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: Kyle Pitts, “Tight End”
Sunday was “National Tight Ends Day,” according to numerous announcers, NFL team social media accounts, and most of all, Scott Hanson on the NFL RedZone channel. I started to get the sense that every announcer was hooked up to a machine that emitted a powerful electric shock right if they failed to mention “National Tight Ends Day” whenever a tight end did something. I heard one commentator bemusedly ask, “Who comes up with these zany holidays?”
The answer, of course, is simple: the NFL, which has been promoting the “holiday” since 2019, playing off an inside joke George Kittle had with his teammates. One tight end in particular celebrated the holiday with great gusto: Kyle Pitts, the Falcons rookie who was drafted higher than any tight end in league history. Pitts had 163 yards Sunday, the most by any tight end all season. He didn’t just make catches; he made highlights:
But if you watch Pitts, you’ll notice he’s not actually playing tight end. In both of the above highlights, he’s split out wide. Not only is he at a receiving position, he’s the X receiver, the one farthest from the QB. Historically, tight ends line up, you know, “tight.” According to Pro Football Focus, Pitts lined up as an inline tight end on eight snaps Sunday, and in the slot or out wide on 34 snaps. And he’s playing like a wide receiver: He’s beating defenders off the line of scrimmage with fancy footwork and reeling in absurd catches with his magnificent hands.
Of course, Pitts isn’t alone among tight ends in lining up at wide receiver or having great hands—players like Travis Kelce and Darren Waller have also helped change the definition of the position. But perhaps more than any player in league history, Pitts represents the increased hybridization of the position. The Florida product ran a 4.44-second 40-yard dash at the NFL combine and isn’t considered much of a blocker. He’s a “tight end” because he’s larger than most receivers but mainly, he’s just an incredible football player for whom any positional title would fall flat. Pitts may have been the star of National Tight Ends Day—but he’s also a great argument that tight ends don’t need their own day.
Loser: A Fan With Bad Negotiating Skills
Tom Brady threw his 600th NFL touchdown Sunday, which doesn’t make sense. That’s roughly the equivalent of throwing the NFL record for touchdown passes in a season for 11 seasons. It’s one of the most absurd milestones in NFL history, at least until Brady plays for another two or three years, and hits 700.
In baseball, milestone home runs end up in the stands—that’s sort of the definition of how home runs work. Teams often have to make deals with fans when one of them ends up with a player’s first, or 100th, or 500th home run ball. In football, though, milestone touchdowns end up in the hands of players—that’s sort of the definition of how touchdowns work. So Mike Evans caught Brady’s 600th touchdown pass.
Unfortunately, the significance of the moment was lost on Evans, for whom the touchdown was simply one of three on the day. After the catch, he absentmindedly dropped the ball, leaving a piece of NFL history on the ground. Running back Giovani Bernard tried to rectify the error, snagging the ball and giving it to Evans—who promptly gave the historic ball to a random fan wearing his jersey.
Evans eventually realized he’d screwed up. Cameras showed him yelling “I gave the ball away?” on the sidelines:
And so the Buccaneers had to go find the fan and get the ball back. CBS caught footage of the fan talking with a Tampa Bay official and giving the ball away:
So what did he get in return? Lifetime season tickets? A ride on the team plane to Tampa Bay’s next road game? The keys to Brady’s house when he’s out of town? This was the ball from the first 600th TD pass in the history of the sport, and it will be decades before anybody has another one. Personally, I would’ve demanded the Buccaneers sign me as punter for one game.
It’s not clear what the fan is getting. Brady said the fan would get a helmet, and Greg Auman of The Athletic reported he’ll get a $1,000 gift card to the Bucs team store. Sports memorabilia experts, however, are sure about what he could have gotten if he’d held onto the ball and sold it at an auction—several hundred thousand dollars, at least. On the broadcast, Jim Nantz and Tony Romo roasted the fan for giving up the ball so easily.
The fan said that he was happy to give the ball up, because he “knew how much it meant to Tom.” I’m skeptical about that. How much can this ball possibly mean to Brady? He probably already has plenty of memorabilia items—he probably has his 100th and 500th and the one from when he broke the all-time touchdown record, and maybe some from his Super Bowls. How much worse off would his life be if he failed to corral one meaningful ball? The thing about throwing six hundred touchdowns, the most of all time, is that it means you have plenty of milestone touchdowns to choose from.
