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: Alex Smith
Alex Smith’s return to an NFL playing field two years after a life-altering leg injury was a feel-good story in the same way that a viral news bit about an 89-year-old pizza delivery man getting a $12,000 tip is a feel-good story. It’s a story of perseverance against remarkable odds that makes you so viscerally angry about the circumstances that led to such remarkable odds existing in the first place that you have to remind yourself at the end that you are, hypothetically, supposed to feel good.
Smith hadn’t played since suffering a compound leg fracture in November 2018. (Note: I wrote this entry before Dak Prescott’s compound ankle fracture happened. We’ll talk about Dak’s injury later.) There are lengthy articles detailing Smith’s return from injury, and every image is a horror show. Smith legitimately could have died after the wound where his leg bones punctured his skin became infected. He developed necrotizing fasciitis—do not Google it—and sepsis. But 17 surgeries saved Smith’s life and leg. Smith could have retired and held his head high after a 13-year NFL career with a record well over .500 and a string of playoff berths. But the former no. 1 pick was determined to play.
Sunday, Smith got his chance. In the second quarter of Washington’s game against the Rams, starting quarterback Kyle Allen was injured after going head first into a collision with Jalen Ramsey. (Dwayne Haskins, who started the first four games of the season for Washington, was benched earlier in the week and sent home with an illness before the game.) Smith took the field, receiving a round of applause from his supportive family.
It was cool to see Smith play in an NFL game again, but it quickly became horrifying when I realized he was playing in an NFL game again. They do not make chill, laid-back versions of NFL games for players who battled courageously to accomplish something nobody thought they could. The Rams had no incentive or desire to give Smith a warm welcome—in fact, their job was to demolish him. Smith was a sitting duck. He does not seem particularly mobile on his surgically repaired leg, and Washington’s offensive line is a sieve. Aaron Donald, the back-to-back NFL defensive player of the year and arguably the greatest defensive tackle of all time, tied a career-high with four sacks.
Alex Smith gives Aaron Donald a piggy back ride, then pops up afterward and jogs off the field. Unreal pic.twitter.com/zZT53gKQMP— John Skellington Fraley (@johndavidfraley) October 11, 2020
Smith’s wife, Elizabeth, was clearly overjoyed when her husband came into the game. She’d been with him in the hospital when it seemed like he could die; she’d helped him through countless rehab exercises; she’d sprayed him with champagne when he was finally cleared to play. But as the cameras lingered on her, you could see the euphoria change to abject terror as she remembered the thing he wanted to do so badly was also the thing which nearly cost him everything.
Alex Smith's family was in the stadium today as Smith makes his incredible return to the football field. His wife is nervous and the kids are happy to see dad back on the field. #ChiefsKingdom pic.twitter.com/Yqyeh8WL1T— Mitchel Summers (@WIBWMitchel) October 11, 2020
It feels crass, but mandatory, to note that Smith does not appear capable of playing in the NFL right now. He finished 9-for-17 for 37 yards—just 2.2 yards per attempt, the lowest mark of Smith’s career. When we factor in sacks, Washington gained 6 yards on Smith’s 23 dropbacks. (I also suspect that 89-year-old pizza delivery guy is not particularly effective at delivering pizza.) I wanted Smith to succeed, but felt physically sick watching him needlessly endanger himself struggling to play a game his team had no hopes of winning.
That’s the thing about loving football. It’s beautiful and fascinating and thrilling and it turns the brains and bodies of the guys who play it into oatmeal. The players who play it all know this, and love the sport so much they keep throwing their bodies into the teeth of the oatmeal machine. I can’t stop watching, even though I know the players should stop playing. I wonder what the big gladiator fans told themselves back in the day.
So yeah, that’s the feel-good story. A quarterback whose unrelenting determination allowed him to recover from a brutal injury finally got to play, thanks to another quarterback’s injury, allowing a ruthless defense to repeatedly sack him while his wife nearly wept out of fear as he went back to doing the thing that nearly killed him. I’m happy Smith accomplished the thing he wanted to; I hope he can retire in peace now.
Loser: Tua Tagovailoa
The Dolphins have one of my favorite football players of all time, and he hasn’t played an NFL snap yet. I love Tua Tagovailoa, the Hawaiian southpaw who came in at halftime of the national championship game as a freshman and won Alabama a title. After using the fifth pick in April’s NFL draft on Tagovailoa and getting off to a 1-3 start, it seemed like it might finally be Tua Time for Miami.
