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 Chicago Kicking Extravaganza
Praise be to Ditka; Chicago finally has a kicker. After last season’s d*****-d****, the most dreadful kick in Chicago since Mrs. O’Leary’s cow burned down the damn city, the entire Chicagoland area was stricken with kicker madness. Head coach Matt Nagy called a 43-kicker, seven-month audition process (slight exaggerations) where kickers were graded on obscure, high-tech metrics as opposed to, like, whether or not they hit field goals. It was so arcane and pressurized that it almost seemed counterproductive.
The winner was Eddy Pineiro, who drilled 17 of 18 field goals his final season at Florida. In preseason, Piniero hit a 58-yard field goal, but also missed an extra point so badly it missed the net. Could he be counted on?
The answer is yes. Week 1, Pineiro scored every single one of Chicago’s points—to be fair, there were only three of them. And Sunday, Pineiro was the hero. He drilled a 53-yard field goal as time expired to beat the Broncos 16-14.
It was such a thrill the Bears embarked on one of the least coherent celebrations in league history. Just sheer, unadulterated joy and shock:
lmao the Bears with an absolute nonsense celebration pic.twitter.com/P9XwnKA15c— Pete Blackburn (@PeteBlackburn) September 15, 2019
Bears celebration.— Ⓜ️arcusD ▶️ (@_MarcusD3_) September 16, 2019
All Chicago’s kicker-related sins are forgiven. It no longer matters that the Bears cheaped out on All-Pro Robbie Gould or that Cody Parkey went on Today. Chicago has a new hero, on par with Barack Obama, Peter Francis Geraci, and whoever invented giardiniera. The Old Styles are free for Pineiro for life, or at least until he misses a soul-crushing kick in this year’s playoffs.
Loser: Kliff Kingsbury’s Bravado
I did not invite Kliff Kingsbury to the NFL just to have him embarrass me in front of my friends! And yet here we are: After vouching for Kingsbury as a rebel extraordinaire—the dashing, handsome Air Raid cavalier, swooping into the NFL to steal yards and hearts—Kingsbury showed up just to chicken out.
The Air Raid part is working. Kyler Murray is making history, just the second player ever to throw for 300 yards in each of his first two NFL games. And the Cardinals are running virtually every play with four wide receivers and no tight ends, exactly the lineup that makes the Air Raid work in college. And honestly, the team hasn’t been bad! In Week 1, they tied the Lions, who beat the Chargers on Sunday to move to 1-0-1. This week, they lost 23-17 to a Ravens team that won by 49 last week. The Cardinals seem on the verge of beating legitimate NFL teams just a year after going 3-13.
The one thing that isn’t working is Kingsbury’s nerve. Last week, the Cardinals kicked a field goal from the 2-yard line and Kingsbury ordered an overtime punt to preserve a tie. The Kingsbury I vouched for would have tried to score from the 2 and would have gone for it on fourth down to pull out a win.
And this week, Kingsbury kicked field goals on fourth-and-1 from the 4-yard line, fourth-and-goal from the 3-yard line, and fourth-and-goal from the 2-yard line. While the team was losing. He made Cowardly Field Goal history.
Kliff Kingsbury and the Cardinals are now the first team since the NFL moved the goal posts in 1974 to attempt 3 field goal attempts in a game, while trailing, from inside the 5-yard line.— Football Perspective (@fbgchase) September 15, 2019
Sure, Kingsbury got nine points out of those three possessions. But if his team managed a touchdown on just two of those, they would’ve had 14 and needed a field goal instead of a touchdown at the end of the game. And, well, teams convert on fourth-and-1 about two-thirds of the time. The right call was going for it, and through two weeks, Kingsbury has made it clear he doesn’t care. Which is why they’re 0-1-1 instead of potentially 2-0.
I’m embarrassed, Kliff! I let all my friends know how excited I was for you to show up at the party, and you showed up and you’re spitting in the beer pong cups?
