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: The Legend of Mike White
Since the start of the 2019 season, the Jets have played six quarterbacks and won 10 games. There was Sam Darnold, the future of the franchise who quickly fizzled. Then Trevor Siemian, who suffered a season-ending injury within minutes of his Jets debut. Then Luke Falk, who may have been the worst quarterback I’ve watched in 20-plus years of Jets fandom. Somewhere in there, David Fales took some snaps—he attempted zero passes and took one sack. Then Joe Flacco, the one-time Super Bowl champion who lost every single game he played in New York. Then Zach Wilson, the new future of the franchise—do not think about the fact that just three years ago, there was another future of the franchise. Over the course of these three seasons, the Jets were dead last (or tied for last) in the NFL in passer rating, passing yardage, completion percentage, and passing touchdowns.
Through it all, a man with the forgettable name of “Mike White” watched. White had an impressive college career—in 2016, he was the QB for a Western Kentucky team that led college football in scoring—but had been in the NFL for four years without taking the field. He was drafted in 2018 by the Cowboys and never played for them. He signed with New York after Siemian’s injury and sat as they lost game after game. White finally got his chance to make his NFL debut last week after Wilson suffered a knee injury, and was terrible in a 54-13 loss. The Jets actually traded for Flacco, apparently believing that a QB who went 0-4 last year would be better than White. Why would anybody expect someone who wasn’t good enough to play QB for the worst passing team in the NFL to be good?
But White got the start Sunday against the Bengals—and played one of the best games in recent Jets history. He guided New York to the biggest upset of the NFL season so far. It wasn’t a fluke: The former fourth-stringer threw dimes all day:
After the Cole catch was reversed... Braxton Berrios secures the @nyjets TD! #TakeFlight— NFL (@NFL) October 31, 2021
: #CINvsNYJ on CBS
: NFL app pic.twitter.com/qmtpPI3DLL
MIKE WHITE IS OVER 400 YARDS AND WE HAVE THE LEAD#CINvsNYJ on CBS pic.twitter.com/lY2lz9Bocq— New York Jets (@nyjets) October 31, 2021
White passed for 405 yards, the 10th most in Jets history and the most by any Jets QB since 2000, and his 37 completions were tied for the third most in franchise history. He’s just the second QB ever to throw for 400 yards in his first career start, joining Cam Newton. He did this without the team’s no. 1 wide receiver, Corey Davis, the only player to catch a TD from White in his debut last week. According to White, the Jets caught the Bengals off guard since the Bengals were expecting a team starting a guy nobody had ever heard of to play conservatively. The Jets even ran the Philly Special, the no. 1 play for teams riding iconic backup QB performances:
THE CROWD IS CHANTING MIKE WHITE#CINvsNYJ on CBS pic.twitter.com/dXlvjYa5HC— New York Jets (@nyjets) October 31, 2021
The Jets are seemingly all in on White. The crowd chanted White’s name, which caught him off guard. But White’s teammates seemed to expect his success, most of all running back Ty Johnson, who hyped White up all week and repeatedly told reporters “that’s Mike Fucking White” after the game. Head coach Robert Saleh said that White would start the team’s next game—and didn’t rule out White as the team’s long-term QB:
Saleh says “anything is possible” regarding White being the #Jets long-term answer at quarterback.— Connor Hughes (@Connor_J_Hughes) October 31, 2021
And away we go
Everybody is pumped—and it’s bewildering as a Jets fan. Supporting this team means believing that Wilson is a supremely talented prospect worthy of the no. 2 pick in a QB-heavy draft—but Wilson is tied for the league lead in interceptions and hasn’t looked as good in two months with plenty of practice time as White did in a spot start. It’s fun to imagine White rising to superstardom, but also worrisome, because it would mean the Jets just used a top pick on a QB when the answer was already on the roster.
The Legend of Mike White has been born. It’s the best thing to happen to the Jets in years, and also possibly a sign everybody associated with the organization has no idea what they’re doing. Which is honestly par for the course with the Jets, except this one ended with a W.
Winner: Backup QBs Dressed Up As Starters for Halloween
Sunday was Halloween, and you’re probably over it because by the time you’re reading this, it’s already November. Very Bill Belichick of you—“We’re on to Thanksgiving.” Unfortunately, you’ve still got to read one more Halloween-related joke, about a trio of former teammates who came up with a great group costume idea.
