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?
We laughed at the Jets! Mocked them! We saw their pitiful offensive performances and assumed they were a hapless band of nobodies, lumped together to provide jokes for the viewing public and a virtual bye week for whichever teams were lucky enough to play them.
After all, they hadn’t scored a touchdown since Week 1. Week 1! That was ages ago! Antonio Brown was a Raider, and we thought the Browns were good. Against the Patriots, they managed just 105 total yards. Against the Eagles, they completed 15 passes and allowed 10 sacks.
But we forgot that we were not watching the real Jets all season long. We were watching a team without Sam Darnold.
Darnold made his triumphant return after a month sidelined with mono. During that month he became a meme and was the subject of a series of increasingly worrisome headlines about the development of his spleen. (It grew a lot, he wasn’t sure how to deal with it, and he had to clarify that the reason he wasn’t playing was because he would die if he was tackled with an oversized spleen.)
But apparently, the mono made him stronger. (I mean, in a sense, literally, because that’s how immune systems work, but whatever.) Sunday, Darnold came out and had one of the signature games of his young career. Against the heavily favored Dallas Cowboys, Darnold had 338 yards and two touchdowns, including this 92-yard pass to Robby Anderson, the longest play for any team this season:
SAM DARNOLD TO ROBBY ANDERSON— NFLonCBS (@NFLonCBS) October 13, 2019
JETS ARE BACK pic.twitter.com/zIYSNSvbH0
The Jets held on for a 24-22 win, their first of the season—and their first win against a team that entered the game with a record above .500 since 2017.
I have two takeaways from this. The first is that nobody should be too quick to judge Darnold, who remains a promising young prospect with the potential for great things. Yes, he threw a lot of interceptions his rookie year, as he did in college. Yes, the Jets were winless entering Sunday. Yes, the Jets once had a quarterback run into a teammate’s butt with his face. But rookies often have bad years, the Jets are now 1-1 with Darnold (with a retroactively understandable one-point loss to the Bills), and we shouldn’t use the Jets’ general history as a laughingstock count against Darnold, who was a baby for much of it.
Secondly, I have changed my opinion on mono. First, I thought NFL teams needed to infect their players with mono directly after the draft to keep them from getting mono during critical junctures in the season. Now I think NFL teams need to infect their players with mono roughly five weeks before the biggest game of the year, more than enough time for their spleens to enlarge and contract—and leave them ready to play their best at the most pivotal moments.
Loser: Georgian Game-Tying Kicks
Saturday, undefeated Georgia became not-so-undefeated on account of a surprising field goal miss. The Bulldogs, ranked third in college football, were in double overtime with South Carolina when typically reliable kicker Rodrigo Blankenship missed a 42-yarder to tie the game. Georgia lost 20-17, severely damaging its hopes of making the College Football Playoff.
Sunday, the extremely defeated Atlanta Falcons became even more defeated on account of a surprising extra-point miss. The 1-4 Falcons—who, stunningly, nearly won the damn Super Bowl roughly 30 months ago—were getting trounced by the 1-3-1 Cardinals, trailing 27-10, but rallied back on the strength of four Matt Ryan touchdowns to tie the game at 34-34. Or at least they would’ve tied the game, if Matt Bryant had hit this extra point:
Bryant has been Atlanta’s kicker since 2009, and is the Falcons’ all-time scoring leader. (Yes, even ahead of Morten Andersen, who was their kicker for at least 71 seasons.) That stint was continuous until February, when Atlanta decided to cut Bryant to save $2.8 million in cap space. His replacement, Giorgio Tavecchio, had made every kick during a brief Bryant injury last year, but promptly went 4-for-9 on field goals in preseason. Atlanta begged Bryant to return, and he did. It should have been a good move. Bryant is the 11th-most accurate kicker of all time. In 2016, he made the Pro Bowl. Last year, he went 20-for-21 on field goals. He’d shown no signs of age. “I’m ready to go for a ring,” he told ESPN after signing with the Falcons, apparently unaware that he had just signed with the Falcons.
