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?
Loser: The Worst Starting QB Since Nathan Peterman
The key to being a football fan is occasionally convincing yourself that you’re smarter than the people who make decisions for billion-dollar NFL teams. For me, the thing I always convince myself of is that I know which college quarterbacks are going to be good because I saw them play football well in college. I used to write a column every year based on this premise. Then Josh Allen happened, and I decided I should stop. As it turns out, scouts sometimes see things in players that can’t be determined from watching their college games from couches and looking at their stats online.
But I refuse to accept that this is true about one player: Lions quarterback Tim Boyle, an awful college quarterback at UConn and Eastern Kentucky who has somehow managed to spend four years in the NFL. Actually, let me rephrase that: Tim Boyle was not merely an awful college quarterback. Boyle was one of the worst quarterbacks to play a significant number of snaps in the recent history of college football. In three seasons at UConn, Boyle threw one touchdown and 13 interceptions, with the Huskies losing all eight games that he started. Since 2000, he has the worst passer efficiency rating of any FBS quarterback with at least 200 passing attempts. Nobody else has managed to throw that few touchdowns while throwing that many interceptions. Before you ask, he’s not a great runner, either—he had negative-122 rushing yards at UConn. There have been thousands upon thousands of FBS quarterbacks over the decades, none of whom have posted stats this pitiful. After his dismal UConn career, Boyle transferred to Eastern Kentucky, hoping to play his senior season against easier competition. But even after dropping down, he managed to throw more interceptions (13) than touchdowns (11), as EKU finished 4-7.
Sunday, Boyle had a chance to explain his presence in the NFL. After three years as Aaron Rodgers’s backup, Boyle was signed by the Lions this year, and starter Jared Goff got hurt last week. It was finally time for Boyle to show what he can do … and it turns out the only thing he can do is throw interceptions:
Boyle was as historically bad in the NFL as he was in college. On 23 passing attempts, Boyle threw for 77 yards and two interceptions. He averaged 3.3 yards per attempt, the fewest of any starting QB in any game this year with at least 10 passing attempts. He had the fewest passing yards of any quarterback with at least 15 completions in NFL history. He had four completions for negative yardage, accounting for roughly 2 percent of all completions for negative yardage in the NFL this season. He only completed four passes to his wide receivers for a total of 18 yards. It’s stunning that in spite of this remarkably conservative game plan, he still managed to throw two interceptions, including this miscommunication on a pass to D’Andre Swift:
This was a winnable game for the Lions, thanks to Swift going for 136 rushing yards and a TD on 14 carries. (Normally, passes are supposed to be more efficient than runs, but Swift averaged 6.4 more yards per carry than Boyle averaged per throw.) But they were doomed by Boyle’s complete inability to move the ball, and lost 13-10. It’s hard to imagine that they would’ve been worse off with backup David Blough, who had great college stats and threw for 280 yards and two touchdowns on Thanksgiving two years ago.
I have spent four years wondering how Tim Boyle was in the NFL. Now that we have actually seen him play, I am just as mystified. How did Sir Picks-a-Lot, the most interception-prone QB on Bob Diaco’s 11-26 UConn Huskies, get the call? Are there really so few 6-foot-4 guys with strong arms that every single one of them has to be on an NFL roster? Is he just a great hang? Is he Roger Goodell’s illegitimate son? I’m being harsh to Boyle—but there are a limited number of NFL roster spots, and I have seen some of my favorite college QBs immediately fall out of football to work office jobs. We finally got to see Boyle Sunday, but we still haven’t seen why this man made it to the NFL.
Winner: Austin Ekeler, Doing It All
The key to Austin Ekeler is his versatility. Sunday night, in the Chargers’ 41-37 win, he had two rushing touchdowns:
And two receiving touchdowns:
It was a great night for Ekeler’s fantasy managers, including Ekeler, who says he drafted himself in one of his three leagues. (Tremendous restraint, honestly.) But my favorite Ekeler play of the night wasn’t one of his scores—or even a play where he touched the ball at all. Los Angeles almost lost Sunday night, blowing a 27-10 lead as the Steelers scored 27 points in the fourth quarter. But with two minutes to go, Justin Herbert connected on a 53-yard touchdown to Mike Williams.
