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: Bears Owner Aaron Rodgers
In 2017, Aaron Rodgers became the first NFL player to own part of an NBA team, purchasing a 1 percent stake in the Milwaukee Bucks. But he was already the owner of an NFL team: the Chicago Bears.
Rodgers headed to Chicago on Sunday to check in on his investment. He threw for two touchdowns and with five minutes remaining in the game, ran for a third. After pushing the ball inside the pylon, microphones caught Rodgers screaming to the Chicago crowd: “ALL MY FUCKING LIFE, I OWN YOU,” he yelled. “I STILL OWN YOU! I STILL OWN YOU!”
Rodgers says he was prompted by a woman in the front row who flipped him two middle fingers, which is fair. Fans have a right to demand more from team owners, especially considering how poorly the Bears have performed during Rodgers’s ownership. The Bears are 5-22 against Rodgers, including a loss in the only playoff game the teams have played in decades. (They would play more playoff games against each other if the Bears made the playoffs regularly.)
Once upon a time, the Bears held a massive lead in their rivalry with the Packers. After beating the Pack 30-10 in Lambeau on October 25, 1992, Chicago had won 81 games all time against Green Bay, while the Packers had won only 57 against the Bears. Chicago had a winning record against Green Bay in the 1920s, the 1930s, the 1940s, the 1950s, the 1970s, and the 1980s.
But while the Bears have had dozens of the NFL’s worst, least memorable quarterbacks over the past three decades, the Packers have had Brett Favre and Rodgers, a pair of Hall of Famers who have erased seven decades of Chicago dominance. The Packers took the all-time series lead in 2017.
While Rodgers’s ownership of the Bears has been pretty fun for Aaron, it’s been pretty frustrating for the Bears. Maybe he’ll sell the team someday, but he seems to enjoy being a team owner.
Loser: Unfamiliar Quarterback Russell Wilson
For the first time in his 10 seasons in the NFL, Russell Wilson was not the Seahawks’ starting quarterback Sunday night. Last week, Wilson mangled the middle finger on his throwing hand, with slow-motion replays of the damaged digit causing mild nausea across the nation. There was a fracture, a dislocation, and a ruptured tendon. The injury required surgery, putting him on injured reserve for the first time in his career.
Wilson had been an iron man for the Seahawks. Picked in the third round of the 2012 NFL draft, he wasn’t expected to be Seattle’s starter—they’d just signed Matt Flynn to a big contract—but Wilson didn’t like being on the sideline, so he quickly won the starting job and never gave it up. He’s basically never taken a snap off: Since 2012, Wilson has thrown 4,460 passes for the Seahawks; all his backups combined had thrown 52 before Geno Smith relieved him Monday night.
Which led to an interesting revelation during the Seahawks’ Sunday Night Football game against the Steelers: Wilson has no idea what to do when he’s not playing. Despite his injury, Wilson flew with the team to Pittsburgh and couldn’t stay away from the field. Before the game, Wilson went onto the field to pretend that he was leading the team’s offense, without a ball or teammates:
Russell Wilson, on IR for the first time in his career, is on the field running a mock 2-minute drive by himself during pregame warmups. Calling/changing plays at the line of scrimmage and all. pic.twitter.com/3bJ6jGt873
— Brady Henderson (@BradyHenderson) October 17, 2021
(Amazingly, even in his football fantasy, his team still needs to pull off a late touchdown drive and all the plays need to be changed at the line of scrimmage.)
Wilson wore his wrist play-calling sheet during the game as if he were playing—at one point, cameras showed him looking particularly upset with one of the calls his coaches made:
Wilson even managed to get himself involved during a play. At the end of the game, there was a ridiculous sequence when DK Metcalf caught a pass to get the Seahawks into field goal range and fumbled, only for teammate Freddie Swain to recover. Because the clock was running, and the Seahawks had no timeouts, they needed to spike the ball. Wilson ran onto the field, as the clock was running, to tell Swain to get the ball spiked.
