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: Jalen Hurts
A quarterback is so much more than a passer. Of course, passing is the most important part of the game, and the quarterback is the guy who throws most every pass. But quarterbacks control the entire offense. A team with a bad quarterback can seem irreparably broken—as the Eagles did with Carson Wentz under center. They can’t throw, they can’t run; it feels like a success when they get from first to fourth down without turning the ball over or losing yardage. But after transitioning to Jalen Hurts this week, Philly’s offense became cohesive—and the rookie quarterback got the Eagles a very surprising win in his first career start.
To illustrate the importance of that cohesion, consider the sack. Our initial instinct is to say that sacks fall on a team’s offensive line, because defensive linemen have to get past the offensive line to sack the QB. But much like how “passing touchdowns” are considered quarterback stats despite the fact that receivers have to catch passes for them to exist, sacks should primarily be considered a QB stat. A game where the quarterback doesn’t get sacked is probably a good game by the offensive line, but it also reflects how the quarterback manages the pocket and deals with pressure.
Wentz does neither of those things. Through 10 games this year, Wentz has been sacked 50 times, more than any quarterback all of last season. He got sacked at least three times in 11 of Philadelphia’s 12 games, losing a whopping 326 yards on those plays alone. (That’s almost 30 yards a game.) Yes, Philadelphia has a shoddy offensive line with an Australian rugby convert (Jordan Mailata) at left tackle and an undrafted guy (Nate Herbig) at right tackle and right guard … but look at this play. Wentz basically asks opponents to sack him.
Rate my pocket management pic.twitter.com/BWv6F5Tt1J— Michael Kist (@MichaelKistNFL) December 8, 2020
Sunday, the Eagles finally turned things over to Hurts and gave him a trial by fire against a Saints defense that hadn’t allowed 20 points in a game since Week 8. But Hurts got the Eagles out to a 17-0 halftime lead and held on for a 24-21 win. When players got past the Eagles’ makeshift O-line on Sunday, Hurts was smart and swift enough to get the hell out of there.
Hurts avoided the negative plays that have killed this team. Wentz leads the NFL in sacks and interceptions. Hurts threw no picks and was never sacked. Instead, he threw a touchdown when blitzers rocked him in the face:
The Saints, who were on a nine-game win streak, hadn’t allowed a 100-yard rusher in 55 games. (The last person to do it: Washington’s Samaje Perine, back in 2017.) Sunday, the Eagles had two: Hurts and Miles Sanders. Most of Hurts’s yardage came on scrambles—but he raised Philadelphia’s ground game even on designed runs. This 82-yard touchdown run is by Sanders, but it wouldn’t have even been possible with Wentz in the lineup. It’s a read-option play that forces the defense to account for Hurts’s running capabilities—and makes life easier on the offensive line by allowing them to leave a defender completely unblocked for Hurts to deal with.
Hurts was ready for this day. He always has been. In 2016, Hurts became Alabama’s starting quarterback as a true freshman. He led the Tide to the national championship game and won SEC Offensive Player of the Year. He’s got talent, but most importantly, he’s got poise—something Wentz completely lost this season. A quarterback is so much more than a passer—and Jalen Hurts is the best quarterback on the Philadelphia Eagles.
Loser: The Struggling Steelers
A week ago, the Steelers were 11-0. As they eked out close win after close win, I kept thinking about what I would write when they eventually lost. And then the bastards had the nerve to lose last Monday, knowing full well I don’t write “Winners and Losers of Monday Night Football.”
But then they went and lost again on Sunday night—a 26-15 performance against the Buffalo Bills in which Pittsburgh managed just 224 yards of offense. Ben Roethlisberger threw some passes like this:
Pittsburgh has now lost two games in a row, and there are a lot of potential causes for the team’s problems. Their receivers lead the NFL in drops—by a lot. Their running game is a complete non-threat—they’ve failed to hit 100 yards on the ground in six of their last seven games. Besides, Roethlisberger is not very good. This is not an example of anti-Steeler bias: It is a direct quote from Ben Roethlisberger:
Asked Ben Roethlisberger what was causing the underthrown balls, off-target passes -- if it was miscommunications with receivers, playcalls or something else:— Brooke Pryor (@bepryor) December 14, 2020
"I'm just not very good, Brooke."
The Steelers defense is good enough to generally keep them in games. They still lead the NFL in points allowed per game. But I wouldn’t recommend prolonged exposure to the offense, which can lead to nasty side effects like “being unable to catch footballs.”
At 11-0, the Steelers had an outside chance of winning the Super Bowl in spite of their flaws, simply because their record meant they’d likely skip the first round of the playoffs and host any postseason games they played. But at 11-2, they have neither of those things going for them. They’re a game behind the significantly more talented Chiefs in the AFC standings, and in a serious tailspin. With a quarterback who can’t throw, receivers who can’t catch, and no semblance of a running game, it’s tough to imagine the team that just had the best record in the NFL making a serious impact in the championship race.
