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: Derrick Henry
When you first watch football, you think it’s a brutish sport—massive dudes smashing into each other over and over and over again. But the more you watch it, the more you realize it’s perhaps the most detailed game on the planet. Play-calling is essentially high-level chess with humans; the amount of finesse and technique employed by every position is off the charts; and the rulebook is so thick that professional announcers need full-time rules analysts to interpret obscure calls. You begin to appreciate the sport for its complexities.
And then you watch Derrick Henry and remember that maybe some of that complexity is overrated. Henry is as big as a linebacker, as fast as a wide receiver, and as mean as a lover scorned. He made the play of the NFL season on Tuesday by pureeing former All-Pro Josh Norman with a vicious stiff-arm. On Henry’s biggest highlight Sunday, the Texans actually got lucky—no defenders got close enough to Henry to become immortalized in memehood. Henry simply ran past them for a 94-yard touchdown.
The Texans took this game to overtime, but after Tennessee won the toss, their strategy was just to give Henry the ball. Henry had 63 yards on the only drive of overtime and ended the game with a walk-off touchdown. On that play, the Titans sent quarterback Ryan Tannehill to go drink a celebratory mimosa over on the sideline and snapped the ball straight to Henry. He powered through some Houston defenders, and the Titans moved to 5-0 with a 42-36 win.
Henry finished the game with 212 rushing yards. The last NFL player with 200 rushing yards in a game was … Henry, last December. Henry now has 99 more rushing yards than anybody else in the NFL, even though the Titans had a game postponed due to a COVID-19 outbreak. Last year, Henry more or less single-handedly got the Titans to a spot in the AFC championship game after averaging 159 yards per game from Week 10 through the second round of the playoffs; this season, he’s averaging a meager 117.6, and Tennessee is 5-0. Sometimes, this game is just about having the biggest, baddest dude on the field—and that will be Henry almost every time.
Loser: Aaron McCringleberry
Internet user Aaron Rodgers scored a touchdown Sunday, then busted out a hilariously meta celebration. Rodgers put his hands behind his head, looked around warily, and thrusted his crotch—just like Rhinos tight end Hingle McCringleberry did in the famous Key and Peele skit about excessive celebrations.
(Shout-out to Packers backup quarterback Tim Boyle, who sprinted down the sideline to play the the referee closely inspecting Rodgers’s crotch for an illegal pump. If you’ve ever wondered how a quarterback who finished his FBS career with one touchdown and 13 interceptions stays in the NFL, maybe it’s because of his willingness to stare at his starting quarterback’s dick for the sake of a celebration. That’s a team player!)
Rodgers’s celebration got mostly positive reviews across social media, because it’s pretty funny to reference a skit that pokes fun at the weirdness of referees trying to figure out the exact moment a celebration becomes sexual enough to be penalized. But folks, let’s get serious here for a second: This Key and Peele skit aired in 2013. Seven years ago! Roger Goodell tweeted a joke about the Hingle McCringleberry skit in 2017, and by rule, nothing that Roger Goodell finds funny can actually be funny.
Rodgers is not even the first person to make this joke on an NFL field. In Week 17 of the 2013 season, back when the skit was hot off the presses, Lance Moore of the Saints celebrated a touchdown with the McCringleberry crotch pumps. So, to be clear: Someone besides Rodgers did this exact same celebration, in an NFL game, seven years ago. I wrote a post about it at the time, on a different site, because it was seven years ago and the site you’re reading is only four years old! When Jordan Peele tweeted about Moore’s celebration, he was unable to include any media of the celebration in the tweet because Twitter didn’t allow people to share GIFs until 2014. Now, Peele is a critically acclaimed auteur director instead of a guy staring at football dicks in comedy skits. That’s how long seven years is! What’s your next celebration, Aaron? Are you gonna bust out a microphone and sing “Chocolate Rain”? Are you gonna plank? Are we gonna watch you whip and watch you nae nae? (Haha, just kidding—that one is from 2015, so it’s actually a more recent reference than the one Aaron went with.)
To make matters worse, Rodgers’s pumps were premature. After a review, Rodgers was ruled down at the 1-yard line, and his touchdown was taken off the board. And worse still, on the next drive after the pumps, Rodgers threw a pick-six—just the third of his 16-year career:
On the drive after that, Rodgers threw another interception, his first two-pick game since 2017.
