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
When Aaron Rodgers is bad, he’s still pretty good. In 165 career starts, he’s had only three games with no touchdowns and an interception, and he got injured in one of those games. Rodgers at his worst looks like he did toward the end of last season, like a Week 13 game where he threw for 233 yards and a touchdown on 50 attempts. His baseline is fine.
When Aaron Rodgers is good, he’s legendary. And Sunday, against the Raiders, he was about the best he’s ever been. Rodgers was 25-for-31 for 429 yards and five touchdowns while running for a sixth. It was his first career game with a perfect passer rating, a career high in yards per attempt, and the first time he’s thrown for 400 yards and five touchdowns.
In NFL history, only two players have had 400 yards, five passing touchdowns, and a rushing score: Norm Van Brocklin in 1951 and Mark Rypien in 1991. Brocklin threw four touchdowns to Hall of Famer Elroy Hirsch; Rypien threw two to Hall of Famer Art Monk and three more to Pro Bowl wide receiver Gary Clark. With Davante Adams out, Rodgers threw his five touchdowns to five different players: one apiece to running backs Aaron Jones and Jamaal Williams, wide receivers Marquez Valdes-Scantling and Jake Kumerow, and tight end Jimmy Graham.
To be honest, it’s been a while since we’ve seen this version of Rodgers. He hadn’t thrown four touchdowns in a game since 2017; while he had four 400-yard games since the start of last year, it took him 52 passes, 46 passes, 53 passes, and 55 passes to get there. He hadn’t had a 400-yard game on fewer than 40 attempts since 2014.
Toward the end of the Mike McCarthy era, Rodgers looked exasperated and played with a weight around him. In the first few months of the Matt LaFleur era, he’s been a giddy touchdown machine. It’s not just that it’s fun to watch. It might just be impossible to stop.
Loser: Devonta Freeman
The only thing more embarrassing than someone losing a fight is when it’s completely clear that the person should have lost a fight, but was saved by the concern of onlookers and the mercy of the much-stronger person who decided not to beat them up. That’s the situation Devonta Freeman put himself in when he decided to go toe-to-toe with the scariest man in the league.
The Atlanta Falcons do not have much fight in them. They’re 1-6, and they’ve lost five in a row. Their offense is mediocre; their defense is abysmal. And sometimes, when teams don’t have a lot of on-field fight, their players, well, actually fight. Freeman, who has yet to score a rushing touchdown this season, got upset after a Matt Ryan interception, and decided to scrap with the first person he saw. That person was Aaron Donald, the reigning two-time Defensive Player of the Year.
Freeman is an NFL running back, and could probably win a fight against almost everybody he meets. But Aaron Donald is not normal. He’s obviously taller and stronger and longer than Freeman, but he can also jump higher, switch directions faster, and almost beat Freeman in a sprint. Seriously, check their combine results. Freeman’s job is to run around NFL players; Donald’s job is to run through them, and he’s better at it than basically anybody ever.
In fighting Donald, Freeman made some mistakes. First of all, don’t punch another player in the helmet. It won’t hurt them, you might break your hand, and you’ll get ejected. Second of all, don’t provoke Aaron Donald, physically. He’s stronger than you. Third of all, don’t provoke Aaron Donald emotionally. He’s stronger than you, but at least seems like a pretty nice guy, and is merely destroying opponents because it’s his job.
Donald is the Mountain. Remember what happened to that guy who challenged the Mountain physically and emotionally? They’re still cleaning up bits of his skull and stray teeth from far-flung parts of Westeros.
Luckily, Donald is merciful. Here’s how the fight went:
Here's the full incident with Donald and Freeman.pic.twitter.com/0dL9GnxODp— Dov Kleiman (@NFL_DovKleiman) October 20, 2019
Just so we’re clear: Donald picked Freeman up and held him aloft like an unruly baby or an anonymous Darth Vader underling. Freeman flailed and wiggled and complained, powerless to escape. Donald wasn’t trying to win the fight. He was just trying to make it completely clear to Freeman what would’ve happened if he did want to win the fight.
Sorry I know there’s a game still going on but Aaron Donald dead-lifted a 206-pound man by his shoulder pads. pic.twitter.com/ShvTd3MNUg— Rich Hammond (@Rich_Hammond) October 20, 2019
By rule, Freeman’s punch ended his night. He was ejected from the game, a 37-10 Falcons loss. This was by rule—punches are automatic ejections—but it was also an act of kindness from the referees. If Freeman had carried the ball in Donald’s direction in the fourth quarter, he’d have gotten smushed on the turf like a 210-pound bug.