Unfortunately, this year, the 44-year-old Bryant is finally showing some signs of age. He missed two of his first six kicks, including a 32-yarder. Perhaps it was hard for Bryant to get ready for the season without playing in training camp or the preseason. But at least he wasn’t missing extra points. He was 10-for-10 on the year, and 160-for-163 since the NFL moved the extra point back in 2015. Among kickers who have been in the NFL since that change, Bryant was second in extra-point accuracy, behind only Justin Tucker.
But he missed. Cue the faces of doom. Most were just bewildered; Bryant seemed legitimately distraught:
Because Bryant looked particularly despondent while staring into the center of the earth—thinking about what he did wrong on the kick? Contemplating whether he still had it? Getting mad he signed with a team with a defense that gave up 34 points?—he will be the face of the Falcons’ loss. Atlanta got near-perfection from Bryant for a pretty long time. The problem now is that it needs actual perfection, and he may not be able to provide it.
Winner: Duck Hunting
I assumed the Steelers were screwed Sunday night. After an injury to starting quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, an injury to backup quarterback Mason Rudolph, and a tragically timed decision to trade away third-stringer Josh Dobbs literally days before Roethlisberger’s injury, the Steelers were down to preseason fourth-stringer Devlin Hodges, an undrafted rookie out of Samford. On the plus side, Hodges broke the FCS record for career passing yards set by Steve McNair at Alcorn State. On the minus side, Steve McNair went on to be the no. 3 pick, and Hodges, uh, didn’t. He’s the first undrafted rookie from the second tier of college football to start a game in their first season in the league since at least 1987, when there was a work stoppage and replacement players stepped in. (Kurt Warner was also an undrafted player from an FCS school! And did not start an NFL game for five seasons after graduating.) Hodges has a cute story—he’s a champion duck caller, and actually invites people to call him Duck Hodges, and tweets the word “quack” and pictures of a cartoon duck in his no. 6 Steelers jersey. (Why does he call himself Duck if he likes shooting ducks? Anyway.) But cute doesn’t win inexperienced rookies NFL road games.
But the Steelers demolished the Chargers. Thanks to the helpful home-field environment of the Chargers’ home stadium (filled with roughly 80 percent Pittsburgh fans), the Steelers romped, taking a 24-0 lead before a late Chargers rally made the game look misleadingly close with a 24-17 final score.
How did they do it? Well, they didn’t make Duck throw the ball. Duck didn’t complete any passes of more than 10 yards, but went 11-for-11 on the short stuff:
Devlin Hodges was perfect on short & quick attempts in his first career start, finishing 11/11 for 100 yards & TD on attempts of less than 10 air yards and time to throw was less than 2.50 seconds.— Next Gen Stats (@NextGenStats) October 14, 2019
Hodges did not complete a single pass beyond 10 air yards.#PITvsLAC | #HereWeGo pic.twitter.com/qaJCf0nsPP
Part of this was because the Chargers made a pair of hilarious mistakes that led to 14 quick Steelers points, and they never needed him to go deep, but part of it is because this is the scenario Hodges thrives in.
See, Hodges is a champion duck caller because shooting ducks far away is hard. That’s why you learn how to go QUACK QUACK QUACK so ducks think, “Hey, that sounds like a fellow duck! I like other ducks because I’m a duck,” and then they fly toward you and you shoot them with a gun. I’ve never gone duck hunting but this is vaguely how it works, I think.
The Steelers have done a great job with this. If you look at Rudolph’s passing chart from the Week 4 win over Cincinnati, he only completed two passes more than 2 yards downfield. They know they’re on their fourth-stringer, and they’re not gonna do anything stupid.
