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: Hooks and Ladders
We thought that we had seen football’s offensive revolution. With quarterbacks like Patrick Mahomes II and Drew Brees rewriting the record books and the Rams establishing themselves as Super Bowl favorites on the strength of Sean McVay’s scheme genius, we thought we were seeing the future of football.
But those teams aren’t even scratching the surface of what offenses are capable of. Sunday, we saw the greatest weapon in football unveiled, and seemingly nobody is capable of stopping it.
Witness the hook-and-ladder:
The Dolphins pulled off the Miracle in Miami, a 69-yard, two-lateral play that turned out to be the longest game-ending touchdown in the Super Bowl era. Earlier this week, Danny Heifetz tried to tell us that Miami was the Patriots’ kryptonite, and he was right. We’ve seen the Patriots lose a few times over their two decades of dominance, but rarely have their losses been this satisfying—a horde of Pats stumbling as a schoolyard play went the length of the field with the clock at zeroes.
But that wasn’t the only hook-and-ladder of the day! Later, the Steelers were trailing by three against the Raiders, and managed to get into field goal position when Ben Roethlisberger’s pass to James Washington led to a lateral to JuJu Smith-Schuster:
(The Raiders blocked the game-tying field goal attempt, because Jon Gruden doesn’t even know how to tank.)
It’s good to see that coaches around the league are learning from multiple-time state champion high school coach Eric Taylor and ensuring their squads can run this play to perfection. But I must ask: Why do we reserve this clearly effective play for desperation circumstances?
It’s obvious that pass defenders are trained to converge on the first receiver to touch the ball. Offenses should hammer hook-and-ladders until defenders learn to back off, and then reap the rewards of defenses suspicious of overdefending receivers. I foresee a future where teams pass first, run hook-and-ladders second, and then call a run play once every few weeks.
The hook-and-ladder puts the ball forward, then goes slightly backward to allow for an even grander gain. The passing innovations of the past few years may have moved the game of football forward, but now it is time for us to look backward at a play inspired by the rugby origins of the sport to unlock the biggest advances available.
(And yes, I know the accurate way of referring to this play is technically “hook-and-lateral.” Look, sometimes it’s important to be accurate, and sometimes it’s important to pretend a football play is a type of fire truck. Buzz off with your corrections.)
Loser: Rob Gronkowski, Safety
In Hail Mary situations, many teams will play their largest wide receiver as an additional safety. It makes sense—they’re huge and skilled at going up and snagging passes, and that’s all that’s needed on Hail Marys. The Patriots have repeatedly done this with Rob Gronkowski over the years—he actually deflected a Hail Mary at the end of New England’s win over the Texans last year. He also took the field Week 1 for a Hail Mary, also against the Texans:
Sunday, the Pats put Gronk on the field in hopes of breaking up another Hail Mary. Unfortunately, the Dolphins didn’t run a Hail Mary. They ran the hook-and-ladder we already talked about. And that meant instead of going up and snagging a pass, Gronk had to step up and make a tackle. Gronk fancies himself a decent defender—he thinks he should get to play defensive end sometimes—but even though Gronk played defense in high school, and even though he’s made tackles after interceptions and fumbles, those are entirely different from trying to tackle a professional running back with the game on the line.
He did not do a good job.
“I did sucky,” Gronk said. (Gronk is as good at talking as he is at tackling.)
Gronk looks like an idiot, but the blame should really fall on New England’s coaching staff for putting a tight end in position to make a game-saving tackle. While I generally applaud the Patriots’ inventive use of personnel, putting Gronkowski on the field for this play was a failure. The line of scrimmage on this play was the Dolphins’ 31-yard line. That’s 69 yards from the end zone.
Look at that throw Deshaun Watson made in the above video. That play started at the 43-yard line, and Watson came up 10 yards short of the end zone. Look at Mitch Trubisky’s Hail Mary attempt against the Patriots earlier this year. The line of scrimmage was the 45, and again, the pass came up short of the end zone. Those throws needed about 15 yards fewer than the Dolphins needed Sunday and didn’t have the arm.