The Packers never scored again, losing 38-10, and it was arguably the worst game of Rodgers’s illustrious career. The contest marked the second time Rodgers threw no touchdowns and multiple interceptions in 179 starts. It was the fourth-biggest loss in a Rodgers start, and Rodgers’s third-lowest passer rating in a start. (And one of the bigger losses and one of the worse passer ratings came in games Rodgers barely played in.)
Normally, when a 36-year-old has an utter dud of a game with career-worst numbers, commentators whine that the player is washed. But it’s pretty clear that Rodgers isn’t washed: Entering Sunday, he had 13 touchdowns and no interceptions, and the Packers were undefeated. The only thing about Rodgers that’s clearly past its expiration date is … his seven-year-old touchdown celebration. As soon as Rodgers stops memeing like a geezer hanging onto his long-gone youth, he’ll stop playing like one.
Winner: The New York Jets
Let’s be clear: The New York Jets did not win Sunday, and it’s possible they won’t win this year at all. But this week, they separated themselves from the pack in the race that really matters: the battle to have the worst record in the NFL. (We’re going with “Abhorrence for Trevor Lawrence” for a tanking tagline.)
Three teams entered Sunday with 0-5 records. The Falcons, who fired head coach Dan Quinn last week, seem to be thrilled that Quinn is gone. They exploded for a season-high 40 points against the Vikings and then implemented interim head coach Raheem Morris’s revolutionary “Don’t Screw Everything Up” strategy, holding on to their lead for the first win of the year.
In life, it's important to realize what your limitations are. Allow Matt Ryan to demonstrate pic.twitter.com/DvHPnv9Jff— Rodger Sherman (@rodger) October 18, 2020
The 0-5 Giants went into a game with the 1-4 Washington Football Team—a game that, stunningly, could have NFC East title implications—and kept Washington out of the end zone on an all-or-nothing two-point conversion:
That left the Jets alone at 0-5 heading into an afternoon matchup with the Dolphins, and they did not disappoint. Even in the grand history of garbage performances by the Jets, this was one of the grandest. They were shut out 24-0, the first NFL shutout since … the Jets were shut out 33-0 by the Patriots last year. They converted only two third downs; they got into the opposing red zone only once. And all this happened against the Dolphins, the team that fired Jets head coach Adam Gase two years ago. In those two years, the Dolphins have transformed into a reasonably skilled football team, while the Jets have scored fewer points than any NFL team. The defining play of Sunday’s game was a sack where Joe Flacco somehow managed to lose 28 yards.
flacco sack but with curb music pic.twitter.com/XezJd9w7nD— Analytics Plant (@AnalyticsPlant) October 18, 2020
Flacco seemed to think he could outrun players by going directly backward. He thought he was playing Tecmo Bowl as Bo Jackson; he was actually playing Real Life as Joe Flacco. The Stathead database shows just two sacks in league history that lost more yards—a 30-yard loss by Arizona’s Stoney Case in 1997, and a 29-yard loss by Oakland’s Matt McGloin in 2013—but Case and McGloin both fumbled. Flacco’s loss might be the biggest sack of all time by someone who simply chose to keep running backward.
But that’s what the Jets should be doing: running backward, all the time. I am a Jets fan, and I am openly rooting for the Jets to go 0-16. Don’t give me any of this “Ah, but fans should always root for their team to win!” garbage. I’m over it. I have rooted for my team in the darkest moments. The last NFL game I attended as a fan was in 2007; it was a Week 17 game between the 3-12 Jets and the 4-11 Chiefs. Pro-Football-Reference says the wind chill was zero. When the Chiefs scored a touchdown to force overtime, my friends asked whether we could leave to beat traffic. I looked around and pointed out that we were too late, because everybody else had already left. The Jets won, on a Mike Nugent field goal; as a result, they fell from third to sixth in the draft order and wound up with Vernon Gholston instead of Matt Ryan.