But as he often does, Ryan Fitzpatrick had other ideas. Fitzpatrick threw for 350 yards and three touchdowns in a 43-17 drubbing of the defending NFC champion 49ers. The Dolphins hadn’t scored 43 points in a game since 2015; the Niners hadn’t allowed 43 points in a game at Levi’s Stadium since it opened in 2014. Fitzpatrick was brilliant, dropping picture-perfect dimes deep downfield over and over again.
Ryan Fitzpatrick with an absolute under pressure to Preston Williams pic.twitter.com/GvH3GhoFs7— PFF Fantasy Football (@PFF_Fantasy) October 11, 2020
Fitzpatrick is an enigma. He’s a supposed underdog who went to the most elite school in America; a veteran who aced his Wunderlic but throws the ball into triple coverage like an idiot rookie. The most wonderful thing about him (besides the beard) is that he has proved time and again that he simply doesn’t care what his team’s future quarterback plans are. In 2018, he sent the Buccaneers into disarray when he turned a caretaker job during Jameis Winston’s season-opening three-game suspension into a full-blown quarterback controversy. (He eventually won the starting job and instantly turned into a mushroom, having fulfilled his job of causing just enough chaos to make everybody mad.) Last year, many thought Miami would try to tank to get the no. 1 pick in the draft; Fitzpatrick displaced Josh Rosen and willed a previously winless team to five wins. Overall, he’s not a particularly great quarterback—he’s had an above-average passer rating in just two of his 16 NFL seasons—but when his team could honestly use a garbage outing, he never cooperates.
Because of Fitzpatrick’s late-2019 success, the Dolphins got Tagovailoa instead of Joe Burrow, and they should be excited about that. Now Fitzpatrick’s 2020 success will probably keep Tagovailoa sidelined. I don’t think there’s any evidence that it’s beneficial for a quarterback to wait until late in a season to let a rookie quarterback play—live game reps are invaluable to a young player’s development, and there’s no way for a quarterback to get them besides playing in NFL games. But how can the Dolphins bench Fitzpatrick after going for 350 and three touchdowns? My dream is Fitzpatrick leads the Dolphins to the Super Bowl, and then Tua comes in at halftime.
Winner: Cleveland’s Wide Receiver Quarterbacks
When the Browns traded for Odell Beckham Jr. last year, they reunited one of the most dynamic college football receiver duos of all time. At LSU, Beckham and Jarvis Landry each had 1,000-yard seasons in 2013 in spite of the fact that their quarterback was Zach Mettenberger and their offensive coordinator was Cam Cameron. (You may remember Mettenberger from his 0-10 NFL record as a starter, or Cameron from his 1-15 NFL record as a head coach.) Perhaps tired of Mettenberger, Beckham and Landry used to spend hours passing back and forth to one another at LSU. Last year, Beckham and Landry repeated their LSU feat by both having 1,000-yard seasons, in spite of the fact that their head coach was Freddie Kitchens.
But what past coaches couldn’t grasp is that Beckham and Landry are more than receivers: They like to throw the ball, too. Beckham proved that he can throw the ball in 2018, when he went 2-for-2 with two touchdown passes for the Giants:
But Landry made perhaps the best throw I’ve ever seen a wide receiver make in 2018 with the Browns, unleashing a 63-yard bomb into tight coverage:
Last week, Landry threw a touchdown to Beckham—a 37-yard throw that only Beckham had a chance to catch.
And this week, Beckham threw a dart to Austin Hooper for an 18-yard gain:
The Browns won 32-23 over the Colts, moving to 4-1 for the first time since the franchise was relaunched in 1999. But I can’t focus on that now: I’m scheming up ways for Beckham and Landry to throw the ball to each other.
Louisiana-Monroe once ran a two-quarterback set where a righty QB and a lefty QB lined up side by side, running RPOs where the quarterback receiving the snap had the option to pass the ball or hand it off to the other quarterback, who could roll out in the opposite direction and throw. It is the most beautiful thing my eyes have ever laid eyes on. And what’s clear is that the Browns should also be running this set, except with Landry as the lefty and Beckham as the righty. Sure, a few things are unclear—who will play wide receiver? Who will run the ball? Will companies continue running their millions of Baker Mayfield–centric commercials when he’s the third quarterback in a two-quarterback set? This, and the Browns’ historic start, are footnotes. The important thing is unleashing the double wide receiver/quarterback monster.
Loser: Jared Goff’s Inaccurate Celebrations
The dumbest celebration in football is the spike. NFL players are now allowed infinite methods of celebration—they can dance, they can perform miniature dramas, they can become stars of alternate sports. And your chosen celebration is … throwing the ball at the ground as hard as you can? It’s unoriginal and unimpressive. Scoring a touchdown is a billion times more impressive than anything I can do; throwing a football at the ground as hard as I can is literally something I can do right now. You don’t have to be an NFL quarterback to be capable of throwing a football super hard at the ground.
