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 49ers’ Dominant Defense
There are good defenses, and there are great defenses, and then there are championship defenses, and then there are defenses capable of kicking Aaron Rodgers’s ass. Sunday night, the 49ers proved that they fall into the last group, which should horrify the rest of the league.
Rodgers went 22-for-33 for 104 yards against the 49ers. That’s just 3.2 yards per attempt, the fewest in any of his career starts. He’d only been held under 4 yards per attempt once in a start—by the 2015 Broncos, who went on to win the Super Bowl on the strength of their no. 1 passing defense. The end result was a 37-8 San Francisco win over the Packers, who were 8-2 and in command of the NFC North. The 29-point margin of defeat is the second worst of Rodgers’s career, behind a 30-point loss to the Cardinals in 2015. (They also lost last year’s Week 17 game 31-0, but Rodgers barely played.)
Rodgers’s ability to make plays often seems to defy reason—no matter the scheme, no matter the defensive pressure, no matter the skill of his receivers, linemen, or running backs, he finds a way to make something happen. But Sunday, he couldn’t make anything happen—there were Niners everywhere. His only available options were checkdowns, and there was always someone breathing down his neck. Rodgers was sacked five times and lost a fumble.
(He did have a passing touchdown, but it looked like this.)
There is no good choice for a quarterback to make against the 49ers, and if they don’t make any choice, they will be ground into a fine dust by a parade of looming brutes closing in with unsettling speed. The Niners are in the running to have the best defensive DVOA of all time. (Their defensive stats are not necessarily better than any team in league history, but DVOA—”defense-adjusted value over average”—factors in that offenses are generally more successful now than ever.)
But sometimes you don’t need stats to realize how good a team is. The 49ers kicked Aaron Rodgers’s ass, and it takes a true squad of supervillains to make a hero look powerless.
Loser: The Sunday Night Football Turkeys
There are so many wonderful Thanksgiving traditions. Pie! Stuffing! The dog show is on TV! Then there are some mediocre Thanksgiving traditions, like, uh, the Detroit Lions.
However, I have identified the worst Thanksgiving tradition: Every year, on the Sunday Night Football broadcast aired before Thanksgiving, NBC shows a brief clip of live turkeys, with the implication that in a few days they will be dead and on our tables. Here’s the clip from 2014, when Al Michaels cheerfully chirped “Say goodnight!” at a truck filled with gobbling future dinners. (Jim Harbaugh claimed that watching Sunday Night Football led to his family eating tofu on Thanksgiving four days later.) Two years ago, the network showed thousands of turkeys crammed into an enclosure:
Did anyone else find this extremely disturbing?— Ben Hulka (@BenHulka) November 20, 2017
All the sick looking turkeys cooped up, then the white lab coat chick walking through and they’re all scared AF #SNF #NFL @NFL @SNF
Happy Thanksgiving though... pic.twitter.com/AUcQNzt9OZ
I can’t find any video of Sunday night’s snippet, but trust me, it happened.
NBC cuts to a clip of turkeys in a slaughterhouse. Al Michaels proceeds, “Gonna be a rough week for that group.”— Noah Osen (@NoahOsen) November 25, 2019
Why are they showing masses of turkeys that are about to die on Sunday Night Football— Charlotte Wilder (@TheWilderThings) November 25, 2019
On the one hand, I kind of endorse NBC’s choice here—it’s good to remind people that our food used to be alive, and that it is often produced in unsustainable, upsetting ways. We won’t think about this if we don’t absolutely have to, so good on NBC for shoving it in our faces while we’re trying to enjoy football. On the other hand … I don’t think NBC is trying to make us radically reconsider our food choices. I think they think this is a festive holiday thing, whereas in fact it just leads to millions of people thinking, “Wait, WTF just happened during our football game?”—probably not a good call for a company trying to get people to watch its football games.
That said, there is only one true loser here: the turkeys.
Winner: RedZone Jameis Winston
In 2019, quarterbacks are throwing interceptions at a lower rate than at any time in the league’s history: Just 2.2 percent of passes are picks. Only one quarterback has missed the memo: Jameis Winston of the Buccaneers, who is more than doubling the league average with a 4.6 interception rate this season.
On Winston’s first pass of the day Sunday, it looked like a Falcons cornerback was his intended target:
Jameis Winston with the PERFECT strike to ... Desmond Trufant pic.twitter.com/gEGgp3n2ws— Yahoo Sports (@YahooSports) November 24, 2019
But on the next drive, Winston threw a near-perfect pass that came down in between three Falcons defenders and into the arms of Bucs receiver Chris Godwin, resulting in a 71-yard score:
And on the Bucs’ third drive, Winston made the perplexing decision to attempt a jump pass across his body, resulting in a pass way behind his intended target, Dare Ogunbowale, who flailed at the ball and deflected it into the hands of Falcons defender De’Vondre Campbell:
Like, this is the play, and we're going with 'off the hands of RB'?pic.twitter.com/NevsKf7slO— Sam Monson (@PFF_Sam) November 24, 2019
But the Bucs went on to win, 35-22, on the strength of Winston’s 313 passing yards and three touchdowns. There have only been 11 games this season when a quarterback has thrown two interceptions in a win, and two of them involved Winston. The Buccaneers have only won four games, and half of them have come when their quarterback gives the ball away twice.
