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: Aaron Rodgers
The moment I knew Aaron Rodgers was going to beat the Bears came, oddly, after a Chicago score.
The Bears led 20–17 with under three minutes to go. The Packers had to get a stop, then Rodgers would have the ball and the chance to drive for a game-tying field goal or a game-winning touchdown. But Chicago decided to limit his options. They kicked a field goal to make the score 23–17, meaning Rodgers would be playing for all or nothing.
This was Aaron Rodgers. He chose all.
Rodgers suffered what appeared to be a knee injury in the first half of Green Bay’s season opener against the Bears, Week 1’s marquee Sunday Night Football matchup. It wasn’t what national fans wanted to see, because, hell, we tuned in to the game to see Rodgers. It especially wasn’t what Green Bay fans wanted to see: When Rodgers missed nine games last year, a team that had gone to the NFC championship game the season before went 3–6.
After Rodgers was carted off the field, the Packers fell into a 17–0 hole. DeShone Kizer, who quarterbacked last year’s 0–16 Browns, replaced Rodgers and looked like the quarterback for an 0–16 team, losing a fumble in the red zone and tossing a pick-six. Rodgers was listed as “questionable” to return, but it seemed foolish to potentially bring him back to the game: Green Bay was down three scores, and Rodgers is the Packers’ entire franchise, the highest-paid player in the history of the sport. Why risk reaggravating the injury?
But Rodgers knew why he had to come back. To the rest of us, three-score deficits seem daunting. To Rodgers — the Hail Mary hitter, the comeback king — there is no such thing as a lost cause. Hobbling and hopping on his one good leg, he threw three touchdowns in the fourth quarter. Rodgers is now responsible for half of the 20-point comebacks in the NFL over the past four seasons. It was the second-greatest one-legged performance in Packers history.
Last year, we saw first-hand that Rodgers is Green Bay’s everything. Sunday night was a crash course, that whole season in a microcosm, but with a better ending this time. We saw how brutal life could be without Aaron Rodgers, and then we saw how magnificent he makes his team, and this game.
Football is back, which is great as it is. But there’s generic football, and then there are the masterpieces put forth by the game’s legends when they’re playing at their best. Rodgers is one of those legends, the most talented quarterback in the history of the game. I’m glad he’s back, especially after briefly considering a few more months without him.
Loser: Jon Gruden
The $100 Million Coach has yet to make his debut with the Raiders — they’ll play Monday night. But Gruden’s tenure in charge of Oaklasvegas already seems disastrous after Sunday night’s game between the Bears and Packers. Gruden’s team made the questionable decision to trade its best player before the season, dealing Khalil Mack to the Bears last week. Now, Mack is the best player on the Bears.
First, Mack sacked Packers QB DeShone Kizer and took the ball for himself:
Khalil Mack takes what he wants!— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) September 10, 2018
( NBC, 8:20pm ET)pic.twitter.com/i95v1lc3gb
Then, Mack intercepted a pass and returned it for a touchdown:
WE SAID, KHALIL MACK TAKES WHAT HE WANTS!— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) September 10, 2018
( NBC, 8:20pm ET)pic.twitter.com/cJt0BS9urj
[Extreme Jon Gruden voice.] Now HERE’S a guy you really want on your football team. Now, I call this guy The Embargo, because when I see him, I think you cannot trade him. (I gotta get all these Gruden impressions while I can — people might forget his commentating quirks because the Raiders are paying him to coach their team for the next 47 years.)
Maybe you wondered how Mack would play after such a short time with his new team. How could he play without knowing the plays in the playbook or his role on the team? As it turns out, with players as good as Mack, the details don’t matter. You just give them whatever amount of cash it takes to keep them on your team and let them do what they do best — in Mack’s case, that’s stealing the soul of everybody he sees in the other team’s colors. Gruden got caught up in the details.
Winner: Everybody involved in Browns-Steelers (except, of course, the Browns and Steelers)
Sunday of Week 1 is one of the most beautiful days of the year. You can go to your happy place — maybe it’s a tailgate, maybe it’s a sports bar, maybe it’s your couch — and park yourself there all day, reveling in the return of the good sport.
Then, over the course of three hours, you realize your fantasy team sucks, your actual team sucks, too, and a player you love just suffered a brutal injury. By the end of the day, you remember that the NFL might actually be the bad sport. A football season is something awful, a five-month demolition derby for the bodies and brains of very talented people that somehow always ends with the freaking Patriots in the Super Bowl. But it’s something awful we love deeply, and wouldn’t trade for anything else.
Nothing could sum up the joy and horror of Week 1 like Browns-Steelers, a game between a team that went 0–16 last year and a Super Bowl contender. It was the first Week 1 game to result in a tie since the league introduced overtimes in 1974. Both teams attempted game-winning field goals in overtime; both teams missed.
