Every week of the 2022 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: Excessive Celebration
The NFL’s rule book outlaws celebrations that are “excessive,” which is a subjective measure. To truly gauge whether a celebration is excessive, you have to determine an appropriate amount of celebration for a certain accomplishment. For a first down when trailing by seven in the first quarter? Anything more than a smile is excessive. But let’s say a player hypothetically made a spectacular Hail Mary touchdown catch at the very back of the end zone—the deepest catch ever recorded—to win a game, putting his team in first place in their division, just weeks after they’d fired their coach. It’s hard to imagine any celebration that would be excessive. Any amount of screaming, gesturing, alcohol consumption, pyrotechnic displays, musical performances, and a certain amount of tasteful stripping would be tolerated.
Unfortunately, this was not a hypothetical scenario. In Sunday’s Panthers-Falcons game, with possession of first place in the NFC South on the line and the Panthers trailing by six points, Carolina QB P.J. Walker threw a stunning 62-yard touchdown pass to D.J. Moore.
It’s a dream of a play, the type of inexplicable, unpredictable lightning bolt that keeps us watching games every Sunday. Walker isn’t supposed to have a great arm—a few weeks ago, he literally didn’t complete any passes more than a yard past the line of scrimmage—and yet he threw this ball 67 yards on the fly. Since the NFL began utilizing ball tracking technology in 2016, it’s the longest completed pass on record.
Moore somehow got open behind a defense specifically designed to stop this exact play, outsprinting two Atlanta defenders to the back of the end zone. The ball must have felt like a ton of bricks as it tumbled down from the rafters and hit Moore’s hands, but he snugly tucked it in over his shoulder while tumbling to the ground. Touchdown. The Panthers, who fired their coach three weeks ago and traded their biggest star last week, were an extra point from taking the lead in the dismal NFC South.
But Moore broke the rules. He took his helmet off while celebrating the greatest moment of his career. And the rule book specifically forbids removing the helmet during a celebration. That penalty cost the Panthers 15 yards, enforced on the extra point kick that would have given Carolina the lead and a certain win. The PAT was now a 48-yard attempt—and Eddy Pineiro missed it.
When a player commits a dead ball penalty after a touchdown, the opposing team has the option of enforcing it on the PAT or the ensuing kickoff. Most of the time, the opposing team chooses to enforce the penalty on the kick. But in situations where that one point really matters? You push the extra point back. It happened on the famous Egg Bowl Dog Pee incident in 2019, when current New York Jets receiver Elijah Moore celebrated a would-be game-tying touchdown by pretending to be a urinating dog, drawing a flag, and contributing to a missed extra point, and a 21-20 loss. The last celebration-fueled NFL missed extra point came in 2020 after a Jarvis Landry touchdown. (Landry had also caused a missed extra point in 2019 and told reporters “I’d do the exact same thing,” so good on him for being true to his words.) But I can’t find another instance of a celebration-penalty-missed-extra-point combo in such a critical moment.
Sunday’s game in Atlanta went to overtime, where Pineiro missed another game-winning attempt—this one a 32-yarder from roughly the same distance as the PAT would have been without the penalty. It was a stunningly bad performance from Pineiro, who hadn’t missed a PAT this season and hadn’t missed a field goal from under 40 yards since Week 8 of the 2019 season. Falcons kicker Younghoe Koo didn’t miss his attempt in overtime, and Atlanta won 37-34.
Even though Pineiro missed a chip shot, it still feels like the game turned on the unsportsmanlike conduct call. To be fair, Moore removed his helmet, which is explicitly forbidden by the rule book. But if we’re going to be emotionless rule-book-following sticklers, let’s at least be accurate: The rule says players can’t remove their helmet “in the field of play or the end zone.” Moore was already out of the end zone when his helmet came off. And why the hell does this rule exist, anyway? It’s not like he pretended to be a urinating dog! It’s not an offensive gesture, it doesn’t prolong celebrations, and we don’t need to worry about traumatic brain injuries after plays are over. It doesn’t hurt anybody’s bodies or feelings—why aren’t we letting the best players show their faces after their biggest plays?
