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 Camback
It’s always funny when writers try to undo an unpopular choice they made—when the hero wakes up and reveals the events of the past season was a dream; when the first 10 minutes of Big Movie 6: The Return of the Favorite Character make clear that the events of Big Movie 4 and Big Movie 5 weren’t actually canon.
That’s what’s happening with the Carolina Panthers, who are attempting to retcon their past 20 months of unfortunate quarterback decisions. In the 2020 offseason, the team decided to cut Cam Newton, a former MVP and the best player in franchise history. Cam went to play for the Patriots in 2020. It was weird seeing him in that jersey—almost as weird as seeing him be bad at football. But things are getting back to normal: On Thursday, the Panthers signed Newton; on Friday they placed Sam Darnold on injured reserve. Nobody expected Newton to play Sunday—quarterbacks typically need more than three days to learn playbooks and acclimate to their new roster—but Cam didn’t need practice to be Cam Freakin’ Newton.
Newton scored a touchdown on his very first play, screaming “I’M BACK! I’M BACK!” at a camera at the back of the end zone. He also threw a touchdown on his very first pass, again in a goal-line set:
Are you serious right now?!— Carolina Panthers (@Panthers) November 14, 2021
: FOX pic.twitter.com/FSLXiGdwQE
Soon, Newton was hyping up players on the sideline, as if he’d been their quarterback for 10 years and not 10 minutes:
The Panthers dominated Sunday, winning 34-10. Most of that work was done by the Panthers’ defense and starting quarterback P.J. Walker—Newton played almost exclusively in goal-line scenarios, while Walker threw 29 passes. But all anybody could talk about was Cam:
Christian McCaffrey on Newton: "The energy he brings is unlike anything I've seen. So I'm glad to have him back."— Jonathan M Alexander (@jonmalexander) November 15, 2021
The Panthers are lucky that Newton is willing to go along with their attempts to erase the past 20 months, which have been pretty embarrassing for them. They dumped Newton in an attempt to signify that they were turning a page as a franchise, with new owner David Tepper and new head coach Matt Rhule. They were shady when Cam was on his way out, and made it seem as if he was the one seeking a trade when Newton said he wanted to stay in Carolina. They spent significant resources on replacement quarterbacks: They signed Teddy Bridgewater to a three-year, $63 million contract, then gave up a second-round pick to get Sam Darnold before quickly agreeing to pay him $18 million for the 2022 season. But they got dismal results; the team went 4-11 with Bridgewater. They eventually traded him for a sixth-round pick, and Darnold was tied for the lead in interceptions before his injury.
It’s a strange yet beautiful moment for the Panthers. Every thrilled reaction to Cam’s return and every enthusiastic quote from a Panthers player is a reminder of how foolish this franchise was to let Cam Newton go. They say you don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone, but I feel like people in Carolina already knew what they had in Cam: a charismatic, exuberant leader responsible for the greatest moments in Panthers history. Nobody ever has to think about Sam Darnold or Cam Newton’s Patriots tenure ever again. Those things never happened. Cam Newton was on the Panthers all along.
Tie-er: The Detroit Lions
Football is not a game for easy conclusions. It would be nice if a win meant 53 players played well, and a loss meant 53 played poorly. But that’s never the way it works. There are quarterbacks who throw three picks and get credit for winning. There are cornerbacks who lock down their man and in doing so, just convince the opposing QB to pick on the guy on the other side. There are long snappers who show up week after week, snap the ball perfectly, and watch the team win or lose based on things they had nothing to do with. Football teams get graded in wins and losses, but it is a sport of gray.
The Detroit Lions wear gray. They call it silver, which makes sense, because they finish most of their games in second place, behind the other team. They have never won a Super Bowl, and since the AFL-NFL merger in 1970, they have lost more games than any other team. In 2008, they became the first team to go 0-16. In 2021, they are once again winless—remember that word, it’ll be important later. Entering Sunday, they were 0-8, riding a 12-game losing streak dating back to last year.