This was a touchdown because the Steelers ran an aggressive defensive playcall—a corner blitz by slot corner Arthur Maulet. Either Cameron Sutton or Tre Norwood (a rookie drafted in the seventh round as a cornerback playing free safety after Minkah Fitzpatrick was put on the COVID-19 list) was supposed to pick up Williams; neither did.
Justin Herbert & Mike Williams (53-yd TD)
Williams had 10.2 yards of separation from #21 Tre Norwood when the pass was caught, the most separation on any quick pass TD thrown past the line of scrimmage this season (i.e. less than 2.5 seconds).#PITvsLAC | #BoltUp pic.twitter.com/Oh2nsBiCoL
— Next Gen Stats (@NextGenStats) November 22, 2021
But the playcall almost worked. For a split second, it looked like Maulet had a free lane to the QB, in which case Herbert wouldn’t have had time to hit the wide-open man. But before Maulet could maul Herbert, Ekeler flipped him like a burger patty, storming from the right side of the formation and undercutting the blitzer before he could get to the QB:
Ekeler received zero fantasy points for this play, unless your fantasy league awards points for blitz pickups. But Ekeler didn’t make the NFL by scoring touchdowns. He was an undrafted player out of a Division II school and joined a Chargers team that already had Melvin Gordon III. He stuck in the league because he played well on special teams and was great on blitz pickups. That showed Sunday night. He’s a star now, but he’s still doing the stuff that got his foot in the door back before he was able to draft himself.
Winner: Jonathan Taylor’s Fantasy Managers
Entering Sunday, there had been only one game this season in which a single player scored four rushing or receiving touchdowns in a game—Aaron Jones, all the way back in Week 2. Sunday, there were two: Ekeler and Jonathan Taylor, who put together a fantasy performance for the ages.
The thing about Jonathan Taylor is that he simply does not stop kicking your ass. I remember a game when Wisconsin played Purdue, and Jonathan Taylor had 260 rushing yards in regulation. Then he got the ball on five of Wisconsin’s seven plays in overtime, going for 61 more yards and two touchdowns, including the game-winner. Taylor played 41 games for the Badgers; he had at least 100 yards in 32 of them, including 10 in a row between 2018 and 2019.
Sunday, Taylor did not stop kicking the Buffalo Bills’ asses. He scored Indianapolis’s first touchdown, then he scored Indianapolis’s second touchdown, then he scored Indianapolis’s third and fourth and fifth touchdowns.
The Bills had allowed fewer points than any team in the league before Sunday; they were third best in rushing yards allowed and rushing yards allowed per carry. See those guys Taylor is bouncing off here? They’re apparently some of the best run defenders in the NFL!
But the ass-kicking was not done. Even after he scored Indianapolis’s fifth touchdown, Taylor picked up another 31 yards, setting the Colts up for a field goal to make the score 41-15. Taylor finished the game with 185 rushing yards, plus 19 receiving yards. That plus five touchdowns gave Taylor a stunning 50.4 fantasy points in standard scoring. That’s the 14th-highest single-game figure in NFL history. If we limit that to games since the year 2000—essentially the era in which people have actually been playing fantasy football—it’s sixth.
This was not just one game, but one performance in a string of ass-kickings. Much in the same way Taylor had 10 100-yard games in a row in college, he has strung together eight consecutive games with 100 scrimmage yards and a rushing touchdown. The only other player in league history to do that since 1950 is LaDainian Tomlinson. Tomlinson won MVP that season. Taylor has helped a team with a mediocre passing attack win three games in a row to vault into the NFL playoff race.