Walker and Moore combined to make one of the greatest highlights in recent NFL history. They could have ridden an elephant across the field while smoking cigars and playing guitars and it wouldn’t have been excessive. But the NFL insists on penalizing celebrations, even though fans love watching players celebrate. This should have been an all-time highlight displaying the unbelievable talents of its players; instead it’s a monument to the league’s desire to legislate every aspect of football—even the emotions of its players.
Winner: A.J. Brown’s Celebration
Moore picked the wrong time to break the NFL’s ridiculous celebration rules—but there is, it turns out, a perfectly acceptable time to draw a flag for a non-football act. Like when you’ve scored yet another touchdown in a blowout win, and you’d like to make fun of the puny losers who don’t have a chance in hell of stopping you.
That was the situation for Eagles WR A.J. Brown, who had three first-half touchdowns against the overmatched Steelers. All three came on go routes, making him the first player since the NFL started keeping route-specific stats to have three go-route TDs in the same game. This wasn’t about scheme or strategy or anything—Brown was simply lining up, running in a straight line, and catching touchdowns. On his third score, he was double-teamed by Ahkello Witherspoon and Minkah Fitzpatrick, and it did not matter—Witherspoon tried to climb Brown’s back, fell, and crashed into Fitzpatrick. Instead of doing a little dance to draw attention to himself, Brown used his valuable celebratory time to make sure the world saw who was guarding him, and how bad of a job they did. (Hey, at least I don’t think the Steelers defensive backs dropped any interceptions this week! Baby steps!)
Refs threw a flag and penalized Brown for taunting. Good call! While I don’t get the logic behind the helmet-removal rule, it makes perfect sense to me that you shouldn’t be allowed to point directly at the players you just embarrassed. That’s how fights start! While the NFL has gone over the top in enforcing taunting rules in the past, this was a pretty textbook case.
But the penalty didn’t matter on Sunday. The Eagles won 35-13. The Steelers didn’t even move the extra point back—they opted to enforce the penalty on the ensuing kickoff. Brown finished the day with 156 receiving yards; the Steelers as a team had 156 total passing yards. And I feel like the risk of a fight here was minimal—when you keep losing battles to a receiver who is clearly faster and stronger than you, you don’t get to get mad when he taunts you. You just walk back to the bench.
The Eagles are 7-0, the last undefeated team in the NFL. They don’t play another team that currently has a winning record until December, when they play the 5-2 Titans in Week 13. When you’re that far ahead of the competition, you can celebrate a little. The penalty is worth it.
Winner: Tony Pollard
Loser: Zeke Elliott
The Dallas Cowboys have one of the best running backs in the NFL, and one of the most famous running backs in the NFL. Unfortunately, they’re not the same person. Ezekiel Elliott is the famous one—the no. 4 pick in the 2016 NFL draft, a two-time NFL rushing leader, with a $90 million contract. But in 2021, Pro Football Focus graded Tony Pollard as the NFL’s best running back with more than 100 carries. PFF also credited Pollard with more forced missed tackles (27) than Elliott (21), despite Elliott having 115 more carries than his backup.
Pollard has put up better stats than Zeke, and it hasn’t been close. In the first three seasons that Pollard and Elliott shared a backfield, Pollard had more yards per carry (5.08 to 4.27), a significantly better fumble rate (just one in 317 carries, while Zeke had nine in 782 carries) and averaged almost a yard more after contact per carry (3.85 for Pollard, 2.95 for Zeke). But because Zeke was the big name with the big contract, he remained the starter. In four seasons, there was only one game in which Pollard had more carries than a healthy Elliott—and in that game, Pollard had 10 carries and Elliott had nine.
But the two runners had different roles. Elliott was the primary back, and Pollard tore up defenses that had already been worn down by Zeke. Could Pollard put up those big numbers if he was given Zeke’s workload?
Elliott missed Sunday’s game against the Bears with a knee injury, meaning we finally have our answer: Yes. Holy hell, yes. Extremely yes.