Winner: The Miami Dolphins’ Creative Losing Play of the Week
Welcome to our newest weekly segment—the one where we highlight the incredible play where the Miami Dolphins take a relatively competitive game and ensure an L. Last week, it was a two-point conversion attempt for the win that instead ensured a loss, a masterful combination of foolish play design and disastrous execution. This week, it was an onside kick returned for a touchdown by Buffalo’s Micah Hyde, the final score in the Bills’ 31-21 victory.
That’s right: an onside kick returned for a touchdown. I feel like these should be more common. The kicking team on onside kicks rarely sets itself up to make a tackle on the player catching the ball. But most returners just opt to secure the ball on an onside kick. In fact, entering Sunday, nobody had a positive return on an onside kick this season.
Perhaps Micah Hyde of the Bills should have just gone down with the ball. There were just 105 seconds left in the game, and the Dolphins had no timeouts. The Bills could’ve secured the win with kneel-downs. But special things happen to the Dolphins. Hyde made the catch, did a 360, and landed on his feet with nobody between him and the end zone. How could he sit when the Dolphins clearly wanted him to score? It was the first onside kick returned for a touchdown since 2010, and only the fourth in the Pro Football Reference Play Index, which contains all NFL plays since 1994. Six losses down, 10 to go.
Loser: Daniel Pennies
Most quarterbacks get a warm reception when they’re drafted and a cold greeting when they begin actually playing against NFL teams. Daniel Jones got the reverse—boos and derision when the Giants made him the no. 6 pick in the NFL draft, then widespread praise and a new nickname when he led the Giants to wins in his first two NFL starts. But, well, those starts were against the Buccaneers (now 2-4) and Washington (1-6, with a win against the 0-6 Dolphins).
Since then, it’s been bleak for Danny Dimes. In his three games since his 2-0 start, Jones is 58-for-104 for 566 yards (5.4 yards per attempt) with three passing touchdowns and seven turnovers. Sunday was his worst game of all. Against the Cardinals—one of the worst defenses in the league—he was sacked eight times, threw an interception, and lost two fumbles. This pick was completely on him, thrown aimlessly toward a pair of Arizona defenders fighting for the right to pick it off:
Daniel Jones is not Kyler Murray...carry on pic.twitter.com/YTUK9CJYgi— FOX Sports Arizona (@FOXSPORTSAZ) October 20, 2019
This fumble’s on him too. You’ve heard of blindside sacks, but this time, Chandler Jones was very much on Jones’s front side. But the quarterback had no idea there was anybody there:
Saying that Jones is a bust six games into Jones’s career is about as dumb as saying he was a franchise savior two games in. But it’s clear that Jones is as raw as his detractors predicted he would be. He has the capability to make some high-level throws, but his misses are bad, his awareness is nonexistent, and his ball security is abysmal. He can be great someday, maybe, sure. But for now, it seems pretty clear that the legend of Jones as a perfectly polished prodigy who burst onto the scene as a finished product when all the draft analysts said he would fail was just a legend. The real player looks like a rookie, with some skills and plenty of problems to fix.
Loser: Philip Rivers’s Hatred of QB Sneaks
The quarterback sneak is the most effective play in football. It works on third-and-1, it works on fourth-and-1, and it works on the goal line. Good quarterbacks convert QB sneaks; bad quarterbacks convert QB sneaks. Fast quarterbacks convert QB sneaks; slow quarterbacks convert QB sneaks. (Tom Brady runs like an ent, and he’s better at them than anybody.) Tall quarterbacks convert QB sneaks; short quarterbacks convert QB sneaks. No matter the situation, no matter the player, the QB sneak succeeds at a higher rate than any other playcall.
However, there is one quarterback who hates the QB sneak: Philip Rivers. As Warren Sharp wrote, Rivers basically never sneaks. He doesn’t like taking snaps from under center, he likes changing plays before the snap, and perhaps he doesn’t like hurling his body into piles of enormous football players. Rivers has had only one carry on third- or fourth-and-1 since 2011, and has never had a sneak for a score. His most recent rushing TD, in 2011, was on a scramble, and his other rushing touchdowns were from the 5-yard line and around the right end.
