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 Upright
Somewhere along the line, Cody Parkey did something to anger metal poles. There is no other explanation for the way metal poles have personally sought to destroy him, ruining his season and smashing the hopes and dreams of an entire team and its fan base as collateral damage.
Last month, Parkey did something that seems impossible: He kicked two field goals and two extra points off of the 4-inch-wide uprights, making him either the greatest trick-shot kicker of all time or the least lucky kicker of all time. How could he repeatedly hit this object roughly one-third the length of a football from 150 feet away? Missing four kicks in one game has been done before and will be done again. Hitting the upright four times in one game? Seems impossible.
The four-upright game was just a fluke, and not a particularly meaningful one. Chicago won that game 34-22. Parkey went 10-of-12 on field goals and 12-of-13 on extra points from the four-upright game until the end of the season and hit his first three field goals in Sunday’s wild-card playoff game. When Chicago asked Parkey to hit a 43-yarder to win the game, it had reason to believe things would go well.
But the metal pole believed that Parkey still had debts to pay.
He double-doinked it. The potential game-winner went off the upright, fell straight down, hit the crossbar, and then bounced out, and Bears lost 16-15. It seemed impossible that Parkey could pull off a more outrageous upright-related stunt than hitting the uprights four times in one game. Then, on the biggest kick of his life, he hit the metal poles twice on one kick.
For three years, every Bears fan I know has screamed that the team made a massive mistake by cutting former kicker Robbie Gould. Sunday, Parkey missed a kick that ended the best season Chicago has had in years.
It appears that Philadelphia’s Treyvon Hester may have tipped the kick. But how do poor Cody’s kicks keep finding metal? Does somebody secretly give him kicking balls filled with magnets that get pulled toward the upright? I’ve always argued that hitting the upright should be worth points—after all, it’s significantly harder to do!—and in that world, Parkey would be a hero. Sadly, he lives in this world, and his miracle moments are catastrophic failures.
The Bears were trailing 16-15 because Unstoppable Playoff God Nick Foles threw a go-ahead touchdown with under two minutes to go.
The guy who plays quarterback for the Eagles in December, January, and February is not Nick Foles. Nick Foles is an average-to-subpar quarterback. This is Large Appendage Nick, and he cannot lose. (I can’t use his other nickname—there are kids reading this.) (Hey, kids—please stop reading this.)
The Bears did not have to play Large Appendage Nick! If they lost in Week 17, they would have played the Vikings instead of the Eagles. I’m pretty confident the Bears could have beaten the Vikings because … well, last week the Bears played the Vikings and kicked the living crap out of them. There was a point while Chicago was throttling the life out of Minnesota where the Bears should have said, “Hey, this team isn’t very good—maybe we should lose this game so we can get a playoff matchup against this team?” Instead they had the hubris to believe that winning would help them win in the postseason and played their starters for all 60 minutes of a game they should have lost.
Chicago had a great season this year, going 12-4. Because Chicago was so recently in the dumps—the team finished dead last in the NFC North four years in a row before this season—one might believe that this season was just the beginning for a Bears team building around young quarterback Mitchell Trubisky. I’m not so sure that’s the case: Chicago dealt away a slew of high draft picks to get Khalil Mack, and high draft picks are the main way teams improve. Without new draft picks, the Bears will get older and more expensive. This year may have been their best chance, and the Bears missed an opportunity to face the most favorable opponent in the first round of the playoffs. They were fools, and fools lose to Foles.
Winner: Staley, the Chicago Bear
How we act in our darkest moments defines our character. And today I must praise the character of the Chicago Bears mascot, Staley Da Bear. (Yes, his name is Staley Da Bear and not Staley the Bear, because that is how people from Chicago like to think people from Chicago talk.) Here is how SDB reacted to Parkey’s missed kick:
Bear down, Chicago Bears.
