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 GKOAT
We over-GOAT these days. Hypothetically, there should be only one GOAT, or at least one GOAT per category. It means the Greatest Of All Time. But too often, we just call anybody who’s pretty great a GOAT. You can figure this out pretty easily by scanning an NFL team’s Twitter account and seeing how many non–Greatest of All Time figures they’ve called a GOAT. The Bengals have called A.J. Green the GOAT. He probably was never the greatest NFL receiver in any given season he played in! The Jets have called Curtis Martin, Nick Mangold, Don Maynard, and LaDainian Tomlinson GOATs. I’m a Jets fan; we’re compensating for our lack of actual GOATs. The Broncos routinely call both Peyton Manning and John Elway the GOAT. Either one would be an acceptable take, Manning more than Elway, but calling them both the Greatest of All Time demonstrates the degradation of a term that used to mean something.
But Sunday, we got an opportunity to watch a player who is indisputably the GOAT at what they do: Justin Tucker, the Ravens kicker, the greatest to ever kick a football. Tucker entered the day having made 49 consecutive field goals in the fourth quarter or OT, a streak that seemed doomed to end when Baltimore sent him out to kick a 66-yard field goal with a few seconds left in their game against the Lions. They were putting him in an impossible scenario: Make the longest kick in NFL history, or we will lose.
He would’ve missed a 67-yarder. But his 66-yarder popped up off the crossbar and through, giving the Ravens a stunning 19-17 win:
JUSTIN TUCKERRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRR pic.twitter.com/vCsHRtfULo— Baltimore Ravens (@Ravens) September 26, 2021
The record for longest field goal, now owned by Tucker, is one of the strangest in sports. It requires a highly specific scenario and a highly talented individual to set. You could’ve watched Sunday’s game between the Ravens and the Lions for three hours with no idea that this record was about to be set—and then, like a thunderclap on a cloudless day, it was happening.
For 43 years, this record was held by a man with only five toes—Tom Dempsey, who hit a 63-yarder to win a game for the Saints (also against the Lions) in 1970. Over the years, placekicking transitioned from a strange art practiced by part-timers and soccer converts to a science performed by experts who have dedicated their lives to mastering every motion. The top 62 kickers in terms of field-goal accuracy have all played part of their career since the year 2000. In between 1960 and 1970 there were 81 total field goals made from 50 yards or longer, with kickers hitting 16.3 percent of kicks from 50-plus. Last year alone, kickers hit 106 field goals from 50 yards or longer, converting on 63.1 percent of attempts from that distance.
And yet, despite kickers becoming significantly stronger and more accurate, Dempsey’s record held for decades. Jason Elam eventually hit a 63-yarder in the famously thin mile-high air in Denver to tie Dempsey in 1998. In 2013, Matt Prater broke the record, again in Denver, by hitting a 64-yarder. Over the past 50 years, human athletes have broken virtually every record in sports, but kickers had pushed the longest field goal record back by just 3 measly feet. It felt as if humans had discovered the upper limit of leg strength.
Tucker refused to believe that upper limit had been hit. He spoke to The Ringer’s Kevin Clark in 2017 about his desire to hit the longest field goal in NFL history. It’s mentioned multiple times in the article that Tucker wouldn’t change his mechanics for a hyper-long kick—as Tucker explains, the slightest change in mechanics can throw off the entire kick. Watch this video of every game-winning kick Tucker made in his first six seasons in the NFL
For kickers, consistent mechanics are everything. The goal is to do the exact same motion every single time, and as you can see, Tucker is the most consistent kicker ever. He lines up in the same place—behind the third offensive lineman to the left of the snapper—every single time. He takes the same motion—three steps and a kick—every single time.
Now watch his kick from Sunday again:
JUSTIN TUCKERRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRR pic.twitter.com/vCsHRtfULo— Baltimore Ravens (@Ravens) September 26, 2021
To make this kick, Tucker changed his mechanics up. Before the kick, he takes two big, unusual steps back. In the end, he’s lined up behind nobody—all the way outside the farthest lineman in the formation. That allowed for a long, unusual run-up: He does a little crow hop, then takes three longer steps before kicking. Sometimes, you see a quarterback throw a pass left-handed or in mid-air, and wonder how they managed to maintain enough of their skill to succeed despite changing everything. That’s what Tucker did Sunday. Consistent mechanics are everything to kickers, and he threw them out the window and still made the kick of his life.
