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: Aaron Rodgers
The story of the NFL’s offseason was the Aaron Rodgers Drama. Rodgers spent the offseason openly rebelling against Packers management, making it seem like the league’s reigning MVP was interested in playing elsewhere. (Along the way, he got engaged to a surprising celebrity, tried and failed to become the new host of Jeopardy!, and took vacations to Hawaii and Arkansas.) But in the end, the Packers were unwilling to deal Rodgers, who eventually came to terms with the fact that for better or for worse, he was going to stay with the Packers.
Right now, it seems like “for worse.” In his season debut, the future Hall of Famer played one of the worst games of his career. Here he is, the NFL’s all-time career leader in interception rate, tossing one of the ugliest, laziest interceptions you’ll ever see in an NFL game, a hopeless overthrown bomb into double coverage:
Rodgers threw five interceptions last season; he threw two on Sunday. It was just the third time in his 16-year career that he threw multiple interceptions and no touchdowns. His passer rating of 36.8 is tied for the fourth worst of his career. The Packers lost to the Saints 38-3, their largest loss with Rodgers at QB and their fewest points ever scored in a game in which Rodgers played a significant role. (They were shut out in their Week 17 game in 2018, but Rodgers left that game after one series.) To end the game, the Packers debuted backup quarterback Jordan Love, the player whose selection in the 2020 NFL draft sparked Rodgers’s discontent.
Normally, it wouldn’t be shocking for a 37-year-old QB to play an uncharacteristically bad game. Father Time is undefeated, or at least he was before Tom Brady came around. But we know Rodgers isn’t washed! We just saw him have arguably the best year of his career and lead the NFL in virtually every passing category! All of the quarterback body language experts on Twitter felt that Rodgers simply looked disinterested:
Did Rodgers’s talent simply evaporate during the offseason? Is Rodgers trying to force a trade by playing like crap until the Packers have had enough of him? Was his strange offseason responsible for a lack of prep? Does the newly reopened Jeopardy! hosting gig seem more appealing than football? All we know is that the Aaron Rodgers Drama of the offseason has become the Aaron Rodgers Drama of the regular season.
Loser: Washington Fans Who Prefer Not to Be Drenched in Shit
Ahh, Week 1 of the NFL season. None of your team’s draft picks are busts yet, all of your veterans have surely improved since last season, and your coaching staff has probably fixed all those little flaws that held them back last year. The weather is crisp, and so is your lucky game-day jersey, which is making its first trip outside of your closet since January.
And then, by the end of the first quarter, that beautiful clean jersey is soaked in human feces.
FedEx Field is routinely ranked as the NFL’s worst stadium—it’s old, it’s lifeless, it’s far from a Metro stop—and that’s before the risk of finding out what it’s like to live life as a latrine. The official word from the team is that this was rainwater, which seems unlikely, because it hasn’t rained in Landover, Maryland, since there were light showers early Thursday morning. Either that rain sat around in a stadium pipe for days before randomly bursting out on fans on game day, or the WFT is literally pissing on fans’ legs and telling them it’s raining.
These fans wound up like Andy Dufresne emerging from the tunnel—except instead of escaping Shawshank, they were still trapped in the prison of Washington football fandom. Washington was expected to build on last year’s surprise division title—they have an exciting young defense, and their offense was supposed to open up after they signed quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick in the offseason. But Fitzpatrick threw only six passes before leaving the game with a hip injury in the second quarter. Taylor Heinicke, the surprise hero of Washington’s playoff loss to the eventual Super Bowl champions last year, entered the game in relief, but couldn’t get the job done—Washington scored just one touchdown with the backup in the game and ultimately fell to the Chargers, 20-16.
The entire experience feels like a great summary of Week 1 in the NFL. You show up with your hopes and dreams, and then football drops a poop waterfall on your head.
Winner: The Rams-Stafford Marriage
For the past few seasons, the NFL had a great offense in need of a great QB and a great QB in need of a great offense. The Rams managed to make the Super Bowl and a string of playoff appearances thanks to Sean McVay’s famously excellent offense—and did it all with Jared Goff at QB, in spite of the lingering feeling that Goff wasn’t actually that good. Meanwhile, Matthew Stafford spent year after year putting up huge numbers for the Detroit Lions, a feat with a Simone Biles–esque degree of difficulty. But in the offseason, the Rams traded Goff and multiple first-round draft picks for Stafford. It was a risky move: The Rams’ problem has rarely been offense, but they gambled their future on the premise that an upgrade at QB would add extra oomph to their offense and take them to a new level.
