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: Danny Dimes
Today is the year 0. Tomorrow is the first day of the first month of 1 A.D.—After Daniel. (Anno Danieli, if you’re getting technical.)
This week the Giants made a decision half a decade in the making and finally decided to move on from Eli Manning, subbing in rookie Daniel Jones, a player whose drafting drove Giants fans, nerds from the draft community, nerds from the analytics community, and everybody besides the Jones family mad with complete bewilderment. Jones looked excellent in preseason play, but that’s the preseason. Sunday was the time to see whether or not Jones would flail and wither against actual competition, as so many predicted.
Instead, he shone. Jones threw for 336 yards, two touchdowns, and no interceptions. One of those touchdowns wasn’t really on Jones—Evan Engram caught a pass and ran faster than tight ends are supposed to run—but one of them was a perfectly placed pass to Sterling Shepard, who was covered by a pair of defenders who couldn’t do a damn thing:
Jones also ran for a pair of touchdowns, including the final score in New York’s come-from-behind 32-31 win:
Jones is, somehow, the first player in Giants history with multiple throwing and rushing touchdowns in the same game. It might be a trend: The rookie tracked at nearly 20 miles an hour on his first touchdown. Maybe we need to start calling him Danny Dash in addition to Danny Dimes?
Daniel Jones reached 19.47 MPH on this 7-yard TD run. Jones is now responsible for two of the FASTEST speeds reached by a QB this season:
— Next Gen Stats (@NextGenStats) September 22, 2019
After trading away Odell Beckham Jr. and watching a few other wide receivers go down with injuries and suspensions, the Giants seemed like they were going to be entirely dependent on Saquon Barkley, the hypertalented running back taken second overall in last year’s draft. But Barkley got injured in the first half of Sunday’s game and left with a sprained ankle. Jones won this game with Wayne Gallman at running back and a Segway wearing gloves on its handlebars as the no. 2 receiver. Darius Slayton, a fifth-round draft pick out of Auburn, had 82 yards after not playing in the first two games. ESPN tells me 0.1 percent of fantasy rosters have Slayton, possibly also the Jones family.
What makes Jones’s performance so unbelievable to me is that he was not exactly an unknown quantity coming out of high school. Jones played 36 games at Duke, starting for three years. There was more than enough tape for draft folks to build their opinions on him, and more than enough sample size for analysts to form a statistical opinion on him. And in those three years, Jones never played a game as good as the one he played Sunday. He never had a game in college with 300 yards, no interceptions, and a rushing touchdown, let alone a game with 330 yards, two touchdowns, no interceptions, and a rushing touchdown. He had only nine 300-yard games, and he threw at least 40 passes in eight of them, five of which were team losses. He had only 36 passing attempts Sunday. Jones essentially played a better game in his very first NFL start than he did in three years at Duke. Criticize the Buccaneers defense if you must, but I suspect they’d outperform most ACC defenses.
Can Jones play the best game of his career every single game?
The Giants nearly lost because Jones scored the go-ahead score with a minute and 16 seconds remaining. (Scoring too easily is a big problem for Jones, the greatest offensive player in the history of the sport.) That gave Tampa Bay 76 seconds to get into scoring range, which they did by throwing to Mike Evans, who already had 146 yards and three touchdowns on the day. He caught a 44-yard pass to bring Tampa Bay to the 9-yard line, setting up a game-winning 26-yard field goal—a chip shot for new Buccaneers kicker Matt Gay, an All-American and winner of the Lou Groza Award for the best kicker in college football in 2017
What the Buccaneers did next was … not ideal. First, they snapped the ball to kill the clock. After that, they did … nothing, voluntarily taking a 5-yard delay-of-game penalty even though it would’ve been easy to line up and run their next play, a designed kneel-down to kill the rest of the clock. Then, the Bucs took the ball and moved it back 2 yards to center it for Gay.
Gay missed the kick.
Daniel Jones in his debut: 26/36, 336 yards, 2 passing TDs, 2 rushing TDs, 0 INTs.pic.twitter.com/GI65wAFov0
— NFL Update (@MySportsUpdate) September 22, 2019
The Buccaneers moved backward 7 yards to set up this kick, and, well, if you watch the video, it’s pretty clear it would’ve been good from 7 yards closer. On the one hand, this feels flukey—Gay hit 37 of 38 field goals from 40 yards or closer in college. On the other hand, the Buccaneers were giving Gay a 34-yard field goal from the middle of the field, the exact same kick as an extra point attempt … and Gay had missed two extra points earlier Sunday, one blocked and one wide left.
