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: Vontae Davis
They say that winners never quit and quitters never win. But you know who else never wins? The Buffalo Bills.
Cornerback Vontae Davis signed with the Bills this offseason. Davis is a two-time Pro Bowler, but his play has fallen off precipitously in the past few years—he ranked 83rd among qualifying corners last season, according to Pro Football Focus. But you don’t have to be particularly good to start for the Bills, a team that made the playoffs last year and promptly decided they’d rather be much worse at football.
Last week, the Bills lost 47-3 to the Ravens. (At one point, they were down 40-0.) This week, the Bills were down 28-6 to the Chargers at halftime—huge improvement! And at that point, Davis decided he’d had enough.
Lorenzo Alexander says he was told at start of second half that Vontae Davis quit and retired.— Mike Rodak (@mikerodak) September 16, 2018
He just left! He could’ve given the team two weeks’ notice, but then he woulda had to get whupped two more times, and that doesn’t sound fun. So he just got outta there. Took off his uniform, put on his regular clothes, and drove home.
Congrats to Davis. Poor Bills fans are forced to root for this unfortunate franchise, adding unnecessary sadness to their lives year after year after year. Davis just went home. Beat traffic, too.
It’s true that quitters never win. But at least Davis chose the non-winning option that doesn’t involve destroying his body for the sake of a hopeless team.
Loser: Jameis Winston
Last week Ryan Fitzpatrick had the best week of any quarterback in the NFL, throwing for 417 yards and four touchdowns, and running for a touchdown, too. Funny! Cute! But it was funny because it was Ryan Fitzpatrick, a backup quarterback famed for occasionally spinning Fitzmagic and occasionally spinning Fitztragic. (And for going to Harvard. I get fired if I don’t say he went to Harvard.) Surely, it was just an odd moment that would be forgotten in a few weeks when Jameis Winston’s suspension ended and he returned as Tampa Bay’s starter.
But there’s one thing weirder than an out-of-nowhere great Ryan Fitzpatrick performance: Ryan Fitzpatrick being consistent. And on Sunday, he was, going 27-for-33 for 402 yards and four touchdowns against the Eagles. The same Eagles that won the Super Bowl last year.
Fitzpatrick has been the second-best quarterback in the league this season (behind, of course, Patrick Mahomes II), and he has the Buccaneers at 2-0 after two games against teams that made the playoffs last year. Specifically, he’s been successful throwing the deep ball—an area in which Winston has struggled, and an area Tampa Bay really should be focusing on because it has speedster DeSean Jackson at wide receiver. Here’s how Jackson should be utilized:
Fitzpatrick came out for the postgame presser dressed like this:
Ryan Fitzpatrick’s postgame look: pic.twitter.com/4qkRyu7l7X— Greg Auman (@gregauman) September 16, 2018
Backups don’t dress like this. Superstars and coke dealers dress like this. I don’t think Fitzpatrick is the second, but after watching football the past two weeks, I think he might be the first.
Once Week 4 rolls around, the easy call for Tampa Bay should be to roll with Winston. He’s the franchise player, his last season was his best despite the team’s dismal record, and his on-field play is probably more consistent than Fitzpatrick, who has high highs and low lows. But after Fitzpatrick’s spectacular two weeks, Tampa Bay has to be at least wondering whether it should bench its franchise player for a backup, and that’s not good for Winston.
Winner: Dan Bailey
Before the season, the Cowboys made the interesting decision to cut Bailey, the second-most-accurate kicker in NFL history, for Brett Maher, a dude who made the CFL all-star team as a punter. Just wait until you see all the rouges Dallas is going to score this year.
That left Bailey—again, the second-most-accurate kicker in the history of the league—unemployed. He probably could have signed with a team the day he was cut—reportedly, he has turned down four offers to play. Instead, he has sat and waited.
That patience is going to pay off, as half of the league has learned that they absolutely hate their massively untrustworthy kickers. Sunday was just about the worst day in kicking history, as 19 kicks were missed (12 field goals, seven extra points). That’s not the record for most missed kicks in a single day, but a lot of Sunday’s were dramatic. Browns kicker Zane Gonzalez missed two extra points and two field goals. One of the extra points would have given the Browns a 19-18 lead; one of the field goals would have tied the game at 21. They lost, 21-18:
Last week, he missed a potential game-winner. The Browns are 0-1-1 and could be 2-0 if not for Gonzalez. The Browns!
Rookie kicker Daniel Carlson missed two overtime kicks in Minnesota’s 29-29 tie against the Packers. (Mason Crosby of the Packers also missed a potential game-winner at the end of regulation, but, well, he went 5-for-6 on the day, and Carlson went 0-for-3, so I’d say Carlson had a worse day.)