Pollard took 14 carries for 131 yards and three touchdowns. And they weren’t cheap touchdowns. He was breaking tackles and breaking ankles:
Elliott has been remarkably healthy for a running back, and this was only the second time he’d missed a game since Pollard was drafted. And Pollard has gone for at least 100 scrimmage yards and multiple touchdowns in both of those games, the other being a two-touchdown, 69–rushing yard, 63–receiving yard performance in 2020. Meanwhile, Elliott hasn’t posted a 100-yard game in his last 20 starts, since going for 110 yards last October. And he hadn’t scored three touchdowns in a game since… well, ever. Elliott has never done it in seven years as the Cowboys’ running back, and Pollard did it in his second real start.
The Cowboys don’t have to pretend anymore. Elliott’s contract has an out after this season, so the Cowboys don’t have to keep him happy long term. It shouldn’t matter how many jerseys Elliott has sold, or whether the Cowboys will look dumb for having given him a large contract—depth chart decisions should be made because of on-field performance, and Pollard is outperforming Elliott in just about every way possible. It’s time for the Cowboys to make their best running back more famous.
Loser: Justin Fields’s Spectacular Hurdle
If only Bears QB Justin Fields wasn’t so athletic and coordinated. If only he wasn’t incredibly gifted at looking at a field of professional athletes and figuring out how to get through them untouched. If only he wasn’t capable of shifting his 6-foot-3, 230-pound body in ways normal humans can’t. Unfortunately, he’s a one-of-a-kind physical specimen, and that massive talent allowed him to make one of the most embarrassing plays you’ll ever see on a football field.
In Sunday’s Bears-Cowboys game, Micah Parsons recovered a fumble by Chicago’s David Montgomery. At first, just about everybody assumed that Parsons was touched while he was down on the ground recovering the ball, which would have ended the play. But Parsons stood up, ran past a few confused Bears offensive players, and worked his way to the end zone for a touchdown—the first of Parsons’s career.
Slow-motion replay revealed that only one Bears player had a chance to touch Parsons while he was down: Fields, who had followed the play downfield and was easily in position to tap Parsons on the ground. Instead, Fields stopped on a dime and hurdled Parsons. The NFL reviewed the play, since merely grazing Parsons would have counted as a tackle and ended the play. But, nope! Fields’s hurdle was clean, clearing the downed defender by mere millimeters on the takeoff and landing.
It’s unclear why Fields did this. Perhaps he forgot the difference between college and NFL rules—in NCAA games, ballcarriers are down regardless of whether they’re touched. Perhaps he thought someone else had already touched Parsons. Perhaps his instinct to avoid contact was too strong, and he just defaulted into a beautiful leap. Regardless, it took a tremendous effort to avoid making the play. Almost any other person on earth would have grazed Parsons, if not crashed directly into him. Hell, if I were in the same position as Fields, I would’ve touched Parsons. With my lack of coordination and minimal vertical leap, my attempt to hurdle Parsons would’ve resulted in my shins slamming into Parsons’s midsection, followed by me losing control of my body and face planting—a successful tackle which would have kept Parsons out of the end zone.
This play was a bad miracle, a breathtaking disaster that only Fields could have pulled off. Hopefully, next time he can use his powers for good.
Winner: QB/WR/RB Christian McCaffrey
When the 49ers traded for Christian McCaffrey, my first thought was “DAMN, that’s a good idea.” Niners head coach Kyle Shanahan is the run-scheme god, perpetually capable of inventing new ways to get talented players productive touches out of the backfield—and McCaffrey is the most versatile running back in the sport.
Sunday, we got our first full glimpse of Shanahan’s offense with McCaffrey. And the newest Niner can do everything. McCaffrey had a rushing touchdown …
And a receiving touchdown …
AND a passing touchdown:
McCaffrey is just the fourth player since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger to pass, catch, and run for a touchdown in the same game, and the first to do it since 2005. Two of the other three players on that exclusive list—Walter Payton and LaDainian Tomlinson—are Hall of Famers. He’s the first player with at least 30 passing, rushing, and receiving yards in a game since … himself, four years ago for the Panthers.
