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The Winners and Losers From Thanksgiving Day Football

Jason Garrett’s job security went from bad to worse. Younghoe Koo established himself as an onside-kick genius. And Ole Miss (literally!) pissed away the Egg Bowl.

NFL: Buffalo Bills at Dallas Cowboys Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

Every week this NFL season, we will celebrate the electric plays, admonish the colossal blunders, and explain the inexplicable moments of the most recent slate. Welcome to Winners and Losers. Which one are you?


Winner: College Football Thanksgiving

I know the focus of this post is supposed to be the NFL, and for good reason—Thanksgiving is one of the most important days on the league calendar, with the annual Cowboys and Lions games often ranking among the top five in regular-season viewership. However, the NFL shares the holiday with a college football game, the Egg Bowl rivalry between Ole Miss and Mississippi State, and this year the Egg Bowl stole the show. Each of Thursday’s three NFL games featured relatively conventional endings: The Saints held off the Falcons 26-18, the Bills defeated the Cowboys 26-15, and the Bears beat the Lions 24-20. Meanwhile, the Egg Bowl delivered a one-of-a-kind finish that made me truly thankful to be a football fan.

Down 21-14 in the closing minutes of the game, Ole Miss put together a ludicrous touchdown drive, successfully converting a fourth-and-24 and later squeezing across the goal line with four seconds to go when backup quarterback Matt Corral completed a pass to wide receiver Elijah Moore. By scoring a game-tying touchdown in the waning moments of the state’s biggest college rivalry, Moore immediately became a hero to about half of Mississippians. But apparently he felt that he still hadn’t made enough of a mark on the game. Moore celebrated by imitating a peeing dog, crawling on all fours and lifting up his right leg to mock pissing on Mississippi State’s end zone. This was an obvious unsportsmanlike conduct penalty and drew a flag for excessive celebration, pushing the game-tying extra-point attempt back by 15 yards. Ole Miss kicker Luke Logan then promptly missed the longer PAT, and the Rebels lost 21-20.

Odell Beckham Jr. invented the dog-piss celebration after scoring a touchdown two years ago, when he was still on the Giants. This was a response to Donald Trump calling NFL players “sons of bitches” and an attempt to reclaim the derogatory phrase hurled at the league by the president of the United States. Beckham was nonetheless flagged for the on-field celebration. Later in 2017, wide receiver D.K. Metcalf, then at Ole Miss, co-opted this celebration in the Egg Bowl. There was no political reason in Metcalf’s case; he just wanted to pretend-pee on Mississippi State’s field. (The Egg Bowl rivalry is heated—this was the second year in a row that officials decided to assess a personal foul to every player on both teams to ensure that anybody else who acted out would be automatically ejected.) Metcalf, of course, was also penalized.

So Moore’s celebration was not original, and it had a 100 percent penalty rate. But he just needed to make clear that Mississippi State’s field, team, and fans were worthy targets of dog piss. Many teams would have gone for two and the win in this situation, but the pee penalty made that impossible. By missing a 33-yard extra point, Logan somehow became the first kicker to miss a massively important PAT and escape most of the blame for a loss.

While neither Mississippi State nor Ole Miss is in the SEC championship race—the Bulldogs improved to 6-6 with the win, while the Rebels dropped to 4-8 with the loss—this turn of events will be remembered forever. It’s an iconic result that will resonate throughout the history of the Egg Bowl, and indeed all of college football. The Iron Bowl had the Kick-Six; the Egg Bowl has the Piss Miss, or the Pee-A-T. This was the time a team—now called Ole Piss, whose fans must cheer Hotty Potty—literally pissed away its biggest game of the season.

Loser: Coaches on the Hot Seat

Did you know that the Cowboys could soon fire Jason Garrett? It’s only the biggest and loudest talking point in the entire state of Texas. Such a move is probably overdue: Garrett is the longest-tenured NFL head coach who hasn’t won a Super Bowl—and he hasn’t even made a Super Bowl or an NFC championship game. But he always seems like he’s doing well, because he’s always clapping, and people usually clap when good things happen.

Garrett may have clapped Thursday, but his team didn’t deserve it. Dallas was throttled by a Bills team that would have scored on six straight drives if not for a pesky missed field goal. Heading into Week 13, Buffalo, now 9-3, had zero wins against teams with winning records. Dallas, now 6-6, will head into Week 14 still lacking a win against an above-.500 team.