Loser: A Punter in a Pile
A few years ago, I wrote about the race to discover an onside kick strategy that could actually work with the NFL’s new rules. When the Cowboys pulled off their “watermelon kick” earlier this year against the Falcons, it seemed like they’d found the answer. Everybody started attempting it, including the Saints. New Orleans first tried the watermelon kick against the Packers in Week 3, but the ball rolled out of bounds. Sunday, though, they got it right.
Kicker Will Lutz got the ball to helicopter on the ground, spinning and spinning and spinning and eventually crashing into an Eagles player’s leg. That gave the Saints grounds to recover it, and they appeared to get on top of the ball—but eventually, the Eagles were ruled to have recovered.
Yes, the ball briefly wound up in a Saints player’s hands—but that Saints player was Thomas Morstead, the punter. Morstead was there because part of the New Orleans onside kick strategy is having two kickers on the field, one threatening to kick in each direction. After all, Morstead pulled off one of the greatest onside kicks of all time in the Saints’ win in Super Bowl XLIV.
But the two-kicker setup meant that the kicker who didn’t kick had to go try to fetch the ball. And while Morstead got his hands on the ball, he didn’t clearly recover it before Eagles players piled on.
Once the ball is in the dog pile, rules don’t matter. It’s sort of a loophole in the NFL’s meticulously planned officiating system. For most plays, we’ll review what happened in super slo-mo to determine whether a player had possession. And there could be dozens of moments in the pile where a player has possession with their knee touching the ground, which should end the play. But the cameras can’t see it, because it’s happening under several thousand pounds of humans, so we just accept that whoever emerges from the mess with the ball gets possession. With so much on the line and nobody in charge, what happens in those dog piles is legendary and horrifying: “You got guys grabbing your balls, punching you in the chest, gouging your eyes,” said former NFL lineman Fred Smerlas.
I like to hype up special teamers’ athletic abilities when I can. But what happened after Morstead got his hands on the ball was predictable: Somewhere between one and a dozen Eagles ripped the ball away from the guy who makes his living kicking the ball. It’s bad when your hopes depend on a punter in a pile.
Winner: The Trubisky Truther Movement
The NFL has its very own Sam Bowie in Mitch Trubisky. Trubisky was drafted ahead of Patrick Mahomes and Deshaun Watson, and while Mahomes hasn’t won six championships yet, he and Watson have become two of the NFL’s best quarterbacks. Trubisky, meanwhile, is lucky to be considered one of the Chicago Bears’ two best current quarterbacks.
So Bears fans were probably dreading Sunday’s matchup with the Houston Texans. It was due to be three hours of “the Bears took Trubisky over Mahomes and Watson” talk, just like last year’s Bears-Chiefs game (a 26-3 Kansas City win), last year’s Chiefs-Texans playoff game, and this year’s Chiefs-Texans season opener.
But Sunday, Trubisky played one of the best games of his life. He went 24-for-33 for 267 yards with three touchdowns and no interceptions. His stats probably would’ve been higher, but after taking a 30-7 first-half lead, the Bears took their foot off the gas. His 126.7 passer rating was the fourth highest of his career—and two of the other three were against Matt Patricia’s Lions, so they barely count. For once in his life, the 10 on the back of Trubisky’s jersey represented dimes, not the number of draft picks between him and Watson:
Watson threw only one touchdown in the Bears’ 36-7 win, Chicago’s biggest since 2018. Meanwhile, Mahomes threw three interceptions in the Chiefs’ 33-27 win over the Dolphins. At this point, the only thing Bears fans would hate more than everybody talking about how Trubisky was drafted over Mahomes and Watson would be if the end of this season convinces the Bears that drafting Trubisky over Mahomes and Watson wasn’t so stupid. And after Sunday, we’re one step closer to that happening.
Loser: Great Defensive Performances Against Patrick Mahomes
Lots of players can win on their best days. I mean, come on, did you just read that thing about Mitch Trubisky throwing three touchdowns on Sunday? But what’s really scary is when a player’s worst is still better than anybody else’s best—and that’s where we’re at with Patrick Mahomes.
Sunday, Mahomes’s Chiefs went up against the Miami Dolphins, the surprise owners of one of the best defenses in the NFL. Miami entered Sunday second in the league in points allowed—they’d given up 212 so far this season; the Steelers had allowed 211—and had allowed a league-low 14 passing touchdowns. And early on in this game, the Dolphins made the legendary Mahomes look silly.
