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: Seahawks Offensive Coordinator Russell Wilson
The Seahawks’ offensive coordinator is Brian Schottenheimer, but just about everybody on earth believes the Seahawks would be better off letting Russell Wilson do whatever the hell he wants. Sure, Schotty has finally Let Russ Cook this year—but maybe Wilson shouldn’t even have to go through anybody to get kitchen access. Sunday, Wilson led a touchdown drive in the fourth quarter of a surprisingly tight game against the Dolphins without any input from the coaching staff after the team’s communication technology broke down:
Russell Wilson said the #Seahawks headsets went out for the series when David Moore caught a 19-yard touchdown.— Joe Fann (@Joe_Fann) October 4, 2020
Wilson was calling the plays himself.
I wouldn’t make a huge deal out of this—but the same thing happened last year, in a surprisingly tight game against the Browns.
Sure, NFL headsets fail on a somewhat regular basis. When the Steelers’ communication systems stopped working in a road game at New England a few years ago and everybody instantly assumed Bill Belichick personally set off some sort of EMP device inside Pittsburgh’s technology tent, a bunch of coaches around the league weighed in to say they didn’t suspect foul play because this stuff happens just about everywhere.
That said, I’m skeptical that the Seahawks just happen to be repeatedly subject to communication failures in critical moments. If that were happening, do we really think a mild-mannered dude like Russ would throw his offensive coordinator under the bus by letting everybody know the coaches weren’t responsible?
No, I think Russ is actually lying to his coaches. Ruder quarterbacks would just overrule their OCs, but Russ doesn’t want to hurt their feelings. When the offense isn’t grooving the way it should, Russ goes “KRRRRRR-SCKHTSTCHSCH-KRRRRR HEY SCHOTTY, I THINK YOU’RE BREAKING UP, THE OFFENSE IS UHHHH GOING THROUGH A TUNNEL OR SOMETHING” and takes over. There’s been a ton of Russ-for-MVP talk—how about some Russ-for-Seahawks-OC talk?
Winner: Bill O’Brien’s Résumé
After an 0-3 start, the Texans did what any rational team would do, and gave the guy in charge even more responsibilities. Bill O’Brien started the season as just the team’s head coach and general manager, making him the only man in the NFL to officially hold both titles. Clearly, it wasn’t enough. This week, O’Brien commandeered some play-calling duties from offensive coordinator Tim Kelly. The good news is that the Texans posted season highs in points (23) and yards (386). The bad news is that the Texans still lost, falling 31-23 to the previously winless Vikings.
Perhaps you’d start to think that this is O’Brien’s fault. After all, O’Brien the GM gave the Texans the highest payroll in the NFL and traded away their first- and second-round picks in next year’s draft, supposedly giving O’Brien the coach a hell of a team to work with. Instead, they’re 0-4, and just lost a game to an 0-3 team.
But O’Brien probably thinks he’s not involved enough. As the Texans keep losing, O’Brien will keep adding jobs. If they fall to 0-5 next week, he’ll become their special teams coordinator. If they go to 0-6, he’ll take over the film room. By the time they’re 0-10, he’ll be the quality control coach, team chaplain, nutritionist, and equipment manager. And after the year ends, he’ll probably add another title to his résumé—when whoever actually runs the Texans fires him from all his jobs and he has to work for another team.
Loser: The Big-Lead-Blowing Lions
Two weeks ago, I wrote about the ongoing battle between the Falcons and the Lions to be the NFL’s Kings of Choking. The Falcons have a flair for the dramatic, with massive, impossible-to-believe blown leads; the Lions are workmanlike, making blown leads a part of their day, like catching the bus in the morning. After the Falcons blew a 15-point fourth-quarter lead for the second straight week last week, I anointed them the Choking Champs.
But Sunday, the Lions reminded us what they’re made of. They quickly scored the first 14 points of the game, with Matt Stafford sandwiching a Drew Brees interception with two touchdown drives. After that, the Lions allowed five consecutive touchdowns to the Saints, turning a 14-0 lead into a 35-14 deficit.
The Lions have now taken a double-digit lead in three of their four games this year, and lost all three. (They’re actually 1-3, because they managed to win the game they didn’t have a double-digit lead in.) They’ve had a double-digit lead in five of their past six games, dating back to last year, and lost all five. They’re the first team in NFL history to blow six consecutive double-digit leads.
The Lions have now lost 6 consecutive games in which they led by 10+ points, the longest such streak in NFL history.— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) October 4, 2020
It’s staggering stuff. Even up 14-0, it never felt like they were going to win—they just took a lead because you can’t blow a lead without first taking a lead.
The eyes of America will turn to Week 7, when the Falcons and Lions meet. The winning team will get a win in the standings, but the losing team will get extremely tiny necklaces to commemorate their victory in the Choker Bowl.