White wasn’t the only longtime backup QB to win a game Sunday, but rather one of three players called up from the bottoms of depth charts to shine. Trevor Siemian hadn’t taken a snap in an NFL game since his brief playing time for the Jets in 2019, but wound up playing for the Saints on Sunday after starter Jameis Winston got injured on a horse-collar tackle by Devin White. Normally, the Saints’ backup would be Taysom Hill, who went 3-1 as New Orleans’s starting QB last year, but the Saints famously like to use Hill in non-quarterback roles, and he suffered a brutal concussion diving for a catch a few weeks ago.
So Siemian came in, and beat Tom Brady. That’s the narrative we’re running with. Please, do not consider the fact that Siemian and Brady never played at the same time because they’re both quarterbacks, or that Brady had more passing yards and touchdowns, as well as more yards per attempt and a better completion percentage. Trevor Siemian beat Tom Brady, and is the new greatest quarterback of all time.
The backup won by passing to other backups. The Saints’ leader in receiving yards was Kevin White, a former first-round pick who hadn’t caught a pass since 2018. Tied for the team lead in receptions was Garrett Griffin, a tight end who hadn’t caught a pass since 2017. And Siemian threw his only touchdown to Alex Armah, a fullback who hadn’t caught any passes for New Orleans all year long. It’s almost as if Siemian was more comfortable throwing to the players he repped with in practice as a backup QB than the team’s actual starters.
Trevor Siemian to Kevin White for 38 YARDS!!! #TBvs NO | : FOX pic.twitter.com/RZB9nOkx9a— New Orleans Saints (@Saints) October 31, 2021
But that’s not all! All week, it was unclear whether Dak Prescott would start for the Cowboys on Sunday Night Football after he injured his calf two weeks ago. Prescott flew to Minnesota and went through pregame warmups, but was ruled inactive at the last moment. (Sorry about your fantasy football teams.) Starting in his place was Cooper Rush, who had logged more seasons with the Cowboys (five) than passing attempts (three). Rush served as Prescott’s direct backup for three seasons, but Prescott played nearly every single snap over that stretch. And last year, when Prescott did get injured, Rush had been relegated to third string behind Andy Dalton.
So the Vikings weren’t sure what to expect when Rush took the field. Actually, they said as much—safety Xavier Woods explained that the team spent all week preparing for Prescott, and had barely watched film of Rush:
"prepared for 4 all week. We didn’t get the word until pregame (that Rush was going to start), so we just prepared for 4 but we watched a couple clips of Coop. But during the week, we just prepared for 4."— Courtney Cronin (@CourtneyRCronin) November 1, 2021
Which raises the question: Should the Vikings have needed to watch film to prevent a guy from getting wide open on a post route?
Cooper Rush finds Cedrick Wilson for the 73-yard house call— Bleacher Report (@BleacherReport) November 1, 2021
Rush finished with 325 yards and his first two career touchdowns. This isn’t a Siemian-Brady situation—Rush legitimately outperformed Kirk Cousins.
It’s stunning that Mike White, Cooper Rush, and Trevor Siemian won games on Sunday. And if you untangle the webs, they’re all linked. White was the third-stringer in Dallas in 2018 when Rush was Dak’s backup; then White signed with the Jets after Siemian got injured. But for all the roster shuffling, none of these guys have played. All of these quarterbacks had been in the league since 2018, and none of them threw any touchdowns in the 2018, 2019, or 2020 seasons. Backup QBs win games from time to time, but these aren’t typical backups: They were deep-bench scrubs, rarely getting called up to game day rosters, lucky to get a Microsoft Surface on the sidelines. Suddenly, they’re heroes.
So here’s your Halloween joke: These three third-stringers decided to dress up as NFL starting QBs on Sunday. And you could barely tell that they were wearing costumes.
Loser: The Vikings, or Maybe the Refs, or Both
Who do you blame when everybody screws up? It’s a question Vikings fans must have after losing Sunday night’s game. They can be mad at an offense that gained only 278 yards, a defense that was beaten by Cooper Rush, or the coaching staff responsible for both. They can also be mad about a strange sequence at the end of Sunday night’s game, which led to an unusual call: “defensive delay of game,” which had been called just once this NFL season before Sunday night.
The Vikings were winning 16-13 and had forced the Cowboys into a third-and-16, at which point Minnesota called timeout, hoping to preserve clock for the final possession of the game. However, after the Cowboys lined up, Minnesota head coach Mike Zimmer called a second timeout, which is illegal—in the NFL, teams aren’t allowed to call consecutive timeouts in the same dead-ball period.