You can’t be anymore Cleveland Browns than this missed field goal... pic.twitter.com/ZKVTE8Sfug— Brian Moote (@MootePoints) September 9, 2018
Something wonderful happened to the Steelers. The majority of the talk this preseason surrounded the holdout of Le’Veon Bell, perhaps the best running back in the sport. But the team didn’t necessarily miss him, as backup James Conner had 192 yards from scrimmage (135 rushing, 57 receiving) and two touchdowns. It should be noted that Conner isn’t just any backup — he’s a hometown hero, having played football at Pitt, and, oh yeah, a cancer survivor, having beaten Hodgkin’s lymphoma as a junior in college. Maybe Bell could have done better, maybe not. Regardless, Conner played a game that could make all of Pittsburgh smile.
And then there’s the bad stuff. Ben Roethlisberger threw three interceptions and lost two fumbles. The Steelers’ hope is that Roethlisberger can still be the hub of a dynamic, high-powered passing game. Instead, he looked like a 36-year-old on his way out of the sport. The Steelers were 31–5 against the Browns this millennium. Now they are 31–5–1. “It feels like a loss,” defensive end Cam Heyward said.
Something wonderful happened to the Browns. They’ve been awful on the field the past few years — or maybe forever — but that’s allowed them to amass a ton of young stars through high draft picks, and those players looked amazing Sunday. Denzel Ward, the fourth pick in April’s NFL draft, had two of the three interceptions in his first pro game.
Two picks in two quarters.— Eleven Warriors (@11W) September 9, 2018
Not a bad start for Denzel Ward.pic.twitter.com/1yprrrH5n2
And Myles Garrett, the no. 1 pick in the 2017 draft, was a terror, with two sacks and two forced fumbles.
Myles Garrett strip sack on following drive... pic.twitter.com/dW6Zp6rU42— Matt Waldman (@MattWaldman) September 9, 2018
The Browns opened their season by not losing. But of course, they did not win, raising a question so improbable I’d never even thought to wonder. Would a winless team be happy with a tie?
The answer is no.
Joel Bitonio: "It feels like a loss." Myles Garrett (shown): "It doesn't feel like a win." Life after a season opening tie. pic.twitter.com/BnbHhOC40M— PatMcManamon (@PatMcManamon) September 9, 2018
#Browns DB Damarious Randall as he walked off the field, “Five turnovers for a tie? A tie?!”— Aditi Kinkhabwala (@AKinkhabwala) September 9, 2018
At 0–0–1, the Browns are off to their best start since 2004.
It was the ultimate dissatisfaction. The Steelers feel dumb because they were a field goal away from winning, and failed to beat an 0–16 team. The Browns feel dumb because they were a field goal away from winning, and still have yet to taste victory. But at the same time, everybody has to be happy. Because football is back, in all of its weird, wonderful glory. Even when it sucks, it is oddly beautiful.
Loser: The Offseason Gods, who tried to take football from us
There was a lot of lightning in Miami on Sunday. This was problematic, because the Dolphins and Titans were trying to play a football game. And when there’s lightning, everybody has to get off the field. (Idea no. 1: Goalposts that work like lightning rods so we don’t have to quit football games whenever lightning happens. Plus, cool goalpost lightning.) (Idea no. 2: Football roofs.) (Holy shit, how come it costs like $120 million for stadiums to add roofs? Idea no. 3: Football roofs that do not cost $120 million.)
Anyway, the Titans and Dolphins kicked off at 1 p.m. ET. In the second quarter, lightning struck near the stadium, forcing the teams to abandon the game for an hour and 57 minutes. The teams returned to the field and agreed to skip halftime, because they had just sat in their locker rooms for two hours. But in the third quarter, about 45 minutes after returning to the field, lightning struck again, and the teams went back to the locker room for an additional two hours and two minutes.
After three hours and 59 minutes of rain delays, the teams resumed play and finished the game, a 27–20 Miami win. All things told, the game took seven hours and eight minutes to complete, the longest game in the history of the NFL, shattering the previous record by almost two full hours. It was an odd finish — Fox claimed that it had to take some of the cameras down due to the lightning, leading to a strangely produced game, and almost all the fans had gone (although the ones who stayed were, thankfully, allowed to move down to the best seats) — but it was a finish.
Clearly, the Offseason Gods are angry at the onset of football, and are trying to claim one of our September Sundays as their own. Well, listen up, Offseason Gods. You can throw as many lightning bolts at our games as you want. We will not abandon them, not even if it’s one of the crappiest games between two of our crappiest teams. You get seven months of offseason. We get five of football. We will fight for them. You will pry our NFL Sundays from our cold, dead hands. Or, maybe our cold, dead feet — I’m holding the remote with one hand and my other hand is covered in wing sauce.