For all the jokes about the Jets, they’ve had the first pick in the draft only twice; they wound up with Joe Namath and Keyshawn Johnson. Normally, the Jets manage to have pride and win a few games. Luckily, this year’s team is completely bereft of talent and their head coach is a feckless dolt who’s capable of succeeding only if his quarterback is Literally Peyton Manning. The path has been cleared. I’m done with semi-sucking. Let’s go all the way. Let’s finally suck hard enough for it to actually matter.
Loser: Anybody Leading by Three Scores
We are now a month and a half into the NFL season, and each week has seen a team erase a three-score deficit to come back and win. Each week. Stunningly, Sunday’s big blown lead didn’t come at the expense of the Falcons or Lions, both of whom took big leads … and won, to the shock and confusion of their fans. This time, the honor belonged to the Bengals, who went up 21-0 on Indianapolis in the first half—their biggest lead in any game since 2018—and then failed to score any touchdowns the rest of the game, losing 31-27.
It’s hard to imagine why we’re seeing blown leads at such a high rate this season. It’s difficult enough to get a three-score lead in the NFL. It’s even more difficult for a team that’s good enough to take a three-score lead to suddenly crumble. But it’s happening once a week now!
We’re currently in the highest-scoring era in football history. Coming into Week 6, teams were averaging 25.7 points per game, the most in league history. In the early 1990s, teams were averaging about 19 points per game. That’s an extra touchdown per team per game. I suppose it makes sense that with more points than ever, more teams will jump out to bigger leads, and more teams will be capable of striking back.
Winner: The Kicker Who Had Never Kicked
Imagine going into a job interview at an accounting firm when you’ve never done accounting before. “So, do you know how to make an Excel spreadsheet?” “What’s Excel?” (I don’t have a real job; I don’t know how job interviews work.) It’s an idea so ludicrous that Jean-Ralphio did it on Parks and Recreation.
Now imagine someone entering an NFL game to attempt a field goal when they’ve never kicked one before. (Kickers are the accountants of football.) “So, how many field goals did you make in college?” “None!” It’s a ridiculous idea—but it’s more or less what happened Sunday, as Jaguars kicker Jon Brown made his first career field goal—including high school, college, and the NFL.
The Jaguars have been snakebit at kicker. Their normal starter is Josh Lambo, who was a second-team All-Pro last year, but Lambo is on the injured reserve list due to a hip injury. His first replacement was Brandon Wright, who suffered a groin injury in his first game with the Jags, and is also on injured reserve. Wright’s replacement was Aldrick Rosas, who also got injured. Next up was Stephen Hauschka, who missed both field goals he attempted last week, and was released for performance reasons. So the Jaguars turned to Brown.
As a youth, Brown was a soccer star—he was close to making the USA’s U-17 team, and played football only sparingly, as a wide receiver and kick returner. He went to Kentucky on a soccer scholarship, but he had a vision. He wanted to use his talents to kick in football games. He eventually transferred to Louisville and walked onto their football team. (“I’m not trying to bash UK, but they’re not known for football,” he told the Louisville Courier-Journal.) Except the Cardinals already had a placekicker. Brown’s booming leg was used exclusively on kickoffs. He graduated in 2016 without ever having kicked a field goal, anywhere. But despite that, the Bengals and 49ers brought him in for preseason work in the past few years, and when the Jaguars’ first four kickers went down, they called Brown. (He had gone 6-for-6 in preseason with the Bengals, but none of those count.) Jacksonville signed a kicker who had never kicked a field goal. It’s unbelievable.
So when Brown stepped onto the field Sunday and tried a 31-yarder, it was the first in-game attempt of his life. A major part of kicking is the ability to manage the nerves and the pressure. Even though you’ve practiced your kicks a million times, you have to calm down and execute. Brown had never done that before. But he stepped right up and drilled it.
This situation is absolutely fascinating to me. In 2013, I wrote a story in The Atlantic about how kickers become kickers. It used to be that many kickers were converted soccer players with little training besides a strong leg. Now, almost all of them realized they wanted to be kickers at a young age and began attending camps where kicking experts train them. (The coach I profiled was working with Jason Sanders, who is now the kicker for the Dolphins.) There is a pipeline, and you have to be a part of it. Since your average head coach doesn’t know much about kicking techniques, colleges take the word of these gurus when figuring out which kickers to offer. That pipeline seems to homogenize kickers. Kicking has always been a predominantly white profession, and now that parents have to spend tens of thousands of dollars to send their kids to kicking camps from a young age, it has become even whiter.