Most of the time, when a team is winless, people assume that it’s tanking, or the players are tuned out, or something in between. With the Lions, it’s clear that neither thing is true. The players love new head coach Dan Campbell, and they keep getting absurdly close to winning. They lost on a record-setting field goal that bounced off the crossbar and in; they lost after hitting a go-ahead two-point conversion in the game’s last minute; they have recovered onside kicks and hit on fake punts and they have lost and lost and lost. They are trying and dying.
They tried Sunday against the Steelers, and it is unclear whether they are dead. On the one hand, Jared Goff played one of the worst games you will ever see an NFL quarterback play without throwing an interception—he turned 29 dropbacks into 77 net passing yards. On the other hand, the Lions had two miraculous touchdowns by players who rarely see the field, seventh-round rookie running back Jermar Jefferson and safety turned running back Godwin Igwebuike:
Godwin Igwebuike with an absolutely incredible rushing TD for the Lions.— Field Yates (@FieldYates) November 14, 2021
RT if you started him in fantasy today! pic.twitter.com/JKtZdnt6pQ
The Lions had nine possessions after Igwebuike’s beautiful score. Seven ended in punts, one ended in a missed field goal, and the final one ended in the end of the game. The Lions sat on 16 points, watching as the Steelers approached their score, tied it, and forced overtime.
In overtime, they had a game-winning field goal attempt—but their kicker, Austin Seibert, was placed on injured reserve on Saturday, so the team called up Ryan Santoso, a player who lost the kicking job at the University of Minnesota so he could focus on punting. I don’t know how he ended up becoming an NFL kicker after that, but he doesn’t look particularly good at kicking. The Lions were in overtime partially because Santoso missed an extra point in regulation, and this was his game-winning attempt.
But the Lions didn’t lose. Detroit forced two fumbles in overtime, including one in the game’s closing seconds on Pat Freiermuth to keep Pittsburgh from a game-winning field goal attempt of its own:
The fumble with less than 10 seconds remaining in overtime essentially ensured that the game would end in a tie, the first of the NFL season. That means the Lions are no longer on a 12-game losing streak—but they are still on a 13-game winless streak.
Those joyous touchdowns didn’t result in a win; Goff’s pitiful performance didn’t result in a loss. It feels cruel that this could happen to the Lions of all teams; a squad desperate for a win somehow getting saddled with football’s rarest result, once again denied the W they’ve been so close to getting time and time again. But it makes sense: The Lions are the grayest team in the NFL.
Loser: Tie Awareness
You can predict how most NFL players will respond to a tie. Nobody comes out saying “HELL yeah! That counts as half-a-win in the standings. WE DID IT! Give me a Macy’s gift certificate because I wanna stock up on ties, baby!” Nobody is happy; everybody is disappointed.
But there’s one consistent response you might not expect: confusion. After Sunday’s game, players on both the Lions and the Steelers expressed surprise that the game could end in a tie. Steelers rookie Najee Harris said he was expecting to keep playing after the overtime clock ran out; Igwebuike said that multiple players on the Lions sideline were insistent that more overtimes were coming.
Najee Harris said he didn’t know the game could end in a tie until the very end. He was ready to keep playing, but someone told him the game was over. pic.twitter.com/KuxCL0GATd— Brooke Pryor (@bepryor) November 14, 2021
Lions RB/KR Godwin Igwebuike didn't know either. He was asking around on the sideline how many OTs there can be. One person said three, another person said two. https://t.co/ceS1rPe1QY— Brian Batko (@BrianBatko) November 14, 2021
This specific bewilderment famously happened in 2008, when the Eagles and Bengals played to a tie and Philadelphia quarterback Donovan McNabb became a laughingstock for admitting he didn’t know the NFL had ties. But McNabb’s confusion was forgivable: At the time, NFL games rarely ended in ties, because overtimes lasted 15 minutes and any score ended the game. The Eagles-Bengals tie was the first in six seasons.
But the NFL has since made ties significantly more likely. First it altered the overtime rules, so that a field goal on the first possession doesn’t end overtime. Then it shortened the overtime period to 10 minutes. Now, there are ties in most NFL seasons—there have been 10 since 2012.