Taylor had one of the best statistical performances in NFL history against the best defense in the league. Nobody is going to stop the ass-kickings.
Loser: Everybody Else in the AFC
A month ago, I was writing about how the Bills were the runaway favorites to take the 1-seed in the AFC. They’ve now lost three of five, including a loss to the horrific Jaguars and Sunday’s whooping at the hands of the Colts. You’ve already seen the highlights of of Taylor’s performance, now look at one of Allen’s two interceptions:
Last week, I would have written about how the Titans were the favorites to take the 1-seed. Sunday, they lost to the 1-8 Texans. Titans QB Ryan Tannehill threw four interceptions, and Texans QB Tyrod Taylor ran for two touchdowns:
But there is one AFC team that seems to be hitting its stride—and unfortunately for everybody else, it is the team that has made back-to-back Super Bowls: the Kansas City Chiefs. After starting the year 3-4, Kansas City has won four straight. Sunday’s win over the Cowboys came in the absolute last way anybody would have predicted at the start of the year: with defense.
Entering Sunday, Dallas led the NFL in points per game (31.6), yards per game (434), and yards per play (6.3). The Chiefs, on the other hand, seemed to have the worst defense in the NFL for the first month of the season, allowing a league-worst 32.6 points per game through Week 5. But on Sunday, the Chiefs held the Cowboys to season lows in points (nine), yards (276), and yards per play (4.3). They picked off Dak Prescott twice; nobody had done so more than once in any previous game:
Defensive end Chris Jones had 3.5 sacks. The Chiefs, as a team, hadn’t recorded three sacks in any game this season:
In September, it seemed like Kansas City’s defense was bad enough to hold back Patrick Freakin’ Mahomes. Sunday, that unit shut down the best offense in the NFL. The Chiefs have won four in a row at a time when all the other contenders in the conference are floundering. For the first time in months, it feels like we should see Mahomes in the Super Bowl for a third straight year.
Last week, Cam Newton returned to the NFL, scoring a touchdown on his very first play back with the Panthers. After getting into the end zone, he screamed “I’M BAAAAAAAAAAACK” at cameras—and was promptly flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct, presumably for removing his helmet. In a beautiful moment of NFL hypocrisy, the league promptly shared the video of Newton’s supposedly unsportsmanlike conduct on all their social platforms.
Last week may have been Newton’s return to the NFL—but Sunday, Cam Newton returned home. After two years, the former MVP was once again Carolina’s starting QB, once again playing in Charlotte, once again emerging from the tunnel to the roar of 70,000 fans cheering the best player in franchise history.
Newton didn’t play like someone who was out of the NFL 10 days ago. He went 21-for-27 passing with two touchdowns and no interceptions, plus 46 yards and a touchdown on the ground. His rushing TD was a spectacular 24-yard run—after which he ran 50 yards to the Panthers’ midfield logo, slammed the ball down, and did his signature Superman celebration. (He didn’t take his helmet off this time.)
I am thrilled to report that the referees did not flag Newton for excessive celebration on this play, even though Next Gen Stats will probably reveal that Newton covered more celebratory yardage than any player in recent memory. It feels like players can’t smile anymore without being told by flag-happy officials that they’re hurting someone’s feelings, but Newton found a loophole in the league’s anti-fun policies. When Terrell Owens danced on the Cowboys’ midfield star, he was stomping on somebody else’s sacred ground. He was clearly taunting his opponent. When Newton went to midfield, that was his logo. He wasn’t taunting anybody. Cam Newton was just going where Cam Newton belonged. That shouldn’t even be a Panthers logo at midfield—it should just be a picture of Cam Newton.
The Panthers lost Sunday—as well as Newton played, his former backup Taylor Heinicke played better, throwing for more yards and more touchdowns on fewer attempts. But football isn’t always about football. The 70,000 fans in that stadium and millions of Panthers fans who watched will always remember how special they felt on Sunday when Cam ran to that midfield logo, even long after they forget who actually won the game.