With 20 picks this season, Winston has a commanding advantage in the race to lead the league in interceptions. Nobody else has more than 14! With five games to go, Winston could reach interception numbers inconceivable in today’s NFL—nobody threw 20 interceptions all of last season, and nobody has thrown 25 interceptions since Eli Manning in 2013. At his current pace, Winston is due for 29.
But Winston also has 3,391 yards on the season—just 42 behind Dak Prescott for the league lead. He’s the quarterback of a 4-7 team, and he might end up being the NFL’s passing leader. On the one hand, this kind of makes sense—when teams are losing, they begin throwing like wild, and when they’re winning, they try to run the ball to kill the clock. On the other hand, it’s ridiculous—normally, the teams that throw for a lot of yards are the teams that win games. Since 2011, the only passing yardage champions have been Drew Brees, Tom Brady, Ben Roethlisberger, and Peyton Manning. These are championship winners. Winston’s not even a playoff participant.
Winston is a modern-day quarterbacking anomaly. I think it’s impossible for a quarterback to turn the ball over as frequently and carelessly as he does and be successful in the NFL, but he’s talented enough to be somebody’s starter. I’m glad he’s not my team’s starter, but I’m also glad when he pops up on RedZone. When Scott Hanson giddily shouts, “You’re gonna want to see what Jameis Winston just did!” that means he threw either a touchdown or a pick, and I can’t be sure which. Every time, Hanson’s right. I do want to see both of those things.
Winner: Massive Nimbleness
Everybody loves Spider 2 Y Banana, the goal-line play made famous by Jon Gruden’s repeated enthusiastic references when he was an announcer on Monday Night Football. (Now he’s an NFL head coach who uses Spider 2 Y Banana in NFL games.) It’s a play that almost certainly appears to be a halfback dive up the middle following behind a blocking fullback—and then the fullback splits horizontally into the flat, where he’s typically wide open for a touchdown. It’s not designed for the running back to score, or the tight end, or any stray receivers—it’s for the big dude who only seems good at blocking. And the bigger the dude—and the less capable they seem of anything skillful—the more likely they are to score.
For example: On Sunday, the Buccaneers brought in 347-pound, second-year defensive tackle Vita Vea to play fullback. Vea had never caught a pass or run the ball in the pros or in college. Surely, when Vea came into the game, his job was just to plow forward to get the Bucs’ running back into the end zone.
But what the Falcons apparently didn’t realize is that Vea is more than just a mountain of muscle. In fact, he played running back in high school. (The highlight tape is wonderful.) So when the Buccaneers threw him the ball, he was ready:
THIS IS NOT A DRILL— Tampa Bay Buccaneers (@Buccaneers) November 24, 2019
VITA VEA HAS HAULED IN HIS FIRST CAREER TOUCHDOWN pic.twitter.com/UXlButlO9H
At 347 pounds, Vea is the heaviest player ever to catch an NFL touchdown. (A few heavier players, such as 352-pound Akiem Hicks, have had running touchdowns.) When Vea checked into the game, the Falcons clearly thought he had no business catching a football. And that’s exactly why he slipped completely unguarded into the end zone, doing the thing the other team assumed he was incapable of.
Loser: Joey Slye
It has been a bad year for kickers. After years and years of steadily trending upward, kickers have experienced a steep, sudden dropoff in 2019, hitting on fewer than 80 percent of their kicks for the first time since 2003. But Panthers kicker Joey Slye went above and beyond Sunday. (What’s the opposite of above and beyond? Below and … close by? I’m working on it.)
Slye’s kicking had already hurt the Panthers as they drove to the New Orleans goal line in the closing minutes of Sunday’s game against the Saints. He missed two extra points—as many as he’d missed all season—which meant the score was tied 31-31 when the Panthers might have otherwise been trying to run out the clock with a two-point lead. Kickers have made 93.7 percent of their extra points this year, so even in the context of a shanky season, going 1-for-3 on extra points is pretty bad.
But he had a chance to win the game, or at least give Carolina a lead. The Panthers drove to the 10-yard line, setting Slye up for a 28-yard field goal. Again, even in the context of a shanky season, this should have been easy—kickers were 176-for-179 on kicks from 30 yards and closer, 98.3 percent, heading into Week 12.
