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: Lamar Jackson
It’s always been about what Lamar Jackson can’t do, until he comes out and does it. They said he couldn’t be an effective QB in the NFL—until he made the league, and won MVP. They said he couldn’t win a playoff game after crashing out of the 2019 playoffs—then he beat the Titans last year. They said he couldn’t lead his team to a comeback victory because his game was so dependent on running—he actually did that in the same playoff game against the Titans, when Baltimore trailed by 10 early.
The latest thing Lamar Jackson couldn’t do until he did it: beating Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs, who were 3-0 against Jackson. When Jackson took over as the Ravens’ starter in 2018, he led them on a blistering 6-1 tear to make the playoffs—with just one loss, an overtime defeat to Kansas City. When Jackson went 14-2 en route to an MVP in 2019, the Chiefs were one of the two teams to beat him. When Jackson lost to the reigning Super Bowl champs last year, it felt like a firm statement of the power structure in the AFC: The Chiefs were the best team in the conference, and the only team that seemed to pose any threat was actually a distant second.
That seemed likely to hold Sunday night, as Jackson threw a pick-six just moments into the game:
THE HONEY BADGER IS BACK— Kansas City Chiefs (@Chiefs) September 20, 2021
: #KCvsBAL @SNFonNBC pic.twitter.com/kALuBBVh1Y
Later in the first quarter, when Jackson threw into the end zone with a chance to tie the game, he was picked off again:
Oh, how we missed you @mathieu_era— Kansas City Chiefs (@Chiefs) September 20, 2021
: #KCvsBAL @snfonnbc pic.twitter.com/dLjp8qkwv0
Baltimore’s running attack was devastated by a slew of injuries early in the season, leaving just Lamar’s arms and legs against the world. Now, he had to rally the team out of a double-digit deficit against a team he supposedly couldn’t beat.
The thing is, he’s got a hell of an arm. He got one touchdown on this ridiculous jump pass that traveled over 20 yards in the air. Pretty much the only guy who can get that much power with zero feet on the ground is Mahomes.
JUMP PASS TOUCHDOWN pic.twitter.com/9Sd1eCYKqX— PFF Fantasy Football (@PFF_Fantasy) September 20, 2021
And he’s got a hell of a pair of legs. He ran for 107 yards and two touchdowns, making him the first quarterback in NFL history with multiple 100-yard, multi-touchdown games. Tired of simply running for scores, he flipped into the end zone for the game-winning score:
LAMAR FLIPS IN. The @ravens take the lead with 3:14 left!— NFL (@NFL) September 20, 2021
: #KCvsBAL on NBC
: https://t.co/SsXyNx0bwQ pic.twitter.com/6LuScc8fB0
In one night, Jackson did a pair of things he wasn’t supposed to be able to do—a big comeback win against the team he couldn’t beat. There are still, of course, other things he hasn’t done yet: He hasn’t led the league in most major passing categories, he hasn’t won a Super Bowl, he hasn’t shut everybody up about him yet. But the list is getting a lot shorter.
Winner: The Ravens’ Intelligent Gutsiness
Somehow, there was a moment in Ravens-Chiefs that was even cooler than a former MVP flipping into the end zone for the game-winning touchdown. With about a minute to go, Baltimore faced a fourth-and-1. If it picked it up, it would win the game. If it came up short, it would be giving the ball to Mahomes and the Chiefs, who would need just a few yards to kick a game-winning field goal. Should the Ravens go for it?
John Harbaugh didn’t make the decision by himself. He asked Lamar—and Lamar said go for it.
"LAMAR! Do you want to go for this?" pic.twitter.com/ZfdJowmWyT— NFL (@NFL) September 20, 2021
The Ravens gave the ball to Lamar and won. But let’s be honest: Harbaugh wasn’t really leaving the decision up to Lamar. This was a question with one answer—go for it. What are the chances that Lamar Jackson was going to opt for the punt? (“We gotta kick it, coach! Why would you give me the ball when we’ve got a Pro Bowl punter dropping bombs back there? It’s time for some hangtime, baby!”) Harbaugh had actually asked Jackson this exact question before, during his MVP season in 2019; of course Jackson said yes then, too. Asking a quarterback whether they want to go for it is like asking me whether I want guac on my burrito. THE ANSWER IS ALWAYS YES.