Winner: Game-Winning Dirty Work
I’m tired of game-winning catches and throws and field goals and fancy stuff like that. Football’s too ugly to celebrate only the pretty stuff. Sunday brought a pair of spectacular game-winning plays that made me feel warm inside (and made some professional athletes hurt).
The first was from the Houston Texans’ 13-12 win over the Jaguars. (Ugh, 13-12. Even the scoreline sounds painful.) With the Jags trailing 13-6, folk hero Gardner Minshew II led them on a touchdown drive, and head coach Doug Marrone decided to go for two for the win instead of attempting an extra point for the tie. But Marrone opted to take the ball out of Minshew’s hands and give it to Leonard Fournette—and Fournette ended up in the hands of Texans safety Justin Reid.
If Fournette breaks the plane of the goal line, the Texans lose. Say what you will about Fournette’s career, but he’s 228 pounds and ran a 4.51-second 40-yard dash at the combine.
Momentum is mass times velocity, so by my calculations, Fournette has A Lot of Momentum. Reid weighs only 203 pounds, but when Fournette lunged for the goal line, Reid needed to stop him without giving an inch. Reid snagged a human larger than him out of the air, with no inches to spare, and saved the Texans a win. Mike Jones would be proud. (Both Mike Joneses. I assume Mike is a Texans fan.)
The other one came in Sunday Night Football. Trailing 20-17, the Falcons were facing a fourth-and-3, and the Eagles brought a blitz. So they called a play that got the ball out of Matt Ryan’s hands and into Julio Jones’s hands. With the Eagles selling out to get to Ryan, only two defenders stood between Jones and the end zone—the defensive backs assigned to guard him and fellow wide receiver Mohamed Sanu. Sanu took out the man assigned to guarding Jones. The other was the responsibility of left tackle Jake Matthews, whose job was to sprint as fast as he could move his 309 pounds and get that receiver out of Jones’s way. He obliterated cornerback Avonte Maddox, springing Jones for a game-winning touchdown:
Look at that block by Jake Matthews pic.twitter.com/o80bzbz1Mm— Carlton (@SlopingGiraffe) September 16, 2019
Momentum is mass times velocity, and when Maddox saw all of Matthews’s momentum headed his way he decided his best option was to curl up into the turf. Yes, Julio sprinted 50 yards after the block, but that was easy after Matthews ground the Eagles’ last line of defense into dust.
Football players aren’t the strongest or fastest athletes in the world—those guys are in the Olympics, exclusively lifting weights or sprinting. But they might be the most ridiculous in their all-around athleticism. You just watched a 200-pound defensive back stop a bulldozing running back dead in his tracks, and watched a 300-pound offensive lineman sprint to outflank a cornerback. These were two incredible tasks that you’d think neither player was particularly suited for, and yet when called upon, they both turned top-level athletes into their playthings.
Sunday was the end of an era in the NFL: the era when some games were randomly played on another sport’s field. The Raiders hosted the Chiefs, their last September home game in Oakland, an arena shared with the Oakland A’s. (You know, the baseball team that Kyler Murray was supposed to play for.) During the part of the season when the Raiders and A’s share a stadium, the two sports’ fields awkwardly feature evidence that another sport is played there. The A’s play baseball games with faint chalk markings of yardage lines scattered throughout the outfield, and the Raiders play football games with a dirt infield.
With the Raiders on the road in four of the next six weeks—and the one “home” game being played in London—and the team moving to Las Vegas next year, Sunday was the last game with the dirt cutout. On the one hand, this is an objectively good thing: Players hate the dirt, which is significantly more painful to get tackled on than grass. Quarterback Derek Carr called getting tackled on the dirt the equivalent of “belly-flopping on pavement.”