However, calling multiple timeouts doesn’t automatically result in a penalty. In basketball, a team calling for a timeout it doesn’t have automatically results in a technical foul—here’s where I’m supposed to reference Chris Webber—but in the NFL, referees are supposed to ignore requests for illegal timeouts. The penalty only occurs if the refs incorrectly blow their whistles and grant the illegal timeout, which the referees did on Sunday night. The penalty gave the Cowboys 5 extra yards, and on the next play, Ezekiel Elliott gained 15 yards.
Zeke did that #DallasCowboys— NFL (@NFL) November 1, 2021
: #DALvsMIN on NBC
: https://t.co/vo1pze9aC5 pic.twitter.com/FjAl2lrqPW
If the first down had been 16 yards away, a gain of 15 would have brought up fourth down—but it was only 11 yards away, because of the penalty. So the Cowboys got a first down and subsequently went on to score the game-winning touchdown.
The Vikings should be mad at themselves for giving up 15 yards on third-and-11. But they can also be mad at the refs, who blatantly screwed up, and then punished the Vikings because of their screwup. Officiating blog Football Zebras tweeted that an incorrectly granted timeout “Should. NEVER. Happen.” But of course, the big mistake was Zimmer calling for back-to-back timeouts. The refs should not have granted the timeouts, but it’s hard to ignore an NFL head coach screaming “TIMEOUT TIMEOUT TIMEOUT” in their ear. Zimmer had no defense. He explained that he simply forgot that he’d already called a timeout:
Mike Zimmer on calling two timeouts in a row that led to a defensive delay of game on 3rd and 16. "I screwed up. I forgot that I called one."— Will Ragatz (@WillRagatz) November 1, 2021
Mike Zimmer is basically Brennan and Dale asking their parents for permission to build bunk beds to provide extra space for activities, then crying and yelling at their parents for giving them permission when it was obviously a terrible idea. Just picture Zimmer tearfully screaming “There’s blood everywhere! It’s so bad!”
Remember how I said that there had been exactly one defensive delay-of-game penalty this NFL season? It was also on the Vikings, who tried calling a fourth timeout against Cleveland a few weeks ago. Maybe the Vikings should be mad at the refs for granting illegal timeouts only to them—or maybe they should wonder why they’re the only team in the NFL that seems to call illegal timeouts.
Winner: Mascot Field Goals
Football is all about positioning, and when there’s a game-winning field goal attempt, there’s only one place for a mascot to line up before the snap: under the upright, where cameras can capture their agony or ecstasy. On most plays, the backdrop is the sideline, where mascots aren’t allowed to be. But field goals are a strange play where the world focuses on a giant contraption just off the playing field. It’s a rare chance for mascots to shine. Mascots have been thriving in this moment for years—here’s the Bills mascot deflating; here’s the Dolphins mascot undergoing all five stages of grief. When the Bears hit their famous Double Doink, the star of the show was Staley Da Bear, melting.
But the undisputed master of the genre is Blue, the Colts’ two-legged horse. When the Colts hit game-winning field goals, Blue is under that upright, trying to impregnate the air with wild pelvic thrusts. When opponents make game-winners, Blue crumples like he’s lost the will to live. Sunday, when the Titans beat the Colts on a walk-off field goal in overtime, he took his game to a new level by repeatedly bashing his horse-head into the goalpost:
RANDY!— Tennessee Titans (@Titans) October 31, 2021
: Watch #TENvsIND on @NFLonCBS pic.twitter.com/2PUpDq9pCQ
It’s hard to express pain when your face is a permanent smile, which is why Blue must destroy his fuzzy body. He slammed his skull into that upright until the camera cut away. It’s possible he’s still there, bashing away.
You’d think that a mascot’s role is simply to cheer for his team, but under the uprights, these mascots prove that there’s more to the job. They are the physical embodiment of how fans are supposed to feel about their team. Sometimes that means joy; sometimes it means voluntarily giving yourself a horse concussion. Hopefully the Colts have an NFL-sanctioned neurologist clear him for a return to fandom.
Loser: Jared Goff
Everybody has a brain fart now and then, but Jared Goff’s cerebellum must smell terrible, because it’s apparently awful flatulent in that cranium of his. Sunday, as the Lions were getting stomped on by the Eagles, Goff intentionally threw a pass out of bounds on fourth down:
Jared Goff with a throwaway on 4th down ♂️ pic.twitter.com/cU0mFnWdtC— Shane Haff (@HAFFnHAFF_TPL) October 31, 2021
I could forgive a QB for making this mistake once. They get coached nonstop to avoid sacks and interceptions. But on fourth downs, the logic is entirely reversed. An incompletion becomes a turnover on downs, so throwing the ball away is accepting the worst possible outcome. A QB should try something—anything—because even a low-percentage play is better than a zero-percentage one. Even an interception on fourth down isn’t so bad! It might actually result in better field position than an incomplete pass!
