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The Winners and Losers of Thanksgiving Day Football

Alex Smith lifted Washington atop the NFC East, Matt Patricia showed it takes more than a rocket scientist to coach the Lions, and Terry McLaurin did his best DK Metcalf impression

Washington Football Team v Dallas Cowboys
Alex Smith (11) and Terry McLaurin (17)
Tom Pennington/Getty Images

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

In November 2018, Alex Smith and Washington sat atop the NFC East. The franchise made a trade to acquire the quarterback the previous offseason, and then immediately signed him to a $94 million contract extension. He went 6-3 as a starter to take the division lead.

In the two years since, a lot has happened. Smith suffered a compound fracture of his leg, which got infected and nearly killed him. He had 17 surgeries that required four hospital stays over nine months. Washington lost seven of its final eight 2018 games behind a quarterback rotation that featured Colt McCoy, Mark Sanchez, and Josh Johnson; the front office tried to replace Smith by taking Dwayne Haskins in the first round of the 2019 draft; and the organization fired its coach, replacing Jay Gruden with Ron Rivera. In July, the team dropped its nearly century-old racist name.

After a 41-16 win over the Cowboys on Thanksgiving, another development can be added to that list: Smith and Washington have climbed back atop the NFC East.

In 2018, Smith was a good quarterback leading a good team. In 2020, he is a functional quarterback leading a team in playoff position via technicality. At 4-7, the Football Team has the same record as the Lions, but after Thursday we’ll talk about Washington as a success and Detroit as the football equivalent of nuclear reactor no. 4 at Chernobyl.

And Smith isn’t exactly lighting it up. He went 19-of-26 passing for 149 yards in Dallas, with those completion numbers boosted by a game plan that rarely required him to target players more than 3 yards downfield. Smith entered Week 12 ranked last among NFL starters in average depth of target (5.2 yards), and he likely lowered that figure after completing more passes to running backs and tight ends (11) than to wide receivers (eight). Washington won because rookie running back Antonio Gibson rushed for 115 yards with three touchdowns, averaging more yards per carry (5.8) than Smith did per pass attempt (5.7). The team’s longest completion of the day came on a trick play where tight end Logan Thomas threw the pass.

Still, Smith is the story of the NFL season. On a holiday that spotlights all we have to be thankful for, Smith’s taking center stage hit home. He can’t run particularly fast or throw particularly far, even in comparison to just a few years ago. That reminder of what’s been lost is also a reminder of what we have. It’s not just cool that Alex Smith won the big game; it’s cool that he’s alive. If you’re reading this article, you’re breathing, you have internet connection, and you have brain power to spare on something as unnecessary as football.

Smith isn’t playing like a superstar. That’s not the point. If anybody deserves to be celebrated for leading a playoff push in the weakest division in NFL history, it’s the player whose very presence on the field is a miracle.

Loser: Anyone Who Wanted to Watch a Close Football Game

On Thanksgiving, millions of Americans of questionable culinary talent prepare one of the most unwieldy meals imaginable. Millions of Americans also gather around their televisions to watch two NFL teams that have combined for three playoff wins since 1996. The Lions and Cowboys play every Thanksgiving. They haven’t earned the right to do this. They do it because they always have, and we always tune in. In 2019, the games on Thanksgiving Day were the first and fourth most-watched of the NFL regular season. The year before, they were no. 1 and no. 2. It’s the traditions that matter, not whether we actually enjoy them.

Since 2006, though, the NFL has added a third game to the Thanksgiving docket, allowing the league to handpick an exciting matchup between two contenders. This year, it picked a great one: The Steelers, the league’s last undefeated team, were scheduled to host the Ravens, led by reigning MVP Lamar Jackson. But it wasn’t to be. Baltimore is experiencing a teamwide COVID-19 outbreak. At least a dozen Ravens players have reportedly tested positive for the coronavirus, including Jackson and the team’s top two running backs. The Ravens believe that Jackson contracted the virus on the field by taking snaps from a center who was COVID-positive. The Steelers-Ravens game was postponed from Thursday to Sunday, although that date no longer seems feasible given that Baltimore has shut down its facility until at least Monday.