There is a person inside the Staley Da Bear costume, and they deserve a raise. Other teams should try to hire them. Because at the most devastating moment of Chicago’s season, they had the perfect reaction. They lost all control of their limbs, letting gravity take their body wherever it would go, as if the missed field goal had caused them to stop caring what happened to their body. For a second, while watching this, you really believe that you’re watching an anthropomorphic bear whose sole purpose in life is to support the Chicago Bears, and not a person in a costume pretending to be an anthropomorphic bear whose sole purpose in life is to support the Chicago Bears. The Bears’ season may be over, but Staley put in his finest performance ever.
Winner: The Chargers’ Adjustments
Lamar Jackson and the Ravens coaching staff saved Baltimore’s season by creating a run-heavy spread-option offense that nobody else in the league could run. After Jackson became the team’s starter, the Ravens transformed into the most run-heavy team in decades and became unstoppable, winning six of their final seven games to win the AFC North. They even steamrolled the Chargers in Week 16, handing Los Angeles one of its four losses this season. What would it take to stymie such a unique offense?
It turned out, a unique defense:
Chargers utilized 7 defensive backs on 58 of their 59 defensive snaps Sunday, per NFL Next Gen Stats. They used 7 defensive backs 50 times in the regular season, which accounted for just 5% of their snaps. No team had used 7 DBs on more than 18 snaps in a game this season.— Adam Schefter (@AdamSchefter) January 6, 2019
The Chargers essentially swapped out their linebackers for safeties. Normally, a package with seven defensive backs would be an extreme solution to stop an obvious passing situation, but the Chargers employed it to stop Baltimore’s horizontal running attack. The additional speed brought by defensive backs allowed the Chargers to haunt Jackson and his running backs from sideline to sideline.
It worked. The Ravens had at least 159 rushing yards in every game from the time he became Baltimore’s full-time starter and had 200 yards in five of seven games. Sunday, they had just 90 yards, averaging a dismal 3.9 yards per carry. Jackson had by far the worst game of his career and had negative passing yardage into the fourth quarter. The Chargers sacked him seven times and won the game with a forced fumble:
The Ravens’ offensive approach was innovative, but the Chargers are moving on to the next round because they came up with an innovative defensive approach to stop it.
Loser: Offensive Coordinators Who Don’t Trust Their QBs
Russell Wilson and Lamar Jackson are professional quarterbacks. They are good at throwing footballs. They are dynamic athletes as well—a trait that should open up new possibilities for plays they can execute. Instead, poor strategic decisions by their coaching staffs limited them in a pair of frustrating losses.
The Seahawks’ offensive coordinator is Brian Schottenheimer, who—and I cannot stress this enough—has literally never had a non-disappointing tenure as a coach. He was quarterbacks coach during the only bad years of Drew Brees’s legendary career, with the Chargers. He served as OC during the Mark Sanchez era with the Jets, for several subpar Jeff Fisher offenses with the Rams, and during a year bad enough to get Mark Richt fired from Georgia, and he was quarterbacks coach for last year’s 30th-ranked Colts offense.
Saturday, he called one of the strangest games in recent memory. Despite the fact Wilson had a great passing game, and despite the fact the Seahawks got next to nothing on the ground, Schottenheimer insisted on running rather than passing. Of the Seahawks’ 12 drives, four were three-and-outs where Schottenheimer called two runs and a pass.
When Wilson did get to pass, he was exceptional:
By my count, Russell Wilson was 10-of-11 for 114 yards on play-action tonight https://t.co/JOmN0AGb0P— Bill Barnwell (@billbarnwell) January 6, 2019
Russell Wilson on passes that traveled at least 15 yards downfield against DAL:— Ben Baldwin (@benbbaldwin) January 6, 2019
7 attempts, 5 completions, 23.7 yards/attempt, 1.34 EPA/attempt
Schottenheimer just opted not to pass, and the Seahawks ended up with a run-pass split that suggested they were comfortably ahead for most of the game, in spite of the fact they were actually trailing. When the game was out of hand, Schottenheimer finally let Wilson throw, and he led a six-play, 75-yard touchdown drive.