You can actually see that Wilson was basically on the field to start the play—he’s at around the 45-yard line, hunched over like a head coach. Then he sees Metcalf spring open, and starts pointing downfield at Metcalf, unable to control his urge to make sure the ball gets to the open man. Then we lose track of him as the camera zooms in on the play—and Russ emerges, apparently having sprinted downfield 20 yards to get to Swain. He was doing all the stuff he would’ve done if he were playing quarterback, just without a hand capable of throwing a football.
The Seahawks forced overtime, and Wilson went out onto the field to help with the coin toss, which he’s not supposed to do, because he is not currently a player on the Seahawks’ active roster.
Russ truly cannot handle being on the sideline. It’s kind of endearing—the dude loves ball, and can’t figure out what to do if he’s not playing. But he probably needs a get-back coach, because he’s coming really close to interfering with a ref or a player. He needs to get healthy and return to the field—both for his own sake, and because the Seahawks lost after Smith fumbled in overtime.
Winner: Big-Play Trevon Diggs
We’re one-third of the way through this NFL season, and the year has already had its peaks and valleys. There was a time this year when it seemed like the Bills might be taking a step back; a time this year when the Panthers and Broncos were undefeated; a time when it felt like the Bears would never let Justin Fields play; a time when your fantasy team looked good. But one thing has remained constant: Every single game, Trevon Diggs has had an interception, making him just the second player since the merger to have an interception in his team’s first six games.
Through six games, the Cowboys cornerback has seven picks. He has intercepted 3 percent of all passes against Dallas this season. He has more touchdowns than his brother, Stefon, the All-Pro wide receiver.
Sunday, Diggs made his biggest play yet. With Dallas trailing by one point in the fourth quarter against the Patriots, he snagged a ball that popped up off the hands of Kendrick Bourne and took it to the house to give Dallas the lead.
But the picks aren’t the only reason Diggs is a must-watch player. He pays a price by gambling to intercept so many passes. Entering Sunday’s games, Diggs had allowed 335 yards to receivers he was covering, according to Pro Football Focus. Only four cornerbacks in the NFL had allowed more. Directly after his pick-six, Diggs tried to make a second interception—but the pass sailed over his head and into the hands of Bourne, who ran to the end zone for a 75-yard score that gave the Patriots back the lead that Diggs had just ripped away.
Luckily for Diggs, the Cowboys forced overtime and won, their fifth straight W. That means we can keep hyping Diggs up instead of focusing on his miss.
Intercepting a pass per game is ridiculous—the NFL record is 14, and it was set by Night Train Lane in 1952, back when it was perfectly normal for players to have locomotive-themed nicknames. Diggs is halfway to that ancient record with 11 games to go. If he gets anywhere close to it, he’ll win Defensive Player of the Year, and it’ll be deserved.
But when we appreciate Diggs, we have to take into account the beautiful recklessness of his game. There is a moment every time he’s targeted when you wonder whether the quarterback has just made the biggest mistake of the game, or whether Diggs is about to. He shoots for the moon, and when he misses, he often ends up flying through space and slamming into Jupiter at a million miles per hour. There are no perfect NFL players, and Diggs is great while being imperfect.
Loser: The Best in the Nation
Someday, I’ll write a dissertation about the Sunday Night Football intros. Players are given the opportunity to say their names and their colleges. But over time, some began saying their high schools; some began saying fake colleges, elementary schools, or advertising for Taco Bell. Sunday night, though, Jamal Adams took the art form in a new, disappointing direction. He used the opportunity to proclaim himself “the best in the NA-tion,” hitting the “NAY” in “nation” with an uncomfortable squeal:
But Adams is not the best in the NA-tion, unless he’s talking about some other NA-tion besides the United States. The Seahawks thought he would be the best in the NA-tion, which is why in 2020 they gave up two first-round picks for him, then signed him this offseason to the largest contract for a safety in NFL history. But this year he has no sacks, or quarterback hits, or quarterback hurries, and no interceptions. He has just one pass defensed and three tackles for loss. As you can see on the video where he proclaims himself the best in the NA-tion, Pro Football Focus has him ranked 62nd out of 85 safeties.