Brady—or “Tom,” as the fan called him—doesn’t need friendship or charity from random fans. He’s the highest-paid player in NFL history (not counting his many endorsement deals) and his wife has made significantly more money as a supermodel than Brady has as a football player. Make him pay up!
Ever since watching this moment, I have been filled with second-hand regret. I think if this fan actually understood the potentially life-changing financial stakes of the moment, he would’ve held onto that ball. He didn’t deserve the ball, but through random luck, he had it, and was the legal owner of an irreplaceable piece of sports history. Instead, he gave it away with less thought than I put into weekly fantasy football lineup changes, out of a sense of imagined friendship with an enormously wealthy superstar who will never remember his name. It’s like the Seahawks throwing the ball on the 1-yard line, but with actual real-life implications.
Winner: The 2019 LSU Tigers
I am a die-hard fan of one season of a football team. Two years ago, LSU went 15-0 and won the national championship, setting all-time records for total points and passing touchdowns before tying the record for the most players selected in one NFL draft. They came out of nowhere. Few people thought LSU could beat Alabama heading into the season. Ohio State transfer Joe Burrow wasn’t on the board when sportsbooks released their preseason Heisman Trophy odds, but he won the award; sophomore Ja’Marr Chase wasn’t on the 50-deep preseason watch list for the Biletnikoff Award, which he won. Watching them was incredible—sometimes, it was tough to tell whether Burrow’s throw or Chase’s catch was more impressive. I think this was the greatest team in college football history, and I will stan them until I die.
Unfortunately, things have gone downhill quickly for people who root for LSU every season. Last year, LSU went 5-5. This year, they’re 4-4, with more losses than wins in SEC play. Coach Ed Orgeron has already been fired, less than two years removed from the championship win. He’s being allowed to coach out the season, because nothing that happens from now until December matters.
But the dream of the 2019 Bayou Bengals lives on—because by some magical miracle, Burrow and Chase were reunited on the Cincinnati Bengals. And Sunday, they had their best game since the national title game. Chase had 201 receiving yards, including this stunning 82-yard touchdown catch when he spun his way through a slew of tacklers and sprinted to pay dirt.
It was the first 200-yard receiving day by a rookie since 2014. Chase now has 754 receiving yards on the season, the most by any rookie through seven games in league history. He has either 75 yards or a touchdown catch in all seven of his games. The Bengals demolished the Ravens, 41-17, and are now 5-2. Believe it or not, that ties them for the best record in the AFC.
That LSU title team came out of nowhere and vanished just as quickly. Luckily, we can keep watching that miraculous team in Cincinnati, as long as Burrow gets to keep throwing to Chase.
Loser: All-Out Dan Campbell
The Lions have nothing to lose—except, of course, every single game. The last winless team in the NFL went into Sunday’s game against the Rams as 17-point underdogs, and head coach Dan Campbell knew it, as he took any and every risk in a desperate attempt to get a win.
The Lions came out and scored a touchdown on their first possession and then immediately attempted—and recovered—an onside kick.
On that possession, the Lions ran a fake punt—and converted on a pass by Jack Fox:
The Lions took a 10-0 lead, and then watched it fade away. But Campbell didn’t stop. Trailing 17-16 in the fourth quarter, the Lions ran another fake punt, this time a run, and converted.
And none of it mattered, as the Rams won 28-19. The Lions gave back those extra possessions in the form of two turnovers and failed to score touchdowns on all five of their red zone trips. Meanwhile, the Rams had no turnovers and scored touchdowns on three of four red zone trips.
The Lions are simply a lot worse than the teams they’re playing. Sunday’s game saw Jared Goff and Matthew Stafford play against their old teams and reminded us that the Lions didn’t trade for Goff because he’s better than Stafford, but because of all the draft picks that came with him. Stafford threw for 334 yards with three touchdowns and no interceptions; Goff had 268 yards with one touchdown and two interceptions.
Campbell’s ballsy calls are working—and the team keeps losing. Just a few weeks ago, I wrote about how he called a gutsy late two-point conversion—and the team still lost. Each of Campbell’s calls Sunday were low-percentage gambles—onside kicks basically never work! What are the odds a team could run a fake punt, convert, and then convert against an opponent that knows you’re eager to run fake punts? All of these things went right … AND THEY STILL LOST! They basically had three free possessions!