In spite of this, NFL players routinely admit they have no idea about ties. In 2012, Danny Amendola admitted he was expecting a second overtime; in 2013, several Packers expressed confusion; in 2014, Kelvin Benjamin said he had no idea NFL games could end in ties; in 2018, Dalvin Cook said he didn’t know what was going on when everybody started walking to the middle of the field. The phenomenon isn’t limited to players: In 2016, Jay Gruden—a head coach!—said he didn’t know that the NFL had ties.
It feels ridiculous. How could these players fail to understand the stakes of the game they are playing? I blame the NFL. One player failing to know about ties could be a sign of a dumb player. When players on every single team ever to be involved in a tie reveal that they don’t know about ties, it’s a bigger issue.
At the beginning of every overtime, the NFL makes a referee explain the league’s complicated overtime rules—but they never mention that ties exist. That feels like an intentional omission! The NFL could have a system without ties at all—like the one college football uses—but chooses to include one with ties. But it doesn’t want people to think that ties are a possibility, so it tries not to mention it, until a bunch of players accidentally tie each other because they didn’t know ties were an option.
NFL ties happen just rarely enough that everybody who watches or participates in one feels as if they’ve just witnessed the worst football game in history. Don’t let this happen to your NFL team: Let them know about ties. Unless the NFL acts, the only way we can fight ties is by raising Tie Awareness.
Loser: Teddy Bridgewater
Darius Slay took a meandering route to the end zone while returning a fumble against the Broncos. Slay backtracked and reversed, trying the left side of the field and the right. He wasn’t quite sure where he was going and still wound up scoring. But somehow, 10 of the Broncos have escaped criticism for letting Slay run loop-de-loops around them. Quarterback Teddy Bridgewater is taking most of the heat for the play, which essentially sealed Philadelphia’s 30-13 win. Bridgewater was in position to make a play on Slay, but you can see the moment when Bridgewater’s brain yelled “NOPE!”
Shoutout to Teddy Bridgewater. A warrior pic.twitter.com/yA3xnL7Enm— (@RochesRWinners) November 14, 2021
Many quarterbacks have had failed tackle attempts over the years—I’ll never forget Philip Rivers’s frightened-turtle method of stopping a return, which sadly failed. Bridgewater’s attempt is notable for the fact that he seems to have considered trying. It’s like he took a check-swing, but for hurling his body at a human. Bridgewater says he was trying to force the runner back inside, but reading between the lines, he’s still saying that he wasn’t trying to make the tackle—just to change Slay’s direction.
Bridgewater is getting roasted. A columnist for The Denver Post is arguing that Bridgewater’s bad tackle is a sign that he shouldn’t be the team’s starter anymore. I’ll be the one brave enough to say what nobody else will: Teddy Bridgewater was smart here. NFL quarterbacks get injured pretty regularly trying to make tackles on interceptions—that’s how Baker Mayfield suffered the injury that has nagged him all season long. It also happened to Sam Darnold and Jay Cutler in recent years. (You may notice that injuries after interceptions tend to happen to players who throw a lot of interceptions.) Every quarterback who tries to make a tackle is dishonoring the memory of Jason Street. Texas forever.
You think Tom Brady tries trailing the play after throwing a pick? Of course not! You don’t play in the NFL until you’re 44 by trying too hard. When Brady threw a pick-six against the Saints two weeks ago, he just stood there, hands on his hips, watching the play unfold. And nobody roasted him for it—anybody who saw it probably complimented the GOAT on having the wisdom to make a business decision.
Teddy did make a mistake here—and that’s getting close to the play. There was a moment in time when he thought he could help, and got himself sort of close to the play before realizing he didn’t want to make the hit. Not only did this interfere with his teammates who were interested in making a tackle, it allowed the world to see his cowardice. Measured, wise cowardice, which all quarterbacks should adopt, but still.