Loser: Your Mama Jokes
I have never believed in the Your Mama joke. I respect the art of a perfect zing about a person, even if that person is me. But Your Mama jokes? They’re uncreative. They’re pretty much always the same joke and generally have nothing to do with the actual mom in question. I’ll accept it if you roast my trash facial hair or my incredibly bad fashion sense—but making comments about some generic mom? Incredibly unoriginal. And as much as I criticize NFL referees, I have to applaud them for their stance on this matter.
At the end of the third quarter of Sunday’s game between the Lions and Browns, D’Andre Swift had a 13-yard run to cross midfield. But when the teams came back to start the fourth quarter, the Lions were actually slightly farther back than they were before Swift’s run. Officials had flagged and assessed an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty on Lions right guard Jonah Jackson for a non-football incident. When Lions head coach Dan Campbell asked what happened to draw the flag, officials informed him that it was “something about somebody’s mother.” Jackson confirmed that the penalty was for something he said to Clowney and that he apologized to the Browns defensive end after the game.
Before the penalty, the Lions were achieving rare offensive success. They were down six points, and Swift had just picked up 13 yards to enter Cleveland territory. The penalty pushed them back to the other side of midfield, and set the Tim Boyle–led Lions up with first-and-25, which they basically had no chance of picking up. The penalty basically ended Detroit’s chances of kicking a field goal in a game they eventually lost by a field goal.
It must be incredibly frustrating for the winless Lions to think that any non-football matter helped prevent them from getting their first win. But for it to be a Your Mama joke? You’re going up against a man who has been on four teams in four seasons whose nickname is Doo-Doo and you still resorted to the most generic form of humor? The Lions deserved the loss.
(For the record, Josenna Clowney seems like a wonderful mom; she worked double shifts at the Frito-Lay factory while raising Jadeveon without his father.)
Winner: Seahawk Killer Colt McCoy
Perhaps you were hopeful for the Seahawks when news broke Sunday that the Cardinals would be without their star quarterback, Kyler Murray. Murray was the NFL’s leading MVP candidate before he hurt his ankle against the Packers three weeks ago; McCoy is a 35-year-old career backup who hasn’t been feared since he played for Texas in college. (This might shock younger readers, but once upon a time, Texas was good at football.) But as soon as the news dropped, Seahawks fans knew they were doomed. Seattle had beaten Kyler Murray before—but they’ve never beaten Colt, a rusty old gun who only fires accurately against one NFL team.
My favorite play from QB Colt McCoy in the #AZCardinals 23-13 win.
Stays on his feet with a Seahawk all over him but breaks free, extends the play, and finds Zach Ertz for a 15-yard gain! A Kyler Murray like play
— Andy Kwong (@akwong31) November 22, 2021
Against any team besides Seattle, McCoy is 7-23 as an NFL starter. This is a man who has backed up Brandon Weeden and Case Keenum. Against the Seahawks, McCoy is now 3-0. McCoy beat Seattle with two teams a decade apart: the 2011 Browns, who finished 4-12, and the 2020 Giants, who finished 6-10. They were only connected by two things: their dismal performance, and Colt McCoy. What chance did Seattle have Sunday, with McCoy in charge of the 8-2 Cardinals?
However, there was a critical difference between Arizona’s 23-13 win on Sunday and McCoy’s previous two wins against Seattle. In 2011, McCoy’s Browns won 6-3 in an ugly game, as Seattle QB Charlie Whitehurst had just 97 passing yards. In 2020, McCoy’s Giants won because they ran for 190 yards. In those two games combined, McCoy was 33-for-57 for 283 yards with one touchdown and two interceptions. He didn’t play well—his team just happened to get the win.
Sunday? McCoy had 328 yards and two touchdowns with no interceptions. The Cardinals’ passing game cleanly dissected Seattle’s defense in a 23-13 win.
