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The Winners and Losers of Thanksgiving Day Football

The refs spent the holiday making questionable decisions—and so did Lions head coach Dan Campbell. Plus: Does anyone know how NFL coin tosses work?

Las Vegas Raiders v Dallas Cowboys Richard Rodriguez/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: Flags

Some people like to watch the parade on Thanksgiving Day; others like to watch the National Dog Show. But I live for one thing: that moment when the Cowboys game returns from commercial break accompanied by soft piano music and little graphics of leaves falling, and a video plays in which the game’s referees wish me a happy Thanksgiving. All the turkey in the world wouldn’t be able to cheer me up if it wasn’t for this tiny vignette of NFL official Shawn Hochuli looking directly into the camera and sending my family good tidings with the same demeanor he’d use to announce that my uncle had committed a neutral zone infraction. This happens every year, and I don’t know why:

But the referees got significantly more airtime in Cowboys-Raiders than just that eight-second snippet. Over 66 minutes of game time, the refs called 28 penalties for 276 combined yards. Dating to 1940, only 13 games have had more combined penalty yards, and only 16 have featured more combined penalties. Thursday’s game was just the ninth in NFL history in which both teams were flagged at least 14 times.

Many of those flags were thrown because of Cowboys cornerback Anthony Brown, who was called for pass interference four times. Because defensive pass interference penalties are always marked at the spot of the foul, the Raiders gained 91 yards off of these four flags, resulting in two scores. A first-quarter call set up Las Vegas on the Dallas 1-yard line and quickly led to a Josh Jacobs touchdown; an overtime call on a third-and-18 awarded the Raiders 33 yards and set up Daniel Carlson’s game-winning field goal.

According to AP reporter Josh Dubow, Brown had the most penalty yards called in a game against any one player since 2009. Last season, only three NFL players were responsible for more than 91 total yards in pass interference penalties. And prior to Thursday, Brown hadn’t been flagged for pass interference once all season. The only call that had been made against him in 2021 was a 5-yard penalty for illegal contact.

Just by looking at the stats, you’d assume that Brown was completely outmatched all game, tackling receivers any time the ball was thrown in his direction. But that’s not what happened. Outside of the first call, which was made after Brown actively dragged Raiders wide receiver Bryan Edwards, the other three flags were thrown on plays in which Brown’s actions could have been interpreted as 50-50 jostling for the ball. On the last call, Brown seems to have been penalized for breaking up a pass with the back of his helmet instead of turning his head around:

This game reinforced the absurdity of making pass interference an automatic spot foul—the only foul in the league that is enforced this way. Do we trust NFL referees to consistently and accurately enforce pass interference calls? No! We don’t trust NFL referees to consistently and accurately make any calls, and pass interference calls are some of the toughest to make in the sport. That’s why two seasons ago the league temporarily allowed pass interference calls to be reviewed by instant replay, a move that was widely viewed as a disaster, as even instant replay regularly failed to determine whether a play warranted a flag.

If defensive pass interference penalties resulted in simply 15 yards and a first down, they would still provide a huge boost to the offense. But the calls on Brown essentially gave the Raiders a touchdown and the game-winning field goal. If we don’t trust refs to make this call, why do we give them the opportunity to completely change the outcome of games?

Loser: The Third-and-32 Detroit Lions

For the third time this season, the Lions lost a game on a field goal as the clock expired. They fell to the Ravens in Week 3 when Justin Tucker made the longest field goal in NFL history as time ran out; they lost to the Vikings in Week 5 when Greg Joseph converted a 54-yarder in a similar scenario, making Detroit the first team in NFL history to lose two games in the same season on final-second 50-plus-yard kicks.

Chicago’s 28-yard game-winner on Thursday was less dramatic. While the Ravens and Vikings both used frantic last-ditch drives to get into field-goal range, the Bears drove almost all the way to the goal line while running down the remaining clock.

With all the close losses (and one tie!), the 0-10-1 Lions feel tantalizingly close to finally winning a game. But in other ways, they seem so damn far away. On Thursday, the Lions twice committed strings of penalties that moved them more than 30 yards back from the line to gain.