Last year, the 9-1 Rams and 9-1 Chiefs played the Game of the Century of the Year, a 54-51 Monday Night Football thriller that launched a million thinkpieces. (Guilty!) Between Patrick Mahomes’s transcendent talent and Sean McVay’s brilliant play-calling, it sure felt like we were watching teams that would define the future of the game. And in 2018 they did: The Chiefs made it to overtime of the AFC championship game; the Rams made the damn Super Bowl.
In 2019, that future seems to have hit a few snags. Sunday against the 49ers, Jared Goff went 13-for-24 for 78 yards. If we factor in the four sacks he took for a loss of 30 yards, he got just 48 yards on 28 dropbacks, a solid 1.71 yards per dropback. Goff didn’t throw any picks—a nice change after the past two weeks, in which he threw four—but he did lose a fumble. It was his fewest yards per attempt of any game in his career—yes, even worse than his awful, awful rookie year under Jeff Fisher. The Rams went 0-for-9 on third down and 0-for-4 on fourth down. (Unfortunately, the analytics that support going for it on fourth down don’t protect you from having an awful offense.)
The Rams have now lost three in a row, putting them solidly in third place in the NFC West, which they were assumed to have wrapped up at the beginning of the year. It’s their first three-game losing streak under McVay.
Meanwhile, the Chiefs are on a losing streak of their own. Mahomes had thrown just one touchdown in the last two weeks as he dealt with a lingering ankle injury, but Sunday, he seemed set to bounce out of that, leading Kansas City to 17 first-half points. And then things stagnated. Mahomes threw his first interception of the year, and Deshaun Watson scored three touchdowns (two running, one throwing) to give Houston a 31-24 win. The Chiefs are still 4-2 and still on top of their division—hell, they’re still in line to get a first-round bye—but they don’t look anywhere near the level of the Patriots, who seem destined for another Super Bowl run.
Perhaps we were too quick to watch that 54-51 game and make sweeping assumptions about the NFL to be. Clearly, the best way to fix that overreaction would be to overreact to these teams’ current losing streaks!
Winner: Robert Saleh
The man responsible for holding Goff to 78 yards is 49ers defensive coordinator Robert Saleh. He’s been in charge of San Francisco’s defense since 2017, and has overseen a spectacular transformation. The year before Saleh got to San Francisco, the Niners were dead last in points allowed, and this year they’re second. Last year, they set a bad record by recording just two interceptions and seven turnovers in a season, the fewest of both all time. This year, his team already has seven interceptions and 12 turnovers.
But if you hadn’t heard of Saleh before watching Sunday’s game against the Rams, you’ve definitely heard of him now. Saleh had a lot of opportunities to celebrate, and Fox’s cameras caught him on all of them:
The only thing better than the 49ers defense is how FIRED UP it makes their DC Robert Saleh pic.twitter.com/HpAmmR3Jlc— The Checkdown (@thecheckdown) October 13, 2019
You can be a great defensive coach and toil away in obscurity for years. But a great defensive coordinator who gets really jacked up celebrating on camera? Guess what: Now you’re a head coaching candidate, baby! Owners want a coach who is YOUNG and PASSIONATE and a LEADER OF MEN. Offensive coaches can probably get by with being reserved as long as they’re reasonably handsome, but defensive coaches need to bring the fire. If Saleh keeps up the hype train—and, uh, maybe stays good at coaching defense—he’s gonna be a hot commodity.
Loser: Week 5 Fantasy Hero Will Fuller
Last week, I wrote about the complete randomness of fantasy football, a randomness perhaps best summarized by Will Fuller. The Texans receiver entered last week with 14 receptions for 183 yards and no touchdowns, and then had 14 catches for 217 yards and three touchdowns against the Falcons. (The Falcons defense tends to cure all ills.)