It’s gotta be encouraging to these young Lions that their coach is clearly willing to put his career and reputation on the line to get them a win. But at the same time, you’ve gotta wonder: If the coach is taking all these unbelievable gambles, and they’re all hitting and the team is still losing, what the hell would it take for this talentless bunch to actually win a game?
Winner: The Bomb Cyclone
I wasn’t looking forward to Sunday Night Football between the 2-4 Colts and the 2-3 49ers, and then the announcing crew started talking about the weather. They used dramatic terms I’d never heard before to describe the incoming rain, saying the Bay Area was being hit with a “bomb cyclone” and an “atmospheric river.” I wasn’t sure whether to trust them—after all, football announcers often struggle to tell the difference between an RPO and a regular play-action pass, and watching football is their job. What do they know about meteorology?
And then the game started, and it became clear that any term Cris Collinsworth invented would’ve applied. I’ve seen rainy football before, but this was different. For most of the second quarter, nobody on either team could hold a football. Here are some highlights:
The teams combined for seven fumbles and six turnovers. At one point, Carson Wentz just kinda flung a ball forward directly into a defender’s chest:
The Colts had 147 passing yards—but the Niners committed 97 yards’ worth of pass interference penalties. This happened over and over again, because Wentz couldn’t throw the soaked ball deep enough to reach his targets, and the defenders crashed into receivers trying to catch the underthrows. This was easily the Colts’ most successful strategy of the night, and directly set up two touchdowns:
The game essentially ended when Jimmy Garoppolo threw an interception on a pass that seemed to slip out of his hands. (Or maybe Jimmy G. just can’t throw a spiral—we’ll give him the benefit of the doubt on this one.)
Initially, we kind of got screwed by the fact that this week’s SNF was a game between two sub-.500 teams. Actually watching Garoppolo and Wentz try to play an honest game of football would’ve been dull—but watching them try to pass a football while getting soaked with water? That’s entertainment. Thank you, Bomb Cyclone.
Loser: The Lambeau Leap That Never Was
As a young Packers fan, Taylor Heinicke dreamed of playing at Lambeau Field. And for most of his life, it probably seemed like just that—a dream. He was virtually unrecruited out of high school, eventually going to FCS Old Dominion. And after going undrafted out of college, getting cut by four teams, and eventually winding up as an XFL backup, Heinicke went back to school to finish his degree last year, assuming his NFL days were likely over. His rise to become the QB of the Washington Football Team is one of the most unlikely career arcs of any NFL QB.
Sunday, he got to play at Lambeau—and in the third quarter, he scrambled for a touchdown and lived out a lifelong dream. He jumped up into the stands, doing the Lambeau Leap:
Heinicke thought he had scored a touchdown because he went into the end zone without being touched. Makes sense, right? But thanks to a rule passed in 2018, that wasn’t enough. When a quarterback dives forward, they are down when their body hits the ground—even if they’re untouched by a defender. The rule was put in place to prevent plays where defenders get low and tackle QBs who are already giving themselves up, hopefully preventing dangerous hits on quarterbacks in vulnerable positions. Heinicke’s shin went down just before ball crossed the goal line:
A fourth-down attempt also came up short, and Washington turned the ball over in the red zone on both of their next two possessions. Washington ended up only scoring a field goal in the second half and losing 24-10.
Heinicke isn’t the first player to score a touchdown and bust out an elaborate celebration, only for the score to be overturned—Aaron Rodgers himself let out some nullified pelvic thrusts just last year. But it has to be strange for Heinicke, whose dream came true on Sunday, and then came untrue. Like a dream, he’s stuck with just a memory of a moment that technically never happened.
Winner: Zeno’s Paradox
Being an NFL ref means a lifetime of getting shown up by coaches, yelled at by fans, and ridiculed by analysts—but one part of the gig makes it worth it in my eyes: getting to enforce a foul that moves the ball half the distance to the goal. I would love that part. Ball’s at the 15? Move it to the 7-and-a-half. Ball’s at the 4? Easy, move it to the 2. Ball’s at the 13-and-a-half? Whoa, tricky! But still, move it close to the 7-yard line. I’m great at dividing by two.