Tucker already held the all-time career record for field goal accuracy; now he holds the record for the longest kick ever. He’s power and precision. There was a case for Adam Vinatieri as the NFL’s greatest kicker, primarily based on his longevity and his clutchness. But Tucker is significantly more accurate than Vinatieri (now the 26th-most accurate kicker of all time), and after changing up his form to make the longest kick in the history of the sport to win a game, it’s pretty hard to argue he isn’t clutch. He’s the kicking GOAT, and until he gets to kick a Super Bowl game-winner, Sunday is the moment we’ll remember him for.
Loser: Matt Prater
There is a flip side to every record. As one person celebrates becoming the greatest ever, someone else adjusts to life as the second greatest. Most of the time, though, that person is retired, or at least peacefully sitting at home. Sunday, that person was experiencing unprecedented embarrassment in a failed attempt to extend his record.
As previously mentioned, the record-holder before Tucker was Arizona Cardinals kicker Matt Prater. The dude may have the best leg in NFL history: He’s hit more 50-yarders (60) than any player ever, and in addition to his record 64-yarder, he hit a 62-yarder earlier this year, meaning he’d made two of the 12 longest kicks in league history. Unfortunately, he’s not close to Tucker in accuracy—he entered Sunday 31st all time in field goal percentage, between Randy Bullock and Ryan Succop. What, you wanted your rocket launcher to be accurate?
Sunday, Prater had a chance to make his record untouchable. Just before halftime of Arizona’s game against the Jaguars, the Cardinals had the ball on the 50-yard line with time for one more play. The coaches thought, “Hey, what the hell, let’s give Big Leg a shot,” and sent Prater out for a 68-yarder. “What’s the worst that could happen? Either he hits it and you get a free three points, or he misses, and you get zero points. No harm done!”
But there’s a third option: If you miss a field goal, and it doesn’t get out of bounds, the other team can return it. And Jamal Agnew ran Prater’s back for a 109-yard touchdown, tied for the longest return in NFL history.
(Like I wrote last week—exciting things happen when Gus Johnson calls games.)
It was the first kick-six in the NFL since 2007. The last time there was a kick-six in the NFL, we didn’t even know to call it a kick-six—that phrase was invented in the wake of Auburn’s stunning 2013 Iron Bowl win. Maybe this is what Urban Meyer meant when he said every week in the NFL is like playing Alabama.
Most field goals that miss cross the end line and go out of bounds, resulting in a touchback. (Or, in Canada, a rouge.) But if a kick doesn’t make it out of bounds? It’s kind of easy to run it back for a TD, since a field goal unit is primarily composed of linemen and kickers. Arizona sent their linemen downfield to try to make life tough for Agnew, but that required linemen to run 68 yards. None of them made it past the 15-yard line, meaning Agnew got 25 free sprinting yards. The longer your missed field goal, the harder it is to prevent a kick-six.
Thirty NFL teams would’ve seen a 68-yard field goal and declined. But clearly, the Cardinals had talked about this scenario. Prater had probably talked his coaches into believing he could hit a 68-yarder.
He was wrong. He was so wrong that his kick stayed in the field of play and ultimately cost his team seven points. He tried to extend his own record, failed, then watched Tucker bump him out of the history books. And it seems unlikely he’ll ever get his record back. To beat Tucker, he’d need to convince his coaches to let him attempt a 67-yarder, and do you think they’ll forget about what happened when they let him try a 68-yarder?
Winner: Bryan Edwards, a.k.a. OT T.O.
