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: Lamar Jackson
They said Lamar Jackson should play wide receiver.
THEY SAID LAMAR JACKSON SHOULD PLAY WIDE RECEIVER.
Sunday, Jackson had the best game of any player in the NFL, and one of the best single-game quarterback performances of all time. Jackson was 17-for-20 passing for 324 yards with more touchdowns (five) than incompletions (three). He had a perfect passer rating, 158.3. ESPN’s QBR, which grades players on a scale of 1-100, gave Jackson a 99.4. It was just the fourth game in football history in which a quarterback had an adjusted yards per attempt of over 20 yards per pass, joining Johnny Unitas, Joe Namath, and Drew Brees. It was only the 17th game in league history where a quarterback threw five or more touchdowns on 20 or fewer attempts. The Ravens ended up with 59 points, the most by any team since 2012.
The caveat here is that Jackson did this against the Miami Dolphins, who are actively trying to lose games. Still, the Dolphins are an NFL team, and in his eighth NFL start, Lamar Jackson tore them apart through the air. After running for 556 yards in his seven starts last year, Jackson had only three carries for 6 yards Sunday.
The narrative of Jackson’s career has been strange. In 2016, he won the Heisman Trophy, partly because he is very good at throwing footballs. And yet he became the fifth quarterback picked in last year’s draft, behind guys like Josh Allen (who threw more interceptions than touchdowns as a rookie) and Josh Rosen (who went 1-for-3 with an interception in mop-up duty for the Dolphins on Sunday). Upon becoming the Ravens’ starting quarterback, he instantly turned the team around, winning six of seven games and getting Baltimore to the playoffs, partly because he is very good at throwing footballs. And yet we got plenty of headlines about how Jackson was little more than a gimmicky running QB.
Sunday’s brilliance should be an urgent bulletin to everybody who cares about the NFL to stop being stupid about Jackson. He’s a spectacularly talented 22-year-old who is already obviously one of the best players at the most important position in football. The fact that he’s the best running quarterback in football doesn’t take away from the fact that he’s also quite good at throwing the ball. He won’t toss five touchdowns every week, but he will win a lot of games for the Baltimore Ravens, this year and for years to come. They said Lamar Jackson should play wide receiver, but luckily he didn’t listen.
Winner: The Miami Tank Job
Yes, Miami took a truly massive L. Ravens-Dolphins looked less like an NFL game and more like a Week 1 tune-up between a powerhouse college team and Southeast Fartsville Community College. The Dolphins were worse at virtually every position on both sides of the ball. Head coach Brian Flores summarized it succinctly:
We have problems on offense, defense and special teams - Brian Flores— Joe Schad (@schadjoe) September 8, 2019
But this Dolphins season isn’t about winning games. Miami is tanking, and not particularly trying to hide it. That became apparent during the offseason, and became even more apparent when the team traded away starting left tackle Laremy Tunsil for draft picks a week before the season.
The Dolphins are committed to losing a lot by a lot. This doesn’t just look like the worst team in the NFL; it looks like a potential 0-16 team. And at least the 2008 Detroit Lions and 2017 Cleveland Browns came close to winning sometimes. Will the Dolphins come within a touchdown of anybody?
The Baltimore game was brutal. And next week, Miami plays the Patriots. Sunday taught us that the Miami tanking experience will be absolutely spectacular. We’re in for some of the finest failing in football history.
Winner: A Big Jets Signing
The Jets lost a heartbreaker to the Bills. After forcing four turnovers in the first half and taking a 16-0 lead, New York gave up 17 unanswered points (including two fourth-quarter touchdowns) and lost 17-16. It was about as demoralizing as any loss could be, and the first time a team lost a game in which they forced four turnovers and committed none since 2013.
It’s not like the Bills suddenly became good at football. Their fourth-quarter awakening came at exactly the moment when the Jets’ best player, C.J. Mosley, left the game with a groin injury. Mosley was absolutely dominant. He terrorized Bills quarterback Josh Allen as a rusher, in pass coverage, and when Allen was lying prone on the ground:
Mosley was responsible for two turnovers, scooping up a fumble and scoring a touchdown on this interception return:
But when Mosley left the game, everything changed. The Bills were limited to three points while Mosley was in. After he exited, the Bills scored two touchdowns on three drives and won the game.
