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?
Loser: The NFL’s Insistence on Playing
The first college football game of the season revealed a problem with playing football during a worldwide pandemic. A football team is like an orchestra, filled with positional groups who must each play their unique parts in order for the whole thing to work. And when a nation is overwhelmed by a highly infectious virus, it’s easy for the virus to spread through groups, thus eliminating critical sounds from the orchestra. So when the Austin Peay Governors suited up to play the Central Arkansas Bears on August 29, all three of the Governors’ long snappers were out, either due to positive tests for COVID-19 or contact tracing. Doesn’t seem like a big deal, right? Doesn’t the center know how to snap the ball? But it soon became clear that the backup linebacker thrust into snapping duties couldn’t get the ball back to the punter. His first snap went over the punter’s head; his third snap resulted in a loss of 27 yards. Eventually, the Governors simply shotgun-snapped the ball to the team’s quarterback, who pooched the ball. After hemorrhaging field position, the Govs lost by seven.
Even with the smallest, weirdest part of the orchestra missing—the piccolo?—it was clear something was off. And this was just one positional group. So college football conferences that started their seasons a few weeks after the Great Austin Peay Snapping Debacle put rules in place: If any team was missing all of its quarterbacks, or didn’t have enough healthy guys to put together an offensive line, the game would be postponed or called off. A team will struggle without any snappers—but without a QB, the most important position on the field? That would barely be football.
The NFL did not adopt this rule. I’m not sure what the NFL’s COVID-19 policies are, exactly, but apparently they call for a game to be canceled or delayed only if a certain percentage of a team is ineligible to play, regardless of position. So when Broncos quarterback Jeff Driskel attended an in-person meeting with all the Broncos quarterbacks (none of whom were wearing masks), then tested positive for COVID-19, the NFL’s contact-tracing policies ruled all the quarterbacks out of the team’s Sunday game against the Saints.
This ruling came on Saturday, and with less than 24 hours between the team losing all of its quarterbacks and kickoff, the Broncos were incredibly desperate. They tried to add one of their assistant coaches, Rob Calabrese, to their roster, because Calabrese played quarterback at UCF from 2008 to 2010. They were denied, because of a league rule meant to prevent teams from stashing actual players as “coaches.” That’s how screwed this team was: Their best option was to play a guy who hadn’t played competitive football in a decade—and wasn’t particularly good when he did play—at the most important position in the game.
Plan B was practice-squad wide receiver Kendall Hinton, who was a backup QB for Wake Forest before switching positions and having a breakout senior season at wideout. Hinton had been cut by the Broncos in September and spent a few months working odd jobs before being re-signed in November. He had never practiced at QB with the Broncos, and reportedly had not even met many of his Broncos teammates. And he was asked to run the Denver offense with less than a day’s notice.
The result was a hideous game that one team had absolutely no chance of winning. The game contained enough football to legally be billed as football, but if you took a bite, it didn’t taste like football. The Broncos didn’t even have time to come up with a coherent offensive strategy to mitigate their lack of passing capability. (Hinton estimated the team was running “10 percent” of their full playbook.) I thought it would be compelling to watch, but instead it was just sad. It was clear everybody was trying their hardest, and yet they were still doomed. The Broncos went three-and-out four times in the first half; they also had two drives in which they committed turnovers before getting to fourth down. The Broncos did score a field goal after a New Orleans interception—while we’re talking about nonquarterbacks playing quarterback, Taysom Hill was the opposing QB—but lost 31-3.
This could have been avoided. The game could’ve been canceled or postponed. (The Broncos reportedly asked the league for a postponement, and were denied.) But three months into the season, it’s not clear what the NFL’s threshold for delaying a game is. We’re supposed to take the league at their word that they’re enforcing all their policies to the letter, but we don’t really know what those policies are. Why not just push the game until a Broncos quarterback repeatedly tested negative, or until they could sign a coronavirus-free quarterback? The NHL and MLS have policies in place to ensure a team is never without a goalkeeper—why doesn’t the NFL have something like that?
The NFL seems to think we should be proud of them for putting on as many games as possible at their regularly scheduled times. (Some NFL media agrees.) But simply playing games is pointless if protocols render them into a flavorless, football-adjacent sludge. Then you’re just forcing people to smash into each other for 60 minutes when it could’ve been called a forfeit or postponed beforehand. If there’s anything less necessary than football in a pandemic, it’s noncompetitive, unwatchable football during a pandemic.