In the offseason, Raiders head coach Jon Gruden compared his team’s sixth-best receiver from the previous season to Terrell Owens. Gruden said that Bryan Edwards, who was picked in the third round of the 2020 draft and had 11 catches for 193 yards as a rookie, reminded him of a legend who made first-team All-Pro five times. We’ve gotten used to this sort of lofty comparison from the former Monday Night Football commentator—he’s also compared Josh Jacobs to Walter Payton and Johnathan Abram to Rodney Harrison. Is everybody on this team a Hall of Famer?
Edwards did little in the first four quarters of Sunday’s game to match the Owens comparison. In regulation against the Dolphins Sunday, Edwards had just one catch for 23 yards. But after the Dolphins forced overtime, Edwards took over with a pair of 30-yard catches. On the first possession of OT, he had a leaping 32-yarder that set the Raiders up with a go-ahead field goal:
#Raiders WR Bryan Edwards “only” had 3 receptions for 89 yards but each one felt bigger than the last. Both 2nd year WRs are really taking command of their roles. #RaiderNation pic.twitter.com/tLcn7N32cO— Chris Reed (@ChrisReed_NFL) September 27, 2021
The Dolphins tied the game and made sure to cover Edwards more closely on the Raiders’ next possession. It didn’t matter, as Edwards elevated over double-coverage for a 34-yarder:
Stunningly, this is almost exactly what happened in the Raiders’ first game of the season, another overtime win over the Ravens. Edwards had no catches in the first 59 minutes of the game, then made two catches on a game-tying field-goal drive to force OT, then two more on the team’s first drive of OT. It looked like he’d won the game with a 33-yard touchdown, but was ruled just short of the goal line.
Edwards has 10 catches for 210 receiving yards on the season; 109 of those yards—more than half!—have come in overtime. (If we tack on the final drive of regulation against the Ravens, 147 of Edwards’s 210 yards have come in these clutch moments.) The Raiders have played more overtime than anybody this year, but still, they’ve played only about 16 minutes of OT, roughly 8 percent of their total gametime.
But of course Edwards is a big-play guy. He’s 6-foot-3, fast, and muscular. He looks kind of like T.O.—at least in OT. The Raiders are 3-0—maybe I’ll listen if Gruden says Maxx Crosby reminds him of Reggie White.
Loser: Rookie QBs
Sunday was the day Bears fans had waited for. After sitting on the bench for two weeks, rookie quarterback/franchise savior/King of Chicago Justin Fields finally got his first NFL start. After nearly 40 years in the quarterback desert, today was supposed to be the rain.
With Fields under center, the Bears got 1 net passing yard. They did not get passing yards. Just the one. When I went to the bathroom in between the early games and the afternoon slate, I threw a tiny rubber ball down the hallway for my dog, who is starved for attention on Sundays. I figure that gave me about 3 passing yards on the day. The Bears got 1. It was the fewest since the Bengals got 0 passing yards in a 2010 game.
Fields went 6-for-20 for 68 yards, which is pretty bad. But what really killed the Bears is that he was sacked nine times for a loss of 67 yards. Last season, no quarterback was sacked more than eight times or lost more than 62 yards on sacks in a game. Mobility should be a strength for Fields, but he wasn’t fast enough to outrun Myles Garrett on plays like this:
Chicago fans have quickly shifted the blame to head coach Matt Nagy, whose uninspiring play-calling doomed Fields. Nagy has repeatedly caped for the team’s Week 1 starter, Andy Dalton, insisting that Fields will relinquish the starting role as soon as Dalton is healthy. All across Chicagoland, the theories are flying—maybe Nagy intentionally gave Fields a terrible game plan so nobody questions him when he starts Dalton again—and you know what, I get it. Fans have invested a lot in the hope that Fields will succeed, and it’s hard to accept that Sunday was as unsuccessful as possible. They got 1 yard.