Winner: Rookie Quarterbacks
Last week Joe Burrow got the first half-a-win of his NFL career, as his Bengals eked out a tie. Sunday, Burrow got an actual, fully fledged win under his belt. The top pick in the 2020 NFL draft threw for 300 yards and a touchdown in a 33-25 win over the Jaguars. It probably would’ve been 300-plus yards and two touchdowns, but a would-be touchdown turned into an interception when his tight end handed the ball to a defender. He’s only a rookie, but he’s already a veteran-level Football Guy—the team gave him a game ball to commemorate his first career win, and he put it back inside a bag of footballs because he would rather keep playing with it than have a commemorative keepsake from his first career win:
Just said on Football Night in America that Joe Burrow told me that he got the game ball today -- and he put it right back in the bag of footballs to be used next week. "It was a really good ball. . . . You only get so many. You've got to keep them when you can."— ProFootballTalk (@ProFootballTalk) October 4, 2020
(It’s honestly a good call—quarterbacks are very picky about their ball, and the good ones tend to disappear over the course of the year.)
By getting 300 yards instead of 299, Burrow made a bit of NFL history. He’s the first rookie quarterback ever to throw for 300 yards in three straight games—and he managed to do it within the first four games of his career. But another rookie almost made that history simultaneously on Sunday: Justin Herbert threw for 300-plus yards in each of his first two starts for the Chargers, and then threw for 290 Sunday. Herbert made two truly spectacular throws, demonstrating his much-hyped arm strength also comes with a side of pinpoint accuracy:
Herbert didn’t get the win Sunday—the Chargers allowed five passing touchdowns to Tom Brady, whose knowledge of how to record TV shows onto a VHS tape overpowered Herbert’s ability to make TikToks. The Chargers still say they’re going to give Tyrod Taylor back his job when he’s healthy—the old “you can’t lose your job due to a team doctor stabbing you in the lung” mantra—but Herbert is making elite-level plays. He now leads the league in 50-yard touchdown passes.
So far, Herbert and Burrow are the only two rookie quarterbacks to play, and they’re both showing out. Plus, I hear that Jordan Love had no idea that Culver’s even existed before Green Bay drafted him, so things are going well for him too.
Loser: Dallas’s Defense, Dooming Dak
Before this year, the all-time record for most passing yards in a team’s first four games was 1,557, set by Kurt Warner in 2000. Even though he threw seven interceptions in those four games, the Rams went 4-0, because Warner was lighting up every defense he played. The guys in third, fifth, and sixth in the all-time “most yards in the first four weeks” leaderboard were also on teams that went 4-0; everybody else in the top six went 3-1.
But this season, Dak Prescott has absolutely demolished that record, throwing for 1,690 yards through Dallas’s first four games. Sunday, he threw for a career-high 502 yards, including four touchdowns. It was Prescott’s third straight 450-yard game; nobody else has ever done that before. And yet, the Cowboys lost, because the defense allowed 49 points to the Cleveland Browns. Dak is making football history, and the Cowboys are 1-3.
The Cowboys’ defense is an absolute embarrassment. Sunday, they allowed 307 rushing yards, the most by any team since the 2018 season, the most in franchise history. They did this despite the fact that Cleveland starting running back Nick Chubb left in the first quarter with an injury. Browns third-stringer D’Ernest Johnson came into the game with 26 career rushing yards in two NFL seasons; he had 95 against Dallas after entering the game in the second quarter.
Dallas is allowing 36.5 points per game; the worst defense in NFL history, the 1966 Giants, allowed 35.8 points per game. It’s true that some of Prescott’s big numbers are because of Dallas’s terrible defense—he wouldn’t have been trying to score so much if the Cowboys hadn’t allowed so many points. But it still feels like the Cowboys are wasting brilliance. Prescott led back-to-back-to-back touchdown drives in the span of nine minutes to keep Dallas in the game. The Cowboys’ D responded by … giving up a game-sealing 50-yard touchdown run to Odell Beckham Jr. on the very first play of the next drive. How many Cowboys do you think could’ve gotten a tackle on this play? I’m going with three:
To me, the epitome of Dallas’s terrible defensive day came after this play, with the game already decided. Cowboys blocked the extra point. They tried to pick the ball up, for good reason—if they hypothetically returned the extra point to the opposite end zone, they would have gotten two points and made it a one-score game. But they booted the recovery, which allowed Cleveland to pick the ball up, and it was Cleveland that hopped on the ball in the end zone.
I’ve never seen this play happen before. The Browns had set out on this play to score one point, but somehow, the Cowboys’ blend of effort and incompetence allowed them to score two. It baffles the mind, but Dallas’s defense is so bad that sometimes they double the amount of points their opponent is trying to score.