Winner: Everybody Who Has Ever Played Quarterback in the NFL, Ever
Kendall Hinton probably dreamed about playing quarterback in the NFL, and on Sunday, his dreams came true. Sadly, it was in this farce of a game. Hinton went 1-for-9 passing for 13 yards with two interceptions in Sunday’s loss to the Saints, and the Broncos became the first team since 2005 to complete just one pass in a game (the 2005 game was played in intense winds) and the first team since 1998 with more interceptions than completions (the 1998 game was rainy and Ryan Leaf was playing).
Hinton’s not a scrub. He won a state championship as a junior in high school and led his team to a 13-0 season as a senior before losing in the playoffs. At Wake Forest, he threw for 203 yards and two touchdowns against a powerhouse Clemson team while running for 92 yards without committing a turnover. He’s a hell of an athlete—when he switched to wide receiver as a senior, he led the Demon Deacons in receiving, at a position he’d never played before.
And yet you could tell he wasn’t an NFL quarterback. He was smaller than you expect quarterbacks to be. His one completion was a screen. The defense was 100 percent ready for anything thrown beyond the line of scrimmage. The ball floated out of his hand instead of zipping.
As it turns out, NFL quarterbacks, even the bad ones, are on another level. One of the most enjoyable parts of watching football is roasting subpar quarterback play. And don’t worry, we’ll get back to that later. But just this one time, let’s whisper an obvious truth to each other: Even the worst quarterbacks we’ve ever seen are incredibly talented. Like, even Nathan Peterman completed passes in the NFL. Hinton was a god-level high school star, a stud still getting raved about years later; he played quarterback somewhat effectively in college; he’s a good enough athlete to play wide receiver in the NFL. And he couldn’t do a damn thing under center on Sunday.
Hinton’s performance proved that anybody who has ever played quarterback in the NFL is spectacularly talented—and now, I guess, the list of “anybody who has ever played quarterback in the NFL” includes Hinton. He’ll probably be remembered as the guy who did a terrible job playing quarterback in one of the strangest games ever played. I’ll try to remember him simply as someone who played quarterback in the NFL.
Winner: Jeremy Chinn
We have a cute term for when a team recovers a fumble for a score—scoop-and-score!—but they’re still a relatively rare occurrence. When a player loses a ball, it’s more likely to end up underneath a pile of players than it is to shoot to a guy with a free path to the end zone. So the thing that rookie Panthers safety Jeremy Chinn did on Sunday is so unlikely that it’s borderline impossible. In Carolina’s game against the Vikings, Chinn returned two fumbles for touchdowns—on back-to-back plays.
First, quarterback Kirk Cousins lost a fumble on a strip sack, and the ball bobbled lazily in the middle of the field. With no running backs in pass protection and a slew of linemen knocked to the ground, the ball was Chinn’s for the taking:
Then, after the Panthers kicked off, the Vikings opened with a run rather than having Cousins drop back again. Chinn personally stripped running back Dalvin Cook and was on his way to the end zone before most of the players on the field realized the ball was out:
Let’s run down how preposterously unlikely this is. The average team has about one fumble recovery for a touchdown per season—last year, there were 34 fumble returns for touchdowns in the NFL, 1.06 per team; in 2018, there were 22, 0.65 per team. So it’s pretty rare for a team to have two fumble recoveries for touchdown in a game—before Sunday, no team had two scoop-and-scores in one game since 2015. Therefore, it’s impossibly rare for one player to have two scoop-and-scores in a game—Chinn is the first to do it since a guy named Fred Evans in 1948. (Fumbles were a lot more common in 1948—this year, teams lose 0.6 fumbles per game; in 1948, teams lost 1.5 fumbles per game.)
To summarize: It’s impressive for a team to have two scoop-and-scores in a season; it is rare for a team to have two scoop-and-scores in a game; it is virtually unheard of for a player to have two scoop-and-scores in a game—and Chinn had scoop-and-scores on back-to-back plays. Somehow, the Panthers still lost 28-27, despite one of the unlikeliest sequences in NFL history popping 14 points onto the board in 10 seconds. But it’s still worth celebrating.