Buccaneers coach Bruce Arians confirmed that the decision to take the delay of game was intentional because, apparently, he believed that would make the kick easier.
Bruce Arians says he took the delay penalty on purpose in final minute, thinking Matt Gay was better from a longer distance.
— Greg Auman (@gregauman) September 22, 2019
I’ve heard of teams taking intentional delays-of-game to make kicks easier in college, if they’re attempting, like, a 19-yarder from outside the width of the goalposts and want to prevent their kicker from having to angle the ball through the uprights. But that doesn’t apply here for a variety of reasons—the NFL hash marks never go wider than the goalposts, and the Buccaneers still had time to move the ball to the middle of the field. I can’t possibly imagine why this decision was made.
I need more details on this. I’m sure it’s complete BS, because closer things are obviously easier in all skills in all sports. But if Arians is going to claim there was logic here, I need him to explain it. If more difficult kicks are easier, why not just take a dozen delays-of-game and kick a 115-yarder? Is there a sweet spot, like Gay is especially good at specifically 43-yarders? Why do the Buccaneers even bother employing quarterbacks and wide receivers if they could just bomb field goals with their better-at-farther-kicks Legasus the moment they get the ball for a guaranteed three points?
Winner: The Chiefs’ Fountain of Wide Receivers
In the first week of the season, the Chiefs lost Tyreek Hill to a joint injury that could keep him out over a month. Hill isn’t the most important Chief—uh, obviously, that’s Patrick Mahomes—but it still seemed like a loss that could derail Kansas City’s massively prolific offense. Hill, a competitive sprinter who ran a 4.28-second 40-yard dash at his college pro day, finished fifth in the NFL in receiving yardage last year. He was the only guy capable of running fast enough to settle under the stadium-length bombs Mahomes tosses, a field-stretcher who forced defenses to guard the entire length of the field (and made them pay if they didn’t).
As it turns out, the injury does not seem to have affected the Chiefs. Last week, against the Raiders, fourth-year receiver Demarcus Robinson caught two touchdowns, and second-round pick Mecole Hardman added his first career score. But whatever—it was against the Raiders.
Sunday, they repeated their excellence. Hardman, who ran a 4.33-second 40-yard dash at the NFL combine, sprinted for an 83-yard score:
And Robinson made one of the best catches of the young season, a one-handed snag on a pass even Mahomes seemed to consider a prayer.
Neither Hardman nor Robinson was part of Kansas City’s plans while Hill was active, combining for one catch and zero yards in the team’s season-opening win over the Jaguars. What happens when Hill comes back? Do the Chiefs simply bench Hardman, whose speed game seems similar to Hill’s? Does Robinson start getting snaps over the older, less spectacular Sammy Watkins? They can’t go four-wide, because, uh, Travis Kelce exists.
It’s a good problem to have, I guess. But finding talent never seems to be a problem for the Mahomes-era Chiefs: Last year, the team cut Kareem Hunt after Week 12, only to experience little drop-off with Damien Williams, Darrel Williams, and possibly Deron Williams, Michelle Williams the actress, Michelle Williams from Destiny’s Child, and William Carlos Williams. It seems there’s no player the Chiefs can’t replace.
Loser: The Future of the Patriots’ Dynasty
It’s a tough time to be a fan of one of the 31 teams praying for the Patriots’ downfall. Tom Brady still exists, New England’s defense still has yet to allow a touchdown through three weeks, and the Patriots are 3-0 with an average margin of victory of 29.7 points. Sunday, New England played the hapless Jets, who managed just 105 yards of total offense, the fewest allowed by the Patriots since 1988, decades before their Belichick-era run of dominance. (We can’t quite do fun historical facts about the Jets, who play this poorly somewhat regularly—they managed just 100 yards in a 2017 game against the Broncos.)
But Sunday, a crack emerged in New England’s stranglehold on the league. It came when Brady left the game in garbage time in the fourth quarter, allowing fourth-round draft pick Jarrett Stidham to make his NFL debut. And it was a disaster! On Stidham’s third pass, he threw a pick-six:
After the interception, the Patriots deemed the game competitive again, bringing Brady back in. (Do me a favor: read the next line in a Jon Gruden voice) “I call this Stidham guy the recycler, because he takes garbage time, and all of a sudden, it’s not garbage anymore.” (OK, you can stop reading in a Jon Gruden voice.)