In the first quarter, Mahomes seemed to think he could outrun Dolphins linebacker Jerome Baker, as he often outruns defenders before turning around and throwing a bullet. But Baker was faster than Mahomes, and he chased the QB down for a 30-yard sack. It was the biggest loss of yardage on a single sack since 1997, when Cardinals legend Stoney Case lost 30 yards on a sack. (When I found this out, I decided to look up what Stoney Case’s birthname was, because it’s obviously a nickname. Nope. He was born Stoney.) Anyway, he was the only guy bad enough to do this horrible thing Patrick Mahomes did:
Mahomes also threw three interceptions. Entering Sunday, he’d thrown two all season. Now he’s thrown five. Speaking of great NFL names: Andrew Van Ginkel deflected this pass that was eventually intercepted by Byron Jones.
This was one of Mahomes’s worst games ever. It was only his second career three-interception game—and he threw six touchdowns in the other. It was only the third time he threw more interceptions than touchdowns, and the first since 2018. And guess what? It didn’t matter! The Dolphins jumped out to a 10-0 lead, but before long, it was 21-10 Chiefs. Mahomes finished with 393 passing yards in a 33-27 win.
This wasn’t a 14-10 win where one team screwed up less than the other. Tua Tagovailoa had a career-high 316 yards and two touchdowns for the Dolphins. The Chiefs still overpowered them and won. The Dolphins hadn’t allowed more than 31 points this year, and the Chiefs scored 33. The 354 passing yards is the second most Miami allowed this season. For all the mini disasters, the Chiefs still won because of their explosive passing offense.
It reminded me of the last game the Chiefs played in Miami—Super Bowl LIV, the third of three straight playoff games where Kansas City fell into a double-digit hole before winning by double-digits. I’m starting to wonder what it takes to beat this team. What can you do if intercepting Patrick Mahomes three times isn’t enough?
Loser: An Actual Excessive Celebration Penalty
The NFL used to penalize players for celebrating too hard. But the league eventually realized that fans like watching players have fun, and that instead of penalizing and fining players who celebrate, it should market them. In 2017, the league cut back on celebration penalties. Now the NFL RedZone channel happily puts together a compilation reel of all the best celebrations every week, and there are celebration-themed NFL commercials. Players can perform elaborate dances with their teammates or put together massive reenactments of glorious moments in other sports, and the referees don’t flag anything.
Hell, Aaron Rodgers did the pelvic thrusts from the Key and Peele skit about excessive celebrations and didn’t get flagged for excessive celebration. The NFL even uploaded it to YouTube. (The NFL’s rulebook still explicitly bans actions that are “sexually suggestive,” but the referees apparently did not think that Rodgers’s humps were “sexually suggestive.” Therefore, I conclude that it is the official stance of the NFL that Aaron Rodgers’s dick game is trash.)
So Sunday, I was flabbergasted to see an actual excessive celebration penalty called. After scoring against the Jets, DK Metcalf was flagged for this:
Metcalf hopped up into the stands, took control of a CBS camera, and operated it for a few seconds. (Tyreek Hill pulled the same move in 2018.) Then, his wide receiver teammates gave him an early birthday present: a laminated IOU for a four-day all-expenses paid trip. (To where? Unclear. We’ll find out eventually how cheap the Seahawks’ wide receivers are.) Later CBS aired footage of Metcalf’s turn behind the camera, and he’s not exactly great at focusing.
So I got curious: How many excessive celebration penalties have there been this year? It’s tough to tell for sure, since they’re all lumped under “unsportsmanlike conduct,” and there have been a lot of those. But after going through the NFLPenalties.com database, I think the answer is four. Travis Kelce got flagged for dunking on the upright (also against the Jets, of course), Josh Allen got flagged for spinning the ball at a defender, and Danny Amendola got flagged for taking his helmet off after T.J. Hockenson’s game-winning touchdown against the Falcons. (Dontrelle Inman was also flagged for taunting after a post-touchdown flex in Andrew Sendejo’s face, but technically taunting is its own penalty.)
I suspect that the drop-off in excessive celebration penalties isn’t just the fact that refs have gotten more lax—it’s also because of a 2019 rule change allowing the penalty to be enforced on the extra point if it comes on a touchdown. After the flag on Amendola, the Lions had to attempt a 48-yard extra point to win the game. Refs aren’t calling them, and players don’t want to pick them up, because it could actually cost their team a point.
All this to say: I think Metcalf is the only player in the NFL to really get flagged for excessive celebration this year. The other three post-touchdown unsportsmanlike penalties were on technicalities—the rules specifically say you can’t dunk on the goalpost, spin the ball at a defender, or take your helmet off on the field. Metcalf is pretty much the first person to do something not explicitly written down in the rulebook that was so excessive that the refs had to throw a flag. It’s refreshing to see a player get so carried away by their own greatness that they’re willing to break the rules. (Although I guess nobody really needs to worry about the penalty when you’re playing the Jets—Seattle won 40-3.)