The good news is Fuller’s ability to get open was not a fluke. Deshaun Watson got the ball into Fuller’s hands eight times on Sunday. Unfortunately, he ended up with just five catches, including three dropped touchdowns:
I made a compilation of all 3 dropped TDs today by Will Fuller.— Dov Kleiman (@NFL_DovKleiman) October 13, 2019
Last week, he caught 3 TDs, today? dropped 3.pic.twitter.com/rRIl8wZe1a
Tens of thousands of Americans slapped their heads after leaving Fuller’s 40 fantasy points on the bench in Week 5, immediately moved him into their starting lineups for Week 6, and watched 20-ish fantasy points bounce off his hands. I’m sticking by my assessment that fantasy football is random.
Winner: Fair-Catch Kicks
My Super Bowl came Sunday morning, on a punt in the first half of a developing blowout between the Panthers and Buccaneers. Tampa Bay punted with eight seconds remaining before halftime, and Carolina punt returner Brandon Zylstra settled under it at the 50-yard line for a fair catch. Most fans probably assumed they could safely begin their halftime routines. (Actually, most fans probably kept sleeping, considering the game was held in London and kicked off at 9:30 a.m. ET.) But I started hooting and hollering. Perhaps I was underselling how important this moment is to me when I compared it to the Super Bowl. There’s a Super Bowl at the end of every season, but I had been waiting for this moment for years.
Zylstra’s wave triggered a highly unusual play governed by an obscure set of rules almost entirely forgotten by the modern NFL: the fair-catch kick. Whenever a player signals for a fair catch, the receiving team technically has two options for how to proceed. They can take the ball and begin playing offense, or they can attempt to kick the ball through the uprights from the spot where the catch was made for three points. 99.9 percent of the time, this isn’t a choice. It’s obviously better to have the ball on offense than to attempt a three-point kick. (You may have noticed that teams generally kick field goals on fourth down and not first.) Besides, most fair catches are made far enough away from the uprights that attempting a kick wouldn’t even make sense. But if an opponent attempts a punt from deep on their own side of the field with under 10 seconds to go in a half, and the kick doesn’t go very far, and your option is a Hail Mary or a long kick, attempting the kick sometimes makes sense. Plus, if a fair catch is made with no time on the clock, this rule entitles teams to an additional play, an untimed kick. The rules surrounding the kick make it easier for kickers than regular field goals. There is no snap, removing the possibility of a bad hold. The defense has to play at least 10 yards away, eliminating the possibility of a block, allowing the kicker to take a longer run-up and drive the ball at a lower angle without fear of kicking into the line.
When they first drew up the rules of football in the 1920s—when wearing a helmet was a sign of cowardice, the football was a big lumpy pillow, and half the players had diseases that now have vaccines—this seemed like it would be a regular occurence. It’s a vestigial rugby rule. (Aussie rules football has the most analogous situation, where if a player catches a long kick, he’s entitled to a kick at goal for points.) Fair-catch kicks remained moderately common until the 1970s, and the Packers even won a game on a fair-catch kick in 1968. But now they are impossibly rare. There were no fair-catch kick attempts between 1989 and 2005, and Sunday was the first attempt since 2013.
Panthers kicker Joey Slye almost made history. With the ball caught at the 50, he attempted a 60-yard kick. Most fair-catch kicks are true desperation attempts—the last three were from 68, 69, and 71 yards. Slye has made a field goal from 55 yards this season, and this kick should have been easier. He had the chance to make the first fair-catch kick since 1976, and he had the distance. Unfortunately, he pushed it right.
.@Panthers fair-caught a punt with one second in the half...— NFL (@NFL) October 13, 2019
Then tried a fair catch kick for three points!
You don't see this every Sunday.