Clearly, this three-pass, one-interception performance from the only other quarterback on New England’s roster is evidence that the Patriots are woefully unprepared for life without Brady, this year or down the road. They’re doomed! Hopeless!
OK, they’re probably going to win the Super Bowl again this year, like they did last year, and like they probably will next year, too. But I need to believe in something, OK?
Loser: Penalizing the Injured
Sunday, NFL referees literally added insult to injury. In Atlanta’s game against Indianapolis, Falcons safety Keanu Neal suffered a season-ending injury for the second straight year. Last year, he tore his ACL Week 1. This year, he ruptured his Achilles Week 3. After helping Atlanta to the Super Bowl as a rookie and making the Pro Bowl in his second year, a promising career has been derailed.
As Neal sat on the field, he experienced the massive physical pain of the injury combined with emotional pain of a second straight lost season. In frustration, anger, and anguish, he ripped his helmet off and tossed it aside. And referees threw a flag for unsportsmanlike conduct.
The referees will argue they were just doing their jobs—rules do prevent players from taking their helmets off while on the field. But we desire some level of human judgment from officials. We know that a holding penalty probably could be called on dozens of plays per game, and by rule all sorts of defensive plays could be called pass interference. But we expect the officials to adjudicate what’s acceptable and what’s not.
Yes, there’s a rule saying any helmet removal is illegal. But refs have to know that a frustrated player in massive pain removing his helmet is not a legitimate example of unsportsmanlike conduct. After all, unsportsmanlike conduct implies that the person involved is a sportsman. And when the largest tendon in the human body ruptures, the person writhing on the ground in pain is no longer a sportsman. They’re just a man, experiencing something awful.
Winner: North Carolina Sports Radio
The story of the first three weeks of the NFL season was backup quarterback play: Andrew Luck retired; the world learned about Gardner Minshew; Drew Brees suffered a significant injury for the first time since joining the Saints; Ben Roethlisberger’s season ended; the Giants moved on from Eli; Sam Darnold got mono and his backup tore ligaments in his ankle. The Dolphins brought in Josh Rosen, because hey, why not? This week, eight of the NFL’s 32 starting quarterbacks were backups at the beginning of the preseason.
And the greatest performance by any backup came Sunday, as Carolina’s Kyle Allen burst onto the scene with a 261-yard, four-touchdown performance in a 38-20 win over the Cardinals. Allen, who went undrafted last year, got the start in a game packed with personal meaning. Not only was he playing in his hometown in Arizona, he was playing against Kyler Murray, his rival in a contentious battle to start at Texas A&M in 2015. (Both players transferred out after the year, the rare quarterback battle in which everybody lost.) But Sunday, Allen proved once and for all that he was the Kylest of the two quarterbacks. Look at this play!
Look at this play!
We’re sure this guy went undrafted last year? Like, all 32 teams had seven shots and didn’t realize this guy could backpedal into bullet passes? Between Allen and Case Keenum, I’m starting to think NFL teams should use draft picks on Houston quarterbacks just in case.
Allen’s game is going to cause people to have opinions, because in just one start, he already has more touchdowns than Newton did in his first two games. In fact, he has four more, because Newton had no touchdowns in his first two games. Although Newton didn’t miss any snaps in the first two weeks, he was clearly bothered by a foot injury, tossing a flying V full of ducks and shying away from contact after basing his career off hard-nosed quarterback runs. Some will argue that Allen was not just better than hampered Newton, but … arguably as good as full-powered Newton. In 125 games across nine seasons, Newton has had just six four-touchdown games like the one Allen had in just his second pro start. Allen had a 144.4 passer rating; Newton has only managed that once, in a 38-0 win over Atlanta in 2015.
Is the Allen-over-Newton controversy deserved? In a word, no. Please, let’s not make long-term quarterbacking decisions based off of stat lines garnered against the Arizona Cardinals, who struggled to stop anyone last year … and then hired by defense-agnostic Kliff Kingsbury as their coach. (Yes, defense agnostic. Kliff Kingsbury does not wish to state that defense does or does not exist; he knows only that he does not know.) I’m gonna need more than one game before I start wondering whether to bench one of the most dynamic athletes in football history, just because that athlete played terribly when he was hurt. But don’t worry: People are definitely going to yell about it.