But Sunday, Adams put himself in position to make a big play. With the Seahawks and Steelers tied late in the fourth quarter, Adams got right in the way of a Ben Roethlisberger pass. It was a chance to make an interception and set the Seahawks up to win—and instead, the ball hit him in the face and bounced harmlessly to the turf. A few plays later, Pittsburgh hit a go-ahead field goal:
Adams’s performance wouldn’t be noteworthy if not for his high price tag and lofty claims. If before the game, he’d said “Jamal Adams, pretty OK” or “Jamal Adams, trying his best,” we’d be more forgiving. But you can’t say you’re the best of the best and be unable to catch footballs headed toward your face. He needs to either pick up his play or find a NA-tion where he’s actually the best. (Try Andorra! Very tiny!)
Winner: The Ravens’ Recently Released Runners
Since Lamar Jackson took over at quarterback, the Baltimore Ravens have had one of the greatest running attacks in NFL history. In Jackson’s first season as a starter, the Ravens ran for 3,296 yards, the most by any team since the AFL-NFL merger in 1970. In 2020, they had 3,071 rushing yards, the fourth most since the merger. And then this year all their running backs visited the Springfield Mystery Spot. JK Dobbins, Gus Edwards, and Justice Hill all suffered season-ending injuries before the season even started.
That left Baltimore in desperate need of running backs. In Week 1, they played Ty’Son Williams, an undrafted second-year pro out of BYU. But they apparently felt Williams wasn’t a long-term solution, and signed a trio of former stars who had fallen out of the league: Le’Veon Bell, Devonta Freeman, and Latavius Murray. All of them had been to Pro Bowls in their time, and all of them are at least 29, which is 73 in running back years.
The Ravens had built 2016’s greatest running back room. Entering Sunday, the Ravens were fourth in the NFL in rushing—good, but far off the league-leading pace they’d hit the last two years. Two weeks ago, the Ravens padded their stats on a meaningless late-game play to keep their record-setting streak of 100-yard rushing games alive; last week the streak was broken when they had just 86 rushing yards against the Colts.
But on Sunday the Ravens played the Chargers, a team with no interest in stopping anybody on the ground. Los Angeles entered Sunday dead last in rushing yards allowed per game and rushing yards allowed per attempt. Can you name any Chargers linemen or linebackers besides Joey Bosa? Exactly.
It was a classic matchup of an unstoppable force and an object that was honestly pretty chill about being moved. The Ravens ran, and they ran, and they ran. Murray got the scoring started:
Bell, playing his second game of the season and wearing the number 17 for some reason, was next into the end zone, to make the score 14-0:
And the last touchdown of the day went to Freeman, putting the cap on a 34-6 blowout:
It was a dominant performance, and surely a beautiful blast of nostalgia for anybody who won their fantasy league five years ago. The Ravens went for 187 yards on the ground. Los Angeles entered the game allowing a league-worst 157.6 yards per game on the ground; Sunday’s performance bumped that up to 162.5 yards per game.
A romantic would watch this game and say it proved that these onetime Pro Bowlers still have life in their legs. A cynic would say it proved that backs in an elite running offense are easily replaced. Regardless, it was fun to watch the stars of a few years ago go off once again. … Don’t think of it as a terrible defensive performance; think of it as like when a high school throws a “senior prom” for the old folks at the nursing home. Thank you, Chargers: Your tackle-averse ways have allowed these heroes of the recent past to roam free once again.
Loser: Staley’s Strat
Last week I took space in this column to praise Brandon Staley’s bold fourth-down decision-making. In a thrilling 47-42 win over the Browns, the Chargers coach went for it again and again. Even in the new NFL, where coaches often go for it in situations that would’ve scared off coaches of yore, Staley was pushing the boundaries. I applauded him as brave and brilliant, a one-of-a-kind mind whose bold choices and confidence in his offense had given his team a win in one of the games of the year.
Sunday, he did the same thing, and the Chargers farted and died. They went for it twice on fourth down on their own side of the field, and missed both times. Los Angeles entered the game 7-for-7 when their offense went for it on fourth down. (The team had one miss, on a fake punt.) Now they’re 8-for-11.