However, Sunday revealed a surprise: Not all NFL quarterbacks are capable of throwing the ball on the ground really hard. Jared Goff scored a rare rushing touchdown on Sunday and tried to celebrate with a good old-fashioned spike. What followed was an embarrassment, as the ball slipped and sputtered:
Laughing maniacally at Jared Goff attempting to spike a football pic.twitter.com/PfJmA0p20u— Dan (@danmorse_) October 11, 2020
Goff has now scored eight touchdowns in his career, and he’s in the running to be the worst Touchdown Celebrator in the NFL. After scoring a TD in the famous 54-51 game against Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs in 2018, he did a layup over the upright, presumably because he would’ve been incapable of dunking. Last year, after a rushing touchdown against the Saints, an attempt from Goff to give the ball to a fan turned into a disaster: Goff threw the ball too high for his intended target, and the ball bounced back onto the field, so Goff tried to pick it up, but receiver Brandin Cooks was closer, so Goff had to kind of battle Cooks for the ball, after which he underhand tossed it. Goff spiked the ball after a touchdown last year, but explained it wasn’t his first intention—“I wasn’t really sure what to do,” Goff said. “I was going to throw it at the wall in front of me and then there were a bunch of people standing there.” It’s never a good sign when a starting NFL quarterback is worried that he’s not accurate enough at throwing to successfully celebrate without killing anybody—but at least Goff learned from his missed post-TD toss against the Saints.
Now, Goff has messed up on the easiest possible throw: the spike. (It’s those tiny hands!) Maybe it’s best for everybody if Goff simply doesn’t score.
Winner: Interim Head Coaching God Romeo Crennel
You ever wonder what fired coaches do after they get fired? Coaching is this 24/7/365 profession that seems to consume its practitioners so fully that they barely know how to function as humans, and then, all of a sudden, you’re unwanted. Last week, Bill O’Brien was fired from the Texans, and he wasn’t just their coach—he was also their general manager. I’m honestly not sure O’Brien had ever been fired before—since taking a job as Brown University’s tight ends coach in 1993, he kept getting hired to bigger and bigger jobs, from Brown to Georgia Tech to Maryland to Duke to the Patriots to Penn State to Houston. He’s probably never had a football Sunday before. He might not even pay for the cable package that gives you RedZone. So I’m guessing Sunday, he saddled up to his sofa for a uniquely strange version of watching your ex’s Instagram stories.
And if O’Brien did watch the Texans, he got to see something he hadn’t seen all year: a Texans win. Houston went 0-4 in the team’s first four games, doomed to lose by O’Brien’s baffling personnel decisions and coaching quirks. But Sunday, the Texans won 30-14 over the Jaguars. Thirty was the most points Houston scored this season; 14 was the fewest points they’d allowed. They achieved season-highs across the board: Deshaun Watson’s 359 passing yards, David Johnson’s 96 rushing yards, Brandin Cooks’s 161 receiving yards. (That’s actually the fourth-most receiving yards by any player in any game this season. DeAndre Hopkins who?) The Texans also forced their first turnover of the year.
There were several factors responsible for these spectacular successes. One is that frankly, everybody hated Bill O’Brien. Another is that this game was played against the Jaguars, who suck butt. But I think we’d be remiss if we didn’t celebrate the third factor: Texans interim coach Romeo Crennel.
At 73 years old, Crennel became the oldest head coach in NFL history. (The old record for oldness was set by George Halas, who coached the Bears at 72 years old in 1967.) He’s had a remarkable career: He’s won five Super Bowls (two as an assistant coach with the Giants, three as the defensive coordinator of the Patriots), but he’s been generally unsuccessful as a head coach. His overall record in five seasons as a head coach is 26-54, including two 4-12 seasons and a 2-14 season. He also somehow won 10 games with the Browns in 2007, which is weirder than anything else mentioned here.
But Crennel is now 3-1 as an interim head coach. In 2011, the Chiefs fired Todd Haley after starting the year 5-8; the next week Crennel’s Chiefs beat the 13-0 Packers, their only loss of the regular season. Kyle Orton finished with more passing yards than Aaron Rodgers, which, now that I think of it, is even weirder than the Browns going 10-6. Two weeks later, Crennel disrupted Tebowmania with a 7-3 win over the Broncos. Crennel was so good as an interim coach, the Chiefs brought him back the next year; they went 2-14.
It’s tough ranking the greatest interim coaches of all time, but Crennel has to be on the list. According to a Sports Illustrated article, only 16 of 87 all-time interim coaches have managed records above .500, and Crennel is one of them. Bill O’Brien will be watching as Crennel turns the 0-4 Texans into playoff contenders.