But not all coaches ask their players whether they want to go for it. (Just ask Aaron Rodgers!) The Ravens have been one of the most aggressive teams in the NFL on fourth downs, tying for the league lead in fourth-down conversions since Jackson became a starter in 2018. They’re also third in conversion percentage, behind just the Saints and Chiefs. With their exceptional ground game, they’re even more likely to pick up fourth-and-1—since 2018, they are 19-for-24 on such plays, a 79.2 percent success rate, second best in the league. The truth is, it would’ve been much riskier to punt. (Ben Baldwin’s fourth-down-decision bot gave the play a rating of “YOU BETTER DO THIS.”) Picking up 1 yard with Lamar Jackson is virtually guaranteed. And punting means voluntarily giving the ball to Patrick Mahomes, which is just about the riskiest thing that anybody can do.
Our brains have convinced us that going for it on fourth-and-1 in a critical situation is risky, because it’s so thrilling to watch, and safe things aren’t thrilling, most of the time. You don’t get a rush from getting an annual checkup at the doctor. Normally thrilling things involve risk, like kick-flipping over a staircase. But when you’ve got Lamar Jackson, going for it on fourth-and-1 is at the rarely crossed intersection of Thrilling and Safe. It’s like if putting money into a 401(k) felt like doing cocaine.
Loser: All These Taunting Calls
Nobody solves nonexistent problems like the NFL. They’re perpetually plumbing leaks on functional pipes and spraying hoses at objects that are distinctly not on fire. This year’s non-fire? Taunting.
Apparently, enforcing the football parts of the league’s massively complex rule book is so easy that the league has plenty of time to devote to worrying about on-field behavioral issues that nobody is complaining about. They didn’t pass a new rule—the actual rules related to taunting have been on the books—but in August, the league announced that it would direct refs to strictly enforce them.
Who asked for this? The answer is Giants owner John Mara, a member of the NFL’s competition committee who said in August that he’s “sick and tired” of taunting and that “nobody wants to see a player taunting another player.” I can confirm this is not true. I want to see players taunt other players. I want to watch a channel called NFL TauntZone with no football—just defensive backs letting receivers know they’re trash and defensive linemen doing provocative sack dances. For me, the most memorable moment of last year’s Super Bowl was when Antoine Winfield Jr. threw up Tyreek Hill’s “deuces” celebration in his face after a fourth-down stop. Jim Nantz and Tony Romo acted like it was a war crime (“totally unnecessary,” “I don’t condone that at all”) while I was hooting and hollering like I’d just seen a game-winning touchdown.
The NFL enforced taunting rules very closely in preseason, but it seemed like a bluff when there were only three taunting penalties in Week 1. Unfortunately, the refs came out Sunday ready to be offended by even the slightest insult. There were eight taunting penalties Sunday. That’s as many as during the entire 2019 season. (There were 11 in 2020, and we’ve matched that already through just two weeks in 2021.)
What egregious behaviors were flagged? I’m warning you—don’t click these videos if you’re faint of heart.
They got Buccaneers safety Mike Edwards for crossing the goal line backward after his second pick-six of the fourth quarter. (It’s unclear why this was illegal and Lamar Jackson’s flip was not.)
Mike Edwards got a taunting penalty for— Keaton (@Bogosianorris) September 19, 2021
Running backwards into the endzone pic.twitter.com/3Njsbq5SYI
They got Texans tight end Jordan Akins for spinning a football. The league does specifically outlaw spinning a football at an opponent, but Akins didn’t seem to be directing the spin at anybody.
Jordan Akins snags the first completion of Davis Mills' career pic.twitter.com/shPLgRIWzh— Rivers McCown (@riversmccown) September 19, 2021
They got Seahawks cornerback DJ Reed for flexing at the receiver after an incomplete pass.
Weekly “taunting flags are the worst”tweet— PFF (@PFF) September 19, 2021
Some of these penalties came in critical situations. A penalty on Chicago’s Tashaun Gipson turned a third-down stop into a Cincinnati first down—Gipson complained that he was “just clapping.” The penalty on Reed gave the Titans 15 yards in the closing minutes of a one-score game. Luckily, none of these calls made a difference—the Bears and Seahawks both got those stops anyway—but if officials keep on calling these penalties at this rate, it won’t be long until a game is lost because of a taunting penalty.
The NFL used to outlaw celebratory dances in end zones, with highly specific rules pertaining to which celebrations were legal and which weren’t, believing that fans would hate the showboating. Then, ahead of the 2017 season, the league pretty much got rid of all of those rules, leaving just a few rules about not making obscene gestures. The move was widely celebrated, as fans and players alike loved when players had the freedom to express themselves.