Do the Patriots think Ryan Tannehill is the strongest man alive? Does Bill Belichick think Ryan Tannehill goes up to Cape Canaveral during the Dolphins’ bye week to launch satellites into space? Do they think Ryan Tannehill is a bionic man with an antiaircraft gun attached to his shoulder? Because Gronkowski’s presence on defense means New England apparently thought Tannehill could throw the ball 70 yards on the fly.
The Dolphins were more realistic about Tannehill, who doesn’t have a particularly strong arm to begin with and missed multiple games with a shoulder injury this year. They ran a play that made sense based on their field position. The Patriots were set up to defend a completely impractical play, and the end result was a tight end flailing at a running back’s feet with the game on the line.
Winner: Colin Kaepernick
Washington has gone from a legitimate playoff contender to complete trash in less than a month, in part due to shoddy luck and in part due to cowardice. The shoddy luck is obvious—first starter Alex Smith broke his leg, then backup Colt McCoy broke his leg. The cowardice comes from the franchise’s decision to ignore the best available quarterback likely due to his political opinions.
That decision led to a catastrophic loss Sunday, as the offense was completely incapable of functioning with Mark Sanchez under center. The Giants took a 34-0 halftime lead and eventually went up by 40—the largest deficit Washington has faced since 2007. That game was against a Patriots team that went 16-0 in the regular season. This game was against a Giants squad that was 4-8 and waiting for next year.
Sanchez went 6-for-14 for 38 yards with two interceptions, including this pick-six:
Marck Sanchez throws a pick-6. pic.twitter.com/UF0Jp37FbW— NFL Update (@MySportsUpdate) December 9, 2018
He was also sacked five times for a loss of 29 yards, meaning Sanchez dropped back 19 times for a gain of 9 yards while throwing two interceptions. Somehow, he had a quarterback rating higher than zero, which basically tells you that QB rating is a garbage stat.
Eventually, Washington put Josh Johnson in the game. Johnson, who was signed on Wednesday, had not thrown a pass in an NFL game since 2011 before relieving Sanchez, the longest gap between passes by one player since Doug Flutie went more than eight years without a pass. Flutie spent that time becoming a CFL superstar; Johnson spent that time getting cut over and over and over and over again. Johnson actually played decently, running for a touchdown and throwing another against New York’s backups.
Washington coach Jay Gruden’s stated reason for not signing Colin Kaepernick is that he doesn’t fit the team’s offense. This is a lie—the majority of the plays Washington runs are also plays Kaepernick ran in San Francisco. (Kaepernick has literally taken over for Alex Smith midseason before, and he could probably do it again.) Johnson admitted after the game that he learned his teammates’ names by playing Madden.
Josh Johnson said he played Madden in order to learn all of his teammates this week. #Redskins— George Wallace (@GWallaceWTOP) December 9, 2018
One reason people say Kaepernick would be a bad signing is because he hasn’t played in the NFL since 2016. Washington clearly doesn’t care about this—Sanchez hadn’t thrown a pass since 2016 either, and as previously noted, Johnson hadn’t thrown a pass since 2011. Kaepernick made the damn Super Bowl in 2013. Kaepernick’s critics also argue he’s just not that good of a player. There is basically no argument for Sanchez (86 career touchdowns, 89 career interceptions) or Johnson (six touchdowns, 11 interceptions) being better than Kaepernick (72 touchdowns, 30 interceptions). He was better than them more recently.
Washington hasn’t signed Kaepernick for one reason: He is bold enough to speak out against racial and social injustice in America. And the team feels so deeply about this that it’s willing to throw away its playoff chances to make this point. Its blatant hypocrisy was revealed on Sunday. That won’t get Kaepernick a job, and probably won’t even help his collusion case—Washington’s refusal to sign Kaepernick does not mean all 32 teams colluded to keep him out of the league.
But at least we get to see all the explanations for why Kaepernick is unsigned being exposed for what they are: blatant lies told by cowards. It’s not much, but it’s satisfying.
It’s Tanking SZN. Four teams entered Sunday already eliminated from the postseason. In a league where everybody acted in their best interests, these teams would stop focusing on being competitive. They would only care about (a) developing talent and (b) losing to enhance their draft position.