Elsewhere, Raiders kicker Mike Nugent had an extra point blocked in a game the Raiders lost by a point.
The price is going up for Dan Bailey. Every week, multiple teams learn that their subpar kicker is costing them actual football games. If Bailey waits until like Week 8, he can get Aaron Rodgers money.
Loser: Bill Belichick
Belichick has won five Super Bowls. I finish in the bottom half of fantasy leagues in which I am the only member whose job it is to write about football. I probably don’t have the credentials to criticize him, ever. But allow me to do so. Typically Belichick has a knack for finding moments in games when he can take advantage of peculiar circumstances.
Toward the end of the third quarter, the Patriots scored a touchdown to cut Jacksonville’s lead to 24-10. The Jags additionally got called for an unnecessary roughness penalty after the touchdown, moving the kickoff to the 50-yard line. I would have called for an onside kick from the 50, giving my team the opportunity to grab the ball with the risk that the opponent would get the ball at roughly the 40-yard line. Instead, Belichick asked kicker Stephen Gostkowski to boot the ball out of the end zone, putting it at the 25-yard line. To save 15 yards, Belichick passed up an opportunity to steal a possession.
Then, with eight minutes to go and a 24-13 deficit, a surprising review overturned a Patriots first down, instead giving the Pats a fourth-and-inches. With the clock ticking and needing two scores, the Pats probably should have trusted themselves to get those few inches. Instead, they punted—and worse, failed to snap the ball when the Jaguars jumped offside before the snap.
It’s unusual to see Belichick coach so passively and unwisely. Maybe he’ll make another coaching error after his next five Super Bowl wins.
Winner: Keelan Cole
Cole wasn’t just undrafted—he was undrafted out of a Division II school: Kentucky Wesleyan, a college that doesn’t have a rich history of producing NFL players. And he didn’t just go to a Division II school without a rich history of producing NFL players—his own coach said he was not a “top recruit” and he received a nominal scholarship. And I think he just had the best NFL catch since Odell Beckham Jr.’s famous one-handed grab in 2014.
But he didn’t just snag a football by its point with his dang fingers while falling over. He also scored a touchdown right afterward, nonchalantly tossed the ball into the crowd, and left the playing field. He has one of the least-likely roads to the league of any player in the game, and he’s no-selling touchdowns against the dang Patriots. Learn Keelan Cole’s name, and love him. After all, he’s the best receiver on a team that was a game from the Super Bowl last year and just beat the team that kept them from making it.
Loser: NFL Overtime
Just over 6 percent of NFL games this year have ended in a tie. Week 1’s Browns-Steelers was a tie, a beautiful amalgam of failure that ended with both teams missing game-winning field goals and being disappointed. On Sunday, Vikings-Packers ended in a tie, again with both teams missing game-winning field goals and being disappointed. Well, disappointed or surprised:
I asked #Vikings RB Dalvin Cook about the tie Sunday and he wasn't too familiar with ties. "I actually didn't even know what was going until I saw Coach Zimmer walk to the middle of the field, and then they said it was a tie.''— Chris Tomasson (@christomasson) September 17, 2018
It’s the first time there has been a tie in both of the first two weeks of the NFL season since 1971. But a lot has changed since 1971, and the NFL instituted overtime in the regular season primarily to avoid ties. It worked: In between the formal introduction of OT in 1974 and 2012, there were just 18 tied games, roughly one every two seasons.
But something weird has happened: In the past few years, the league has instituted a series of rules to make ties more likely. In 2012, the league instituted the “modified sudden death” rules that require two full minutes of explanation from officials at the beginning of every OT. This way, a field goal at the start of overtime would not end a game, giving the opponent an opportunity to retie the game. There were four ties between 2013 and 2016—one a year.
And last year, the league shortened overtime from 15 minutes to 10. There were no ties in 2017, but now, we’ve got two in two weeks. We don’t know whether an extra five minutes of football would have untied things, but there’s no way to argue less time doesn’t lead to more ties.
The uptick in ties is not a weird quirk. It is a direct effect of the NFL’s odd choice to institute rules that make ties more likely. There’s an easy solution here—the college overtime rules, which eliminate punts, ties, and lead to quick, exciting finishes. The league probably will never adopt those rules, though, because it likes to feel superior to the amateur product. Each tie is a product of that snobby stubbornness.
The NFL had basically invented a tie vaccine. But just like how jerk parents who think they’re smarter than scientists are trying their best to ensure measles make a comeback, the league has decided to bring back a bad thing we thought was gone.