Maybe McCoy has gotten better over the course of his 12 seasons in the NFL, primarily as a backup—or maybe the Cardinals didn’t win because McCoy has a Texas hex on the Seahawks’ franchise. Maybe they won because head coach Kliff Kingsbury has done a frankly phenomenal job keeping the Cardinals’ offense rolling after the team lost its MVP candidate and his no. 1 offensive target in DeAndre Hopkins. Without their two best players, Arizona has gone 2-1 with two 400-yard offensive performances.
The good news for Seattle is that McCoy probably won’t start for the Cardinals again. Murray should be back after Arizona’s bye, and McCoy might not have many years left in his career. But the bad news is that the actual reason Arizona won this game is Kingsbury, and he’s probably going to be coaching Arizona for a good while.
Winner: Deebo Samuel, RB1
Gifts often come with curses. The 49ers’ gift is that Kyle Shanahan can point at any random person and decide that they are going to be a quality NFL running back. The curse is that whoever he points at is doomed to get injured. Jeff Wilson Jr. tore his meniscus in the offseason, Raheem Mostert suffered a season-ending knee injury after just two carries Week 1, and JaMycal Hasty sprained his ankle Week 2. Somehow, sixth-round draft pick Elijah Mitchell stepped in and played exceptionally, with three 100-yard games—but Mitchell broke his finger last Monday night against the Rams. (Perfectly healthy this entire time: Trey Sermon, the Niners’ third-round pick in April, whom Shanahan apparently loathes so deeply that he doesn’t even get playing time when the four guys ahead of him on the depth chart are all hurt.)
But Shanahan has a solution: The Niners’ new star running back is … their star wide receiver, Deebo Samuel. Samuel entered Sunday second in the NFL in receiving yards. He’s one of the freakiest athletes in the NFL—The Ringer’s Ben Solak named him one of the league’s midseason tape standouts—and now, he’s displaying some of that freakiness out of the backfield. Samuel had only two targets on Sunday—but had eight carries and led San Francisco on Sunday with 79 rushing yards, including this 25-yard TD:
If you do a Pro Football Reference search for wide receivers with more running yards in a game than Samuel had on Sunday, it’s pretty much all players who were actually running backs (like Ty Montgomery, Cordarrelle Patterson, and Fred Taylor) or players who broke one massive play (like Joey Galloway or Jamal Agnew). What the Niners are doing doesn’t really resemble any of those scenarios. Samuel is legitimately one of the NFL’s most exciting wide receivers, but he has 13 carries over the last two weeks, including two rushing TDs scored when lined up like a traditional RB. These aren’t jet sweeps, or gimmicky one-off plays—they’re plays where Samuel lines up like a running back, takes handoffs like a running back, and moves like a running back.
It makes sense that the Niners have turned to Samuel. Normally wide receivers trend faster than running backs, but Shanahan clearly values speed in his backs: Mostert ran a 4.38-second 40-yard dash at his pro day; Mitchell ran a 4.38 at the NFL combine. Samuel ran a 4.48 and seems like a natural hitting holes at top speed. (Sermon ran a 4.58, which is a perfectly normal time for a running back, but may explain why Shanahan would rather chew on aluminum foil than play Sermon.)
NFL fans are used to celebrating running backs who can go out and make plays like wide receivers—the Christian McCaffreys and Alvin Kamaras of the world—but few teams have experimented with using a top-tier WR like a running back. It’s an unusual choice: Everybody knows pass plays are more effective than run plays, and wide receivers are seen as highly valuable and running backs are seen as disposable. But Samuel is as tough to stop as any player in the league right now—and when he takes handoffs, the Niners don’t have to worry about Jimmy Garoppolo missing him (which happens, even on easy throws). They’re showing that getting creative with the league’s most outstanding talents can always have payoffs. Let’s hope that just because Samuel lines up at running back doesn’t mean he’s subject to the Niners’ Running Back Curse.