Unfortunately, some people have pride. And because of that, the three worst teams in the NFL all won Sunday. The 3-9 Jets scored 14 points in the fourth quarter to beat the Bills 27-23. They had the option to kick a field goal to tie the game, but Todd Bowles went for it on fourth-and-1 and got the win:
After likely eliminating themselves from the race for the no. 1 pick, they celebrated:
The 2-10 49ers held on for a 20-14 win over the Broncos:
That gave the 2-10 Raiders the opportunity to take sole possession of last place. All they needed to do was lose to the 7-4-1 Steelers. It should have been easy, as Oakland was a 10.5-point underdog. But Oakland scored a go-ahead touchdown on fourth down with under a minute to go:
And then Chris Boswell slipped and missed his attempt to force overtime with a field goal:
Now, I get why the players on these teams wanted to win. In addition to the competitive fire that lives within the heart of every athlete, these players’ careers are not tied to these franchises. They need to play every down as hard as they can, even in a lost season, because every snap they play is an audition for future contracts.
But what about Jon Gruden, who is under contract for the next nine seasons as the Raiders head coach? Shouldn’t he be doing everything he can to ensure he can draft Ed Oliver first overall next season instead of celebrating a stunning come-from-behind win in a game his team should’ve lost?
The only consolation for fans of these ill-fated winners is that every other team that needed to lose also won. Who knew losing could be so hard?
Winner: Shannon Sharpe
George Kittle of the 49ers had one of the greatest halves in football history Sunday. We’ve already included video of his 85-yard touchdown catch, but that was just one of the tight end’s amazing plays. He had seven catches for 210 yards in the first half, including this 52-yard catch and run with a slew of broken Bronco tackles:
With 210 yards in the first half, Kittle was just 5 yards away from setting the all-time single-game record for receiving yards by a tight end, set by Shannon Sharpe for the Broncos in 2002. He just had to manage 2.4 percent of his yardage from the first half to set the record.
But Kittle went silent in the second half. He was targeted once and committed a false start penalty. He started the half with 210 receiving yards and ended the game with 210 receiving yards.
There is only one explanation for this: Sharpe, who won two Super Bowls with the Broncos, called in a favor. He asked his old team to octuple-team Kittle for the second half, ensuring he wouldn’t pick up a measly 5 yards. They complied, keeping the ball out of Kittle’s hands and keeping the Broncos legend in the record books.
This offseason, the NFL adopted a highly technical, seemingly inconsequential rule change. The league decreed that plays where a ball carrier dives forward with the ball would be treated the same as plays where a ball carrier slides with the ball. In past, players who slid were considered down at the moment they slid, while players who dove were considered down at the moment their body stopped moving forward. Now, players who dive are considered down at the moment their body hits the ground, no matter how far they advance after their body hits the ground.
There’s an obvious safety component to this rule change. The fact players were allowed to advance after diving but not after sliding encouraged players to hurl their bodies head-first downfield.
The rule change went virtually unnoticed—until Sunday, when a touchdown by Jeff Driskel was overturned:
Driskel dove toward the end zone and got in without being touched, but because Driskel’s knee hit the ground in the field of play, he was considered down. The Bengals kicked a field goal instead of a touchdown and eventually lost by five. The game would’ve been much different if Cincinnati had the extra four points.
But there was a reason for the distinction. Sliding serves no purpose besides avoiding contact. The only reason a player could slide is if they are giving themselves up. However, diving is a legitimate way of extending one’s body downfield in hopes of getting first downs or touchdowns. Dives are thrilling plays where a player commits his everything to one desperate attempt to maximize his downfield progress. The NFL has neutered those moments.
What a ridiculous sport we love, where an untouched player’s knee hitting the ground means so many different things.
On Sunday, the best scoring offense in the league played the best scoring defense in the league. Baltimore played great, holding Patrick Mahomes and the Kansas City offense to just 24 points in regulation. For just the third time all year, Mahomes had a QB rating under 100. The Ravens and rookie QB Lamar Jackson even managed to take the Chiefs into overtime.
But ultimately, Baltimore lost, because Mahomes can do this:
Fourth down— Will Brinson (@WillBrinson) December 9, 2018
Across his body
Running in the opposite direction
Into heavy coverage
Directly on target
Patrick Mahomes is a cyborg sent from the future to destroy defensespic.twitter.com/uK2FULcu2r
What a great defensive play by the Ravens. Three of four rushing linemen burst past Kansas City’s offensive line, forcing Mahomes to sprint toward the sideline. On top of that, the defense downfield is nearly airtight, as Baltimore’s defenders stick with Kansas City’s four receivers for six or seven seconds.