: #CARvsTB on @NFLNetwork | @NFLUK
: NFL app // Yahoo Sports app
Watch free on mobile: https://t.co/xLc7ljuEnj pic.twitter.com/FAPYwxJa9d
Even though the kick was missed, this was a positive moment for the fair-catch kick in general, because I believe the biggest reason they aren’t attempted regularly is a lack of knowledge that this is even an option. (That, and the fact that the scenario where one should attempt one happens only, like, a few times a year, tops. But alas.) Punt returners don’t know they should be fair-catching the ball in near-field-goal range with little time on the clock—I bet most assume with so little time remaining, they should be trying to get into the end zone at all costs. And even coaches don’t seem to know. In the 2017 playoffs, the Cowboys’ Cole Beasley actually called for a fair catch with no time remaining in the first half, setting up a potential fair-catch kick for Dan Bailey … and the Cowboys just decided to go into halftime without even trying it. They lost by three. AND I’M STILL MAD ABOUT IT ALMOST THREE YEARS LATER. Slye may not have scored, but he scored a big win for Fair-Catch Kick Awareness.
Loser: The 2015 NFL Draft
I remember getting into battles ahead of the 2015 draft about who the best quarterback prospect was. I firmly believed that Marcus Mariota was better than Jameis Winston. He was a better thrower, a quality runner, and, most importantly, made smarter decisions than the pick-prone Winston. I was so damn sure of it, and I thought people who believed Winston was better were fools and needed to be yelled at online.
And that’s one of the things that’s convinced me I should stop yelling at people online about stuff, because, well, it totally didn’t matter. Winston sucks. Sunday, he threw for 400 yards … but mainly because his five interceptions put Tampa Bay in a massive hole against the Panthers. Oh, and he also fumbled twice and lost one. When you consider his seven sacks, he averaged only 5.98 yards per dropback. But the thing is, Mariota arguably sucks worse. He went 7-for-18 with two interceptions in a 16-0 loss to the Broncos. When you factor in his sacks, he averaged just 2.7 yards per dropback. Eventually, he was benched for Ryan Tannehill.
With their rookie contracts expiring after the season, Winston and Mariota are the subject of tough decisions for their teams. Should they invest in Winston and Mariota long term? Or should they let them begin their careers as Tannehills for other teams? Both teams are 2-4; both players were drafted to play for already-fired coaches. It’s hard to see either team choosing the first option.
I’d say Winston had the better day than Mariota, but it’s not really worth arguing over. It’s like whether Little Caesars makes better pizza than CiCis. Both are food! I’d go for either one if I had $11 in my pocket and desperately needed two or more pizzas. But, like, it’s not worth getting worked up about people’s preferences or hatred for either. I wish I’d known that back in 2015, when I went into the trenches debating a pair of guys who have a future as Mitch Trubisky’s backup.
Winner: The Dolphins’ Tank
There’s such a thing as an ugly win. You know the type of game, when your team gets massively outplayed by an opponent with no playoff hopes but still ended up winning because of some flukey play, and you go home feeling worse about your team’s quarterback, coach, general manager, owner, local radio announcers, and where the stadium is located. But when you’re tanking, there’s no such thing as a bad loss. Get blown out? Beautiful. Play well and still pull out the loss? Hell, that even makes you feel good about some of your team’s players, but still accomplishes the mission.
So the Dolphins probably overcompensated in the first few weeks of the season. Their path to 0-16 began with losses of 49, 43, 25, and 20, and they appeared to be en route to the worst point differential in NFL history. Every single positional grouping seemed like just about the worst in the league. Guys, chill. You don’t need style points. You’re allowed to pick up a few first downs on the way to a winless season.
Sunday, the Dolphins faced the first true test of their losing talent: a matchup with 0-5 Washington. Miami trailed 17-3 at the start of the fourth quarter, with Josh Rosen picking up 55 yards on 30 dropbacks while throwing two interceptions. That’s when the team benched Rosen for Ryan Fitzpatrick, who himself had been been benched after Week 2.
But Fitzpatrick is always down for a little FitzMagic. (Especially when he’s able to opt out of his contract at the end of the year.) The Dolphins scored a touchdown on Fitzpatrick’s first drive, and then he threw a potentially game-tying touchdown with six seconds to go.