In the first quarter, Detroit was putting together a successful offensive drive, moving the ball from their own 33-yard line to the Chicago 29. But then the Lions committed back-to-back-to-back penalties—two false starts and a hold—to bring up a first-and-30. This is rare: It marked only the second time this season that a team had faced a first-and-30.

But things quickly got worse. The Lions lost yardage from there, and the Detroit crowd booed as the team elected to run the ball on third-and-32:

Then, in the fourth quarter, the Lions committed back-to-back-to-back penalties again—this time, the sequence was a false start and two holds. They were trying to cling to a one-point lead; that wasn’t possible after facing a third-and-32. Detroit punted and never touched the ball again.

Before Thanksgiving, there had been only eight third-and-30-plus-yard situations in the NFL this season, and no two had happened in the same game. No team had managed to face multiple third-and-30s in one game since 2016. Detroit’s offense repeatedly moving backward played a big role in the team remaining winless: Chicago scored a touchdown after the first third-and-32 scenario, and hit the game-winning field goal after the second.

The Lions had comical issues all day. They couldn’t get the right number of players on the field for an extra point—as broadcaster Joe Buck noted, they probably aren’t used to scoring touchdowns:

You don’t make it to December winless without being a deeply broken football team, and the Lions pretty clearly seem broken. They keep getting close to an elusive win, but much like that first-down marker, their target seems to be getting farther and farther away.

Winner: Drew Brees

Earlier this year, NBC had Drew Brees fly to Foxborough to watch Tom Brady break his all-time passing yardage record. But Thanksgiving was a better day for the newly minted media member, as Brees was on the scene for the Saints’ matchup against the Bills. It was Brees’s first time calling an NFL regular-season game; he’d previously called a preseason game and some Notre Dame games, but this was his first legit action. He slid into Cris Collinsworth’s spot well. (Literally.)

The choice of Brees’s first game as a commentator was no surprise: In case you didn’t know, Brees was the Saints quarterback for the past 15 years. (Longtime Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo also called the Dallas game; there were no biased announcers on the Bears-Lions broadcast, because neither franchise has ever had a quarterback good or popular enough to become a national commentator.) And New Orleans went all out for Brees’s return, holding a halftime ceremony for the future Hall of Famer.

What’s more, everybody in the stands probably wished that they were cheering for Brees in the game. The Saints got absolutely wrecked by the Bills, losing 31-6. New Orleans fell into a 24-0 hole and failed to score until the fourth quarter. It was the fourth loss in as many starts for quarterback Trevor Siemian, who was the team’s fourth-stringer last season while Brees was on the roster. But Jameis Winston is out for the year after tearing his ACL, and supposed backup Taysom Hill didn’t play a snap on Thursday. He was active, but recovering from a foot injury.

(It’s unclear exactly what the Saints are doing with Hill right now. Is he too hurt to play? Are the Saints keeping him from his usual utility role because they don’t want to risk aggravating his injury further in case Siemian gets hurt? Either way, the Saints clearly think it’s working, because they signed him to a contract extension last week.)

This team needed Brees—but instead, he was giving commentary on Siemian’s hilarious habit of dropping back 10 to 12 yards in the pocket, exacerbating his arm weakness and making it easy for Buffalo to sack him:

What a night for Brees. He stood in the middle of a stadium packed with tens of thousands of fans chanting his name, many of whom skipped Thanksgiving dinner at home not to watch their struggling football team, but to cheer for their former hero. And the millions of fans at home likely thought: Damn, the Saints are terrible—it’s a shame Brees is in the booth. Playing football is nice, but so is being retired when everyone keeps screaming your name and thinking about how good you were.

Loser: Dan Campbell

Brown wasn’t the only person on Thursday who was flagged for a critical third-down penalty that led to a game-winning field goal—but he was the only player. Lions head coach Dan Campbell called back-to-back timeouts on the Bears’ final drive, incurring a rare defensive delay of game penalty that made life significantly easier for Chicago on a key third down.