Last year, there were only two instances of a team going for it on fourth down within their own 20-yard line when not trailing in the fourth quarter. One was a Tom Brady sneak, and the other was a Drew Lock pass attempt to run out the clock in the waning seconds of a Broncos win. The Chargers went for it on their own 19 and missed:
I think it was the right call to go for it in these scenarios. Their offense has been doing a great job picking them up—and their defense was getting absolutely toasted. Going for it was their only chance at winning. They missed, which made their beatdown loss bigger and worse. Being aggressive on fourth down is a go-big-or-go-home strategy. It can make you look like a genius if it works, and make you look like an idiot if it doesn’t. But isn’t that the way everything in football works?
Winner: The London Jaguars’ Field Golazo
It had been a long time since the Jaguars had won a game. They won their first game of the 2020 season, then lost 15 in a row. That performance ensured they’d get the no. 1 pick in the draft, which they used on potential franchise savior Trevor Lawrence. Unfortunately, it also prompted the Jaguars to hire a new coach, and they chose Urban Meyer. The Jags lost their first five games of the year, looking non-competitive in most of them, while Meyer grinded his way to a complete loss of what little respect he had in the locker room. (Who could’ve seen that coming?) That extended their losing streak to 20, the third longest in NFL history. (And the longest was by the Chicago Cardinals, back before they moved to St. Louis, before they moved to Phoenix.)
It had also been a long time since the Jaguars had hit a field goal. That’s not because Meyer is some sort of analytics savant—it’s because their kickers couldn’t stop missing. Josh Lambo missed only four field goals attempt in his first four seasons with Jacksonville, then missed his first three attempts of this season, plus a pair of extra points. Their solution was to sign Matthew Wright, a kicker who had never hit a field goal from more than 50 yards in his entire college career. Wright promptly missed his first field goal attempt with Jacksonville, as well as an extra point. Lambo missed one game because of “personal reasons,” but otherwise the two kickers have been available and in open competition.
The Jags couldn’t decide which kicker was less trustworthy, and brought both over to England for their Sunday matchup with the Dolphins. (Must have been a fun flight! You think they sat next to each other?) But on Sunday, Meyer put all of his trust into Wright. Trailing by three with four minutes left, the Jags had the choice of attempting a fourth-and-5 or kicking a 54-yarder, which Wright had never made in a game before. They put the game on Wright’s foot—and he hit the most entertaining field goal you’ve ever seen. (OK, the second-most entertaining field goal you’ve ever seen.)
In Tottenham’s stadium in London, Wright scored a worldie, a curling wonderstrike that pipped just inside the upright and equalized the scoreline. (Kevin Harlan made the “bent it like Beckham” joke on the broadcast, so I couldn’t use that here—although to be honest, it would’ve been more accurate if someone had made that joke when the Chargers played in the L.A. Galaxy’s stadium.) I bcan’t figure out how this kick happened! Field goals rotate end-over-end, so they don’t have a lot of side spin. And this game was played in a dome, so there was no wind. Is that why they call it “putting some English” on a ball? Do things in England just swerve in midair for no reason? As the excitable Ray Hudson once screamed at the top of his lungs, “THIS ONE HAS MORE CURVES TO IT THAN JESSICA RABBIT ON STEROIDS.” (That’s, like, the 46th-weirdest thing Ray Hudson has said during a game.)
The Jags got the ball back and set Wright up with a 53-yarder for the win, which he also drilled. It wasn’t as fun to watch, though—it just went straight in.
The Jaguars hadn’t won a game in 13 months. They hadn’t hit a field goal in 10. And Wright, a professional kicker, had gone his entire life without hitting a 50-yarder. And then he drilled the two longest kicks of his life back-to-back to give Jacksonville their first win in over a year. It’s all so improbable—almost as improbable as booting the ball halfway to the sideline and hooking it right back in between the uprights.
Loser: Head Coaches
NFL head coach is the most powerful position in sports. They’re responsible for a team’s strategies and culture. They choose the coordinators and position coaches. They often have control over which players get signed and drafted. An NBA head coach is often overshadowed by his players; an MLB manager can do little more than set lineups and make pitching changes; I, uh, I honestly don’t know what an NHL head coach does. But an NFL head coach is the king of a tiny kingdom.