Fields wasn’t the only rookie QB who struggled on Sunday—in fact, he was the only player in the vaunted rookie crop who didn’t throw multiple interceptions. Trevor Lawrence had four turnovers—two lost fumbles and two interceptions, including this pick six—as the Jaguars fell to 0-3:
Zach Wilson also threw a pair of interceptions for a winless team, as his Jets were shut out 26-0:
Mac Jones entered Sunday without having thrown an interception in his young career; he made up for that slow start by throwing three in a 28-13 loss to the Saints:
Mac Jones first career interception pic.twitter.com/wTuq0zgUki— Guy Boston Sports (@GuyBostonSports) September 26, 2021
The four rookie starters combined to go 77-for-140 passing for 717 yards, two touchdowns, and seven interceptions. That adds up to a 53.2 passer rating and 5.1 yards per attempt, both of which would’ve been dead last in the NFL last season. The last time a quarterback started at least five games and had a passer rating lower than 53.2 was in 2009, when both JaMarcus Russell and Derek Anderson did it.
These are rookies, so I’m inclined to defend them. There are so many extenuating circumstances. Who are Mac Jones’s receivers? Trevor Lawrence is only 21! Shouldn’t we factor in that Zach Wilson plays on the Jets?
But there are rookies every year. In Week 3 last year, Joe Burrow threw for 312 yards and two touchdowns with an otherwise dismal Bengals team. In Week 3 of 2019, Daniel Jones went for 336 yards and two touchdowns in a rare Giants win. In Week 3 of 2018, Baker Mayfield came off the bench to lead the Browns to a comeback win on Thursday Night Football. In Week 3 of 2017, Deshaun Watson went toe-to-toe with Tom Brady with 301 yards and two touchdowns.
It’s not time yet to be worried about these rookies, all of whom are young and in bad situations. This class of rookie QBs was hyped like few in NFL history, and anybody who watched these players as prospects understands why. But at a certain point, it would be nice if one of them actually had a good game.
Winner: A History-Making Safety
The safety is the vestigial tail of football. You can generally forget that it exists, hidden deep in the rulebook, until you land on your ass, and holy crap, that hurts so much. There were no safeties in the first two weeks of the NFL season—32 full games of football without anybody ever having to think about the fact that there is a weird way to lose the ball and give your opponents two points. And then the Dolphins broke their coccyx in the strangest way possible.
Miami was up 14-0 on the Raiders when Las Vegas punter A.J. Cole pinned the Dolphins on the 1-yard line; on top of that, Miami committed an unnecessary roughness penalty, which put the ball at the half-yard line. On first down, they did this:
Safeties are rare, but they’re pretty bad. Not only do you give up two points, but you also lose possession, so it’s probably worth about four or five points. That’s why when backed up against their own goal line, teams will often run plays where there is no potential to go backward—a QB sneak, a fullback dive, anything where the ball spends as little time in the end zone as possible. The Dolphins called a play where Jaylen Waddle stepped backward into the end zone to receive a pass. When he caught the ball, he was just standing with no momentum and no blockers to protect him. Raiders defensive back Casey Hayward read the play perfectly, and stuck him in the end zone for a safety.
This play is a football miracle. If you drop back to pass, the bad things that can happen are usually either an incompletion, a sack, or an interception. If you complete a pass, your play probably succeeded. So it stands to reason that it’s almost impossible to complete a pass that goes backward into the end zone and allows the other team to record a safety. I searched Stathead, a database that goes back to 1994, for any completed passes that resulted in safeties. There were none. There was a play that began with a completed pass and was lateraled back into the end zone for a safety, and two completed passes where a penalty was committed in the end zone … but that’s it. It’s quite possible that in football history, no team had ever screwed up in the exact manner the Dolphins screwed up Sunday.
The play turned out to be a critical one. The Dolphins were up 14-0 but then gave their opponent two points, lost possession, and allowed a field goal on the ensuing drive. Momentum shifted, and the Dolphins allowed 25 straight points, failing to score again until the fourth quarter. They lost in overtime of a game they could’ve won—but they made football history. Football is a never-ending quest to find new ways to fail, and the Dolphins quested successfully Sunday.
Loser: Penalty Flags
In most sports, officials are merely equipped with a whistle. Soccer refs get some cards, which seem pretty fun to hand out. But football officials get the most fun accessory: a beanbag with a yellow cloth attached to it, which they use to indicate a penalty. They aren’t supposed to simply drop the flag—they’re supposed to emphatically throw it to let all the players and viewers know about an infraction. The deep referees actually get “long toss” beanbags so they can throw their flags farther to make sure the flight of the flag is visible.