The Jets were generally criticized for signing Mosley to an $85 million contract in the offseason, making him the highest-paid player at a position that isn’t considered particularly important in comparison with edge rushers, cornerbacks, and safeties. But on Sunday, Mosley proved that criticism to be unfounded. He took over the game, proving that inside linebackers can still dominate. If Mosley had played all 60 minutes, the Jets probably would have won. Maybe next time.
Loser: A Small Jets Signing
The Jets had a Pro Bowl kicker last year in Jason Myers, who had an incredible 2018 season, hitting 33 of 36 field goals and going 6-for-7 on kicks longer than 50 yards. But the Jets balked at matching a four-year, $15 million contract from the Seahawks, which is pretty strange, because, like, that’s not even a lot of money. Myers is the 13th-highest-paid kicker in the league in terms of average salary.
Instead, the Jets have experienced a parade of weird struggles at kicker. (I’d call it a roller coaster, but roller coasters sometimes go up.) New York seemed to have settled on Chandler Catanzaro, who was cut by the Buccaneers after missing over a quarter of his field goals last season. But Catanzaro retired after missing a pair of extra points in a preseason game, a surprising choice for a 28-year-old at a position where players stay in the league for decades.
But the Jets seemed to luck into a good situation. Norwegian Kaare Vedvik had impressed over the last two preseasons with the Ravens, who have a reputation for spotting top-tier kicking talent but didn’t need Vedvik because they have Justin Tucker, maybe the best kicker of all time. The Vikings sent a fifth-round pick to the Ravens for Vedvik, who suddenly sucked, going 1-for-4 on kicks with Minnesota. The Vikings cut him, and the Jets were able to get a guy who seemed worthy of a draft pick mere weeks earlier.
Sunday, Vedvik made his NFL debut, and was a literal zero. He attempted an extra point and a field goal, and missed both of them by truly alarming amounts. When the Jets scored a second touchdown, they didn’t even let Vedvik kick, choosing instead to attempt a two-point conversion. Vedvik left four points on the field. The Jets lost by one.
It would be easy to blame Vedvik, but the fault really lies with the Jets for getting oddly stingy in the offseason. Because they pinched pennies, they lost an actual football game.
Winner: Gardner Minshew II
The Jaguars paid premium money for Nick Foles in the offseason, and he didn’t even last a quarter. Foles broke his collarbone minutes after taking the field for the Jaguars for the first time, an injury that should keep him out for months, not weeks. It’s hard to imagine a more disastrous turn of events for an NFL team than a quarterback getting injured immediately after signing a massive contract in the offseason.
It seemed especially stunning for the Jaguars, whose backup situation was more perilous than the average NFL team. Jacksonville had only one other quarterback on the roster, Gardner Minshew II, a rookie picked in the sixth round of April’s NFL draft. Sixth-round quarterbacks tend not to be particularly good in the NFL—yes, yes, yes, Tom Brady, I know, but other than that the best sixth-rounders in the league are Tyrod Taylor and Jeff Driskel, and other recent sixth-rounders to start NFL games include Zach Mettenberger, Curtis Painter, and Keith Null. Minshew did not particularly impress in preseason, throwing 96 passes without any touchdowns.
And somehow, Minshew played great! He went 22-for-25 with two touchdowns and an interception. He threw as many incompletions in three quarters as Foles threw on eight attempts.
The Jaguars lost, but it wasn’t because of Minshew—it’s because their defense gave up 40 points.
It’s especially stunning considering that not too long ago, Minshew’s football future seemed nonexistent. He was a mediocre quarterback for dismal East Carolina teams, going 3-14 as a starter in 2016 and 2017. He transfered as a graduate student and committed to Alabama, where he was going to be a third-stringer behind future Dolphin Tua Tagovailoa and get started on his coaching career. But he had a change of heart. He wanted to give playing another shot and transferred to Washington State, where he grew a mustache and finished fifth in Heisman voting. Still, he wasn’t likely to be drafted—Minshew was neither the first nor the last quarterback to put up gaudy stats for WSU coach Mike Leach—but the Jaguars took a flyer on him. Now, just a year after considering a stint as QB3 of a college team, Minshew is QB1 in the pros.