Winner: The Injured Eagles
Before Sunday, the 49ers had been playing without their starting quarterback, starting and backup running backs, star tight end, star cornerback, and both starting defensive ends—and dominating. In fact, they’d won their last two games by a combined 45 points. (Against the Giants and the Jets, which is like winning two games by a combined 45 points on rookie mode in Madden.) But Sunday, they ran into something terrifying: a team more injured than them. Here’s a look at the Eagles’ injury report from earlier in the week:
Wednesday Injury Report pic.twitter.com/DsitOm7ZsV— Philadelphia Eagles (@Eagles) September 30, 2020
That’s 13 players on the injury report, not counting 11 on injured reserve and two more on the physically unable to perform list. (Imagine explaining the differences between these three lists to a non-NFL fan!) They were without their top three wide receivers, three of their five first-team offensive linemen (plus a player signed as an injury replacement for the offensive line), and their top cornerback.
The Eagles won, 25-20. The go-ahead touchdown was scored by Travis Fulgham, who was cut by the Lions and the Packers in August before signing to the Eagles’ practice squad.
The Eagles added to the lead when Nick Mullens—who actually looked really, really good before Sunday night—threw a stunningly bad pick-six directly to Alex Singleton, who spent three years playing in the CFL before getting a role as an Eagles special teamer last year:
Nick Mullens finds a WIDE OPEN Alex Singleton for a TDpic.twitter.com/zCYazWXGst— PFF (@PFF) October 5, 2020
At left tackle, Philadelphia started Jordan Mailata, a 6-foot-8, 350-pound Australian who had never played football before the Eagles used a seventh-round pick on him in 2018. He didn’t see the field in his first two NFL seasons, but played legitimately well Sunday night.
But Fulgham, Singleton, and Mailata had all played NFL games before, if rarely and in small roles. Two players, center Luke Juriga and running back Adrian Killins, made their NFL debuts for the Eagles on Sunday night, while cornerback Grayland Arnold made his debut on defense. All three are undrafted free-agent rookies. I can’t imagine that’s normal this deep into the season.
They made movies about the Eagles starting garbagemen and bartenders, but that’s not what real NFL miracle stories look like. Real NFL miracle stories look like a team being forced to play repeatedly cut wide receivers, CFL linebackers, and Australian giants with no football experience—and still beating the defending NFC champions.
Loser: The NFL’s COVID Plans
The two most promising games of Sunday’s slate were postponed due to positive coronavirus tests. A highly awaited matchup between the Super Bowl champion Chiefs and the perennial contender Patriots was bumped from Sunday to Monday after former MVP Cam Newton tested positive; a game between the undefeated Titans and the undefeated Steelers was bumped off the schedule due to 16 positive tests within the Titans’ organization, including eight players.
Two percent of Americans have now tested positive for the coronavirus, and somehow, the NFL made it through the first two weeks of the season without any player testing positive. The league tried to make it seem as if this was due to its own strict protocols; this past week has made it clear it mainly got lucky. It wasn’t until after the positives that we saw the full extent of how the NFL was making things up as it went along. The league initially hoped the Titans could play without practicing all week, and seems to be improvising its scenarios for Monday’s Pats-Chiefs game. There was talk that the game could be played Tuesday; the Pats are taking the rare step of flying to Kansas City on game day, and will use two planes, one exclusively for people who had contact with Newton. The Steelers and Titans will try to play 13 consecutive weeks without having any more of their games postponed; it’s unclear what will happen if they can’t.
Some sports leagues successfully prevented positives by using a bubble format. The NFL didn’t—and on top of that, it didn’t really have a plan for the eventuality that players would test positive. The idea has always been to push on and hope nothing bad will happen. I hope the infected players get healthy, and are free from long-term effects; I hope no more NFL players get infected. But for the sake of the league’s players, what I’d really like is for the NFL to have a better plan than hoping.
Loser: The NFC East
It’s bitterly hilarious that the NFL’s most popular division is its worst. We yearn to watch the Dallas Cowboys, who have not won a championship in 25 years; every network scrambles to snatch up games featuring the New York Giants, who have the league’s second-worst record since 2015. Since 2011, 15 teams have sneaked into the playoffs without winning 10 games; four have been from the NFC East, including last year’s 9-7 Eagles.
This year, the NFC East champion will likely be even worse. The Eagles are on top of the division with a 1-2-1 record. (Good thing they played for the tie last week!) The Cowboys, despite being on track to have the worst defense in NFL history, have the best point differential in the division. Washington has the third-fewest points in the NFL, ahead of just two teams—one of which is the Giants. The Giants have scored only three touchdowns in four games; notable former Giant Odell Beckham Jr. scored that many on Sunday alone against the Cowboys.
The NFC East is America’s favorite garbage heap, and the raccoons battling to be on top are even worse than most years. And now that I think about it, watching raccoons battle to be on top of a garbage heap actually sounds like pretty good TV. I kinda get why the Cowboys and Giants are on TV all the time.