing a field goal is the easiest option and therefore is worth zero points. Making one is harder, and therefore is worth three points. However, the NFL foolishly stops here. It is obviously much harder to hit the uprights than it is to make a field goal, and yet hitting the uprights is worth zero points unless the ball goes through the uprights afterward.
In my version of the NFL, a kick off the uprights is worth seven points—more than a touchdown. Would kickers try to hit the uprights? Maybe, but they’d miss most of the time, and sometimes end up with zero points. And in this version of the NFL, Cody Parkey is a hero Sunday, having turned a tight game into a blowout.
Did Parkey have the greatest game in NFL history? No—that honor goes to Jason Hanson, who once kicked a field goal that doinked off one upright and then doinked off the other. In my rules, that kick is worth 500 points and immediately ends the game, like catching the golden snitch.
Loser: Dirk Koetter’s Play-Calling
The Buccaneers played one of the strangest games in recent memory Sunday. Ryan Fitzpatrick led all quarterbacks in Week 10 with 406 passing yards. Tampa Bay outgained Washington 501-286. The Bucs averaged 7.5 yards per play, a number that would lead the league by a massive margin over the course of the season.
And Tampa Bay lost 16-3. They got into Washington’s red zone five times, resulting in two turnovers and two missed field goals. It was one of the most futile games in league history—they tied the record for most yards in a game without a touchdown, a record set in 1986 by the 49ers (also, incidentally, against Washington). Fitzpatrick became just the seventh player ever to throw for 400 yards without a touchdown. Somehow, Matt Stafford has done this twice.
Who was responsible for this incredibly wasteful game? Buccaneers coach Dirk Koetter, who admitted it was the first time this season he’d called plays.
I’m gonna go ahead and advise Koetter to stop calling plays. If this was his first time all year in control of the offense, and Tampa Bay suddenly reacted to the end zone like a dog reacts to vacuum cleaners. It probably wasn’t a good change.
Winner: Quenton Nelson
Offensive line Twitter exploded when rookie Quenton Nelson decleated Jaguars safety Barry Church.
Nelson, if you don’t know, is one of the best guard prospects ever. He was drafted sixth overall in this year’s draft—the highest a guard had been selected since 1986—and so far, he’s panned out. He was actually named Rookie of the Month for October, the first time a guard ever won the award. Sunday was the fourth straight game in which Andrew Luck didn’t get sacked, so he’s doing a pretty good job.
But watching that play on tape didn’t tell the full story. After the game, the Colts tweeted a video of Nelson making the block complete with audio, and HOLY CRAP:
Lots of fans don’t understand the intricacies of offensive line play, so allow me to explain: Nelson decided to just scream the whole freaking play. Just yelling his ass off from the second the ball was snapped. Poor Barry Church looked up and saw a 330-pound Braveheart character sprinting at him while indiscriminately hollering. All his limbs stopped working, and I don’t blame him.
California has been devastated in the past week by some of the worst fires in the state’s history, which have displaced thousands, killed dozens, and destroyed billions of dollars worth of property. Even if you’re in a part of the state that isn’t actively burning, you can still tell it’s on fire. I live in Los Angeles, which has smelled of smoke for about 48 hours. The Raiders play in Oakland, where air quality was deemed so poor that fans were given respirator masks.
Air quality was considered so unhealthy that residents of the Bay Area were advised to avoid “prolonged or heavy exertion.”
Blue sky over Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum; smoke visible from behind it. Many stadium staffers wearing respirator masks. Air quality still “unhealthy” 159 index as of 11 a.m. PT. Chargers-Raiders remain on schedule for 1:05 p.m. kickoff. pic.twitter.com/xjv0tmS5ft— Michael Gehlken (@GehlkenNFL) November 11, 2018
You know what sounds like “prolonged or heavy exertion”? Playing football. Players are often provided oxygen tanks on the sidelines of regular football games because of how heavily they breathe. But apparently nobody decided it was a bad idea to play a football game as fans and stadium workers were given protective gear to be near a football game.
The league apparently considered moving the game to Dallas on Monday night but decided it was fine to play a game in conditions considered “unhealthy.” (The NFL has no official air-quality guidelines. NCAA guidelines say “serious consideration should be given to rescheduling” games when the Air Quality Index surpasses 200; it was at 170 on Sunday in Oakland.) I don’t think we need to endanger the long-term respiratory health of players so the 1-8 Raiders can play games as scheduled. Moving or canceling this game would’ve been inconvenient and cost the league money. But when it comes to a state burning, we have to do stuff that’s inconvenient and not particularly cost-effective. Either we’ll choose to do it sooner, or nature will force us to do it later.
Winner: Traffic Direction
Bright orange is the official color of people who tell you which direction to go. Traffic cops? Bright orange. The people at the airport who make sure planes don’t crash into each other? Bright orange. If somebody wearing bright orange tells me where to go, I listen. Luckily, the Cleveland Browns wear bright orange. (Even though they’re the Browns. Don’t ask.)
Browns running back Nick Chubb rumbled 92 yards, the longest run in Browns history. (And it’s a long history!) Chubb had already gotten about 40 yards downfield when he encountered wide receiver Antonio Callaway. Between Nelson and Callaway, we have two polar opposite examples of how to block. Nelson threw his entire physical being into an opponent, even screaming at the top of his lungs in hopes of mustering more power. Callaway merely got to the guy he was supposed to block and pointed. “I’d really rather not actually block this dude,” Callaway said with his hand. “So please just run where this guy is not.”
It worked! There was nobody that way, and Chubb went 92 yards—the longest play of the season thus far. Always trust a person with a pointer finger and loud orange clothing.