This became a problem at the end of Los Angeles’s loss to Tennessee—a game the Chargers almost certainly would’ve won if Rivers knew how to grab a football and fall forward. Trailing 23-20, Rivers threw a pass to Austin Ekeler that appeared to be a touchdown. But after review, the touchdown was overturned, and the Chargers were given the ball inside the 1-yard line. Because Rivers doesn’t like to sneak, the Chargers gave the ball to Melvin Gordon, who scored what appeared to be a touchdown. But that, too, was overturned, and the Chargers were again given the ball, mere inches outside the goal line. Because Rivers doesn’t like to sneak, the Chargers again gave the ball to Gordon—and he fumbled:
Chargers fans have a lot to be mad at. They can be mad at officials, who overturned two plays that may have been touchdowns. They can be mad at Gordon, who spent the first four weeks of the season holding out in hopes of getting a bigger contract, and then came back and cost the team the game. Gordon was the first player to fumble in the red zone in the final 30 seconds of a three-point game in five years. Cameras caught him crying on the sidelines.
But all this would’ve been moot if the Chargers could execute one of the simplest plays in football. They weren’t yards from the end zone. They weren’t even feet from the end zone. They were inches away. It should’ve been incredibly easy for Rivers to score. He could’ve fallen forward as his linemen pushed; he could’ve jumped and popped the ball over the line. Instead he ran backward and gave the ball to a player who had barely been tackled in the past year. It cost the Chargers the game.
Winner: Big Boot Brett
Would you believe me if I told you that Cowboys kicker Brett Maher is the greatest long-distance kicker in NFL history? Of course not. Honestly, I wouldn’t believe me. Maher, in his second year with Dallas after an extended career as a kicker/punter in the CFL, has consistently been one of the least accurate kickers in the league. Last year, he finished 25th in the league in field goal percentage, going 13-of-19 on kicks between 30 and 50 yards. Entering Sunday, he was 28th on the season, going just 7-for-11 on kicks, including a miss on a 33-yarder. We ranked him fifth in our list of kickers most likely to experience some form of kicking disaster.
But while Maher may not be particularly accurate, he’s got a damn rail gun for a leg. You know that video where they launched a truck off an aircraft carrier? That’s Maher’s calf. Sunday, Maher attempted a 63-yard field goal, tied for the second-longest in NFL history. According to NBC’s field goal tracking data, it would’ve been good from 66.
Last week, Maher drilled a 62-yarder. Last year, Maher hit another 62-yarder. There have been 22 field goals of 60 yards or longer in NFL history. Maher has three of them, more than anybody else in league history. Only Sebastian Janikowski and Greg Zuerlein have even made two, and Janikowski was 2-for-9 on attempts of over 60 yards and Zuerlein is 2-for-5. (We all remember Janikowski’s 76-yard attempt.) According to Pro-Football-Reference’s Field Goal Finder, kickers besides Maher are 19-for-141 all time on kicks from over 60 yards. (They’re a much better 15-for-81 since 2000.)
Maher is 3-for-3. He’s also made a 59-yarder, and is 9-for-12 on kicks of longer than 50 yards. There was no evidence he had this in him earlier in his career. His career long in the CFL was 58 yards, and his career long at Nebraska was 54.
Maher is a medieval siege weapon. He’s built for power, blasting two-ton rocks across entire battlefields. I’m also not sure I would trust him to hit the Cowboys’ football-field-sized scoreboard from 30 yards. If he stays in the league for a significant amount of time, he could destroy the league’s distance-kicking records. The Cowboys just need to sign some other dude to nail 33-yarders. If not, maybe Maher needs to retire and begin his career as a dominant Muay Thai fighter, breaking opponents’ bodies with his thunderkicks.
Loser: The Grasp
Sunday, Deshaun Watson made magic. In the first half of Houston’s game against Indianapolis, Watson danced around a pair of Colts defenders, staying alive to give his receivers more time to get open in the end zone. Defensive end Jabaal Sheard sprinted at him, put an arm around his waist, and spun him. Watson stayed up. Meanwhile, defensive end Justin Houston snagged his left ankle and refused to let go. Normally a quarterback generates power with their legs, but Watson’s back foot belonged to a Colts defender now. Still, he managed to get off a pass, just as Sheard showed up to pop his top. Somehow, the pass made it to the end zone, and made it into the hands of DeAndre Hopkins.
I screamed when I saw this. It’s the type of play that makes football worth watching. Nothing had gone to plan. The play was busted, and Watson could no longer reliably count on the receivers being where he expected them. He could not throw as he usually does, since one of his legs was out of commission. This isn’t a thing you can practice, since quarterbacks are off-limits in practice and therefore Watson can’t get regular reps throwing the ball with a 270-pounder anchored to his ankle. But Watson’s talent won out. Surrounded by violence, a superstar made it work.