But Goff hasn’t made this mistake once. He’s made it twice in three weeks. He did the same thing two weeks ago against the Bengals, in a much closer game:
On 4th down, when all else fails, you gotta throw it away if you're Jared Goff because... logic.pic.twitter.com/tpUViG5c51— Dov Kleiman (@NFL_DovKleiman) October 17, 2021
Throwing the ball away on fourth down one time might be a mental error; doing it multiple times seems like something more cynical. It feels like Goff is unwilling to even try getting the first down, like it would be too much effort to try to keep the play alive, or he doesn’t want to risk putting a pick on his stat sheet.
The Lions are 0-8, but their coaching staff has earned a lot of praise around the NFL due to their willingness to take risks. They’ve been kicking surprise onside kicks and attempting fake punts and trying anything possible to give the team a chance to get in the win column. They know they’re losing every week, and that because of that, they know there’s nothing to lose. And then there’s Goff, blithely throwing the ball away, unaware or unmoved by the fact that literally any effort would give the team a better chance than a throwaway. It’s hard to imagine how a coach who will put everything on the line to win can coexist with a QB who’s actively throwing away chances.
Winner: Stephon Gilmore
When the Patriots do something questionable, sometimes you assume it’s smart because the Patriots are doing it. Like a few weeks ago, when the Patriots traded away Stephon Gilmore to the Panthers for a 2023 sixth-round pick. Gilmore was the 2019 Defensive Player of the Year, a first-team All-Pro in 2018 and 2019, and has made three consecutive Pro Bowls. It just seems ridiculous to imagine that a player this good is worth a sixth-round pick two years from now. The Jets gave up more to get Joe Flacco, who sucks and will probably sit behind Mike White. It’s such a blatantly bad trade that you just had to assume Bill Belichick knew something we didn’t. It had something to do with the salary cap, apparently. And the general consensus was that Gilmore, who hadn’t played since Week 15 of last season due to a quad injury, must be more injured than anybody knows.
But Sunday, Gilmore made his debut for the Panthers—and immediately contributed, making the game-sealing interception:
Stephon Gilmore is back like he never left— PFF (@PFF) October 31, 2021
Gilmore isn’t 100 percent ready yet, and played only “25 to 30” snaps, according to coach Matt Rhule. But he did the job he was asked to do exceptionally well. He was primarily tasked with guarding Kyle Pitts, the rookie tight end coming off back-to-back 100-yard performances. Sunday, Pitts had two catches for 13 yards, and Gilmore’s pick came while defending Pitts.
Gilmore may have already contributed more to the Panthers than whoever the Patriots pick in the sixth round in 2023 will ever contribute to the Patriots—most sixth-rounders don’t turn into Tom Brady. And Gilmore seems like he’s got plenty left in the tank. I guess we’ll find out next week, when the Panthers play the Patriots!
Loser: The Steelers’ Fake Field Goal
I hate fake field goals. A fake punt is easy—there are already two players lined up in “receiver”-type positions, and the defense is flowing in the wrong direction, because they’re primarily focused on getting downfield to set up a good return. A fake field goal is tough—everybody on the offense is lined up in the densest possible formation, there’s a guy in the backfield kneeling who can’t help in any meaningful way, and the defense is flowing toward the kick.
Since 2010, there have been 56 passes completed by punters; in that time frame, there have been four passes completed by kickers. The most recent successful fake field goal was in 2018, when Lions kicker Matt Prater threw a touchdown to Levine Toilolo. Sunday, Pittsburgh decided to go back to the well, running another fake field goal pass with Boswell. It didn’t go as well:
#Steelers kicker Chris Boswell got absolutely rocked on a fake FG attempt and now he's going to the locker room. pic.twitter.com/kMoxAyqawr— Ari Meirov (@MySportsUpdate) October 31, 2021
It seems to have been the same play the Steelers ran in 2018, and the Browns seem to have been 100 percent prepared for it. There were four defenders covering two passing routes—a tough situation for a QB to throw into, and an impossible one for a kicker. Making matters worse, the 2018 play was on fourth-and-2 from the 2-yard line, while this one was fourth-and-9, so the route into the flat was basically pointless. Unlike Jared Goff, Boswell tried his best to keep the play alive—which turned out to be a grave mistake, as 6-foot-4, 303-pound defensive lineman Jordan Elliott effortlessly tossed the 185-pound kicker.