Campbell spoke about his decision after the game, explaining how much of his secondary was lined up incorrectly as a result of a miscommunication, and how he figured that taking the penalty would be better than allowing the Chicago play to run. He said that if the Bears threw a pass “out in the flat, it was about to be a touchdown,” so taking a 5-yard penalty instead was the easy call.

But that doesn’t make Campbell’s decision-making any less perplexing! Even if we overlook the ridiculously embarrassing nature of his team failing to properly communicate coming out of a timeout, Campbell’s reasoning still doesn’t track. The delay of game penalty presented the Bears with a third-and-4 instead of a third-and-9. After intentionally taking a penalty to set up that third-and-4 situation, Campbell’s team came out in a defense that … didn’t actually defend the first-down marker 4 yards away.

The Bears picked up the first down on a 7-yard pass to Damiere Byrd, allowing them to run out the clock and kick an easy game-winning field goal. If Campbell’s Lions had simply allowed a touchdown following their supposed miscommunication, Detroit would have at least gotten the ball back with a chance to respond. Instead, Campbell’s penalty and the bad defensive call all but assured Chicago would end the game on top.

I’ve praised Campbell for his persona, but this was a disastrous example of late-game management—some of the worst from any coach in any game this season. Campbell’s energy hasn’t helped Detroit win any games yet, and his late-game decision-making just helped it lose one.

Winner: Egg Bowl Shenanigans

Thanksgiving is one of the few days each year in which big-time NFL games and big-time college football games happen concurrently. The most-watched NFL games of the season are on; so too is the Egg Bowl between Ole Miss and Mississippi State. NFL and college games take place simultaneously on lots of other Thursdays, but usually it’s a matchup like Jaguars-Bengals going head-to-head with something on the level of Miami-Virginia. This game featured a Rebels team ranked ninth in the country with a potential first-round draft pick in quarterback Matt Corral, and a Bulldogs team that has wins over Texas A&M, Auburn, and Kentucky.

The game didn’t feature a game-deciding piss penalty, but it still brought its fair share of shenanigans. My personal highlight: This sequence in which Mississippi State dropped touchdown passes on first, second, and third downs, and then missed a field goal on fourth down:

The NFL will never give you a sequence this spectacular. Yeah, it’ll give you perfect touchdowns, and if you’re lucky it’ll give you one embarrassing blooper. But it will never give you multiple wide receivers and a kicker mind-melding to create 50 gallons of Failure Stew. Ole Miss won 31-21 to secure a berth in one of this season’s top bowl games. Now, roughly half of an American state will spend the next 360-plus days thinking about the time their team collectively became disinterested in scoring from the goal line against their biggest rival.

Winner: Coin Toss Confusion

This Thanksgiving started with a bang, as both the Lions and Bears made it clear they were uninterested in playing football. Detroit won the coin toss and elected to defer their decision to the second half. This is essentially choosing to kick the ball off, but there is a slight possibility baked into the rulebook that the opponent will accidentally give you the ball to open both halves, which almost happened in a 2019 game between the Cowboys and Rams. For a second, it looked like this might be the case, as the Bears also announced that they wanted to defer:

Here we had two teams standing at midfield, both announcing their refusal to make a choice. In an ideal world, they would have simply stood there, deferring, until the NFL called off the game. Unfortunately, the referee stepped in, repeatedly barking “YOU WANT THE BALL?” at the Bears until the Bears realized they were supposed to say that they wanted the ball.

A more critical coin toss happened later Thursday, as the Cowboys-Raiders game went to overtime. Las Vegas captain Foster Moreau had to call the toss. Knowing his answer would decide who got the ball first in the extra period—and perhaps a bit surprised that he, Foster Moreau, was the Raiders’ captain—he took a lengthy and unconfident pause before incorrectly calling for heads:

I deeply love listening to NFL players make decisions on microphones. Sometimes, we get a “BOOM, WE WANT THAT MOTHERFUCKER”; other times, we get a squeaky and tentative “heads?” The NFL could probably get rid of the coin toss—but if the time ever comes to make that decision, I hope the league defers.