Taunting is just celebrating, but at another player. What the NFL wants to prevent are fights between players—and when those happen, it’s often started because there was a late or dangerous hit, not because somebody spun a ball at another player. (Players are much more interested in protecting their bodies than their feelings—the NFL should be too!) The NFL apparently thinks fans are being turned off by players getting in each other’s faces—but far more will be turned off when a game gets lost because of a celebratory flex.
Winner: ALL-CAPS GUS JOHNSON
All NFL broadcasts are roughly the same. The first guy is a play-by-play announcer who takes his job very seriously. This man has a gravelly voice and thinks it would be unprofessional to make some plays sound more interesting than others. The second guy is a former quarterback who has somehow emptied his brain of all the football knowledge he needed to possess to play the world’s most complicated sports position. But Fox has apparently decided to switch things up for its play-by-play guy and bring in one of the most entertaining voices in all of sports: Gus Johnson.
Johnson rose to fame calling March Madness buzzer-beaters for CBS, where he also announced NFL games. He moved to Fox in 2011, becoming the network’s lead college sports commentator, but that took him off March Madness, and for some reason, Fox decided not to let him call the NFL—until Sunday, when he called his first NFL game in 11 years.
Johnson was on a call with Aqib Talib, the recently retired All-Pro cornerback (and Hall of Fame chain-snatcher) who has earned praise in his young announcing career. Talib’s commentary is sharper than the average ex-QB—he’s more willing to get in-depth and more willing to make jokes. He was paired with Johnson, who is … louder than the average commentator. He sometimes loses the ability to use human words or make human noises; if someone scores a big touchdown in a Gus Game, your dog might tilt his head and look at the TV with confusion.
Sunday’s game was worthy of Johnson’s decibels. It was a matchup between Kyler Murray, perhaps the most exciting player in the NFL, and the Vikings, who somehow pretended to be an exciting team for three hours. The game started with a 64-yard touchdown:
Kirk Cousins is getting it done early— NFL on ESPN (@ESPNNFL) September 19, 2021
It continued with some of the best plays of the young year:
UNREAL FROM KYLER MURRAY— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) September 19, 2021
And it ended with a play befitting of Johnson’s bewildered howls: a missed 37-yard field goal.
CARDINALS WIN!— ESPN (@espn) September 19, 2021
The Vikings miss a 37-yard field goal at the end of the game
It’s not just that Johnson is the most exciting announcer in sports. It’s that I genuinely believe that Johnson’s mere presence in the booth causes games to become exciting. Trust me: I’ve watched this man announce Big Ten football and the New York Knicks, two blighted sports-adjacent products, and when he’s on the call, those games are filled with spectacular plays and ridiculous buzzer-beaters. He once called a game-winning Hail Mary in a Jaguars-Texans game. The Cardinals probably would’ve won this game 31-10 with, like, Chris Myers announcing. Instead we got a game-ending shank that felt like a walk-off homer. Fox will probably never take Troy Aikman and Joe Buck off its lead NFL commentary duties, but it should—let Johnson and Talib call the Super Bowl, and it’ll go into quadruple OT.
Loser: The Philly Not-So-Special
Eagles head coach Nick Sirianni is good at pandering to Philly fans. He did a press conference in full Phillies gear, declaring himself “a Philadelphian,” and took the field for his first home game in an Allen Iverson shirsey. Even though he grew up in Western New York and went to college in Ohio, you could be convinced that he’s a longtime WIP caller who suckled a canister of Cheez Whiz as a baby and has strong opinions about which guys on the side of the street sell the best pretzels.
Sunday, he pulled his strongest pandering move yet, dialing up the most famous play in Eagles history: the Philly Special. Except this time, it was more like the Philly Regular:
Apparently only Nick Foles can make the Philly Special work.— Dov Kleiman (@NFL_DovKleiman) September 19, 2021
The #Eagles try it on 4th down and fail.#49ers were ready.pic.twitter.com/qWuRpDDm3o
The Philly Special is a great trick play that worked long before the Eagles ran it in the 2018 Super Bowl. The Patriots actually once ran a version of it against the Eagles in that Super Bowl; Doug Pederson said he picked it up from a forgettable play in a random Week 17 game by a doomed Bears team. It’s continued to work since—just Saturday night, San Diego State won a game in triple overtime with the Philly Special.