Through one game? Feels like a good call. The Rams’ offense effortlessly hit on big plays throughout the night against the Bears:
Stafford went 20-for-26 for 321 yards and three touchdowns, resulting in the highest passer rating (156.1) of his 13-year career. In his postgame press conference, McVay subtly hinted that Goff had been holding his teams back a bit:
#Rams HC Sean McVay raving about Matthew Stafford postgame. Says “you’re not limited in anything you can do in the pass game” with Stafford behind center.— Kaelen Jones (@kaelenjones) September 13, 2021
At times, McVay’s Rams have seemed like an argument against the importance of the quarterback position. They were able to majorly succeed with mediocrity at the supposedly most important position on offense. But now that they’ve plugged in Stafford and his golden arm, it feels like they’ve instantly unlocked a new level to their potential. You’ve gotta feel a little bit bad for Goff, who has been cast off to football Siberia—but Stafford on the Rams just seems right. The great offense has found its great QB, and the great QB has found his great offense.
Loser: Rookie QB Gadgets
If a team takes a defensive end with its first pick in the NFL draft, there is no question that he will play Week 1. However, if a team drafts a quarterback with its first pick, there are decisions to be made. Some feel that the best way for quarterbacks to develop is to play them right away, while other teams bring in a veteran quarterback to provide a bridge to the rookie, allowing the youngster to get used to the rhythm of NFL life from the bench. This never made sense to me. Isn’t the best way to get a young QB used to playing in the NFL to have them play in the NFL?
However, a stunning new theory has emerged. The 49ers and Bears, both of whom used top-15 picks on quarterbacks, have both decided to keep their veterans as starters—but also sprinkle in a few snaps here and there for their rookies, exclusively in special packages. While Jimmy Garoppolo and Andy Dalton remain the starting quarterbacks, rookies Trey Lance and Justin Fields each took a handful of snaps on Sunday. They mainly played in goal-line and short-yardage situations, evidently due to the fact that they’re better runners than Garoppolo and Dalton.
These packages were highly successful, with both resulting in scores. Lance threw a touchdown on his very first NFL pass, his only attempt of the day:
And Fields completed both of his passing attempts, scoring his first NFL touchdown on his only rushing attempt of the day:
The packages were so successful that you have to wonder… why are they just gimmicks? Why not play these exciting youngsters more regularly, allowing them to develop and potentially outplay the mediocre starters? Why treat these dynamic future stars the same way our moms use The Nice Plates—by keeping them in the cupboard, only taking them out on special occasions? Why do we have to eat off these uglier plates all the time? Are you that worried about The Nice Plates getting broken? They’re plates—they’re meant to be used.
It’s reminiscent of the way the Ravens used Lamar Jackson in his rookie season—a coaching decision that nearly cost Baltimore a trip to the playoffs. That year, the Ravens started the season 4-5 with Joe Flacco playing miserably and Jackson coming in for trick plays and occasionally playing wide receiver. Then Baltimore benched Flacco, put in Lamar, and won six of their last seven to make the postseason.
The Niners were fine with Garoppolo, putting up 41 points on the Lions. But the Bears struggled mightily with Dalton. Dalton is not only untalented at this juncture in his career; he also made a variety of dumb mistakes—exactly what you can’t have from a 10-year vet playing specifically to prevent a rookie from making dumb mistakes.
Surely, both teams will eventually make the switch to their QBs of the future. For now, they’ll just keep on scoring touchdowns with the players who supposedly aren’t good enough to score touchdowns yet.
Winner: College Buddies
My favorite trend in the 2021 NFL draft was all the teams that paired their recently drafted quarterbacks with some of the wide receivers they played with in college. The Bengals took Joe Burrow first in 2020, then used their first pick in the 2021 draft on his LSU teammate, Ja’Marr Chase. The Dolphins took Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa fifth in 2020; then took his Tide teammate Jaylen Waddle sixth this year. The Eagles used a second-round pick on Oklahoma’s Jalen Hurts in 2020; they used their 2021 first-round pick on Heisman winner DeVonta Smith, who played with Hurts when the QB was at Alabama.
All three pairings immediately paid off. The Eagles’ first touchdown of the season was an 18-yarder from Hurts to Smith:
JALEN HURTS TO DEVONTA SMITH— PFF (@PFF) September 12, 2021
Just like old times
Chase absolutely torched the Vikings’ secondary on a 50-yard touchdown from Burrow—so much for the preseason reports that he was struggling to catch the NFL’s brand of footballs.