However, I’ll miss the dirt. Dirt infields in the middle of football fields are a remnant of an era when cities would build one stadium and that would be enough for all the city’s teams, all crammed into one enormous circular enclosure with enough room for a 120-yard football field across the middle. Nowadays, each individual pro franchise builds their own wildly expensive stadium, complete with perfect sight lines designed for each sport and $16 sandwiches. (Delicious $16 sandwiches.) Dirt infields were ugly and reeked of shoddiness, but a little shoddiness feels good when everything else is as buttoned-up as the NFL can be. It made games in America’s most profitable sports league feel like a high school gym with volleyball lines interfering with the basketball 3-point arc. Now they’re gone, and someday the fact that they ever existed will feel as foreign as watching games with leather helmets or goalposts on the goal line.
Winner: The New Jersey Bills
The Buffalo Bills are technically the only NFL team in the state of New York. (Bills fans are rather proud of this fact.) The Jets and the Giants, though repping New York in name, actually play at MetLife Stadium in the majestic swamplands of Northern New Jersey, roughly 9 miles from Manhattan. (An hour in traffic.) However, the Bills spent the opening of their season in New Jersey, playing back-to-back away games against the Jets and the Giants and becoming the first team ever to open their season with two road games in the same arena.
And the Bills took both, establishing absolute dominion over New York and its neighboring regions. Last week Buffalo shocked the Jets, rallying from a 16-0 deficit to win 17-16 thanks to some Josh Allen heroics and Jets kicking woes. Sunday was … less dramatic. The Bills comfortably handled the Giants, winning 28-14 in a game where Eli Manning threw two picks and Allen didn’t make any big mistakes. Now, to claim absolute emperorship of the Empire State, all Buffalo will have to do is win a Week 17 game over the Jets in Buffalo. The Bills haven’t won all three games against the New York–New Jersey contingent since 1996.
Right now, there are nine 2-0 NFL teams. Six of them—the Patriots, Chiefs, Ravens, Cowboys, Seahawks, and Rams—made the playoffs last year and are generally expected to make the playoffs this year. Two others—the Packers and 49ers—were considered possible playoff teams this year, with Vegas projecting the win total for the Packers at nine and the 49ers at 8.5. The Bills are easily the team with the least preseason love to emerge from the opening eighth of the NFL season with a perfect record.
Is it sustainable? Unclear. It does so happen that the Jets and Giants are both superhumanly embarrassing organizations, who have put forth filth this season. But there’s certainly reason for optimism. The defense looks as good as advertised, even with an Eli Manning/Sam Darnold caveat. And Josh Allen—a quarterback whom I thought would be essentially unplayable based off his college performance—appears to be legitimately adequate. (He still has more turnovers than total touchdowns on the year … but he’s kept Buffalo in games!) The Bills might be a dark horse playoff candidate. They won six games last year, and I could see them matching that number by November with the Bengals, Titans, Dolphins, and Eagles on the schedule. For now, they’re emperors of the Empire State and kings of the Garden State, too, I guess.
Loser: Donte Moncrief
Last year, the Pittsburgh Steelers had two good wide receivers, Antonio Brown and JuJu Smith-Schuster. After trading Brown, the Steelers prepared for life with Smith-Schuster as their no. 1 receiver.
To help fill the void, the Steelers signed Donte Moncrief to start opposite Smith-Schuster. It wasn’t exactly a thrilling signing—in five seasons with the Colts and Jaguars, Moncrief never recorded 1,000 yards as a season. But at least the Steelers had signed a player who knew how to catch footballs with his hands.
Or so they thought! In Week 1, Moncrief was targeted 10 times and dropped four passes, managing only three catches for 7 yards. Moncrief had four drops all last season, and he matched that in last week’s game against the Patriots. Sunday, it got worse. Moncrief was targeted just once. The pass hit him right in the hands, without much of a contest from any defender. But the ball flopped up and was easily intercepted by a waiting Seahawk:
Moncrief should be benched or cut. He’s failing at the bare minimum required of wide receivers. Even if the other options on the roster aren’t particularly palatable (the other four wide receivers on the roster—James Washington, Ryan Switzer, Diontae Johnson, and Johnny Holton—have a combined 84 career receptions) Moncrief is unplayable.