Winner: The Legend of Fitzmagic
Oddsmakers considered the New Orleans Saints, 9.5-point favorites, the team most likely to win Week 1. After going 11–5 last year (and coming a damn miracle away from the NFC championship game), some had the Saints as Super Bowl contenders. They were playing at home, and facing a Buccaneers team that went 5–11 last year and was without their franchise quarterback, Jameis Winston, who is suspended until Week 4.
But the Saints didn’t account for RYAN FITZPATRICK:
The Saints assumed they were playing against a backup; instead, they had to face off with a legend. Fitzpatrick was 21-for-28 for 417 yards, with four touchdowns and no interceptions. He just barely missed out on a perfect QB rating. He was a dual threat, running for 36 yards (including that truck of a rushing TD). And hell yeah, he aired the ball out, with two 50-plus-yard touchdowns:
Ryan Fitzpatrick to DeSean Jackson for the 58-yard TOUCHDOWN pic.twitter.com/IgJtp1Lfq9— FlurrySports (@FlurrySports) September 9, 2018
You never know what you’ll get with Ryan Fitzpatrick. 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.
Fitzpatrick will turn 36 this season. This is not the beginning of a new era in which he is one of the league’s best quarterbacks. He’s the same as he’s always been: completely unpredictable. (Which might be a step up from Winston, who has been predictable and bad.)
Loser: The Bills, all of them
The Buffalo Bills made the playoffs last year. It really happened, the end of a 17-year playoff drought. It was cool. It came at the expense of the Ravens, whose Week 17 loss last year kept them out of the postseason and made Andy Dalton a Buffalo legend.
The Bills responded to their playoff berth by taking all of the good players on their team, throwing them into Lake Erie, and replacing them with bad players. (My suspicion is that their plan is to suck for the rest of eternity to highlight the specialness of the 2017 season that ended the playoff drought.) The Ravens apparently responded to their playoff snub by vowing to destroy those responsible. I think they spent the past months performing voodoo on a Sean McDermott doll and punching mannequins with Nathan Peterman’s face on it.
To be fair, it wasn’t that hard to make Nathan Peterman play badly.
The Nathan Peterman experience, everyone pic.twitter.com/zKDmVZRhGv— Sung Min Kim (@sung_minkim) September 9, 2018
The Ravens won 47–3, the largest margin of victory by any team in any game since 2014. It could’ve been worse, but Baltimore pulled its starters after taking a 40–0 lead with more than 26 minutes remaining in the game. It felt like a college game between a powerhouse and a cupcake, where Alabama beats East Fartsville by 70 and the two coaches agree to play with a running clock in the final quarter to end the humiliation, except all the players get paychecks.
Nothing was expected from this Bills season, and yet the Ravens have already ruined it. Buffalo’s plan was to play Peterman at quarterback until rookie Josh Allen was ready, but Peterman was so unbelievably awful against the Ravens — 5-for-18 for 24 yards with two interceptions and a passer rating of 0.0, the first quarterback to post a 0.0 in a game they started since 2015. It’s hard to imagine the Bills can stick to playing Peterman and tell people the plan is to win games. Maybe the plan really is to suck so hard 2017 looks great.
Winner: The NFL’s new ejection rule
Week 1 is when all the new NFL rules go from hypotheticals in a league-issued PDF to actual decisions in games. The most prominent new rule this year has to do with helmet usage. If a player initiates contact with his helmet, he is subject not only to a penalty but also to potential ejection if the NFL’s replay-review office believes the hit was avoidable.
The rule came into play quickly in Week 1, as Bengals safety Shawn Williams was ejected in the first quarter of the first slate of Sunday games for a hit on Andrew Luck. Typically, when a new rule comes into play, it’s controversial, especially when it comes to player safety rules. But nobody can complain about an ejection for this hit:
Williams made a beeline to launch his helmet into the helmet of a player who was already being tackled. Even a hardline fan of old-school football can look at this hit and say “Yeah, that was unnecessary.”
If the first NFL player ejected under the new helmet rule was kicked out over a 50–50 hit, there would have been controversy. A rule that will make the game better would have been portrayed as a rule that will make the game softer. Luckily, this hit was total garbage and a critical player-safety rule enters the league with a layer of legitimacy.
Loser: The NFL’s other new safety rule
So the NFL got something right. Don’t worry! They also got something wrong!