Cowboys owner Jerry Jones didn’t act immediately following Thursday’s loss. He stood by Garrett when talking to reporters after the game. But Garrett’s time in Dallas seems to be rapidly nearing its end.

Garrett was joined in holiday misery by a pair of peers whose seats have also grown increasingly toasty as the weather outside has gotten colder. Falcons head coach Dan Quinn seems even more likely than Garrett to be fired in a few weeks. Three seasons after making the Super Bowl, Atlanta is now 3-9, and credit for its Super Bowl run has been given to the brilliant offensive schemes of Kyle Shanahan, the now–49ers head coach who took those schemes with him to San Francisco as the Falcons have slid backward into irrelevance. And it may be time for the Lions to move on from Matt Patricia, as Detroit is en route to a second-straight fourth-place NFC North finish. Sure, Patricia has been in charge for only two years, but the previous Lions coach, Jim Caldwell, was fired after four seasons in which the team never finished last in the division. Patricia has the opposite problem of Quinn: While it’s clear that Quinn’s assistants were largely responsible for the Falcons’ previous success, it’s equally clear that Patricia had little to do with the many Super Bowls won by the Patriots when he was their defensive coordinator. New England’s defense has massively improved since Patricia left town.

Losing in the NFL is always bad, but you can get away with it for multiple seasons if nobody notices. Unfortunately, losing on Thanksgiving means people will notice. Thursday shined a light on the shortcomings of three coaches who are all trending in the wrong direction.

Winner: Onside Kicks

Entering Week 13, NFL teams were 2-of-36 (5.5 percent) at recovering onside kicks this season. Successful onside kick recoveries have always been rare and random, but since the league introduced safety-oriented changes to the kickoff play in 2018, they have seemed damn near impossible.

Until Thursday, that is, when teams recovered three onside kicks. In three Thanksgiving games, there were more successful recoveries than in the first 12 weeks of the season combined.

First up: Detroit’s Matt Prater banged a kick off an unsuspecting Bears blocker, causing the ball to ricochet back in the direction of the Lions’ coverage team.

There are two theories as to what happened here. It’s possible that Prater just shanked this kick and got lucky. It’s also possible that he pulled off the onside kick from The Waterboy, in which the actor who played D’Angelo Barksdale spotted the most frightened player on the opposing team and whipped the ball off him. (Ohio University executed this play to perfection earlier this year.) I’m choosing to believe in option no. 2, because it’s more fun. I believe that Prater can power the ball off an unsuspecting opposing player whenever he feels like it. The Lions should do this every kick.

Second and third were the kicks that came from Atlanta’s Younghoe Koo, who may very well be an onside kick genius. On back-to-back-to-back kicks, Koo booted balls that the Falcons recovered. (One was called back due to a phantom offside flag.)

The kicks were a brilliant storm of incredible precision by the Falcons and surprising failure by the Saints. Koo’s kicks were perfect, traveling slowly enough for the coverage unit to get to the ball and popping up nice and high to allow for recoveries. Atlanta linebacker Foye Oluokun, who serves more as a special teams ace than a linebacker, showcased stunning tenacity and an unparalleled nose for the ball, recovering the first two kicks and making a play on the third that knocked the ball away from New Orleans and let Atlanta take possession. And the Saints could really use some work on their onside recovery strategy; the New Orleans front line focused solely on blocking, even as the ball bounced directly toward it.

Koo’s kicks nearly set the stage for the Falcons to come back: Trailing 26-9 in the fourth quarter, Atlanta needed to score a touchdown, recover an onside kick, score again, recover another onside kick, and then score again. Somehow, it did the first four of those things, keeping the ball out of the Saints’ hands for most of the game’s closing minutes. I’m starting to think that Atlanta should attempt onside kicks every time, recovering every one. It’s hard to lose if the opponent never goes on offense!

At its best the onside kick is one of football’s most thrilling plays, but the 2018 rule changes seemingly sapped the life from it. On Thanksgiving, Prater and Koo hinted at a world where the onside kick lives again.

Loser: The Brothers Osborne

Thanksgiving has many traditions: turkey! Gravy! Football announcers half-heartedly promoting the halftime performances at the Cowboys and Lions games, causing millions of Americans to go, “Wait, this game has a halftime show?” Theoretically, I know that the Thanksgiving Cowboys and Lions games have nationally televised halftime performances, because I watch them every year. But I always forget until I’m suddenly trying to explain who Jason Derulo is to my bewildered family. (“I mean, he’s not the only musician who sings his own name, but he definitely sings it more than anyone else.”) These aren’t the Super Bowl halftime show, but not every NFL player can play in the Super Bowl—some have to play for the Lions! And not every performer can perform at the Super Bowl—some have to perform at halftime of a November Lions game. Plenty of people still watch!