I genuinely think the Ravens did a great job with Jackson this season, creating a spread-option offense designed to accentuate his talents. It got them into the playoffs. My one complaint was that Baltimore didn’t adopt that strategy earlier, instead spending most of the year with Joe Flacco at starting QB and bringing in Jackson only as a non-throwing quarterback on gadget plays. (I screamed “LET LAMAR THROW” a lot.) Sunday, the Ravens went back to refusing to let Jackson throw. Before they got the ball back down 20-3 in the fourth quarter, Jackson had thrown the ball only nine times. Jackson’s not one of the league’s best passers, but he’s good enough to be effective, and the Ravens were getting absolutely skunked. They had no chance of winning with their run-heavy attack, but they stuck with it. Then, when the game was out of hand, the Ravens finally let Jackson throw, and he led 75- and 80-yard touchdown drives. LOOK AT THIS DUDE. HE’S GOOD AT THROWING.
The Seahawks were intent on establishing a run game that it was clear would never be established. The Ravens were terrified of what would happen if their quarterback threw, even though the strategy they stuck with was a road to certain defeat. Both choices led to losses, and leave me wondering less about the talent of the quarterbacks and more about whether or not they’ll be given the opportunity to succeed in the future.
Winner: Offensive Lines
It can be hard to gauge the impact of offensive line play. Our eyes are naturally drawn to the players making plays—the guy throwing the ball, the guy running the ball, the guy catching the ball. We praise and blame all these players when so much of what they are capable of depends on the massive men in front of them who never touch the ball. But if you’ve ever needed to lay bare exactly how critical offensive lines are in football, just roll out a tape of Saturday’s game between the Colts and Texans—one of the best lines in football, and one of the worst.
Indianapolis picked All-Pro guard Quenton Nelson in the first round of last year’s draft, nabbed a quality starter in Braden Smith in the second round, and have former first-round picks in Anthony Castonzo at left tackle and Ryan Kelly at center. It works: The Colts allowed a league-low 18 sacks this season despite attempting the second most passes in the league. It was just what Andrew Luck needed as he recovered from a shoulder injury that kept him out for the entire 2017 season—at one point, the offensive line kept Luck from getting sacked for five straight weeks. Meanwhile, Houston hired a bunch of burlap sacks filled with earthworms to protect Deshaun Watson. They allowed 62 sacks, the most in the league.
Saturday, this played out predictably. Luck was kept clean, as a Texans pass rush led by J.J. Watt and Jadeveon Clowney failed to sack him. Indianapolis also ran for 200 yards, including a career-high 148 yards for Marlon Mack. The Colts scored touchdowns on three of their first four drives and coasted to a win. They also ate some souls:
Quenton Nelson All-Pro, all day. pic.twitter.com/mzv515viOL— Dylan DeSimone (@DylanADeSimone) January 5, 2019
Meanwhile, the Texans couldn’t really operate offensively with Watson getting pressured on almost every play, and didn’t score until the fourth quarter. He was sacked three times and hit eight, but that doesn’t take into account the seemingly dozens of inaccurate throws he was forced to attempt under duress.
The offensive line sets the possibilities of what a team is capable of. With a great one, the Colts had time to throw and wide-open running lanes. With a piss-poor one, the Texans could barely move.
It’s probably a bad sign if the only player who plays a certain position gets injured and it immediately makes his team better. Saturday, that happened to the Seahawks. At the end of the first half, Seattle asked Sebastian Janikowski to attempt a 57-yard field goal. This makes sense, because Janikowski’s calling card has always been attempting hilariously long field goals. He’s never been particularly accurate, but he’s got one of the strongest legs of all time. But now he’s 40, and he hasn’t been on a treadmill since he was 20. He hurt himself trying to kick the football too hard.