It’s already clear that McCaffrey is a good fit in San Francisco. McCaffrey played a handful of snaps for the Niners last week, just two days after flying into town, before he’d had a chance to truly practice with the team or learn the full playbook. So Sunday was essentially his debut, and he had 149 scrimmage yards. The receiving touchdown seemed to show that McCaffrey is already on the same page as his teammates—he waits in the backfield until Jimmy Garoppolo looks his way. It’s a pretty impressive bit of QB-receiver communication for a player who has been on the team for less than 10 days.
But perhaps it’s McCaffrey’s passing touchdown that the Niners really need to be looking at. McCaffrey’s throw went 37 yards in the air, the longest throw by a running back on record. (That’s two passing depth records set today!) Meanwhile, since 2020, Garoppolo is just 3-for-25 on passes of more than 30 air yards, with no touchdowns and four interceptions.
On the 49ers, McCaffrey will be a touchdown-scoring, run-busting, pass-catching machine. But maybe the Niners need to let him do a little bit more. Just line McCaffrey up next to fellow touchdown-thrower Deebo Samuel and let everything sort itself out.
Loser: Zach Wilson’s Throwaway
So far this season, there have been 372 passes described as “throwaways” by Pro Football Focus –371 of those have fallen incomplete and sail safely out of bounds with no problem. If we define successful throwaways as “passes thrown out of bounds without being intercepted,” quarterbacks are almost always successful. In 2019, QBs went 784-for-784 at successfully throwing the ball away; in 2020 they were 719-for-719.
So why are QBs only 371-for-372 on throwaways in 2022? The answer is Jets QB Zach Wilson, who somehow threw an interception while trying to get the ball out of bounds on Sunday:
Sunday was a massive game for the New York Jets. At 5-2, they were off to their best start in recent memory, and they had a game against the struggling Patriots, most recently seen swapping QBs in a blowout loss to the Bears on Monday Night Football. (The Bears.) They could’ve snapped a 12-game losing streak to the Patriots—honestly, I would’ve guessed it was 20-plus games—and moved into prime playoff position.
And in many ways, they kicked the crap out of the Pats! New York averaged 6.7 yards per play; New England only averaged 3.8. That’s a legit whooping! The Jets sacked New England QB Mac Jones six times and picked him off. They held the Patriots to 6-for-19 on third down.
But Wilson threw three interceptions, each of which gave New England the ball in Jets territory. The throwaway pick feels particularly brutal—how do you fail at throwing the ball away—but honestly, it might not have been the most upsetting of Wilson’s three interceptions. At least the throwaway was the right decision. I think the play where he flicked the ball off his back foot into quadruple coverage and threw a line drive directly to a Patriots defender was actually worse.
Wilson’s interceptions led to two Patriots field goals; the Pats won by five points. After the game, Elijah Moore—yes, the dog pee guy—said that he doesn’t know if he has chemistry with Wilson because he simply does not get the ball. (I think that means you don’t have chemistry.) But right now, throwing the ball to Jets receivers feels like a pipe dream. I’d settle for a QB who could simply throw the ball to nobody when the situation calls for it.
Winner: Scary Terry on Halloween
The most fun I’ve ever had playing a sports video game was thanks to awful engineering. It was some late-’90s N64 game that allowed me to create players as short as 4-foot-6, but also allowed me to make that player a 99 dunker. It did not matter that they were less than half the height of the rim—as long as a player’s dunk rating was high, they could dunk. My little guys would go out there and throw down on 7-footers’ heads, defying common sense and human physiology with 60-inch vertical leaps. It was funny and thrilling every time.
My tiny dunker has come to the NFL in the form of Contested Catch King Terry McLaurin. By all logical measures, McLaurin should not be ripping down passes week after week over NFL defenders. Coming out of Ohio State, he was noted for his speed (he ran a 4.35-second 40-yard dash at the combine) and his route running. But he’s 6-foot-zero, with short arms and small hands for a receiver. His NFL.com draft profile described him as a “body catcher with below average extension and high-pointing,” and said he “will need to improve his ball skills and body positioning if he wants to win contested catches on the NFL level.”