Unfortunately, Mahomes makes magic happen. While sprinting to his right, he hurls the ball 35 yards downfield to his left, nailing a barely open Tyreek Hill between the numbers. Baltimore was nearly perfect, and Mahomes was better.
This is the second time this year the Chiefs have beaten the top-scoring defense in football—and the seventh time in eight matchups between the top offense and top defense that offense has won. Over the past 20 years, there have been six matchups between the top offense and top defense Week 10 or later, and the offense has now won five of them.
Bust out the takes. Great defense can be beautiful and vicious, but the talent of football’s elite passing attacks simply always wins these days.
On Sunday, the no. 1 defense in terms of DVOA played the no. 2 offense in DVOA and stomped the hell out of them. Chicago intercepted Jared Goff four times—he’d never thrown more than two in a game before—and sacked him three more times. It was the first time Goff completed fewer than 50 percent of his passes all season long.
This game was anti-football—the only touchdown of the night was scored by offensive lineman Bradley Sowell on a play with no running backs or wide receivers:
Bust out the takes: Elite offense can be beautiful and thrilling, but the talent of football’s most vicious defenses can shut them down.
Winner: Jerry Jones
I thought the Cowboys were dumb for trading a first-round pick for Amari Cooper. Cooper averaged under 50 yards per game last year and the six games he played this season in Oakland. He seemed fine, but nowhere near as good as he was in his first few years in the league—certainly not worth a first-round draft pick in a league where Golden Tate was traded for a third-rounder. It seemed like yet another mistake for Jerry Jones, who has repeatedly overpaid for top receivers on the trade market.
Sunday, Cooper justified the trade in one game. Cooper more or less single-handedly won Dallas a battle for first place in the NFC East. He had two fourth-quarter touchdowns, both of which gave Dallas a lead in a back-and-forth battle with Philadelphia. Here’s his 75-yarder:
Then, in overtime, Cooper snagged the game-winning score off a deflection.
Cooper became the first player in NFL history with three go-ahead touchdowns in the fourth quarter or later of the same game. He finished the day with 217 yards and three touchdowns. In six games for the Raiders this year, he had just 280 yards and one score. In his six games in Dallas, he has 642 yards and six touchdowns.
Dallas was 3-4 when Cooper played his first game for the team. Now it’s won five straight and is up a full two games for first place in the NFC East with just three games to go. A first-round pick is a high price to pay in today’s NFL, but I think anybody would trade a first-round pick for a playoff berth—and the acquisition of Cooper has allowed Dallas to turn its season around. Besides, the first-round pick Oakland will get for Cooper won’t be that great if the Cowboys play as well in the postseason as they’ve looked since getting Cooper.
Last year, the NFL made its funnest rule change in league history in allowing coordinated group celebrations. We love them. Everybody loves them. Now, the league has an official Twitter account celebrating the celebrations that were recently illegal. It almost seems ridiculous that for so long, the league tried to stop people from having fun.
Sunday, it became clear that the league will eventually roll back the funnest rule change in league history. The Eagles scored a touchdown and began some sort of choreographed celebration that involved sitting down in the end zone. We never quite got to see what it was, because the Cowboys interrupted, leading to some mild jostling between the two teams.
Now, I enjoy the development of embarrassed teams trying to save their embarrassment by breaking up a celebration. Guys, we know you just got dunked on. We’d know that with the celebration or without it. Keeping the other team from doing a little dance isn’t going to keep us from noticing you just got smoked. Now we know you’re bad at football and your widdle feewings are easily hurt.
However, this portends the end of the brief, beautiful era of celebrations. There’s really only one reason the league has an interest in banning celebrations, taunting, and the like—because sometimes, people who get taunted decide to fight the people taunting them. And fighting is bad.
We didn’t get a fight Sunday, but if teams keep attempting to block opposing celebrations, we will eventually. And the day a celebration leads to a fight, the NFL will remember why it tried to stop everybody from having fun in the first place.