Winner: The Fifth QB
The 2021 NFL draft was heavy on QBs. It was the third draft ever with three quarterbacks taken in the top three picks, and also the third with four quarterbacks taken in the top 11 picks. And entering Sunday, those four quarterbacks have struggled massively. Trevor Lawrence, Zach Wilson, Trey Lance, and Justin Fields have thrown 19 touchdowns and 27 interceptions, with their teams going 5-17 in their starts. All four play for losing teams, and three of the four have thrown more interceptions than touchdowns. The fourth is Lance, who has been unable to unseat Jimmy Garoppolo as the 49ers’ starter.
Then there is Mac Jones, whose Patriots advanced to 6-4 Sunday in a 45-7 demolition of the Cleveland Browns. Jones went 19-for-23 with three touchdowns and no interceptions, making some objectively great throws along the way:
In some ways, this isn’t surprising. The success of young QBs is often determined by the situation they step into. Mac Jones went to the Patriots, the most successful franchise in the past two decades of the NFL, while his fellow draftees went to the Bears, Jaguars, and Jets, three separate versions of hell for quarterbacks, plus the 49ers, who have their own issues. Jones was also considered a high-floor, low-ceiling player who was relatively ready for early pro action—other players were drafted higher because of their potential to grow, even if they weren’t as polished coming out of college.
But still: The fifth quarterback off the board is having the best season of any of them, and it’s not particularly close. Maybe we just need to take NFL draft analysis and throw it in the trash. Except The Ringer’s NFL draft analysis—please read all of it in six months!
Loser: Sleep-Deprived Russell Wilson
When Russell Wilson injured the middle finger on his throwing hand on October 7, it was projected that he would miss six to eight weeks—a stunning blow for a player who had played virtually every snap for his entire NFL career. Wilson clearly hated missing time: Cameras caught him running simulated drives by himself before games, and he was extremely active on the sideline, coming very close to interfering in gameplay at critical moments. But Wilson worked himself back into action ahead of schedule, returning to play after missing just three games. He was helped by an aggressive rehab schedule:
Apparently, Wilson has been rehabbing his finger for 19 hours a day, which according to the NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport, mainly involves making sure his finger is constantly moving.
It wasn’t worth it. In Wilson’s return to action Sunday, he went 20-for-40 for 161 yards with no touchdowns and two interceptions in a 17-0 loss:
It’s arguably the worst game of his career. Wilson averaged just 4.0 yards per attempt, tied for the second-lowest mark of his 150 games as Seattle’s starter—and they won the one game in which he had a lower average. Wilson also had his fourth-lowest passer rating ever while the Seahawks posted the fifth-fewest yards in a game Wilson started. Seattle was shut out for the first time since 2011, the year before Wilson was drafted.
The Seahawks clearly took a step back with Geno Smith—but even at Smith’s worst, he was better than this version of Wilson. Smith threw a touchdown in every game he started, and didn’t throw an interception in any of them. In Smith’s worst game, he had 167 passing yards and averaged 7.6 per attempt; Wilson had 161 on 4.0 per attempt on Sunday. The Seahawks averaged 17 points per game with Smith, as opposed to, you know, zero with Wilson.
Maybe it’s because Wilson’s finger wasn’t ready—his throws looked terrible—and maybe it’s because he was sleeping five hours or less per night. Lots of athletes brag about how much sleep they get—LeBron says he sometimes gets 12 hours a day, including naps! Tom Brady goes to sleep at 9 p.m. every night! If you’re not sleeping, you’re probably not putting your body in the best position to succeed, even if you are taking 19 hours a day to rehab your finger.
Wilson probably thought he was doing the brave thing by doing everything he could to get back into action. But by rushing back into action before he was ready, he hurt his team. Seattle would’ve been better off with Geno Smith at QB on Sunday—and Russell Wilson would be better off getting some damn rest instead of spending 19 hours a day squeezing stress balls.
Loser: The Rowdy Seahawks
Fictional horny super-spy and wordsmith Austin Powers once asked: “Who throws a shoe?” The answer, we have learned, is Florida Gators football players. Last year, the Gators were ranked sixth in the nation and on the brink of a College Football Playoff berth when defensive back Marco Wilson decided to hurl an LSU player’s shoe after a critical third-down stop. The unsportsmanlike conduct penalty gave LSU a first down, allowing the Tigers to drive for a game-winning field goal; Florida went on to lose every game for the rest of the season.