Suffice it to say, he has. As soon as McLaurin got to the league with Washington in 2019, he started dunking on defenders. He was making catches over DBs, in front of DBs, around DBs, through DBs. No matter the situation, he could contort his body to make the catch. In 2021, Pro Football Focus credited McLaurin with a league-leading 25 contested catches; nobody else had more than 21.
Sunday against the Colts, McLaurin made his greatest snag to date: a goal-line Mossing of former Defensive Player of the Year Stephon Gilmore that essentially won the Commanders the game:
There wasn’t a lot to it. This clearly wasn’t a designed play—McLaurin decided mid-play to turn and run downfield and put his arm up. Taylor Heinicke isn’t a great QB, but it doesn’t matter—he knows he can trust McLaurin to turn 50-50 balls into 100-0 balls. By all rights, this ball should have gone to Gilmore. Gilmore is (slightly) taller than McLaurin, has better position than McLaurin, and gets his hands on the ball first. He is also famously a ball hawk, tied for fifth on the active interceptions leaderboard, with four straight Pro Bowl appearances and two career first-team All-Pro honors. Doesn’t matter. McLaurin gets both hands on it and rips the ball away from Gilmore, tossing him to the ground while holding onto the ball.
It was an emotional day for McLaurin, an Indianapolis native who used to attend Colts games with his dad as a kid. After the play, McLaurin screamed THIS IS MY (edited) CITY:
McLaurin didn’t get into the end zone, but his catch left the Commanders 1 yard from a score. Heinicke punched it in on the next play, and Washington won 17-16. I almost enjoy it when Washington’s QBs are shaky, inaccurate throwers throwing interceptable balls vaguely in the direction of Terry McLaurin—because watching him inexplicably come down with 50-50 balls is one of the best shows in the NFL.
Winner: London Legend Latavius Murray
It’s been a strange month for Latavius Murray. He started October on the Saints’ practice squad, but with Alvin Kamara questionable for the team’s Week 4 game against the Vikings in London, he flew over to England just in case. Sure enough, Kamara was ruled out, and Murray, who was elevated to the active roster upon arrival in London, led the Saints with 57 yards and a touchdown. The same day Murray scored in London, Broncos running back Javonte Williams tore his ACL, and soon the Broncos signed Murray off the Saints’ practice squad to provide RB depth. So Murray traveled from London to New Orleans to Denver, making his Broncos debut Week 6 in L.A.
And this week, Murray went back to London with the Broncos. Although Melvin Gordon is nominally Denver’s starter, Murray led the team with 46 rushing yards and scored the game-winning touchdown:
Until the NFL unveils its futuristic dream of a full European division, it’s nearly impossible for a player to appear in multiple games in London in the same season. It requires starting the season with one team, then leaving that team sometime in the month of October, which is when nearly all the London games take place. Then, before the end of the month, they have to sign with one of the other few teams with an upcoming London game on the schedule.
Two previous players had done it—Adrian Peterson with the Saints and Cardinals in 2017, and Gareon Conley with the Raiders and Texans in 2019. But both of those players were traded, and neither had notable performances in their London games. Murray specifically chose to sign with another team scheduled to play in London after already scoring a London TD—the Saints wanted to keep him, but he went to Denver.
Perhaps he wants to rack up frequent-flyer miles, or he likes the passport stamps. Maybe he got hooked on the full English breakfast on his first trip over, couldn’t tolerate American attempts at blood pudding and beans on toast, and couldn’t wait to get back. Or maybe he knew he had a chance to make history, becoming the first player to score with two teams in London in the same season. There may be people walking around London who genuinely believe Latavius Murray is the NFL’s best running back. Perhaps they think he’s the NFL’s only running back, since he magically appears in every game in London. Either way, England is Latavius Country. Let’s ride.