After last year’s injury to Aaron Rodgers, the league decided to place emphasis on an often-ignored part of the roughing-the-passer rule that stipulates a tackler cannot “land on the passer with all or most of his body weight.” Thanks to this new emphasis, officials threw flags on several plays that just looked like regular tackles. The Steelers got a touchdown because this third-down sack by Myles Garrett was ruled to be roughing the passer:
Roughing the passer call on Myles Garrett. Landed on Roethlisberger with his body weight. A fourth down stop turned into a touchdown the very next play. pic.twitter.com/fHGgRYTWSP— Ollie Connolly (@OllieConnolly) September 9, 2018
And Carlos Dunlap was flagged for this:
"roughing the passer"— paco (@AllaireMatt) September 9, 2018
I would understand a rule that penalized players for intentionally driving opposing players into the ground at the end of hits. But these plays don’t seem particularly dangerous, aside from the fact football itself is wildly dangerous and human bodies should not be subjected to it. It looks like Dunlap tries to get his body off of Andrew Luck’s as quickly as he can. How can that be a penalty? What was Dunlap supposed to do after he started to drag Luck down? Evaporate?
Hopefully, officials deemphasize the body-weight rule as the season goes on. If not, NFL teams should start looking for defensive ends who are weightless or who can spontaneously vanish.
Winner: Old-timey football
The Chicago Bears have a fight song — “Bear Down, Chicago Bears” — that was written back when people thought it was normal for NFL teams to have fight songs. It was written so long ago that it contains the following lyric: “We’ll never forget the way you thrilled the nation with your T formation,” a reference to the formation the team used in its 73–0 win over Washington in the 1940 NFL championship game. In the subsequent 78 years, basically everybody has forgotten the way the Bears thrilled the nation with their T formation.
But not, apparently, Bears coach Matt Nagy, who made sure the first play of his Bears tenure was run out of the Pleistocene-era setup:
Walter Camp invented the T Formation in 1882.— Danny Schaechter (@CoachDShack) September 10, 2018
Chris Collinsworth called it creative In 2018. pic.twitter.com/ws69bPJ20U
Hilariously, Cris Collinsworth called the formation “a brand-new look,” even though the T is one of the oldest formations in football and has been considered obsolete since wide receivers were invented.
But this wasn’t the only throwback play used Sunday. Look at the Chiefs taking their new rocket-armed gunslinger, Patrick Mahomes II, and letting him run a play out of the triple option like he’s quarterbacking 1964 Army.
The Panthers have run triple-option looks on occasion over the past few years, and they also ran out of the triple option Sunday:
Here’s the thing, though: While the triple option might seem like a football strategy from another level or era, usage of its core concepts in the pros can be effective. The strategy might be old, but its NFL usage is innovative.
The T formation, though … that might not be the next big NFL trend.
Loser: Cowboys kicker who isn’t Dan Bailey
The Cowboys made one of the more surprising cuts of the NFL preseason when they decided to release kicker Dan Bailey, the second-most-accurate kicker in NFL history. They cut him in favor of Brett Maher, who graduated from Nebraska in 2013 and has failed to make a roster in each of the five seasons since. He did play in the CFL, making last year’s CFL East All-Star team … as a punter. Last year, he tried to make the Browns but got cut in favor of Zane Gonzalez, who was 29th in the league in accuracy.
Maher made his NFL debut Sunday. He got to attempt one field goal. He missed it. Bailey had declined in recent years, and Maher’s field goal was a 47-yarder, which isn’t exactly a chip shot.
But Maher’s Cowboys career will be an attempt not to be thought of as The Guy Who Isn’t Dan Bailey. He’s also missing on that attempt.
Winner: The hard count
You know that thing NFL teams do where it’s, like, fourth-and-3, and the coach sends his offense out onto the field, and everybody gets excited because holy crap they’re going for it!, and then the play clock ticks down, and the quarterback yells stuff, but nothing happens, and then you quickly realize that the whole thing was just a bluff to draw the opponent offside, and eventually the team calls timeout and punts? You know that thing? You know how it never ever works?
I’ve tried to research this, which is really hard, because most of the time this sequence shows up in the box score as nothing besides the winning team taking a timeout. If I had to wager a guess, I’d say that all-time, teams are 0-for-150,000 attempting this gambit. But teams keep trying it because there’s no risk (literally — you’re not even running a play) and a chance at a reward.
Make it 1-for-150,001.
The 49ers’ Solomon Thomas jumped into the neutral zone with one second left on the play clock — normally not a bad gamble, because when the offense actually wants to run a play, they need to snap it with one second on the play clock. But the Vikings never intended to run a play at all.
Congratulations to Minnesota for pulling this off. Unfortunately, now that this has worked once, teams will continue doing it forever, wasting everybody’s time over and over again.