But Slye missed:
It’s the shortest go-ahead or game-tying miss in a regular-season game with under two minutes to go since 2016, when Seahawks kicker Steven Hauschka missed a 28-yarder with 11 seconds left in overtime of a tie game against the Cardinals. Before that, you have to go back to 2002, when 49ers kicker Jose Cortez missed a 27-yarder in a tie game against the Raiders.
Sure, kickers have been bad this year. But on Sunday, Slye even struggled at hitting the chip shots that kickers have remained consistent at making in this down year—and cost his team the game.
Winner: Dwayne Haskins’s Selfies
Washington won Sunday, which probably wasn’t the best thing for the long-term hopes of the franchise—they’re now one of three 2-9 teams, whereas if they’d lost they’d be the NFL’s only 1-10 team—but was a great thing for rookie quarterback Dwayne Haskins, one of the team’s two first-round picks in 2019.
It’s been a rough year for Haskins, who entered Sunday with two passing touchdowns and five interceptions, and, honestly, that continued Sunday. He went 13-for-29 for 156 yards with no touchdowns, an interception, and a lost fumble. But whatever—he got the win! And he was so excited about it that he decided to start celebrating a bit early. He began taking selfies with fans while play was still going, forcing the team to send backup quarterback Case Keenum to take kneeldowns out of the victory formation:
Dwayne Haskins takes a selfie with fans while Case Keenum has to do the victory formation pic.twitter.com/Y76AL2cquF— CJ Fogler (@cjzer0) November 24, 2019
Some criticized Haskins for his inattentiveness, but I see this as a win-win for everybody involved. First of all, it’s nice that even in the depths of a lost season, Haskins is this thrilled about getting a W. Second of all, Haskins created a once-in-a-lifetime selfie for some fans—a shot with an NFL quarterback during a game—and considering the fact that tickets were going for $5, Washington really should be trying to come up with more unique in-game opportunities to entice fans. Third of all, Haskins made Keenum feel important. Just look at how excited Case is to lead a huddle! Look at how he goes through all the motions of looking at the play-calling sheet on his wrist and kneeling in the huddle, even though he could almost certainly just say, “Guys, we’re kneeling,” and everybody would get the gist.
But most importantly, Haskins preserved his stat line—he finished the day with a career-high 28 yards rushing, while Keenum picked up a negative rushing yard with the kneeldowns. Sucker.
The Cowboys lost to the Patriots Sunday for several reasons. For one, the Cowboys failed to score a touchdown. For another, head coach Jason Garrett seemed really insistent on preventing them from scoring a touchdown, having the team attempt a field goal in the opposing red zone while trailing by seven points rather than try to convert a fourth-and-7. But the Cowboys struggling on offense and Garrett making baffling decisions have both happened before. What was unusual was the officials’ insistence on penalizing the Cowboys for one of the least called penalties in the rulebook: tripping.
Entering Sunday, there had been only five tripping penalties accepted this NFL season. There were 10 last year and 10 in 2017. So the odds of any team being called for two tripping penalties in a season are pretty low, and the odds of any team being called for two tripping penalties in the same game are astronomically low.
But the Cowboys were called for tripping twice, and they didn’t seem to deserve either.
What “tripping” looks like when you play in New England pic.twitter.com/cKmvRpcRWz— Warren Sharp (@SharpFootball) November 24, 2019
This is the exact opposite of a tripping. He moved out of the way to avoid tripping the defender. This BS has to stop. Please NFL. Stop this. pic.twitter.com/J8Lt0RBKls— Geoff Schwartz (@geoffschwartz) November 25, 2019
Tripping normally gets called when a player clearly intentionally extends their leg to stop somebody, like this. That hardly seems to be the case on these plays, where the offensive linemen were in pretty normal stances.
The two penalties were huge. The first brought up a second-and-23, and three plays later, the Cowboys had a punt blocked. The second overturned a critical third-down conversion by Ezekiel Elliott, bringing up third-and-11.
Personally, I don’t think NFL refs were trying to flip the game in favor of the Patriots. (If anything, the NFL should be trying to get the Cowboys, a perennial ratings powerhouse, into the postseason, which the Pats are already basically qualified for.) However, if they were, they probably would’ve done something like “incorrectly call the same obscure penalty twice.”
Loser: Mike Glennon’s Time to Shine
After back-to-back-to-back wins, it seemed like maybe it was time to take the Oakland Raiders seriously! But, it turns out, nah: Oakland got straight-up wrecked by the New York Jets, losing 34-3. On November 3 the Jets lost to the Dolphins, who lost by three scores to the Browns on Sunday, and the Browns lost by 30 to the Titans in the season opener, and the Titans got shut out by the Broncos on October 13, and the Broncos lost by three scores to the Bills on Sunday. I guess my point is, you really shouldn’t lose 34-3 to the Jets.