Sunday, fellow Florida alumnus Carlos Dunlap did the same thing. Dunlap, the defensive MVP of the Gators’ 2009 BCS National Championship Game victory, was trying to keep the Seahawks in the game against the Packers when Green Bay right tackle Billy Turner lost his cleat. And when a Gator sees unattended footwear, they are filled with an insatiable urge to hurl it as far as they can. Turner sadly watched as his shoe flew; a million refs quickly sprung into action by flagging Dunlap for one of the most obvious unsportsmanlike conduct penalties possible.
At the time, the score was 3-0. The penalty gave Green Bay 15 yards and turned a third-and-3 into a first down; the Packers scored the game’s first touchdown shortly thereafter.
It was a bad day for Seahawks throwing things. Earlier in the game, Pete Carroll had attempted to throw his challenge flag, but accidentally tossed out an electric hand-warmer. It was also a bad day for Seahawks entirely losing their cool. After the Seahawks fell behind 17-0 and were pretty much guaranteed a loss, DK Metcalf grabbed the face mask of Packers safety Henry Black for an extended period of time, jerking Black’s head around.
Metcalf was, of course, ejected, although he apparently didn’t get the memo. Metcalf attempted to come back into the game and was sent back to the sideline by an official:
DK Metcalf tried to sneak back into the game— PFF (@PFF) November 15, 2021
Some teams are used to losing; the Seahawks are not. At 3-6, they have already lost more games this year than in either of the past two full seasons. They’ve never had a losing record since drafting Wilson in 2012, and will need a massive turnaround to prevent that from happening. The Jets or Jaguars could eat a losing streak no problem, but this rough start has transformed Seattle into a team that can’t stop doing illegal things with opponents’ equipment.
Winner: Game-Winning Drive (10-Minute Version) (Taylor’s Version)
You might think that the most soul-crushing thing you can experience as a football fan is watching another quarterback storm down the field in the final seconds of a game and win it. There were 43 seconds to go and your team was winning, and you were already ordering celebratory victory beers in your head—and then, 43 seconds and four Tom Brady passes later, you were ordering consolatory depression beers instead.
But a quick death is an easy one. It’s much worse to suffer slowly, feeling the last precious moments of life draining away over long minutes—and that’s how Tampa Bay died on Sunday. After the Buccaneers scored a touchdown to cut Washington’s lead to four points with 11 minutes left in the game, they probably assumed that Brady would have several opportunities to win. Instead, Taylor Heinicke and the Washington Football Team went on a 19-play, 10-and-a-half-minute touchdown drive that essentially ended the game.
En route to the end zone, Washington converted four third downs and a fourth down. Heinicke went 6-for-6 passing, ensuring the clock never stopped. Brady got the ball back with 29 seconds left, down two scores, with no hope of victory.
It took 10:26 off the clock, making it the longest drive of the season. This sort of suffocating late-game dominance is rare: In the Pro Football Reference database, which goes back to 2001, only one drive starting in the fourth quarter has lasted longer and ended in a touchdown.
It’s especially funny that the evil mastermind behind this torture was Taylor Heinicke, a journeyman who had bounced around the league for four seasons until being thrust into Washington’s starting role this year. Heinicke has been bothering Brady since 2017, when the Patriots signed Heinicke to their practice squad and he walked in on Brady’s 5 a.m. film session, which was a big surprise to Brady because he didn’t know the team had signed a practice-squad quarterback. Later, the Pats cut Heinicke, as did the Texans and Panthers; he thought his career was over after his subsequent stint in the XFL ended without getting to take a snap. But now, the two best games of his time with Washington have come against Brady: Last year, when he went from third-stringer to playoff starter in a matter of days, he put up 306 yards and kept Washington in the game against the eventual Super Bowl champions. Now, he has the biggest win of his career, again vs. Brady.
Maybe a better quarterback would’ve maneuvered down the field quickly with a few big plays—but Heinicke took bits and pieces out of the Buccaneers until there was nothing left. It was a 10-minute work of heartbreaking brilliance; I’ll remember it all too well.