Winner: The Real-Life Panthers
Panthers running back Christian McCaffrey was the undisputed no. 1 fantasy football player heading into this season. He was third in the NFL in PPR scoring in 2018; he led the league in PPR and was second in standard scoring in 2019, behind just the MVP Lamar Jackson. If you’re unaware of the connection between fantasy football and actual football, you might think this means McCaffrey is the league’s best player on the best team, but the opposite is true. McCaffrey has been a fantasy stud in part because he’s just about the only talented player on the Carolina Panthers. Last year McCaffrey led the Panthers in receptions as a running back and had 287 carries while no other Panther had more than 32; Carolina simply had nobody else to give the ball to. They went 5-11 last year, and were projected in the mix for the league’s worst record.
Through two weeks, they looked doomed. The Panthers started off 0-2, and in the second game, McCaffrey sprained his ankle and went on the injured reserve. Carolina, already bad, was without their best option. Their new starting running back, Mike Davis, had 13 carries for 27 yards between the Bears and Panthers last season, and fewer touchdowns in his five-season career than McCaffrey had last season alone.
But three weeks later, the Panthers are 3-2, having reeled off back-to-back-to-back wins in McCaffrey’s absence. Davis legitimately looks like one of the league’s best running backs: Sunday he had 89 rushing yards plus 60 receiving yards and a touchdown. He’s only 5-foot-9, but he runs like the doors just opened at Walmart on Black Friday:
And somehow was able to get out of bounds to save a timeout. pic.twitter.com/4AILmUnDtQ— Panthers 24/7 (@Panthers24_7) October 11, 2020
Mike Davis with tremendous balance here. Another critical first down. pic.twitter.com/InoSgK1AID— John Ellis (@OnePantherPlace) October 11, 2020
I want to be clear: The Panthers are not on a three-game winning streak because McCaffrey is absent. When McCaffrey was in the lineup, they lost a close game to the 3-2 Raiders; they’ve won close games against teams with a combined record of 4-10 without him. The difference between a team that loses close games to good teams and one that wins close games against bad teams is not huge. They would probably be 3-0 in their last three games with McCaffrey too.
But while the Panthers are shining without McCaffrey, I can confirm that his injury has proved devastating to all those who spent big to snag him in fantasy football. I have him in three of my four leagues. Those teams started the season 5-1 while the Panthers went 0-2; since McCaffrey’s injury, they’ve gone 1-8 while the Panthers have gone 3-0. There may be a disconnect between real football and fantasy football.
Winner: Seahawks Math
The Minnesota Vikings were in a win-win scenario. They were up 26-21 with two minutes to go, and were facing fourth-and-inches on Seattle’s 6-yard line. They had two choices: The conservative route was to kick a chip-shot field goal, which would have given them an eight-point lead, which would’ve forced Seattle to drive the length of the field, score a touchdown, and hit a two-point conversion. The other was to go for it and try to seal the win by picking up a first down. We could yell about which decision was correct, but let’s be clear: Both were pretty good calls. Let’s ditch the highly unreliable win probability charts and use some stats and logic to think about how likely a Vikings win was in every scenario.
Teams pick up fourth-and-inches at a remarkably high rate. Vikings fans, if you don’t believe this is the right call, ask your own team’s performances over the years. Since 1994, the Vikings have gone for it on fourth-and-1 or less 137 times and made 99 first downs—a 72 percent success rate. So that’s a 72 percent chance of absolutely guaranteeing a win. But even if they’d missed, the Seahawks needed to drive 94 yards to score a touchdown. Since 2001, the Vikings have given their opponents the ball within the opposing 10-yard line 280 times, and they’ve allowed scores on 52 of those drives—just 19 percent. So in the 28 percent of the time that Minnesota misses on fourth-and-1, the Seahawks had a 19 percent chance of scoring. That means going for it gave Minnesota roughly a 95 percent chance of winning, and we’re being generous. This was fourth-and-inches, not fourth-and-1; and that 19 percent figure includes field goals, while Seattle needed a touchdown.
But Minnesota also probably would have won if they’d kicked the field goal. That’s a 23-yarder, an absolute chip shot. After making that field goal, the Seahawks have to drive the length of the field to score, and then pick up a two-point conversion, and then win in overtime. Teams convert only about half of two-point conversions, and both teams have about a 50 percent chance of winning in overtime. On drives starting inside the opposing 30, Vikings opponents have scored touchdowns 16.1 percent of the time. Cutting that in half and cutting it in half again means that if the Vikings make the field goal, they have about a 96 percent chance at winning.