Winner: George Blanda
Last week we wrote about how Adam Vinatieri, the 46-year-old Colts kicker who has set virtually every kicking record to be set, might be done. While Vinatieri’s age is evident in his salt-and-pepper hair and beard (heavy on the salt), he seemed ageless on the field. However, Week 1, he missed a pair of field goals and an extra point—his first game with three missed kicks since 1999—costly failures for a Colts team that lost to the Chargers in overtime.
Sunday, he was worse. Although Indianapolis managed a 19-17 win over Tennessee, Vinatieri held the team back, missing multiple extra points for the first time in his career. It seems all but certain that he will retire on Monday. If not, the Colts would be forced to cut him. Yes, Vinatieri is the GOAT of his profession, but even GOATs get old. (I doubt an NBA team would sign Michael Jordan if he asked to play tomorrow.) The Colts need points from their kicker, and Vinatieri can’t connect on even the simplest kicks consistently.
I guess it’s time to say goodbye to a legend. Vinatieri was remarkable for his longevity (he debuted in 1996, two months before Bill Clinton’s reelection and a month before the release of “No Diggity”), his skill (kickers are considerably better than they were in 1996, and yet Vinatieri somehow managed to continue improving throughout his career, well into the fifth decade of his life), and his clutchness (how many other kickers have won multiple Super Bowls with game-winning kicks?). (None. The answer is none.)
Last year, I wrote about how Vinatieri’s record for points scored and total field goals made are unlikely to ever be broken (or at least won’t be broken for a very long time). But if Vinatieri really is retiring, there’s one record he won’t break. Vinatieri will retire at a younger age than George Blanda, the Hall of Famer who began his career as a hybrid quarterback-kicker and kept kicking long enough to become the oldest player in NFL history. At the time of Blanda’s last game, the 1976 AFC championship game, he was 48 years and 109 days old. At 46 years and 261 days, Vinatieri is about a year and a half short of this record.
A peek at Blanda’s career reveals there’s simply no comparing the two as kickers. Blanda hit 52.4 percent of his field goals in his career (even though the goal posts were at the front of the end zone for most of that time) and went a combined 8-for-38 on kicks longer than 50 yards. Vinatieri hit 84.1 percent of his attempts; Blanda hit one field goal from over 50 yards after his 40th birthday, and Vinateri hit seven in the 2016 season alone.
But the record books will always show that Blanda played longer. Congratulations to George, or, uh, his surviving family members. Hopefully Tom Brady’s process of stealing the youth and beauty of younger quarterbacks fails him sometime in the next five years.
Winner: The Incredibly Meaningful Trick Play
My favorite football thing is the Large Man Touchdown. (Trust me: I’m on the Piesman committee.) While many Large Man Touchdowns come by chance—when a ball bobbles to a big man who happens to squeeze into the end zone—some come by design. And on the designed ones, honestly, the big man doesn’t have to do much. They don’t need to be alarmingly fast, and their job on the play often consists of catching a relatively simple pass. The plays succeed because of their design, catching defenses off-guard because they’re not paying attention to which receivers are eligible and not expecting a big man to snag a pass. The offense can often pick any Large Man they’d like to get a score as the touchdown recipient.
Sunday, the Titans made a particularly inspired choice: David Quessenberry, a backup offensive lineman who primarily plays on Tennessee’s special teams units. Sunday, Quessenberry was playing in his fourth NFL game … in seven seasons. He was drafted in the sixth round of the 2013 draft, but suffered a season-ending injury in his very first week on a pro roster. And before the start of the 2014 season, Quessenberry was diagnosed with cancer.
Beating cancer is hard enough. Quessenberry did it and somehow managed to return to NFL form. He played in his first game in 2017, appearing in two games for the Texans. This year was the first time he earned a consistent on-field role, making Tennessee’s roster out of training camp and playing eight snaps last week, his first-ever Week 1 appearance. Sunday, the Titans honored his incredible road back by throwing him a ball:
Quessenberry probably isn’t going to have a particularly productive career—he’s 29 and still unlikely to win a starting job. But after what he’s been through, just being on the field is a highlight. So the Titans made sure he had an actual highlight to remember, regardless of what happens next in his career.