And we were told it never happened. The referees ruled that Watson was “in the grasp” of his defenders, and they called the play dead. Normally, a player is down when their body hits the ground. But if a player is standing, and the referee determines that their forward progress is stopped, the ref can make a judgment call to blow the play dead. It’s supposed to prevent additional players from coming in and piling on with unnecessary hits on players who are already doomed.
The thing is, Watson’s brilliance is that he’s often not doomed. There are times when we watch and think, “There’s no way he’s getting out of that,” and he does. But it’s one thing for us to think that and allow it to affect our enjoyment of a play, and another for a referee to think that and officially end a play.
Even the on-field ruling here didn’t quite make sense. The whistle seemed to come after Watson threw the ball, which kind of proves it shouldn’t have been blown at all. And if Watson was in the grasp of Indy, how come Sheard’s tackle wasn’t considered a late hit? I understand the league’s need to protect star players, especially quarterbacks. But it doesn’t feel like the referees did a particularly good job here—and it’s worth questioning calls that prevent additional hits at the expense of the plays that make football incredible. From now on, let’s save the “in the grasp” ruling for when Aaron Donald is holding opponents in the air by their shoulders while they kick the air in frustration.
Did you know Cordarrelle Patterson is the greatest kickoff returner of all time? It’s true. “But Devin Hester!” you scream at me. Hester was the greatest punt returner of all time, and significantly better at returning punts than Patterson is at returning kicks, and Hester was also really great at returning kicks. But Patterson’s straight-line speed and ability to discover creases in kick coverage make him a legend in the specific category of returning kicks. After Sunday’s game against the Saints, he sits third all time in kickoff return touchdowns (behind Josh Cribbs and Leon Washington) and second all time in career kickoff return average (behind Gale Sayers, with no modern-era players particularly close). He has led the league in kickoff return average in three of the past six seasons, and has the longest kickoff return in NFL history (109 yards).
Sunday, we got to see this all-time great from a brand-new perspective. Patterson returned a kick for a 102-yard touchdown against the Saints, and because of Fox’s decision to show the kickoff using SkyCam, we got to see it closer than ever:
I endorse using SkyCam as the primary camera during games—it’s closer to the action, and so much easier to see how plays are developing—but most of the time, the SkyCam is behind the players. On this return, we got to see Patterson coming at us. And his breakneck speed is breathtaking.
But the SkyCam revealed that Patterson is not merely a legend because of pure speed. With this new, incredibly close perspective, we got to see Patterson make the decisions that made this play magnificent. As he charges toward us at a full sprint, we see him make the split-second decisions on which players he must outmaneuver with finesse, and which he can ditch with pure speed. The chaos of the play surrounds him, and yet he keeps flying forward, defender after defender dropping in his wake. Then the camera turns, and Patterson zooms off into the expanse of open field. It was the greatest possible way to watch the greatest player at a specific type of play performing at his best.
Loser: Derek Carr’s Stretches
There’s a rule I’ve called the dumbest in football—the one that turns fumbles on the goal line into touchbacks. But there’s apparently one thing dumber than the dumbest rule in football: Raiders QB Derek Carr.
Regardless of whether one agrees with the rule, we all know it exists. Players need to be careful when moving toward the part of the field where the sideline meets the goal line, since letting the ball slip could turn a scoring opportunity into a turnover. But Carr couldn’t help himself as he tried to lunge for the end zone.
But the thing is, Carr has done this before. In 2017, Carr cost his team a chance to beat the Cowboys. He’d already given his team a first down and a chance to take several shots at a game-winning score, and even if he hadn’t, his team was still in position to kick a game-tying field goal. Instead, he turned the ball over with 31 seconds left.
The plays are ridiculously similar. Both times, he sprinted toward the right sideline, put the ball in his nondominant hand, and lunged from about the 3-yard line. Both times, he was hit by a trailing defender after he jumped, jarring the ball loose. Both times, he lost the ball roughly a full yard from the end zone. I understand the instinct to break the plane and get the score. But Carr isn’t really even coming close.
This was Carr’s 23rd lost fumble since entering the league in 2014, the most of any player in that time. Carr’s end zone jumps are like those videos where basketball players think they can jump over seven guys in a dunk contest and then slam crotch-first into the third guy and send themselves and four other people crashing to the ground in a human-sized game of failure dominos. Except it’s not a dunk contest: It’s an actual live football game, and he’s costing his team incredible scoring opportunities by mistakenly believing he can fly.