To pull this feat off required a lot of talent and a lot of luck. And that’s kind of the way it is for Chinn, who went virtually unrecruited out of high school, turned a senior growth spurt into a scholarship at Southern Illinois, and turned his Southern Illinois performance into a second-round draft selection in April. We shouldn’t expect Chinn to do this again—but then again, he just did something nobody had done in a game in 72 years on back-to-back plays. Maybe he’ll be the first to do this impossible thing twice in a career.
Loser: The Raiders in the Biggest Loss of the Year
There was a week, maybe a couple, when the Raiders looked like a potential contender in the AFC. After handing the Super Bowl champion Chiefs their only loss of the season in October, Las Vegas nearly beat them a second time last Sunday, taking a late lead and forcing Patrick Mahomes to lead a game-winning drive with less than two minutes left. (It wasn’t very hard for Pat, but still.)
Entering this week, the Raiders were 6-4 and in the thick of the playoff race. And they had what looked to be an easy win ahead: a game against the Atlanta Falcons, a 3-7 team that had yet to beat anybody with a winning record this season. Plus, Atlanta would be without its superstar wide receiver, Julio Jones, as well as the star running back the team signed in the offseason, Todd Gurley.
Instead, Atlanta beat the absolute hell out of them. Derek Carr committed four turnovers, throwing a pick-six and losing three fumbles.
PICK SIX. DEION JONES.— Atlanta Falcons (@AtlantaFalcons) November 29, 2020
: CBS pic.twitter.com/LkzkTBgWyD
Josh Jacobs also lost a fumble to give the Raiders five turnovers on the day, tied for the most by any team in any game this season. Las Vegas never scored a touchdown and was held to a season-low 40 rushing yards. Atlanta scored nine times—four touchdowns and five field goals. The final score was 43-6.
Before Sunday, no team had lost a game this season by more than 35 points; the Raiders lost by 37. Meanwhile, four of the five teams also in line for a playoff spot in the AFC (the Titans, Bills, Dolphins, and Browns) all won their games on Sunday. At 6-5, Las Vegas is now ninth in the conference standings. They’ve still got a path to the playoffs—there are five games left in their season—but if your team shows up to a winnable game and takes the season’s biggest L at the hands of an injury-hampered team coasting to last place in its division, why the hell are we talking about the playoffs?
Winner: First-Half Knockouts
Broncos-Saints kicked off at the same time as Chiefs-Buccaneers, and the two contests could not have looked more different. In the Denver game, Kendall Hinton failed to complete a single first-half pass. In the Kansas City game, Patrick Mahomes threw for 359 first-half yards—the most by any quarterback in a half since 1991. And that included two first-quarter touchdown passes to Tyreek Hill.
Hill, meanwhile, had 203 receiving yards … in the first quarter. Nobody had posted 200 receiving yards in a whole game this season, and it was the most first-quarter receiving yards since 2006.
Chiefs-Bucs was supposed to be the game of the day, a matchup between the once and future GOATs. But it wasn’t particularly competitive after Mahomes and Hill got KC out to a 17-0 start. The Chiefs held a multi-score lead until the closing minutes of the game, and Tampa Bay never had the ball with a chance to overtake them. Tom Brady finished with fewer total passing yards than Mahomes had in the first half.
The Titans vs. Colts matchup was also over by halftime. It was essentially a battle for the AFC South title, but Derrick Henry had 140 yards and three touchdowns in the first half as Tennessee jumped out to a 35-14 lead.
Last week I wrote about how Henry, historically, gets better in the second halves of games after having racked up seemingly ineffective carries that tire out opposing defenses. That’s, uh, pretty much the opposite of how Sunday went. Both Mahomes and Henry—the best passer and rusher in the league—got their dirty work done early and chilled afterward. Mahomes had only 103 second-half yards; Henry had just 38. The games were a lot less interesting than expected from a competitive standpoint, but these guys’ jobs aren’t to make the games entertaining. It’s much better from their perspective to dunk so viciously on their opponents that the second halves are sleepers.
Loser: The Bears QB Competition
Remember above when I said that we’d get back to roasting awful QB play? The time is now! Let’s discuss Mitchell Trubisky.
After four losses in a row and a hip injury to Nick Foles, the Bears turned to Trubisky, the quarterback who opened the season as their starter, for Sunday night’s game against the Packers. And I gotta say, the man is an artist. Who else could massively underthrow and overthrow interceptions in the same night?