Loser: The Refs’ Saints Struggles
The NFL has an officiating problem. It’s worth noting that the NCAA, NBA, MLB, NHL, FIFA, and probably the American Cornhole League also seem to have officiating problems. The problem isn’t so much with officials as the fact that officials are humans, who are flawed and routinely fail.
One flaw humans have is our tendency to try to ascribe reason to the random, uncaring quirks of the cosmos. For example: the way we view the New Orleans Saints, who experienced yet another failure at the hands of the NFL’s unfortunately human referees. The Saints famously missed out on a trip to the Super Bowl after refs missed a blatant pass-interference penalty by the Rams in last season’s NFC championship game. The NFL acknowledged it failed and changed the rules, but couldn’t change the result of the game.
Sunday, the Saints met the Rams again, and they were robbed of a touchdown by a refereeing error. Jared Goff clearly fumbled a ball, later knocking it into the air with his empty hand. Saints defensive end Cameron Jordan picked it up and ran 87 yards into the end zone, but referees whistled the play dead, claiming Goff had thrown an incomplete forward pass:
We're only on Week 2 and the #Saints have already got screwed massively by the refs twice.— Dov Kleiman (@NFL_DovKleiman) September 15, 2019
It makes it 3 in a row, #NFL, you gotta do better than this.
Refs blew this play dead, cost the Saints a touchdown.pic.twitter.com/0RiOdvNci4
If the officials had called the play a fumble live, it would have been automatically reviewed, as all turnovers and scores are, giving replay review the option to rule the play as an incomplete pass. That would have been unnecessary, because the play was a fumble, but it would have been an option. However, because officials called the play an incomplete pass live, the review could not give the Saints the touchdown they obviously scored. It could only overturn the incorrect call and give the Saints possession. New Orleans didn’t score on that drive, and lost. (By more than one score, but still!) It’s not just that the referees failed—once again, it was that they failed in a way replay review could not fix.
Saints fans would be wrong to assume the officials are intentionally screwing them over. Referees are screwing up everywhere, because they’re humans and flawed. The Saints are merely unfortunate in that the referees’ flaws seem to pop up in the Saints’ biggest moments. That said, I appreciate the fact that Saints fans are loud in their displeasure with all these flaws. It’s already convinced the NFL to make officiating a little bit less human, and a little bit less flawed. More will come.
Winner: The Dolphins’ Run at History
We all know the Miami Dolphins are trying to go 0-16. (The players also know it, which is why they’re all demanding trades.) But teams have gone 0-16 before. After two weeks, the Dolphins are on path for a grander type of suck. They want more than just the absence of wins; they want to achieve the bad type of history in every facet of the game.
Miami followed up a 59-10 loss to the Ravens with a 43-0 loss to the Patriots, the first 40-point shutout in the NFL since … the Ravens shut the Dolphins out 40-0 two years ago. The Patriots defense had two touchdowns; the Dolphins offense had two trips across midfield. The Dolphins had only 28 yards entering the fourth quarter. That’s 9.3 yards per quarter.
The Dolphins are averaging five points per game; no NFL team since the AFL/NFL merger in 1970 has averaged fewer than 7.4 points per game. They are allowing 51 points per game; the all-time record for most points allowed per game is 33.3. The Dolphins are averaging 192 yards per game, the fewest yards per game post-merger is 210.9. The Dolphins are allowing 512.5 yards per game; the NFL record is 467.1 yards per game. They’re not quite on pace to set the record for most turnovers per game (3.9), but after Sunday’s four-interception game (three by Ryan Fitzpatrick, a fourth by Josh Rosen) it’s in the realm of possibility.
To be fair, the Patriots are very good, and the Ravens seem to be as well. But the Dolphins seem dedicated to achieving greatness in the form of badness. I believe in their ability to break one, if not all, of these records. You merely adopted the tank; the Dolphins were born in it, depending on which aquarium you’re visiting.