Sunday, one NFL ref got to live out my dream. After Taylor Heinicke was stopped short of the goal line, the Packers got the ball as close to their own end zone as possible. Heinicke was just a few inches short of scoring, so the ball was presumably placed just inches away from the goal line. But on their first play from scrimmage, Randall Cobb false started. Cameras actually caught the referee picking the ball up and ever-so-slightly scooching it closer to the goal line:
When you’re that close to your own goal line, it’s pretty much impossible to be penalized. Really, in this scenario, the Packers should have kept trying to draw Washington offsides, over and over again. If Washington jumped, Green Bay would get a free 5 yards. And if the Packers committed their own pre-snap penalty—a false start or delay of game—they would receive increasingly small punishments. The referee would move the ball a few more centimeters, then millimeters, then nanometers. They would infinitely approach the goal line, but never quite reach it. Would someone eventually force them to snap the ball? Or would the defense jump offsides to end the tedium?
Legendary coach Buddy Ryan actually had a strategy based around asymptotic football penalties near the goal line, although as far as anybody knows, he never used it in a game. Unfortunately, the Packers decided to play football instead of seeing how many times the ref could move the ball half the distance to the goal.
Winner: Derrick Henry, QB
Congratulations to the Kansas City Chiefs, who successfully held Derrick Henry under 100 yards rushing. Henry had reeled off five-straight 100-yard games, averaging 145 yards and two touchdowns per game; the Chiefs held him to 86. Unfortunately, literally everything else went wrong for the Chiefs; they lost 27-3, by far the worst game of Patrick Mahomes’s career. The Titans went up 27-0 at halftime and didn’t even bother scoring after that. They’d defeated the back-to-back AFC champs in a half, and could just kind of, like, chill out.
Sunday was Mahomes’s first truly bad game of the season, as he entered the day leading the NFL in most passing stats. Mahomes finished with zero passing touchdowns for the first time since 2019. Henry, meanwhile, finished with one:
It was the second passing touchdown of Henry’s career—he also threw one in the Titans’ 2020 playoff win over the Ravens. As soon as Henry took the snap, all 11 Chiefs defenders converged in an attempt to stop the 6-foot-3, 247-pound speedster. The guy who caught the touchdown, MyCole Pruitt, was probably the most tightly covered of the three Titans available for passes on the play.
It’s tough to say what’s wrong with Mahomes right now. (For more coverage of this, check literally any sports website.) But it’s easy to see what’s right about Henry and the Titans. The threat of a Henry run requires an entire defense’s attention. Most of the time, that’s still not good enough to stop him. Sunday, the Titans used that to their advantage.
Winner: Adam Gase
You all laughed at him. Just because former Jets coach Adam Gase did a terrible job with the Jets, and also did a terrible job everywhere else he ever coached, you thought he was a bad coach. Just because he was a supposed quarterback whisperer whose quarterbacks all sucked, you doubted his prowess with quarterbacks.
YOU FOOLS! You had no idea what Gase was capable of! People thought the Jets would improve after Gase was fired. They have not! They are 1-5, and Sunday they were completely obliterated by the New England Patriots, allowing 551 yards and seven touchdowns in a 54-13 loss.
The Jets replaced Gase with a defensive coach, Robert Saleh, but none of Gase’s teams ever lost by 41 points in any of his five years in charge of the Jets or Dolphins. (One of his Dolphins teams lost by 40 once—but never 41!) Gase went 0-4 against the Patriots, losing by an average of 16.5 points per game—but the 2021 Jets have lost to the Patriots twice by an average of 30 points per game! New York wishes it was losing by as little as it lost under Gase!
And people thought that Sam Darnold would improve once he was no longer coached by professional quarterback ruiner Adam Gase. Fools! Darnold was execrable Sunday in a 25-3 Panthers loss, eventually getting benched for PJ Walker. He scored more points for the defense—two, on this safety—than he did for the Panthers.
Through seven games with the Panthers, Darnold has a lower passer rating (77.5) than he did with the Jets (78.6). He’s throwing touchdowns at a lower rate and interceptions at almost exactly the same rate. His rumored resurrection in Carolina simply is not happening.
Those teams and players who abandoned Gase managed to become slightly worse than they were when Gase was doing a terrible job coaching them. Somewhere, the world’s worst coach gazes out at the universe through his weirdly paranoid eyes and feels vindicated.