But what does an NFL head coach do on game day? Probably not as much as we like to think. Most don’t call plays—that’s the job of the offensive and defensive coordinators. Smart head coaches will have underlings in charge of letting them know what to do in certain fourth-down scenarios, when to go for two-point conversions, how to manage the clock, and whether or not to challenge plays. The best ones delegate heavily.
Sunday, two teams were led by interim head coaches. The first was the Las Vegas Raiders, whose head coach, Jon Gruden, resigned last Monday night after the release of years of emails in which he stated his racist, homophobic, and misogynistic beliefs. The other was the Arizona Cardinals, whose head coach, Kliff Kingsbury, had tested positive for COVID-19. Both teams were underdogs Sunday, in part because of the instability with their coaching situations.
But both teams dominated. Special teams coordinator Rich Bisaccia assumed head coaching duties for the Raiders, his first time serving as head coach for any team at any level. Gruden was responsible for calling offensive plays for the Raiders, a responsibility that now belongs to offensive coordinator Greg Olson. But without Gruden, the Raiders hit their highest point total of the season, beating the Broncos 34-24 in a game that they led by multiple scores for the entire second half.
The Cardinals were led by defensive coordinator Vance Joseph, who went 11-21 in two seasons as head coach of the Broncos in 2017-18. Like Gruden, Kingsbury usually calls plays for the Cardinals. Sunday, that job was handled by assistant wide receivers coach Spencer Whipple, a 32-year-old who had never called plays before Sunday. But Kingsbury’s absence didn’t matter—Kyler Murray had his best game of the year, throwing four touchdowns and no interceptions:
On Friday, The Ringer’s Kevin Clark wrote a wonderful column about the way the head coach position is changing. Head coaches may have the most expansive jobs in the game, but it’s just a job, with certain responsibilities and limits. Coaches who overstep boundaries or think they’re bigger than the team will fail. Sunday’s action helped explain that. Head coaches may be the most important people in the sport—but it’s entirely possible for an NFL team to win without one in the stadium.
Loser: Patrick Mahomes’s Stats
They probably should make Jets-free interception leaderboards. Obviously, Jets rookie Zach Wilson leads the league in picks, but what else is new? The interesting thing is what happens when you go below Wilson and see who’s tied for second place: Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes. He’s thrown eight interceptions already, including picks in five straight games, and multiple interceptions in back-to-back games. He’s already thrown more interceptions this year than he did in the full 2019 and 2020 seasons. Clearly, it’s time to panic. Has our sport’s angel fallen to earth and become mortal? Should the Chiefs trade for Jared Goff while Mahomes still has trade value?
But anybody watching the game on Sunday could see that it’s not really that bad. One of Mahomes’s interceptions went right off the hands of Tyreek Hill and flopped into the arms of Kendall Fuller:
It’s actually the second week in a row that Hill has dropped a pass for a pick—last week Micah Hyde took a Mahomes pass to the end zone after Hill whiffed. There was also a pass earlier in the season that bounced off of Marcus Kemp and was picked by Asante Samuel Jr. (Coincidentally, Kemp hasn’t been targeted since—although I doubt Mahomes will freeze Hill out the same way.) Mahomes’s mom tweeted to say that Hill should be credited with the interceptions instead of her son.
Mahomes’s second pick of the day wasn’t anybody’s fault—after a botched snap, he tried to scramble and threw a weak wobbler while getting tackled. And while it was maybe the worst pass anybody in the NFL threw all of Sunday, it doesn’t exactly feel like something Mahomes will do regularly:
The brief flurry of negative Mahomes plays was handled rationally. For about 10 minutes, people on Twitter debated whether the NFL had “figured [Mahomes] out” and whether Mahomes’s contract would doom the Chiefs’ future.
Then, Mahomes and the Chiefs snapped back to form to beat the Washington Football Team 31-13. Mahomes threw for 397 yards and maintained his NFL lead in touchdown passes. The stats for Mahomes aren’t great right now—but he’s still pretty clearly Patrick Mahomes.