And then there is Brown. He is the sixth Black player in NFL history to make a field goal, and so far as I know, the first NFL kicker to make the pros without ever kicking a field goal. “I’m glad I didn’t kick a field goal in college,” Brown told the Courier-Journal. “It makes it that much sweeter.”
Brown ended up missing his next kick, a 32-yarder, and there’s a chance that he never kicks again. The plan is for Lambo to come back as soon as possible, and even if he’s delayed, no NFL kicker should regularly miss 32-yarders. But even if he never sees an NFL field again, Brown’s story is my favorite of the NFL season. He had a specific, weird, and highly unattainable dream—and he pulled it off.
Winner: Mr. Irrelevant
Surely you’ve heard of Mr. Irrelevant, the tongue-in-cheek honorific given to the last player selected in each year’s NFL draft. But you probably haven’t actually heard of any Mr. Irrelevants. For all the hype and hubbub surrounding the pick (including an annual parade), they rarely see the field. Since former NFL player Paul Salata came up with the idea of Mr. Irrelevant in 1976, only 16 of 44 Mr. Irrelevants have actually gotten into an NFL game. It’s almost certainly better for players to go undrafted and choose where they sign than to have their draft rights locked into the team with the final pick. The parade is probably the best thing that Mr. Irrelevants have going for them—and this year, the parade was postponed because of COVID. A true bummer for this year’s last pick, Giants linebacker Tae Crowder.
Fortunately for Crowder, though, he’s found a spot on the Giants’ roster. He played in four of their first five games, and on Sunday, he was pretty damn relevant: He had 10 tackles, which is pretty good for a linebacker. And he scored a game-winning touchdown, which is next to impossible for a linebacker. In a tie game with under four minutes remaining, Kyle Allen, who for some reason is Washington’s starting quarterback, fumbled the ball around midfield. The ball bobbled around to Crowder, who ran it into the end zone for a go-ahead TD. The Giants ended up winning 20-19, their first win of the season:
The list of notable Mr. Irrelevants on the term’s Wikipedia page mentions that David Vobora was a starting linebacker for the 2009 Rams. That team went 1-15! And that’s considered a notable Mr. Irrelevant! Only one Mr. Irrelevant since 2000, Washington’s Trey Quinn, had scored an NFL touchdown before Sunday’s game. The Mr. Irrelevant with the most playing time, by far, is Ryan Succop, who is now in his 12th season as a kicker. But since Succop only kicks field goals, I’m ready to say that Crowder’s touchdown is the most meaningful TD ever scored by a Mr. Irrelevant. His play got the Giants their first win of the year. More like, uh, Mr. Relevant!
Loser: NFL RedZone
Every week I sit in front of a television and watch eight hours of NFL RedZone. It’s magic—a nonstop smorgasbord of highlights and fantastic finishes. For most of my professional career, I have watched RedZone in offices with my coworkers so we can figure out what we’re writing about that day. This year, of course, that can’t happen, so I’m stuck watching it at home. A few weeks ago, my dad was over, and after 50-ish years of watching over-the-air broadcasts of Jets and Giants games, he was blown away. “So what game are you watching?” he asked. “All the games,” I replied. Fifteen minutes later, he said: “This channel is going to change the way people watch football.” (I think he thinks RedZone was invented earlier this year.)
But Sunday’s television schedule was designed for the old way of watching football. Fox had the game between Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady, a surefire TV bonanza—America loves watching the Packers, and America loves watching Tom Brady. So Fox pushed every other game they had into the early window, ensuring that everybody in the country could watch Rodgers-Brady. CBS realized that everybody with a TV would rather watch Rodgers-Brady than any game in their catalog, so they pushed as many games as possible into their early window, leaving just one game left: the 2-3 Dolphins hosting (and destroying) the 0-5 Jets.