But it has a critical problem: There’s only one passing option on the play—the throw from the wide receiver on an end-around to the quarterback, who’s supposed to sneak into the end zone unnoticed. If the defense does notice that guy, there’s nowhere to go. Your quarterback isn’t skilled at getting open, and he’s going up against a starting defender used to guarding wide receivers. And your wide receiver isn’t used to fitting balls into tight windows.
San Francisco noticed that guy. Jalen Hurts didn’t make much of an attempt to get open, and even though Greg Ward Jr. was a quarterback in college, he didn’t feel comfortable throwing the ball, and tossed it away. Unfortunately, it was a fourth down.
The Philly Regular was a turning point. Just a few plays earlier, the Eagles had hit on a 91-yard pass play from Hurts to Quez Watkins. But Philly dicked around on the goal line, and wound up with zero points. The Eagles should’ve taken a 10-0 lead; instead they gave up 17 unanswered points, failing to score until the final minutes of the fourth quarter.
The Eagles were like a band from the 1960s touring in 2021. (Like, say, the Eagles.) They tried playing the hits—but it’s less fun to hear the hits if none of the band members are the same and there’s a different voice singing the lyrics.
Winner: The Ghosts of MetLife Stadium
You wouldn’t think that the billion-dollar stadium in the New Jersey swamp would be haunted. It was only built in 2010, and unlike its predecessor, there are no rumors of famous dead people having their bones mixed into the concrete. But the two teams that play there are tied for the worst record in the NFL since 2018, and a few years ago, former Jets QB Sam Darnold reported a haunting: During a 2019 loss to the Patriots, Darnold threw four interceptions, and because he was mic’d up for the game, the whole world got to hear him complain that he was “seeing ghosts.” “Seeing ghosts” is QB speak for “struggling to figure out where defenders are coming from”—but after another ghastly performance from a Jets quarterback against the Patriots at MetLife, you’ve got to wonder whether there actually are phantoms flying around the field in East Rutherford.
Zach Wilson, the no. 2 pick in April’s NFL draft, threw a series of increasingly ill-advised interceptions in his second game with the Jets:
MR INT STRIKES AGAIN— New England Patriots (@Patriots) September 19, 2021
: @NFLonCBS / Patriots app pic.twitter.com/U9J297VRNG
4 interceptações para Zach Wilson no jogo! O calouro está sofrendo! #NFLBrasil pic.twitter.com/OFpXqoV164— NFL Brasil (@NFLBrasil) September 19, 2021
Somehow, Wilson had a significantly better day than Darnold did in that spooky Monday night game in 2019. Darnold threw for only 86 yards and committed an unusual safety in that 33-0 shutout; Wilson threw for 210 yards and led the Jets on a pair of field goal drives in a 25-6 loss. But both were awful performances, the likes of which are rarely seen in today’s NFL. There have been only six zero-touchdown, four-interception games in the past four seasons—and half of them have been by Jets quarterbacks: two by Darnold, plus Wilson’s performance on Sunday.
It’s far too early to make sweeping proclamations about Wilson’s future in New York. This is just his second NFL game! But this isn’t what the Jets expected when they drafted Wilson, who had more interceptions Sunday than he did in his entire final season at BYU. The Jets are banking on Wilson’s success, after picking Darnold third in the 2018 NFL draft and watching him wither over three seasons. But maybe that disappointment had less to do with Darnold and more to do with the Jets: Now that Darnold is in Carolina, he’s playing great, and the Panthers are off to a 2-0 start.
On the run. On the mark. Sam Darnold delivers! #KeepPounding— NFL (@NFL) September 19, 2021
: #NOvsCAR on FOX
: NFL app pic.twitter.com/xi6FC8MZdy
Clearly, there’s something spooky happening in MetLife Stadium. The Jets don’t need Robert Saleh as head coach, they need Peter Venkman.
The NFL has a special way of making you rethink basic aspects of existence. What does it mean to “catch” something? When does celebration become “excessive,” and when does roughness become “unnecessary”? Sunday added a new question: What is a human foot?