This Janikowski injury is every one of us mid-thirties dads trying to teach our kids how to kick a ball.— Mike Marshall Wilson (@mikemwilson) January 6, 2019
Like most teams, the Seahawks don’t have a backup kicker. They have a punter, All-Pro rookie Michael Dickson, but he’s Australian, and he’s good at punting because Australian rules football features punting, and does not feature placekicking. Dickson practiced some field goals during halftime, and it looked horrible:
The Seahawks may be without K Sebastian Janikowski for the rest of the game, which would make P Michael Dickson the field goal kicker.— FOX Sports: NFL (@NFLonFOX) January 6, 2019
This was him kicking field goals earlier. pic.twitter.com/x8P39edFki
At halftime, Seattle punter Michael Dickson went 1-6 on FG attempts from 25-yards from left hash mark. Then went 0-2 from right hash. He made a 33-yarder. He went 1-3 from 35-yarder with Russell Wilson holding. He also made a 37-yarder with Wilson as the holder.— Calvin Watkins (@calvinwatkins) January 6, 2019
There was talk about Dickson drop-kicking field goals—drop kicks are a part of rugby, and technically legal in football, although nobody has really done them since the 1930s—but that never came to fruition.
And so the Seahawks had to carry on without a kicker—and doing so massively benefited them. The Seahawks went for it on fourth down twice in field goal range, and converted both attempts. One led to the touchdown that put Seattle ahead 14-10, the other was this touchdown that cut Dallas’s lead to 24-20.
After both touchdowns, the Seahawks had to go for two-point conversions—and hit both, getting four critical points in their near-comeback.
That left the Seahawks needing an onside kick to complete the comeback. They turned to Dickson, who has actually been pretty decent at drop-kicking onside attempts this season. It was Dickson’s time to shine. He had a specific skill that nobody knew how to defend, and he was going to unleash it at the most critical time. Could he spur the Seahawks to a stunning win?
Nah, he just blasted the hell out of the ball. That’s what punters do.
If only the Seahawks had entered Saturday night with no kicker at all. Maybe they would have won.
This play looks like an incomplete pass. Ah, to be naive enough to believe that football plays would receive the ruling they look like they should receive.
Upon replay, it became clear that Anthony Miller got control of the ball and then took three steps—by rule, making this a catch and a fumble, not an incomplete pass. But nobody picked up the fumbled ball. It just sat on the ground.
#PHIvsCHI: Should've been ruled a catch, but it was a fumble. Yeah, these refs are making up rules on the fly in this game. Nobody picked up the ball. WOW! #FlyEaglesFly | #DaBears pic.twitter.com/0j22u2KHKq— Mike Dixon (@MikeDixonSports) January 6, 2019
Eventually a referee picked up the ball, believing it was an incomplete pass and therefore a dead ball. So how does this get ruled? Was it an incomplete pass? Did the Bears get possession where the fumble occurred, as if the ball had gone out of bounds? Did the referees now have possession, forcing them to play football against the Eagles and Bears combined?
The officials made an odd ruling. They said that Miller caught the ball and fumbled it, but because nobody recovered it, the play was incomplete. Stunningly, this is actually the rule:
From the casebook regarding incomplete passes reversed to catch/fumble, the third paragraph has the relevant information: pic.twitter.com/TQizOr7ZFP— Fᴏᴏᴛʙᴀʟʟ Zᴇʙʀᴀs (@footballzebras) January 6, 2019
“If there is no video evidence of a clear recovery or the ball going out of bounds, the ruling of incomplete stands.” This does not make sense! We’re acknowledging that a catch is made, but because the fumble after the catch doesn’t get recovered, the catch didn’t take place? Thing A happened, but because Thing C never happened, Thing A actually didn’t happen. Lesson: Always pick up the football, no matter the circumstance, in case some random rule says you just got a turnover.
We’re lying to ourselves to justify the most sensible outcome. In this weird-ass sport, sometimes abandoning logic results in the right call.