Waddle had the least impressive day of the three—but still caught a touchdown that ended up being the game-winner.
Smith and Chase each led their teams in receptions and yardage; Waddle’s touchdown was the Dolphins’ only passing touchdown of the day. Most importantly, all three teams won.
Rookie wide receivers often struggle to adjust to the NFL. Since 2015, 28 wide receivers have been picked in the first round of the NFL draft; before Sunday, these players had combined for three touchdowns in their NFL debuts. But when catching passes from their college QBs, these three thrived. The lesson from this is clear: The first GM willing to simply exclusively draft players from Alabama will quickly win the Super Bowl.
Loser: The Patriots’ Fumbling Running Backs
Bill Belichick will dump a running back into Boston Harbor for fumbling. Fumbles might be his least favorite thing in the world, even more detestable than social media and new clothes. He goes on expletive-laden rants against players who do fumble, forces the team to watch footage of their worst fumbles, and coaches them against risky maneuvers. It seems to work. Historically, Belichick’s Patriots have a fumble rate so low that it borders on inexplicable. The Pats were in the bottom five in the league in fumbles in five of the past seven seasons. A Patriots running back hasn’t had multiple fumbles in a game since 2006. Belichick doesn’t give them the opportunity. He has long considered running backs to be interchangeable and will quickly bench anybody who loses the ball.
Sunday, Belichick gave a shot to Rhamondre Stevenson, a rookie out of Oklahoma whom the Patriots drafted in the fourth round. But on his first career reception, Stevenson dropped the ball:
Rhamondre Stevenson fumbles the ball on his first career reception. Not a great start for the Patriots early on. pic.twitter.com/RJrHOK0Fw2— Ben Brown (@BenBrownPL) September 12, 2021
Belichick had seen enough out of Stevenson, who wouldn’t touch the ball again for the rest of the game after his fumble. The Patriots gave almost all of their carries for the rest of the game to Damien Harris, a ball security expert. Harris had no career lost fumbles entering Sunday’s game, and he’s taken to carrying a football with him everywhere he goes—even to press conferences, to demonstrate his commitment to ball security. (He swears that he’s never seen The Program.)
But with three minutes left in the game, as the Patriots set up for a go-ahead score, Harris fumbled on the 9-yard line.
Patriots lose the season opener 17-16 the final. The Damien Harris fumble at the 9 yd line with just over 3 minutes to play is the difference in this one. @NBC10 #patriots— Joe Kayata (@NBC10_Joe) September 12, 2021
(Via @NFL) pic.twitter.com/8eYdC2RcRI
The Pats didn’t even need to score a touchdown—they could have taken the lead with a chip-shot field goal. But Harris’s fumble gave the ball to the Dolphins, who were able to run out the clock in a 17-16 win.
Belichick probably thought he was doing the right thing by benching Stevenson, but that decision eventually led to Harris’s game-losing fumble. It’s strange enough to see the Patriots lose after their success in the past few decades—but it’s especially jarring to see them lose like this, in the exact way Belichick works so hard to prevent. Belichick will have to either play the rest of the season without running backs—or come to terms with the fact that sometimes, players simply can’t hold on to the football.
Winner: The Ex-Jets
I’m a Jets fan, which is a lot worse than playing for the New York Jets. The players might possibly one day play for a team besides the New York Jets, whereas I am stuck here, making myself unhappy 17 times a year until I die. This unfair dichotomy played out Sunday afternoon, when the Jets opened their season against the Carolina Panthers, quarterbacked by former Jet Sam Darnold. The Jets decided to move on from Darnold after three years, picking Zach Wilson second in the 2021 draft and trading Darnold to the Panthers.
It was an Olivia Rodrigo–ass football game. Darnold threw a 57-yard touchdown to Robby Anderson, who left the Jets in free agency last year. Good for you, I guess you moved on really easily!
Darnold threw for 234 yards in the first half, more than he had in any first half during his entire Jets career. He repeatedly claimed that beating the Jets didn’t feel any better or worse than beating any other NFL team—but look at Anderson pretending to be a literal airplane after scoring that touchdown. He looks happy and healthy—not me, if you ever cared to ask! Now can the Jets trade my damn fandom to another team?