So without fancy charts, we’re giving the Vikings a 19-in-20 shot at winning here. But the Vikings weren’t just playing any team—they were playing the Seattle Seahawks. My colleague Kevin Clark sent a tweet about the Seahawks last year that is so aggressively true and has struck such a chord with Seahawks fans that he’s probably going to get a decent amount of votes in the next Seattle mayoral election: The Seahawks have literally never played a normal football game.
So you can guess how this ended. The Vikings went for it. Instead of using the ultra-reliable QB sneak, they handed the ball off to a running back.
Seen about 900 screenshots of the Mattison run but no video so here's the video, please use the video pic.twitter.com/EYwMEWcmm1— Luke Braun (@LukeBraunNFL) October 12, 2020
Yes, normally, teams pick this fourth-and-inches most of the time, but they were going up against the abnormal Seahawks. Just two weeks ago, the Patriots went for it on fourth-and-1 at the goal line at the end of the fourth quarter in hopes of beating Seattle, assuming that Cam Newton could pick up a yard, as he always does. Instead, the Seahawks blew up his lead blocker and torpedoed one of the strongest runners in NFL history before he could reach the line of scrimmage. The Vikings, notably, did not have one of the strongest runners in NFL history, or even the strongest runner on their team. Running back Dalvin Cook was injured, so the responsibility of picking this up went to backup Alexander Mattison.
But still, they could keep the Seahawks from going 94 yards. And the game was being played in a rainstorm, which clearly kept Russell Wilson and his receivers from connecting on passes all night long. This should still have been a Minnesota win … but again, they were playing the Seahawks. Seattle entered the game 4-0, with three one-score wins. Russ was getting down that damn field. He converted two fourth-and-long plays and threw a game-winning touchdown:
Minnesota will get roasted for their decision-making, but I’m fine with the call. There was no right call. They were playing the Seahawks, and all logic was doomed.
Loser: An NFL Without Dak Prescott
There was a moment when Dak Prescott’s foot was facing the wrong way and CBS commentator Tony Romo optimistically opined that he hoped it was just a cramp. Romo has consistently proved to be a very intelligent commentator, and presumably knows which way the human foot is supposed to face. But when you’re watching football, and the body of a brilliant player breaks in front of your eyes, there’s nothing you can do besides pretend that things aren’t as bad as you know they are.
Prescott did not have a cramp. He suffered a compound ankle fracture. If you don’t follow sports, you may be lucky enough to go through life without knowing the difference between a regular fracture and a compound fracture. If you follow sports, you know. Compound fractures are the ones where the bone breaks aggressively enough that it pokes through the skin. It’s what happened to Alex Smith in 2018, which kept him out of football for nearly two whole calendar years. Wikipedia says they’re most likely to happen when someone is crushed, falls from a great height, or gets into a traffic accident. Also, football. Compound fractures are rare enough that we can’t say for certain how good Prescott will be when he returns, but common enough to know we will be lucky if Prescott is ready to play football next season.
Prescott entered the 2020 season hoping to sign a massive contract extension with the Cowboys, but instead the Cowboys gave big extensions to wide receiver Amari Cooper and linebacker Jaylon Smith while asking Prescott to play the year under the franchise tag. Prescott responded by having an impossibly great season to this point. In the first four weeks, Prescott threw for 1,690 yards. The previous record, set by Kurt Warner in 2000, was 1,557 yards. Prescott was dynamite, keeping the Cowboys in games no matter how many points their defense allowed. He was proving he deserved to be one of the highest-paid football players ever.
And in the fifth week of the season, his ankle came apart. (If you’d like to see the injury for yourself, the NFL has uploaded a video to YouTube, literally deciding to profit on the physical pain of its players.) As Romo optimistically prayed for a cramp, I started wondering how many millions of dollars Prescott had lost. Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes just signed a $450 million contract; Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson just signed a $177 million deal. Prescott is a universally beloved 27-year-old producing elite numbers year in, year out. How much would Prescott have earned if he’d kept playing one of the best seasons anybody had ever played? How much will Prescott get paid now that his future is uncertain? What if he can’t play in 2021? What if he’s never as good as he was this year? Some disappointments ruin seasons, others alter lives. Dak Prescott’s grandkids are roughly 30 years away from being born, and their lives almost certainly became less comfortable Sunday.
The Cowboys won Sunday thanks to backup quarterback Andy Dalton, but Sunday’s game felt minuscule in comparison to the thing we’d seen. Prescott is the star for the most popular team in America’s most popular sport. His future felt so massive that it’s distressing to remember it was dependent on skin and bones.