Chris Boswell got ROCKED on a fake field goal attempt pic.twitter.com/H6w3EuArYz— Will Brinson (@WillBrinson) October 31, 2021
The play should have resulted in a roughing-the-passer penalty, but referees apparently didn’t realize that a kicker could be a passer. Boswell suffered a concussion on the play, ending his day and completely ruining the Steelers’ kicking plans for the rest of the day.
When a kicker gets hurt, you can’t simply slide in the backup kicker, because there isn’t one. Pittsburgh’s punter, Pressley Harvin III, has never made a field goal before—not even in high school. And since Harvin is the holder on field goals, Ben Roethlisberger is apparently the “emergency holder,” per head coach Mike Tomlin. But the team was so worried about Harvin’s lack of place-kicking ability that there was legitimate concern that Harvin would kick Roethlisberger’s hand and put the starting QB out of commission. So they have an emergency holder who can’t be used in actual emergencies, which is like having a fire extinguisher you can’t use if there’s a fire.
Ben Roethlisberger is the Steelers emergency holder and when they found out Pressley Harvin III doesn’t kick, they didn’t want to risk the QB holding with his right hand and getting kicked.— Brooke Pryor (@bepryor) October 31, 2021
Pretty much knew then that they wouldn’t be kicking in the second half. pic.twitter.com/JkL3nAJgzd
The team didn’t attempt a field goal or extra point after Boswell’s injury. They went 0-for-2 on two-point conversions, including an attempt from the 12-yard line after a holding penalty. (Roethlisberger threw a checkdown, which is about as bad as Goff’s fourth-down throwaway.) Harvin’s kickoffs were short, and one went out of bounds, setting the Browns up with a short field on a touchdown drive. The Steelers led by five late instead of seven, giving the Browns several shots at a game-winning touchdown. Luckily, the Steelers defense held.
Long story short: I hate fake field goals. Don’t run a naked bootleg with your kicker, especially if your punter has never kicked a field goal and your holder can’t actually hold because his hands are too valuable. It’s better to take the three points than ask your kicker to throw into double coverage.
Loser: The Kicker With the Name
Twelve years ago, a high school freshman named Chris from Virginia made the best and worst decision of his life. Chris played soccer, but all his friends were on the football team, so he tried out for the squad and realized he could kick. It went great. He earned a scholarship to Pitt, where he set the all-time record for field goals. He even made it onto an NFL roster.
Hold on, wait, all of these are good things—why did I say best and worst decision of his life? Because Chris is Chris Blewitt, doomed to be crushed under the weight of 10 million jokes about his last name.
Unfortunately, Chris keeps blowing it. Two weeks ago, the Washington Football Team cut Dustin Hopkins, who had been with the team for seven years. They signed Blewitt, an unusual choice, as the kicker hadn’t played in a game since graduating from Pitt in 2016 and hadn’t been with any NFL team since a tryout with the Bears in 2019. Blewitt’s first NFL field goal attempt was blocked. Sunday against the Broncos, two more Blewitt kicks were blocked. It’s not so much that this kick was “blocked” as “Blewitt kicked it into a dude’s armpit.”
How low was Blewitt's kick? It didn't clear his own lineman pic.twitter.com/fUBJlzvg8w— Mark Bullock (@MarkBullockNFL) October 31, 2021
Sometimes a blocked kick is a fluke—the result of an incredible defensive play or a breakdown by the offensive line. But after three blocks in two games, it seems pretty clear that Blewitt is kicking the ball too low. Blewitt had seven kicks blocked at Pitt, accounting for 30 percent of his career misses. Entering Sunday, there had been seven blocked field goals this year, accounting for 1.32 percent of field goals. Blewitt has now had 60 percent of his kicks blocked. It seems impossible that Washington can keep him as the team’s kicker if he gets blocked this frequently. Unfortunately, Hopkins has already signed with the Chargers, and hit every kick in his first game Sunday.
You’re not the first person to make a joke about the name. Blewitt says he’d heard every joke by the time he was in fourth grade, long before he devoted his life to a job where he might blow it. Jimmy Kimmel was making Blewitt jokes all the way back in 2014. Blewitt went along with the joke at the time, apparently too naive to realize things would be this way for the rest of his life. The jokes came when he missed a game-winning kick against Duke in 2014, when the Bears brought him in for training camp in 2019, and they’re coming again now that he’s getting blocked over and over again. We all need to aim a little bit higher with our jokes—just like Chris needs to aim higher with his kicks.