Unfortunately, things didn’t go so well for the Brothers Osborne, the country group tasked with performing at halftime of the Lions-Bears game. When they began to play, the power went out.

The band stood awkwardly on stage in silence, waiting for something to happen while being broadcast to tens of millions of Americans. I can’t say for sure how long this lasted—it seemed like six hours, although it was probably more like two minutes. Regardless, the band cut its set short.

Winner: The Debut of David Blough

David Blough’s job Thursday was the stuff of dreams or nightmares. The quarterback entered 2019 as the Lions’ third-stringer and didn’t play in any of the first 12 weeks of the season. But starter Matthew Stafford’s back injury has kept him out significantly longer than expected, and backup Jeff Driskel had sudden hamstring issues that prevented him from being ready for Thursday’s game. Suddenly, Blough was Detroit’s starter. He was given roughly a day’s notice before his NFL debut, on Thanksgiving, in one of the most-watched games of the season. Even in a dream, you’d probably want more than a day to prepare for this. I need days to emotionally prepare for podcast tapings. In Blough’s shoes, I would have crumbled like the top of an apple pie.

Blough did not crumble. This was his first complete pass:

He went 22-of-38 for 280 yards with two touchdowns and an interception, keeping Detroit in the game until the very last moment. Those numbers aren’t jaw-dropping, and the Lions still lost, but he outperformed Driskel’s season averages in virtually every category. Blough isn’t the answer for the Lions—they still have Stafford—but he may be worth starting until Stafford is healthy, even if Driskel’s hamstring stops acting up. And if not, well, he just excelled in his first start … in a game that more people will watch than just about any nonplayoff game. I don’t know how he did it.

Loser: Matt Ryan’s Ideal Version of the Holiday

Some families have peaceful Thanksgivings, and some NFL players had Thanksgivings reminiscent of the idealized feel-good version of the holiday. But Saints-Falcons might be the angriest rivalry in pro football, so their Thanksgiving Day showdown was not going to look like a family happily sitting around a table raving about grandma’s pies. It was going to look like one of those families that spends 364 days building animosity toward one another and then unleashing it all in one delicious, disastrous afternoon.

This Thanksgiving, Matt Ryan was the uncle who walked into the house of his extended family who had spent the last year prepping elaborate, cutting zingers about his ongoing divorce. Except he didn’t even get to eat stuffing with gravy while it happened. Instead, he got this:

The Atlanta quarterback was sacked a career-high nine times on Thursday, and, even when he managed to throw the ball, he wasn’t safe. On the play above, Ryan tossed an interception to 300-pound Saints defensive tackle Shy Tuttle, which is embarrassing enough in itself—Ryan was picked off by the closest defensive player on the field, one who isn’t supposed to be good at catching stuff. But then Tuttle saw Ryan and realized he had a chance at glory. He stiff-armed Ryan so hard that the sheer force of the QB slamming into the turf woke up millions of semi-snoozing turkey nappers across the nation. Let’s watch it again.

Most stiff arms are simply attempts to fend off a would-be tackler for a second; this was meant to blow its recipient to smithereens. If Tuttle had been rushing the passer, he would have been penalized and probably fined for blasting through Ryan’s face like a karate expert demonstrating how to break a wooden board. But as a ballcarrier, he was free to do all sorts of mean stuff that pass rushers simply aren’t allowed to do to quarterbacks. He knew this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to send a QB to hell.

Officials did throw a flag on the play, calling Cam Jordan for a block in the back on Ryan. In some angles, it does look like Jordan’s shove causes Ryan to fall. However, I’m going to queue up the stiff-arm highlight a third time, just so you can be sure that Tuttle is solely responsible for blasting Ryan through the earth’s crust to its molten core.

On top of the nine sacks and this play that was somehow more violent than any of the sacks, Ryan threw another interception and lost a fumble. Like so many Thanksgiving celebrants, Ryan left his brutal evening with nothing to be thankful for besides the fact that he doesn’t have to see these assholes for another year. Even worse, he didn’t get to take leftovers home.