These are dark times. Two NFL players have been lost for the season to COVID-19: Jaguars running back Ryquell Armstead has been hospitalized multiple times with “significant respiratory issues,” and Bills tight end Tommy Sweeney will miss the season with myocarditis related to the virus. And the Ravens aren’t the first team to experience an outbreak. According to the Associated Press, the Titans had 24 people, including 13 players, test positive for COVID-19 between September 24 and October 11.

I keep telling myself that the benefit to the season being played amid the pandemic is that people can effectively social distance and avoid spreading the virus by staying home and watching sports on TV. If you didn’t travel this Thanksgiving because of the virus and instead watched football on TV, you were rewarded with two abysmal games. This year was the first time since 1959 that no team with a winning record played on Thanksgiving. Both games were blowouts. The 4-7 Texans demolished the 4-7 Lions, 41-25; the 4-7 Football Team beat the 3-8 Cowboys, 41-16.

It’s the traditions that matter, not whether we enjoy them—but this year, so many of us bypassed our holiday traditions in an effort to keep others safe. It would have been nice to enjoy some exciting football.

Winner: The Hidden Running Back Trick

Thanksgiving was a great day for trick plays. Detroit return specialist Jamal Agnew floated a touch pass into double coverage that would make some quarterbacks jealous; the Lions ran a flea flicker, and the Texans ran a flea flicker of their own. Washington let college quarterback turned NFL tight end Logan Thomas throw a pass and run an option. But all of this pales in comparison to a masterpiece I call the Hidden Human Trick.

After the game, Washington coach Ron Rivera credited the movie Little Giants as his inspiration for the play. But the trick play in that movie—the “Annexation of Puerto Rico”—is a traditional fumblerooski, in which the ball is discreetly placed on the ground for an offensive lineman to pick up. The idea is that nobody ever expects an offensive lineman to have the ball.

On the Washington play, the ball was snapped to a running back hiding behind the offensive line. The linemen were standing at full height rather than hunched in their typical presnap stances, which served two purposes: (1) It made the Cowboys think the offense wasn’t planning to snap the ball soon, and (2) it allowed running back J.D. McKissic to crouch out of sight behind the line. Rivera first ran this play with Cam Newton in 2011; Newton ran the play multiple times the year prior at Auburn. This is one of my favorite trick-play designs, and I wrote about its history in 2017.

The play wasn’t a huge success. McKissic got a first down, picking up 6 yards on a gambit you’d ideally like to bust for a touchdown. Washington eventually settled for a field goal on the drive. But Rivera accomplished something more meaningful. Now opponents will spend the rest of the season wondering if Washington is hiding players all over the field.

Loser: Matt Patricia

You know how people say, “It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to do [X]”? (That’s how I know that rocket science is the hardest science. Suck it, nuclear physics!) Well, even a rocket scientist can’t make the Lions a good football team. This is clear because the Lions actually went ahead and tested that hypothesis (science term) by hiring a rocket scientist—Matt Patricia, who got a degree in aeronautical engineering and nearly took a job maintaining nuclear submarines before going into football. And the Lions are much worse than they were before Patricia showed up.

With the loss to the Texans, Patricia is now 0-3 in Thanksgiving Day games as Detroit’s head coach. He has lost 29 games in just over two and a half seasons, while his predecessor, Jim Caldwell, lost 28 games in four full seasons. Caldwell was the first Detroit coach to post a career winning record since the 1970s, but was fired because back-to-back 9-7 seasons weren’t good enough for general manager Bob Quinn. Quinn, a longtime member of the Patriots personnel department, was tired of mediocrity and wanted to build something great. So he hired Patricia, the Pats defensive coordinator from 2012 to 2017.

Quinn and Patricia have built crap together. The Lions rank 31st in points allowed per game (29.8) this season and just let Deshaun Watson go 17-of-25 passing for 318 yards with four touchdowns. Detroit’s offense is also terrible, but Patricia wasn’t hired for his offensive mind. It’s more damning that he is so bad at the very thing he was hired to be good at, to the point that I wonder if he was ever actually any good at rocket science. (Maybe he was one of the rocket scientists who forgot to put the right units into the Mars orbiter software—it would certainly explain why Patricia’s defenses keep lining up with only 10 guys.)