The NFL RedZone channel quickly turned into a live broadcast of Rodgers-Brady, with occasional reminders that the Dolphins were kicking the Jets’ ass. Every once in a while, the Rodgers-Brady game would go to commercial, and RedZone would be forced to show us the unfiltered Jets-Dolphins feed. For one unbearable 15-minute stretch, the Bucs and Packers were at halftime, and RedZone was nothing but Jets-Dolphins. It was the exact same experience that my dad had for 50 years, except with Scott Hanson filling time instead of commercials. And as it turned out, Rodgers-Brady turned out to be a dud—the Buccaneers won by 28. RedZone was just showing a bad game between good teams and a bad game between bad teams.
I get that it’s smart for the NFL to prioritize its over-the-air broadcast partners, which pay billions of dollars to broadcast the league’s games. Casual fans watch over the air, and the NFL already has RedZone viewers hooked enough that we’re paying our hard-earned cash to watch more football than what we can already see for free. But it always feels like the NFL’s goal is to create not just football fans, but football freaks. And it’s working: We spend seven months dreaming of the 17 Sundays we can spend parked in front of a couch, freaking out over our five fantasy teams. Then we get done, and click on articles called “NFL Winners and Losers” to read about the thing we just spent 12 hours watching. At some point, shouldn’t the NFL care more about the experience of the die-hard fans they built instead of the casuals driving by?
Loser: The NFL’s Overtime Format
If you gave Deshaun Watson the ball in the second half on Sunday, he was probably going to score a touchdown. After the Texans fell into a 14-0 first-quarter hole, Watson led his team on touchdown drives on four of Houston’s final five possessions. He finished the game with 335 yards, four touchdowns, and no interceptions. But to get the ball in overtime, Watson needed a coin to flip the right way. That didn’t happen:
According to the rules of overtime, a touchdown automatically wins the game. And when two teams go to overtime at 36-36, the team that gets the ball first is probably going to score a touchdown—especially when that team has Derrick Henry, who already had 200 rushing yards on the day. As you can tell from Watson’s reaction, he knew the game was over with a coin flip.
This video is a five-second argument for changing the NFL’s overtime rules. (In case you needed any convincing after Patrick Mahomes didn’t get the ball in overtime of the 2019 AFC Championship game.) It shows one of the league’s most dynamic players realizing that after battling his team back from the brink, he probably wasn’t going to get the ball. For years, I’ve argued that the NFL should adopt an overtime format that gives both teams a roughly equal chance regardless of who wins the coin toss. As cool as Henry’s walk-off win was, a player as brilliant as Watson shouldn’t be walking off without getting the chance to win the game.
Loser: Two-Point Conversions
Last year, NFL teams went 1,136-for-1,210 on extra points, a 93.9 conversion rate. Meanwhile, they went 54-for-113 on two-point attempts, a 47.8 percent success rate. That means teams scored 0.939 points per extra point attempt, and 0.956 points per two-point conversion attempt. So a team that attempted 100 extra points and 100 two-point conversions would end up scoring 1.7 more points if they did two-point conversions all the time.
That may seem relatively inconsequential, but situationally, this choice becomes massively consequential. Like when a team is trailing by one late and goes for two and the win, instead of taking the near-sure shot at overtime. Washington did this Sunday, and missed.
A slightly more complicated scenario is when a team is winning by seven. Here, they can go for two to take a nine-point lead, essentially icing the game, or go for one and force their opponent to go for a two-point conversion if they score. The Texans were in this situation on Sunday, and they went for two and missed, meaning that after the Titans scored, they needed only to kick a near-certain extra point to tie the game and force overtime. (Which they did.)
The Eagles also missed a critical late two-point conversion Sunday, although there was a bit less debate about it—they were trailing by two.
LJ AND JUDON MAKE THE STOP— Baltimore Ravens (@Ravens) October 18, 2020
Tune in on CBS! pic.twitter.com/iblPAmUxc7
Most of the time, a kick-or-go decision is just a matter of whether you’d like one point or a 50-50 shot at two. In critical moments, though, the decision becomes fraught with meaning. Do you want a 100-or-zero percent chance at winning the whole damn game, or a 50-50 shot of leaving it up for grabs? I think coaches should go for 100 or zero. It’s more fun, and it shows you have faith in your team. But Sunday, it was a zero-or-zero shot. So it might be a while before anybody tries again.