The blowout was so bad that in the fourth quarter, shortly after starting quarterback Derek Carr threw a pick-six, Jon Gruden subbed out Carr for backup quarterback Mike Glennon. This itself isn’t particularly notable—quarterbacks in blowouts often get benched—but what happened next was. On each of Glennon’s first two drives, he fumbled a shotgun snap from the center.
Thank god we moved on from Mike Glennon pic.twitter.com/mnNmJHBeXX— Red Line Radio (@RedLineRadio) November 24, 2019
I could find video of only one of the two fumbles, but I assure you there were two. Check the play-by-play! And Glennon fumbled another shotgun snap later in the game. Three times, he fumbled lightly tossed footballs under zero pressure.
I am fairly confident that I could do almost nothing NFL players are regularly asked to do. I could not throw passes well or catch well-thrown passes; I could not block or tackle anybody; I could not punt or kick field goals or even place the hold on field goals or snap the ball to the holder. However, I am fairly confident that I could, almost every time, catch the shotgun snap. Glennon, apparently, can’t. Even if he had Patrick Mahomes’s arm strength and Lamar Jackson’s speed and Cam Newton’s power, I probably wouldn’t play him if he literally dropped the ball every time it came to him.
Over the past week, lots of people have developed opinions about Steelers quarterback Mason Rudolph. But Steelers fans, for their part, had a pretty steady opinion of Rudolph even before he became the topic of heated national vitriol: He’s not very good. Before Sunday’s games, Rudolph was 32nd in the league out of 33 qualifying quarterbacks in yards per attempt, ahead of just Mitch Trubisky, and he threw four picks in last week’s game against the Browns.
Sunday’s game was a chance for Rudolph to post some easy stats—after all, the winless Bengals have one of the worst defenses in NFL history, allowing 425 yards per game. Instead, Rudolph went 8-for-16 for 85 yards and an interception in the first half, just the fifth pick the Bengals have snagged all season long.
After the first drive of the second half, the Steelers switched quarterbacks, going to former fourth-stringer Devlin “Duck” Hodges, who has developed a cult following. He got his nickname because of his background as a champion duck caller, and because he, uh, tweets little cartoons of ducks wearing his jersey. (Which, if we’re being honest, is confusing: Is he a guy who can imitate ducks or an actual duck or a guy who shoots ducks?) Hodges had previously been pressed into duty when Rudolph missed a game while in the concussion protocol, and led the Steelers to a 24-17 win over the Chargers.
On Sunday, just three plays after coming into the game, Hodges threw a 79-yard touchdown to James Washington:
That Hodges threw to Washington feels especially meaningful—Washington was Rudolph’s no. 1 wide receiver when they played together at Oklahoma State, and the Steelers drafted the pair together in 2018 hoping that they could re-establish that connection in the pros. But through eight Rudolph starts, Washington caught just one touchdown. After a few plays with Hodges, bang: end zone.
Stunningly, the Steelers are currently the six-seed in the AFC. This team missed the playoffs last year with franchise quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and superstar wide receiver Antonio Brown. The team has invested more in Rudolph, who was a third-round pick in 2018 after putting up spectacular stats against Big 12 competition, than in Hodges. Meanwhile, Hodges was undrafted out of Samford. (Not Stanford.) For all of Rudolph’s newfound fame and infamy, the truth is he’s simply less likely to help.
But you know the old saying: If it walks like a starting quarterback and quacks like a starting quarterback, it’s probably a starting quarterback.
Loser: Tennessee’s Week-Late O-Linemen Beers
Vea was not the only large touchdown scorer Sunday. Titans offensive lineman Dennis Kelly got into the end zone on a play in which the defense didn’t realize he was actually lined up in an eligible position. He celebrated by shotgunning some imaginary brewskis with his offensive linemen bros:
Hmm, where have I seen an offensive lineman score a touchdown and celebrate with imaginary binge drinking? Oh yeah—last week, when Colts offensive guard Quenton Nelson (kinda) scored a touchdown and pretended to do a keg stand.
There are three possibilities here:
- The Titans offensive line did not see the Colts’ celebratory imaginary keg stand.
- The Titans offensive line saw the Colts’ celebratory imaginary keg stand, and didn’t really care that much.
- The Titans offensive line saw the Colts’ celebratory imaginary kegstand, and decided they had to respond.
For me, it has to be the third. These are division rivals! Of course they saw the keg stand celebration, and of course they tried to one-up it. But they didn’t—the bag-o-beers celebration is not only less creative than the keg stand, but it’s easier to execute, and yet the execution was still worse. (I’m really not buying those 0.6-second shotguns, guys.)
The Offensive Linemen Celebratory Imaginary Binge Drinking War of 2019 is upon us. And it’s worse than the Quarterback Beer Chugging War of Summer 2019—at least that involved actual beer.