Loser: The Scottish Hammer Drop
You have to do pretty much everything right to beat Patrick Mahomes and the Kansas City Chiefs—and the Browns did pretty much everything right. They kept the Chiefs out of the end zone three times—two punts and a field goal—and kept the ball moving on offense, scoring on all three of their first-half drives (not counting a last-minute possession to run out the clock). They didn’t even have to punt until the fourth quarter.
But when they finally brought out their punter … disaster struck. Jamie Gillan, the Browns’ long-haired Scottish punter, dropped the ball and tried to scramble, eventually getting tackled for a loss of 8 yards and giving Kansas City the ball at the 15-yard line.
The Chiefs easily scored on the short field, taking a lead and holding on for a 33-29 win.
It’s not like Gillan screwed up because he’s some foreign football novice who’d never caught a football before. Gillan, who also serves as the Browns’ holder on field goals, had never dropped a snap in two seasons with Cleveland. (He did have a fumble last year, but it was on a fake punt.) He just picked the worst possible time to fail on executing the easiest part of his job. Gillan compounded his physical error with a mental one: He probably had enough time to get off a kick even with the muffed snap, but never having been in this situation before, he totally panicked. Even LeBron James noticed:
MAN WHAT!!!!!!! Kick the ball still man. Took off like he Tyreke Hill. ♂️— LeBron James (@KingJames) September 12, 2021
To be fair, I think the Chiefs win this game even if Gillan does get this punt off. They’re the Chiefs! Field position barely matters to them—on the drive before, Mahomes connected with Tyreek Hill on a 75-yard touchdown pass. But all the energy drained from the Browns after this moment. They knew that they had done virtually everything right against the NFL’s best team and put themselves in a position to start the season off on the best possible foot. And then they made a mistake—just one mistake—and it instantly seemed like they were doomed. You have to do everything right to beat these Chiefs. The Browns only almost did everything right.
Winner: The Supposedly Worst Team in the NFL
Remember that time the Texans took a huge lead on the Chiefs in the 2019 playoffs before ultimately losing by three scores? Since the exact moment they went up 24-0, not a single good thing has happened to the franchise. They made one of the most lopsided trades in recent NFL history; they went 4-12 in 2020, a dismal record made worse by the fact that they didn’t have their own first-round draft pick; and this offseason, nearly two dozen women filed civil suits against Deshaun Watson, the franchise quarterback whom the Texans just signed to one of the largest contracts in NFL history, saying that he’d harassed and/or assaulted them. Not so long ago, this was a perennial playoff team with a seemingly lovable superstar. Everything fell apart incredibly quickly. Heading into the 2021 season, they were projected to be the worst team in the NFL by analysts, oddsmakers, and algorithms. Their leadership is laughably bad, and the best player on their roster—who before all the lawsuits also demanded a trade—will almost certainly never play another game for the team. They pulled off the rare combo of having very few talented players and having very few young prospects. They were as hopeless of a team as you can imagine.
Sunday, they played a team with hope. The Jaguars just hired Urban Meyer, one of the most decorated coaches in college football history, and drafted Trevor Lawrence, one of the most hyped quarterback prospects of all time. Meanwhile the Texans’ new coach is David Culley, who had never even been an offensive coordinator outside of a two-year stint at UTEP in the late 1980s, and their quarterback is Tyrod Taylor, a journeyman who lost his last starting job because a team doctor stabbed him in the lung.
And the Texans kicked the Jaguars’ asses. Taylor balled out, throwing for 291 yards (tied for the third-most of his career) and two touchdowns with no interceptions.
Tyrod Taylor looks good when he isn't benched for a random rookie QB every year.pic.twitter.com/bQoWNSplpO— Dov Kleiman (@NFL_DovKleiman) September 12, 2021
The Houston defense, which has been trading away its best players for draft picks and spare parts, picked off Lawrence three times. The Texans took a 34-7 lead and ended up winning 37-21 after Jacksonville got some late scores.
It must be a huge bummer to be a Texans fan right now. Everything fun about this team vanished so quickly; the disillusionment of realizing Watson almost certainly isn’t worth the adulation must be crushing. But left in the crater of what was once a decent team are a bunch of guys who apparently don’t care that they’re expected to lose a lot. It’s hard not to root for guys like Culley and Taylor, men who were denied opportunities over and over again but seized this one. There won’t be many wins like Sunday’s—but they’ll have this one win, this one day when nobody has to think about the general despair of this franchise and can just enjoy life.