Thanksgiving served as a referendum on Patricia’s Lions career. After losing 20-0 to the 4-7 Panthers last week, there were reports that Patricia’s job was safe until at least Thanksgiving, because it’s hard for a team to fire a coach after a Sunday game when it plays another game on Thursday. But the Lions got absolutely embarrassed Thursday too, and now have 10 days to potentially make a change. I don’t know if the change will happen now or later, but it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to realize that Patricia doesn’t deserve a chance to lose a fourth straight Thanksgiving Day game.

Winner: Wide Receiver Chasedown Tackles

The biggest play of Thursday’s games was a tackle. Although Washington beat Dallas 41-16, the Cowboys almost tied the game in the third quarter when Alex Smith threw an interception to Dallas linebacker Jaylon Smith. On the Fox broadcast, Joe Buck yelled out, “One man to beat! McKissic!” But Buck apparently hadn’t considered the possibility that someone could catch the Cowboys defender from behind. Wide receiver Terry McLaurin snuck up and brought him down at the 4-yard line.

If Smith had scored, the game would have been tied at 20. Instead, the Cowboys lost yardage on the ensuing possession and settled for a field goal. Needing to chase points, Dallas attempted a ridiculous fake punt in the fourth quarter and then gave up 21 points in the final 12 minutes of the game. McLaurin’s tackle changed everything.

This chasedown wasn’t quite as astonishing as the play DK Metcalf made to run down Budda Baker in Week 7—a play that haunts me, knowing that Metcalf could catch and destroy me at any time—but it was impressive nonetheless. Baker intercepted a pass near one goal line, and Metcalf had the whole field to track him down. McLaurin had only 47 yards to catch Smith on Thanksgiving, and had to dodge a block attempt by Dallas’s Leighton Vander Esch. McLaurin nimbly swerved through traffic and laid out to nip Smith’s ankles just before he reached the goal line. Metcalf won a marathon; McLaurin won the 110-meter hurdles.

Metcalf and McLaurin are two of the game’s young receiving stars, both picked in the 2019 draft (as the ninth and 12th receivers off the board, because NFL general managers are dumb). McLaurin leads the NFL in receiving yards after Thursday night’s game, although that’s partly because he has played one more game than most other wideouts. McLaurin is fifth in the NFL in receiving yards per game; Metcalf is sixth. And now we’re comparing tackles between them.

There’s something incredibly captivating about these chasedown tackles. In the span of a few seconds, the receivers display their physical dominance and prove that they’re better at defenders’ jobs than the defenders are. As part of a generation that entered the league after watching LeBron James turn a chasedown block into his signature moment, the sport’s best young receivers should start begging their quarterbacks to throw picks around 70 yards from the end zone so they can show off.

Winner: The Utah State Aggies

NBC aired a replay of the National Dog Show in place of the postponed NFL game on Thursday night, which was a good call—you don’t really lose much from watching dogs happily strutting around a ring on tape delay. (Spoiler alert: A very good dog won.) But it was Thanksgiving, and there was no football on. I felt rudderless.

That is, until I flipped to FS1 and found a game between the 0-4 New Mexico Lobos and the 0-4 Utah State Aggies. There were supposed to be two college football games on Thursday, but the game between Colorado State and Air Force was also wiped out by a COVID-19 outbreak. So rather than watch two of the best teams in the NFL, I watched two of the worst teams in college football.

It ruled.

This has been a bizarre season for both teams. The Lobos players are spending the entire season living out of a Las Vegas hotel, because the state of New Mexico has banned mass gatherings like football practices, and because the team’s weekly $70,000 hotel bill costs the school less than the $3.7 million payout it gets from the Mountain West Conference for playing football. In October, Utah State head coach Gary Andersen gave an interview in which he said he would not tolerate players opting out due to COVID-19 concerns despite his own history of ... uh, opting out. Then Andersen got fired after an 0-3 start. Neither team’s situation really sounds like amateur sports.

But you could feel the joy when the Aggies won perhaps the most-watched game between winless Mountain West teams in the history of the planet. It shined through the screen. I’m happy for the players, and thankful that the Lobos and Aggies were there for me when the NFL couldn’t be.