The Jaguars have a decision to make. They have hopes of contending in the AFC South, and could be interested in trading for another team’s backup or signing a guy like, I don’t know, Brock Osweiler. But it’s hard to imagine any available quarterback being much better than Minshew played Sunday. They should ride the mustache.
Winner: Any Defense Playing Jameis Winston
The San Francisco 49ers defense set the bad type of record last year. In 16 games, the team forced just seven turnovers, only two of which were interceptions. No NFL team had ever recorded fewer than 11 turnovers in a season. The 1982 Oilers had just three interceptions, but that was a strike-shortened season. The 0-16 Detroit Lions had four. The Niners were half as likely to pick off a pass as a team that literally did not win a game.
Sunday, the Niners had three interceptions, including two pick-sixes. It’s probably not because the 49ers have become ballhawks after being literally the worst team in football history at forcing turnovers. I suspect it has more to do with their opposition: interception machine Jameis Winston. I mean, what the hell even is this?
What in the actual Jameis? pic.twitter.com/cxgEtF0sBC— Bryan Fischer (@BryanDFischer) September 8, 2019
Stunningly, Winston has never led the NFL in interceptions thrown despite tossing roughly one per game since he was in college. But if Sunday is any indication, this just might be his year.
Loser: Melvin Gordon
Last year, Le’Veon Bell sat out Week 1 as part of a holdout, and watched as hometown hero James Conner ran for 135 yards and two touchdowns. The Steelers found a replacement, and their fans happily moved on from a guy they considered a clubhouse cancer to a guy who literally survived cancer. Bell never suited up, choosing to sit out the entire season.
This season, Melvin Gordon has also extended his holdout into the regular season, and his backup, Austin Ekeler, had a Conneresque performance filling in: 154 yards from scrimmage (58 rushing, 96 receiving) and three touchdowns, including the game-winning score in overtime:
Last year, Gordon had only four games with that many yards from scrimmage, and just two games with as many touchdowns. So the Chargers got production similar to Gordon’s—actually, better than Gordon’s—from a guy who makes less than a million dollars per season while Gordon asks for a raise.
Winner: Human Aging
I figured that Adam Vinatieri might call it quits this offseason. In 2018, he broke the all-time record for points scored, while becoming the oldest player ever to hit a 50-yard field goal. He had run out of kicking worlds to conquer. But he decided to come back for another season at age 46, becoming the third-oldest player in league history. The Colts weren’t keeping their gray-haired kicker around as a charity case. Vinatieri has actually gotten better over the course of his career: He converted on less than 80 percent of his kicks in three of his first five seasons in the league, but hasn’t done it since 2012. He was even named first-team All-Pro in 2014. At 42 years old, he was still the best kicker alive.
However, time may have caught up to Vinatieri. On Sunday, he missed three kicks, including an extra-pointer and a 29-yard field goal. It’s the first time Vinatieri missed three kicks in a game since 1999. It’s his worst game of the millennium; his worst game since the release of Willennium. Vinatieri had gone 76-for-77 on kicks of fewer than 30 yards since 2008. 76-of-77! And it was costly, as the Colts lost in overtime. Any of those three makes, and the Colts probably would have won.
It’s possible that Vinatieri is cooked, which is upsetting to think about. When Vinatieri succeeds, it feels like evidence that humans can fight the aging process, a victory against time. But on Sunday, Vinatieri’s performance reminded me that nobody can outrun death, which comes to all of us, that we are all doomed to turn to nothingness, and that every young and beautiful person you see will one day wither. So, yeah, I guess you could say I hope Vinatieri figures it out and starts hitting field goals, guys.
Tie-er: Kliff Kingsbury
The best game of the 2019 season so far featured the worst team of the 2018 season. The Arizona Cardinals had a pair of key debuts Sunday, as no. 1 draft pick Kyler Murray and new head coach Kliff Kingsbury took the field and the sideline for the first time. At first, it seemed to be going quite poorly. The Lions kept the Cardinals out of the end zone for 55 minutes, taking a 24-9 lead. But then Murray came alive, as the Cards scored 18 unanswered points in the game’s final quarter, culminating in a touchdown pass from Murray to Larry Fitzgerald and a game-tying two-point conversion in the game’s final minutes.