In Sunday’s Tennessee-Seattle game, Julio Jones appeared to make his first touchdown catch as a member of the Titans. The Titans’ Twitter account called it an “insane catch,” except officials would later decide that it wasn’t a catch at all:
INSANE CATCH @juliojones_11— Tennessee Titans (@Titans) September 19, 2021
: Watch #TENvsSEA on @NFLonCBS pic.twitter.com/ojSjsE2elm
Jones clearly got his right foot in, and then made an incredible effort to get the toes on his left foot in as well. But the touchdown was overturned because Jones’s left heel supposedly grazed the out-of-bounds line. Whether that graze actually happened remains unclear. To overturn a TD, you need “indisputable evidence,” and I’m just not sure how anybody can claim that exists on this play. NBC rules analyst Terry McAulay wrote that it was “no way clear and obvious” that Jones’s heel touched the line. Maybe the NFL has an 8K TV that revealed some blades of grass I can’t see on my TV. Maybe 16K.
The play once again led to criticism of the NFL’s catch rule. The official rule is that a player must get both feet down “completely on the ground inbounds.” That seems straightforward, right? Receivers must get every part of both feet down inbounds. But that’s not what it means! Really, the rule means that every part of your foot that comes down inbounds must stay inbounds. If Jones had tapped his toes down and only let his toes touch the ground, this would have been a touchdown—his toes alone would’ve made his feet “completely on the ground.” But because he tapped his toes down inbounds and then let his heel (allegedly) touch the ground out of bounds afterward, his feet were not “completely down inbounds.”
The Jones non-touchdown was a failure in two ways. First of all, it’s unclear that the play deserved to be overturned, given the lack of indisputable evidence. Secondly, it reveals another way the catch rule can never be fixed. Clearly, Jones made an incredible play to distinctly get part of his foot down inbounds. But I don’t know how the league could write a rule that allows toe-first, heel-second catches to stand. Would we make referees parse the milliseconds between different parts of the foot hitting the ground? The catch rule will always be the NFL’s Achilles’ heel; an unfixable flaw in a spectacular sport.
Loser: The New “Chargers” Stadium
Two new NFL stadiums made their debuts last year, which was a bummer, because most NFL stadiums didn’t allow fans last year. Last week, Las Vegas fans got to watch the first NFL game in the city’s history and bring raucous vibes to the new stadium on the Strip as the Raiders won a thriller on Monday Night Football. And Rams fans got to watch their first game in a stadium of their own after spending several years playing in the L.A. Coliseum.
But there’s a second team sharing the Rams’ stadium, an awkward roommate who skimps on rent and needs to be tiptoed around: the Chargers, who moved to Los Angeles in 2017, a year after the Rams had broken ground on the stadium in Inglewood. After the Rams spent billions to build the stadium, the Chargers were given the opportunity to lease the venue for $1 per year.
The Chargers made their debut in front of fans on Sunday—but they weren’t necessarily Chargers fans. For about three quarters, I assumed Dallas was playing a home game, because every successful Cowboys play was greeted with loud cheers; then I looked closely and realized it said “CHARGERS” in the end zones:
FEED ZEKE! #DALvsLAC | @EzekielElliott | : Watch on CBS & NFL Network pic.twitter.com/PM62c5i4uV— Dallas Cowboys (@dallascowboys) September 19, 2021
.@DamontaeKazee closing the quarter with an electric play! #DALvsLAC | Watch now on CBS & @NFLNetwork pic.twitter.com/ZFTjcm5vsH— Dallas Cowboys (@dallascowboys) September 19, 2021
To be fair, the Cowboys have fans everywhere. But it seems unlikely that this is a one-off thing. The Chargers spent their first few years in L.A. playing in the L.A. Galaxy’s stadium in Carson, an intimate, 27,000-seat venue, the smallest in modern NFL history. It was still too big. Week after week, the stadium had a handful of Chargers fans and tens of thousands of opposing fans.
When the Chargers moved up the freeway from San Diego, their fans didn’t come with them—most were furious that greedy management had abandoned their longtime home to chase dollars in L.A.; the few who still wanted to root for the team were largely unwilling to spend their Sundays driving back and forth to Los Angeles. And L.A. folks are much more likely to root for the Rams, who played in the city from the 1940s until 1994 and moved back a year ahead of the Chargers. (And the Raiders still might be the most popular team in the city.)
So the Chargers have moved from a 27,000-seat stadium they couldn’t fill to a 70,000-seat stadium. That just means more than 40,000 more seats for fans of the other team. Sunday was supposed to feel like the Chargers’ first legit home game in L.A., but it was more evidence that they’ll be playing 17 road games a year from now until infinity.