While the NFL generally avoided the alarming off-field episodes that plagued it a year ago, the product on the field rarely was memorable.
Except when officials were making incorrect calls, perhaps. Or when a standout receiver was losing control and drawing three personal fouls (and a subsequent suspension). Or when the Packers got even for the “Fail Mary” of a few years back with their own desperation throw on the final play to beat Detroit.
There were plenty of award-winning incidents and performers to fill up the Offbeat Awards, though. Here they are:
BEST GAME: Arizona’s 34-31 escape against Cincinnati in Week 11. Chandler Catanzaro kicked a 32-yard field goal with 2 seconds remaining after Cincinnati’s Domata Peko was called for a rare unsportsmanlike conduct penalty for hollering out offensive signals to try to confuse the Cardinals as they were about to spike the ball to set up the kick. Against the team that drafted him first overall in 2003, Carson Palmer overcame two early interceptions to throw four touchdown passes. Andy Dalton had two TD throws, both to Tyler Eifert, and Mike Nugent tied it at 31 with a 43-yard field goal 1:03 from the finish.
A dynamic game between two strong teams.
Runner-up: Despite all of the ugliness involving Giants receiver Odell Beckham Jr., the Panthers’ 38-35 win in Week 15 stands out. Cam Newton threw for five touchdowns in building a 35-7 lead, then New York matched the biggest regular-season comeback in NFL history to tie it at 35. Newton calmly led Carolina to a winning field goal on the final snap and a 14-0 record.
WORST GAME: Most of the Thursday night games would qualify — quality on such a short week is virtually impossible — but the most unwatchable was Miami’s 36-7 loss at New England in Week 8. The Dolphins were coming off two wins under coach Dan Campbell after Joe Philbin had been fired. They didn’t show up in Foxborough, though, and trailed 19-0 at the half. Center Mike Pouncey, a good player, caused a safety when he snapped the ball to unprepared QB Ryan Tannehill among the lowlights.
Runner-up: Buffalo’s 16-6 win over Dallas in Week 16, when both teams were long gone from the playoff race and with stars Tony Romo, Dez Bryant and LeSean McCoy absent. A real snoozer.
BEST PLAY OF THE YEAR: Danny Amendola’s pass to Tom Brady against Philadelphia. Brady walked to his right behind the offensive line, barking out instructions. But the ball was snapped to Patriots running back James White, who handed to Amendola on a reverse. Amendola immediately threw to Brady down the right sideline for a 36-yard gain. Brady even displayed some speed on the play, with analytics showing he reached a speed of 16.96 mph, third fastest among receivers in the game.
Runner-up: Philadelphia’s Darren Sproles’ darting 89-yard punt return for a TD after being pinned against the left sideline by the Jets.
WORST PLAY OF THE YEAR: We could probably pick one per week, but the topper (bottomer?) has to be the Colts’ fake punt against New England — the most stupefying play of the season. Andrew Luck called it “bone-headed.”
With New England leading 27-21 late on Oct. 18, Indianapolis lined up to punt and then sent nine players sprinting toward the sideline. That left safety Colt Anderson behind receiver Griff Whalen, who was playing center. But instead of catching the Patriots with too many men on the field or snapping the ball immediately to catch New England off-guard, the Colts ran the play clock down to 1 second, then snapped the ball. By then, the Patriots had adjusted and tackled Anderson for a loss.
Compounding the problem: The Colts didn’t even line up correctly and were called for illegal formation, too.
Coach Chuck Pagano later acknowledged the Colts were taking the play out of their playbook.
Oh, and Indy lost 34-27.
Runner-up: Steven Hauschka’s poorly executed squib kick to start over in Seattle’s Week 1 loss at St. Louis. Coach Pete Carroll got blamed for trying an onside kick, but that wasn’t the call. Hauschka simply made an awful attempt.
BIGGEST SURPRISE (PLAYER): Josh Norman. It would have been tempting to say Cam Newton, but he made huge steps down the stretch last year. So it’s his teammate, who has become the best one-on-one pass defender in the NFL. Yes, he’s been better than Darrelle Revis or Richard Sherman, and certainly shouldn’t be defined by the shenanigans between the Panthers cornerback and Odell Beckham Jr. in Week 15.
Runners-up: Doug Baldwin (offense), Kurt Coleman (defense). Yet another Panther, safety Coleman was nothing more than a journeyman in his previous five seasons. He has seven interceptions heading into the finale. Baldwin has been a dependable and sometimes spectacular wideout in Seattle for four seasons. But a game changer? Not until this year.
BIGGEST SURPRISE (TEAM): Carolina. We know the Panthers won the NFC South in 2014, but they did it with a 7-8-1 record. Their playoff win was over a severely undermanned Arizona. To see them win their first 14 games and for Newton to emerge as one of the NFL’s elite players was unexpected. Plenty was expected from their defense, but when top receiver Kelvin Benjamin was lost for the season in the summer, who could have predicted such a strong points-producing machine in Charlotte?
Runner-up: New York Jets. Their quarterback got slugged by a teammate in training camp. A new coach was taking over from the popular if bombastic Rex Ryan. They were in New England’s division. But the Jets have stayed in the wild-card race when a .500 record would have signified progress.
BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT (PLAYER): DeMarco Murray. Not real sure who to blame for this, the 2014 Offensive Player of the Year who left Dallas as a free agent, or Chip Kelly. The Eagles coach never figured out how to use Murray, who clearly doesn’t fit the system the recently fired Kelly employs. But to virtually bury Murray on the bench down the stretch?
Runners-up: Matt Ryan (offense), Mario Williams (defense). Ryan looked befuddled at times and took far too many gambles, particularly when the Falcons spiraled to six consecutive losses after a 6-1 start. Bills DE Williams has been invisible for much of the season and in December criticized Ryan’s schemes.
BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT (TEAM): The club Murray left, the Cowboys. Dallas supposedly was primed for its first Super Bowl run in two decades, but was ill-prepared for key injuries (Tony Romo, Dez Bryant, Orlando Scandrick), never truly replaced Murray’s production, and seemed to believe it could will itself to victories rather than earn them.
Runners-up: Indianapolis. After three straight playoff appearances under Chuck Pagano, getting closer to the Super Bowl each year, the Colts certainly took the next step — a big one, backward.
BEST PLAY-BY-PLAY ANNOUNCER (TV): We’re renaming this the Mike Tirico Award. ESPN’s lead man wins it every year and deserves it again this season, so we’ll simply recognize him by making that change.
So the recipient of the first Mike Tirico Award is Kevin Harlan of CBS and also Westwood One for Monday night radiocasts. No one provides more detailed and accurate descriptions of the action or has calls that flow with the stream of play than Harlan. Never disruptive, Harlan is equally as good on TV or radio.
Runner-up: Ian Eagle, CBS. Like Harland, he also does national radio games, but his best work comes on TV partnered with Dan Fouts.
BEST ANALYST (TV): Fouts. Insightful, a bit irreverent, and always on the mark, Fouts avoids saying stuff he later has to correct, a common fault with many analysts. He explains why a play worked or failed without getting too deep into jargon or technical terms. And he doesn’t guess.
Runner-up: Rich Gannon. Looks like CBS has something of a monopoly here. One of the best things about Gannon is he doesn’t pull punches, but he doesn’t throw them indiscriminately.
Online: http://pro32.ap.org/poll and http://twitter.com/AP_NFL