Loser: Freddie Kitchens’s Drawing Board
There was a lot of hype that this would be the year that the Cleveland Browns turned things around, that football’s most futile franchise might actually win a bit. Baker Mayfield looked great last year! Odell Beckham Jr. is one of the most talented humans I’ve ever seen play any sport! Myles Garrett really seems like a legitimate star! After three weeks, though, the Browns look like the Browns. Week 1, they lost by 30 to the thoroughly mediocre Titans. Week 2, they beat the Jets, which is like toggling the difficulty level down to Rookie after losing to the computer on All-Madden. Sunday, the defense played well, holding a Rams team that scored its way to the Super Bowl last season to just 20 points, forcing three turnovers. But on offense, the Browns were brutal, scoring just one touchdown. Mayfield flailed, completing just half of his passes and averaging 5.4 yards per attempt.
The Browns’ disjointed, unsuccessful offensive night can be summarized in one play: On fourth-and-9, trailing by four points and in enemy territory, the Browns were aggressive enough to leave the offense on the field rather than attempt a 57-yard field goal or boot a cowardly punt. But the play they called was … well, extremely bad:
The Browns ran a draw, a fairly straightforward play where the offense briefly pretends it will throw a pass before trying to catch the opponent off-guard by running the ball. It is the mildest trick in football, and the Browns thought it would be effective enough to buy their running back 9 yards. He got 2.
This was such a boring play, it seems to have set Boringness History. According to ESPN’s Bill Barnwell, no team had attempted any straight run play on fourth-and-8 or longer in over 20 years.
Looking through the @pfref play index and I don’t think I can find a fourth-and-8+ play where a team deliberately handed the ball to a running back before tonight since Bernie Parmalee in 1997.
— Bill Barnwell (@billbarnwell) September 23, 2019
(There have been run plays on fourth-and-9, but they’re generally fake punts or quarterback scrambles.)
According to ESPN’s Jake Trotter, no team had run a draw in such a scenario … ever.
So… since ESPN began video tracking the NFL in 2007, there has never been a draw play called on 4th and 9 or more, according to @ESPNStatsInfo
— Jake Trotter (@Jake_Trotter) September 23, 2019
Part of the excitement surrounding this year’s Browns was because of new head coach Freddie Kitchens, who started last season as Cleveland’s running backs coach but sparked new life in Mayfield after he was promoted to offensive coordinator midseason. At this point, it seems like Kitchens, who had never been a coordinator at any level prior to last season, might be overmatched.
The pairing of a first-time head coach with a swagger-filled touchdown machine at quarterback was questionable, but it wasn’t supposed to be boring. If they failed, they were at least supposed to fail while attempting to do bold, possibly dumb things. It’s a true bummer to see them instead attempt to be historically bland.
Winner: Kicking Innovation
Two things happened in the NFL on Sunday that have never been done before: The fourth-and-9 draw, and this:
After a touchdown, the Ravens were trailing by five with 2:01 left in the fourth quarter and had just one timeout remaining, and had to kick the ball back to the Chiefs. That’s kind of a bummer, because by kicking off with 2:01 left, the Ravens were going to lose the opportunity to take advantage of the two-minute warning, which stops the clock. Unless, of course, the Chiefs somehow took zero seconds to return the ball.
Basically the only return that takes zero seconds off the clock is a fair catch, but there aren’t many fair catches on kickoffs, because the ball doesn’t travel high on a kickoff, because you kick off a tee and can’t really get under it. You’re also not allowed to punt a kickoff, with the exception of the kicks following safeties. You are, however, allowed to drop the ball off the ground and kick it, which isn’t an appealing option to most kickers because the weird-shaped football bounces so oddly. The drop kick used to be a regular part of football until the 1930s, when they made the ball pointier and tougher to bounce, and now is only occasionally used in trick plays.
Ravens kicker Justin Tucker, though, finally found a use for the drop kick. He tossed the ball high in the air, with a ton of spin, such that the ball would land on its fattest part and pop up high enough for him to get under it. The kick worked, as the Chiefs did, in fact, call for a fair catch, and the Ravens got to take advantage of the two-minute warning.
So was this a smart play? I’m not sure. I think the Ravens probably should have tried for an onside kick, which would have given them some opportunity to recover the ball. And if the Ravens really wanted a kick without taking time off the clock, they could’ve just blasted the ball out of bounds. The only real advantage here was the potential that the Chiefs dropped the ball, which seems unlikely considering how much time they had to get under it.
So this wasn’t particularly useful kick innovation. But still: kick innovation! To me, this is more exciting than actually winning football games.