In overtime, the Cardinals kicked a field goal on their opening possession, which was matched by the Lions. Thanks to the NFL’s disappointing decision to reduce overtimes to just 10 minutes, the Cardinals had only 3:48 to try to win the game. After gaining 29 yards, the Cardinals stalled out, and with 1:10 remaining, Arizona faced a fourth-and-7 at Detroit’s 46-yard line.
Kingsbury faced a dilemma. If he punted, his team would not win the game. However, if he went for it, he risked giving the ball back to the Lions, who needed fewer than 10 yards to get into field goal range. He could win or lose by running offense; punting essentially guaranteed a tie. Knowing Kingsbury, I assumed there was no way Kingsbury would kick. He’s a football revolutionary! He believes in his offense! He likes fun football things, and ties are not fun football things!
But Kingsbury’s coaching debut was oddly conservative. In the first half, Kingsbury asked his team to kick a 20-yard field goal instead of trying to score a touchdown from the 2-yard line. And with the game on the line, he punted for the tie instead of playing to win the game. He’s the first coach since the introduction of overtime to begin his career with a tie.
I cannot explain fully how disappointed I was in Kingsbury’s choice. I am choosing to believe that Kingsbury, who spent his entire career coaching in a version of the sport that does not feature ties, simply did not know that the tie was an option. I have to believe that Kingsbury was stupid or unprepared, because the alternative is believing that he’s conservative, and that is a possibility I’m not sure I can live with.
Loser: Tramaine Brock
The Cardinals were able to pull out the tie thanks to Brock, who broke up a pass in the end zone in overtime that would have been a game-winning score for Detroit. Unfortunately, they were only able to record a tie because of Brock, whose embarrassing lowlight cost the Cardinals a chance at a win.
After Kingsbury punted for the tie, the Lions tried moving the ball downfield, but never made it out of their side of the field. With under 10 seconds to go, Matt Stafford threw a ball to the sideline that only Brock could catch.
As the ball floated toward Brock, it became clear the game was about to change in a moment. Before Stafford’s throw, the Cardinals could only lose or tie. But if Brock picked the pass, he could quickly step out of bounds to set up a field goal—or perhaps he could even take the ball to the end zone for a game-ending touchdown.
But Brock dropped it.
The Cardinals dropped a potential game-winning pick with 5 seconds left in OT.— FOX Sports: NFL (@NFLonFOX) September 9, 2019
Kyler Murray and Christian Kirk had the exact same reaction as you did pic.twitter.com/HHW1jm6vP0
I can’t remember a game swinging on such a simple failure. He could’ve just … caught it! And they likely would have won! And he dropped it! He just dropped it! A million voices cried out, “And that’s why he doesn’t play wide receiver.”
Winner: Antonio Brown
Steelers fans had a fun five hours Saturday after the Raiders released Antonio Brown, which seemingly vindicated Pittsburgh’s decision to trade the perpetual All-Pro wide receiver. After Sunday night, that seems like a millennium ago. Brown will join the Patriots, who proved with a 33-3 win over Pittsburgh that they’re probably the last team in the league that needs him. Julian Edelman had 83 yards, Josh Gordon had 73 yards and a touchdown, and Phillip Dorsett, who will be the team’s WR4 after Brown suits up, had 95 yards and two touchdowns. They’re adding one of the best receivers in the league to this receiving corps.
Meanwhile, the Steelers barely seem capable of running a functioning offense, with 37-year-old Ben Roethlisberger lacking his favorite target of the past decade. Roethlisberger threw for 276 yards, but had to attempt 47 passes to get there. Only six of his passes went for more than 10 yards, and two of those came in extreme garbage time on the Steelers’ final drive down 30 with under two minutes remaining.
For all the laughing about Brown’s antics, it sure seems like the Steelers are going to be a lot worse without him. It’s hard to imagine how the Patriots could get much better with the addition of Brown, but I’m sure they’ll find a way.