This is useful! Seeing a yellow flag fly across the screen instantly changes our understanding of what we’re watching. It lets us know that a touchdown might be overturned or that a disappointing incomplete pass is actually a huge pass interference penalty.
Most of the time, this isn’t a problem—but Sunday, a penalty flag played an unusual role in the Jaguars-Cardinals game. Cardinals receiver Rondale Moore muffed a punt because an official hit the ball in midair with his flag:
Rondale Moore muffed that 1st punt because the Ref nailed the football with the Penalty Flag on the way down. pic.twitter.com/u5D2bXYR2o— Matt Abbott (@MattAbb0tt) September 26, 2021
Luckily, the Cardinals recovered the fumble, but if they hadn’t, they would’ve been screwed. The freakish nature of the play wouldn’t have invalidated the turnover. As we find out from time to time, the refs are considered part of the field of play, and players just have to avoid them.
Sure, this is a fluke, and you probably can’t remember a penalty flag ever interfering with a game. But it actually happened last year, when JuJu Smith-Schuster left a game after stepping on a flag. None of this compares to the worst flag-related incident in NFL history—when Jeff Triplette threw a flag weighted with ball bearings into Orlando Brown’s eye, causing him to miss three full seasons and virtually ending his career.
These may be flukes, but there are probably better ways to do this! What if we gave the refs all little buttons, and when they pressed them, a big PENALTY signal appeared on the scoreboard? What if they just raised a flag, like the line judge in soccer? We’ve come to accept penalty flags as part of football, but is there really no better option than hurling objects into the field of play?
Winner: Sad Tom Brady
Personally, if I won seven Super Bowls, I’d probably chill out. Hell, if I won one Super Bowl, I’d never sweat a single L in my life. If I was Joe Flacco, and you beat me in Mario Kart, I’d just be like, “Oh, wow, my freakin’ Super Bowl ring must have gotten caught on the controller around that last turn, nice win though,” and move on with my life.
Tom Brady’s not like that. Expert lip readers took a look at what Brady said during Sunday’s loss to the Rams, and determined it was “a lot of curses.”
Sunday was the Bucs’ first loss since last November, snapping a 10-game win streak. Through three weeks, Tampa Bay is still tied for the league lead in points. FiveThirtyEight gives them an 83 percent chance to make the playoffs, and that feels conservative. If I were a seven-time Super Bowl champion, I would simply not care if I lost a single road game to one of the best teams in the NFL. I guess that’s the difference between me and Tom Brady.
If you’d like more Sad Tom, please consult the Adele-soundtracked commercial for next week’s Sunday Night Football game against the Patriots—it might be a while before the Bucs lose again.
Winner: The Fate-Tempting Chargers
The rule is: Don’t give Patrick Mahomes the football. We have been over this rule. We went over it last week, too, as it helped power the Ravens to a thrilling win on Sunday Night Football. The Chargers should know this better than anybody. Last year, they took Mahomes and the Chiefs to overtime … and punted on fourth-and-1. They never saw the ball again.
Sunday, they had the chance to beat Kansas City without giving Mahomes the ball. They had the ball on the Kansas City 4-yard line in a tied game with less than a minute left. Their job seemed obvious: Let the clock bleed, and kick the chip-shot field goal to end the game without your opponent touching the ball.
The Chargers took the hard way. Justin Herbert threw a jump ball to Mike Williams, who scored a touchdown with 32 seconds left:
That forced their kicker to attempt an extra point, which was actually significantly longer than the field goal he would’ve attempted for the win. Of course, he missed. These are the Chargers we’re talking about. They have a capability to lose games they obviously should’ve won.
Stunningly, they did win. As much as I expected Mahomes to go 75 yards in 32 seconds and win the game, the Chargers successfully kept him from doing so. The Chiefs lost their second game in a row for the first time since 2019—but more importantly, the Chargers actually managed to win a game in which they added risk to the equation.