Winner: One-Handed Interceptions
There’s a big list of things NFL announcers have to say after extremely specific football occurrences. It’s too long to list here, but here’s an important one: Every time a defensive player almost intercepts a pass, the announcer is legally obligated to say: That’s why he plays defense and not wide receiver!
But I think we might have to give that saying a rest. The two best catches on Sunday were made by defenders. Here’s Colts cornerback Kenny Moore picking off Derek Carr:
And here’s Dolphins cornerback Xavian Howard with his ninth interception of the season. (No player has had nine picks in one season since 2012.)
Because I’m in sports media and am therefore incapable of simply appreciating cool things, I’ve spent the last 20 minutes watching each play and trying to decide which was cooler. Moore makes the cleaner catch at a weirder angle; Howard gets extra credit for picking off Mahomes on a throw to Hill.
The reason defensive backs play defense isn’t because they have bad hands—it’s because they have a truly impossible skill set, a combination of speed and strength and flexibility and reaction time and intelligence. I have no idea how they do it. But with catches like these, we should spend less time making fun of defensive backs for drops and more time making fun of Diontae Johnson.
Loser: The Vikings’ Still-Cursed Kickers
Some teams end up with a great kicker and get to keep them for as long as they’re in the NFL. And that can be a long time. (Has anybody checked to make sure Adam Vinatieri isn’t out there kicking for somebody this season? It’s entirely possible he’s on the Jets and they just haven’t gotten into field goal range yet.) Other teams, through no fault of their own, are doomed to wander the kicking desert for decades. And right now, it feels like no team is more cursed in that department than the Minnesota Vikings.
Sunday, Minnesota kicker Dan Bailey missed every single kick he attempted: three field goals and an extra point. Sometimes, he wasn’t even close:
Dan Bailey's third miss of the day was... not close. pic.twitter.com/1WHFK3O5tW— FOX Sports: NFL (@NFLonFOX) December 13, 2020
Bailey also missed two extra points and a field goal last week against the Jaguars, allowing the game to go into overtime. But this week, his misses all but cost the Vikings a much-needed win, as they left 10 points on the board and lost 26-14 to the Buccaneers. Head coach Mike Zimmer said, “We’re not really worried about feelings” when discussing Bailey after the game, which is pretty much the meanest breakup text an NFL coach has ever sent.
Bailey is only the second player in NFL history to attempt at least three field goals and one extra point in a game without hitting any of them—and the first since 1961. In that game, John Aveni missed every kick for an 0-9 Washington team. Aveni was an absolutely terrible kicker—he went 5-for-28 on field goals that season—but he did have six receptions and a touchdown for Washington, because Aveni also played tight end. Back then, nobody really cared enough to have a kicking specialist.
Nowadays, kicking is a science—and for a while, it looked like Bailey was one of the best kicking scientists ever. After the 2015 season, Bailey was the only player in NFL history to have a 90-plus percent career completion rate on field goals. (For comparison, Aveni finished his career at a cool 34.9 percent. Maybe they should’ve let the backup tight end try kicking.) But since coming from the Cowboys to the Vikings in 2018, Bailey has fallen precipitously. Entering Sunday, Bailey had fallen from first to sixth on the all-time field goal accuracy leaderboard. And after going 0-for-3 Sunday, Bailey fell from sixth to 12th in one day and may have cost the Vikings a chance at a playoff berth. This man used to be the no. 1 kicker of all time. Now he’s Minnesota’s public enemy no. 1. (And it’s really hard to get Minnesotans to hate you.)
This keeps happening to the Vikings. It looked like they’d found somebody with Blair Walsh, who at one point was 10th on the all-time field goal accuracy leaderboard. Then he missed a potential game-winning 27-yard field goal in the 2015 playoffs (laces in!), and essentially lost all his talents. (Like Bailey, he had a game where he missed all three of his field goals and failed to score; Bailey and Walsh are the only two kickers to do so since 2000.) So the Vikings used a fifth-round pick on Daniel Carlson—but Carlson went 1-for-4 over his first two weeks and Minnesota cut him (he’s now a successful kicker with the Raiders). Then the Vikings traded a fifth-round pick for Kaare Vedvik—but Vedvik went just 1-for-4 in preseason.
It’d be surprising if Bailey is still on the Vikings come Monday. But there aren’t exactly good options available. (Bless the poor bloggers putting together “here are the kickers the Vikings can sign” posts.) Minnesota does have a guy on its practice squad named Tristan Vizcaino … but he was 12-for-20 in his career at the University of Washington and went 4-for-7 in preseason with the Bengals last year. I guess any kick made from here on out will represent improvement, but those are some pretty bad stats. Nobody really knows how to find kickers—but the Vikings really don’t know how to find kickers.