Winner: The Sick Bastards Who Enjoy Watching Giants-Cowboys Games
Someone has decided that we love watching the Giants play the Cowboys. The two teams got to play on Sunday Night Football Week 1 of last season; Week 1 of the 2015 season; Week 1 of the 2013 season; and a special Wednesday night season-opening game Week 1 of the 2012 season. This in spite of the fact the two teams have combined for just three playoff appearances and a record of roughly .500 since 2012.
But there is a reason we are shown these games: We watch them. Giants-Cowboys was the fifth-highest-rated regular-season game of last season (more highly rated than six of the seven games in the 2017 World Series, four of the five games in the NBA Finals, and every college basketball game) and the fifth-highest-rated game of the 2016 season. And yet, the games suck—the 2017 edition was a 19-3 snoozer; the final score in 2016 was 20-19. I presume the league puts these games early in the season so we don’t know how bad the teams are.
And so, the Giants and Cowboys got to play on Sunday Night Football again Week 2, even though the Patriots and Jaguars were also playing in a rematch of the 2017 AFC championship game and the Packers were playing the Vikings. And, well, it sucked. The Giants punted on every one of their first-half possessions, and the Cowboys went up 20-3 before a Giants touchdown in garbage time. A national audience got to see firsthand how the Giants are wasting Odell Beckham Jr. and Saquon Barkley, and we all got to sleep a little bit earlier instead of spending the last hours of a dying weekend freaking out over a spectacular finish between good teams.
Somewhere, there are people who preferred this slog to better games because of the names of the teams involved. I hope they enjoyed it, and I curse them for next year’s inevitable Week 2 prime-time Giants-Cowboys snoozer.
Loser: Josh Rosen
The Cardinals have scored zero meaningful points this season. They had a garbage-time touchdown against Washington in Week 1, a David Johnson rush that cut a 24-0 lead to 24-6. (They failed a two-point conversion, hilariously attempted under the premise that they would score two more touchdowns and convert two two-point conversions in the final six minutes of that dismal game.) They had no such luck on Sunday, getting shut out by the Rams. Their best garbage-time accomplishment was crossing midfield for the first time, accomplished on their second-to-last play of the game. And through all this, the Cardinals kept playing Sam Bradford at quarterback.
The Cardinals are in a two-team fight with the Bills to have the worst offense in the league, and they’re winning it right now. The only difference between the two is that after one week, the Bills realized their best option was to play their rookie quarterback, Josh Allen, to get him game reps and experience. The Cardinals left theirs—the other Josh, Josh Rosen—on the sideline even as the game got well out of hand.
Look at that yawn! My dog yawns this widely, and I try to stick my finger inside of her mouth when she does. There were no Cardinals present to poke Rosen’s yawn.
There’s no good reason for Arizona to keep moving forward with Bradford. He’s not the future, and he sucks in the present. Young quarterbacks need reps, and there’s a possibility that Rosen will get so bored with the Cardinals’ blowouts from the bench that he loses interest in the sport.
Winner: Blaine Gabbert
It sure seemed like Blaine Gabbert did something very stupid. He threw a pass, which was deflected, and he caught it—somehow, Titans quarterbacks are very good at this odd skill. But unlike Marcus Mariota, he didn’t score a touchdown after catching his own pass. He was well behind the line of scrimmage and would have been tackled for an enormous loss. In his frenzied scramble to avoid a huge loss, he threw another pass—an obvious penalty, since as we all know, you can throw only one pass per play.
This was a moment to be memed, a player forgetting one of the most basic rules of football. Why didn’t he knock the ball down instead of catching it and costing his team a penalty?
But as it turns out, Gabbert’s decision wasn’t bad for the Titans. If his first pass had fallen to the turf, Tennessee would have faced third-and-7. Instead, the Texans accepted the penalty—costing the Titans 5 yards but giving them back a down. On second-and-12, the Titans gained 18 yards, setting up a game-winning field goal.
As officiating blog Football Zebras notes, this is probably a bad rule that should be changed—an intentional second throw on a play should result in a loss of down, like an intentional grounding penalty or a pass illegally thrown past the line of scrimmage. But for now, it’s on the books, allowing Gabbert to pull off one of the dumbest and smartest plays of the year.
Loser: Completion Percentage
Congrats to Derek Carr, holder of a new NFL record! Carr went 29-for-32 passing, becoming the first quarterback in league history to complete 90 percent of his passes on over 27 attempts. The Raiders also had no turnovers to cap an incredibly efficient game.
But while Carr threw a lot of passes that were caught, and the Raiders had zero turnovers, the Raiders didn’t actually do that well offensively. They had only two plays of more than 20 yards, and got into the red zone only twice. And they lost, 20-19, to the Broncos, whose quarterback went 19-for-35 with no passing touchdowns and an interception. Congrats to Derek Carr on his new record and his L.