Trubisky's throw into triple coverage results in a Darnell Savage INT pic.twitter.com/rlc9PXoQMi— PFF (@PFF) November 30, 2020
Trubisky also had a fumble that was returned for a score in this game. He did throw two fourth-quarter touchdowns to give himself a somewhat respectable statline, but his turnovers put the Bears in a 27-3 hole. Don’t be impressed by the relatively decent 41-25 final score.
When you’re a fan of a football team with an uncertain QB situation, there’s always hope that the backup will save the day. After every pick, there’s a part of your brain that thinks, “Why can’t the coach see that our QB2 should be our QB1?” Unless, of course, you’re a Bears fan. Chicago benched Trubisky for Foles and has now benched Foles for Trubisky. If Foles recovers from his injury, they may swap him in for Trubisky again. But there’s no pot of gold behind a mystery door here. The Bears can switch back and forth all they want, but they’ve seen every available option, and they’re both terrible.
Promise me we’ll never acknowledge that bad NFL quarterbacks are actually very talented again. I hated it.
Winner: Fun Things Specialist Jacoby Brissett
Most backup quarterbacks live a life of tedium. They sit on the sideline, looking at their Microsoft Surfaces, doodling and dreaming of ways that they can get into the game without their team’s starting quarterback getting injured. Most of the time, there isn’t one. But some backups have specific skills that make them more valuable than their starters in certain situations. Most of the time, coaches are too afraid to take advantage of these skills, figuring the slight advantage isn’t worth messing with their starters’ heads. But thankfully, the Colts have embraced using Jacoby Brissett’s skill set.
Brissett was the team’s starting quarterback last year, but after the Colts acquired Philip Rivers this offseason, he was relegated to the bench. Still, the 6-foot-4, 240-pounder is indisputably better at two things than the … athletically limited Rivers:
- Throwing the ball a mile (Rivers’s arm strength is so-so)
- Quarterback sneaks (Rivers notably hates these)
Brissett actually once replaced Andrew Luck for an end-game Hail Mary, and he replaced Rivers on one in Week 9 against the Ravens. But in the past two weeks, Brissett has really begun to shine on short-yardage runs. He scored a touchdown two weeks ago in Indianapolis’s first matchup against the Titans—and managed two on Sunday. (Rivers has three rushing touchdowns in his career. And it’s a pretty long career.) One came on a read-option style look, and the other came on a traditional QB sneak:
Jacoby punches it through for six!— Indianapolis Colts (@Colts) November 29, 2020
Head coach Frank Reich has an entire “Brissett package” of plays like these. Brissett finished the game 0-for-2 passing and had four carries for 3 yards and two touchdowns.
Despite the touchdowns, he’s probably not worth picking up in your fantasy league. But I love that he’s carved out this niche: If the Colts need 1 yard or 50, they go to Brissett. Everything in between is Rivers’s job—but it feels like the plays when you score a touchdown or hurl the ball a long way are the most fun plays to run, and Brissett is clearly better at them than Rivers.
Winner: Audible Trash Talk
When we started playing sporting events in empty arenas, I was mainly excited for one thing: the ability to hear players trash-talk each other. And I’m gonna be honest: I’ve generally been disappointed.
More often than not, TV networks have opted to pipe in crowd noise so it feels like we’re watching games with fans. Yeah, we’ve heard quarterbacks yell audibles, and we’ve heard basketball sneakers squeaking, and we’ve heard soccer coaches yelling instructions—but we haven’t really heard any high-quality zings. The most illicit audio we’ve gotten has been celebratory—Logan Thomas screaming “Biiitch” after a TD, and Justin Tucker yelling “Still fuckin’ got it!” after a booming made field goal.
But Sunday, we finally got on-tape evidence of a player hating on his opponent. After a coordinated pre-snap motion by the Jaguars’ defensive line, Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield can be heard shouting, “That was fucking cute, guys!”
Jacksonville Defensive Line shifts...— Jordan Strack (@JordanStrack) November 29, 2020
Baker Mayfield: “That was f*****g cute guys.”
It’s not quite as good as my all-time favorite pre-snap QB taunt—Cam Newton’s “You been watching film, huh? That’s cool, watch this!” But I’ve gotta admit: That shimmy-shake the Jags did before the snap was pretty cute. It’s like a boy band dance move!