Having cut the lead to 17-16, Miami faced a decision. Should they kick the extra point and go to overtime? Honestly, I would’ve liked this. It would’ve allowed Miami and Washington to potentially go scoreless in OT and tie, resulting in the two teams having records of 0-4-1 and 0-5-1, respectively. But Miami went for two.
Normally, we say that teams in this situation are playing for the win. But Miami absolutely should not be playing for the win. If I’m the coach, here are the plays I have for a potential game-winning two-point conversion when my team is this bad and Tua Tagovailoa is likely the no. 1 pick in the next draft:
- Have the quarterback turn around and punt the ball as hard as he can
- Halfback draw, but with my punter and kicker as the fullback and running back (Hey, if it’s good enough for Nick Saban, it’s good enough for me)
The Dolphins didn’t choose any of these options … but they kinda did. This play had as much of a chance of succeeding as Bill de Blasio’s presidential campaign:
Even if Kenyan Drake catches this ball, he’s getting blown up. Virtually every Washington defender on the left side of the field seemed aware of the incoming screen, and one of the two receivers supposedly blocking for Drake completely whiffed on his block, as did left tackle Jesse Davis, who, it should be noted, was the team’s right guard last year. At least four players were in position to tackle Drake before the end zone. Luckily, he saved his teammates from ridicule by dropping it. Thanks to Drake, Miami started at the bottom and now the whole team’s here. (Still at the bottom.)
Congrats to the Dolphins. They actually showed signs of life, but ultimately were dedicated to getting that L.
Winner: Stefon Diggs’s Minnesota Career
Technically, Stefon Diggs hasn’t publicly said that he demanded a trade. He’s just said that there’s “truth to all rumors” and tweeted an emoji. (Which? Wouldn’t you like to know!) He’s done everything short of saying, “I definitely don’t not not want to be not traded,” while winking and crossing his fingers behind his back. He doesn’t like playing with Kirk Cousins, which honestly makes sense.
But Sunday was a massive breakthrough for the Diggs-Cousins relationship. See, what happened is Diggs got extremely, ridiculously open, and while Cousins has his deficiencies, he can generally hit players who are obscenely, preposterously open.
Diggs finished the game with seven catches for 167 yards and three touchdowns. Entering the game, he had just 253 yards and one touchdown in five games. Adam Thielen also had a touchdown on the day, making this the Vikings’ first four-touchdown passing game since Week 2 of last year.
This is probably for the best for Diggs. In spite of his all-too-obvious desire to leave, it doesn’t seem like the Vikings will actually trade him. He’s trapped in this relationship, so he might as well figure out how to enjoy it.
The Seahawks’ wide receivers had the best touchdown celebration of the year, and it’s not particularly close. After a touchdown catch by Jaron Brown, they busted out a rendition of ’NSync’s iconic group dance from the “Bye Bye Bye” music video:
The choreography was exceptional—it was LITERALLY IN SYNC to ’NSYNC.
I really just spent 20 min trying to see if the Seahawks' Bye Bye Bye timing was right.— Grace Remington (@GraceRemiWTSP) October 13, 2019
You are welcome for this important journalism. pic.twitter.com/paD23BzSrB
The celebration does raise some questions—why only four guys? With rookie DK Metcalf in the middle, are we to assume that he’s the Justin of the group, and that he will become too big for the Seahawks and branch out into a significantly more famous career with other teams? And who is the Joey Fatone of the Seahawks? However, I have nothing but praise for the execution.
When the NFL allowed group celebrations for the first time in 2017, there was a strange rash of elaborate skit celebrations, especially acting out other sports. We had a bobsled celebration, a baseball celebration, a curling celebration, and of course, duck, duck, goose. (Maybe duck, duck, goose isn’t a sport, but it’s definitely a game.) However, I think the zeitgeist has shifted away from these celebrations to what the celebration game really should have featured from the beginning—choreographed dance routines. Sure, there were a few of those at the start, but now we’ve had two big dances in two weeks. The first team to do a convincing “Single Ladies” routine wins the Super Bowl.