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Year in review: 10 controversies that defined the NFL and wishes for 2016

From Junior Seau's Hall of Fame induction to Deflategate, the NFL saw a number of defining controversies and scandals this season, and Melissa Jacobs runs down the 10 biggest.

There was Cam Newton and the Panthers flirting with undefeated while having boatloads of fun along the way, and the fedora-donning quote machine Bruce Arians playing maestro as his Cardinals established themselves as the class of the NFC West and the team you don’t want to face in the playoffs. Eric Berry rejoined the Chiefs after courageously beating lymphoma, and he's headed to the Pro Bowl—if not the Super Bowl. We had a thrilling Hail Mary game, a plethora of spectacular catches and a backup QB with dance moves like none other.

Yet the NFL in 2015 settled into a prevailing theme that’s become all too comfortable. Controversy, public outrage, next controversy, more public outrage and so forth. The news cycle took absolutely no rest in 2015—it’s hard to imagine the league any other way. This emotional reaction and constant chatter provides the modern NFL its heartbeat.

Here are the controversies and scandals that inspired the most discussion over the past year.

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10. Junior Seau's daughter almost muzzled

Before he died, former NFL star Junior Seau asked his daughter Sydney to speak on his behalf if he was ever inducted into the Hall of Fame. Yet a week before that time came this summer, the Hall announced that Seau’s family members would not be allotted time to speak on stage, citing an obscure policy that limits the enshrinement of posthumous inductees to a video with a family member silently helping to unveil the bronze statue.

The Hall’s decision, particularly the short notice, seemed curious given that the family of Seau, who committed suicide in 2012 and was found to have CTE in his brain, was embroiled in a wrongful death lawsuit against the league. After a media firestorm, the Hall allowed Sydney to participate in a post-induction interview with ESPN in which she elegantly spoke of her father as a man and player, not as a victim.

9. Beckham Jr. goes off the deep end

In a fierce battle against Josh Norman, the league’s best cornerback, Giants WR Odell Beckham Jr. acted like a maniac. Sure, Beckham was verbally baited to an extent—one rumor suggested he has the recipient of gay slurs, a charge that league found to be false—but drawing three personal fouls rooted in rage, the last a blow to Norman’s head after a whistle was bush league. At that point Beckham was out of control and needed to be pulled from the game.

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But officials let the sparring continue (more on the officiating mess later) while Giants coach Tom Coughlin turned a blind eye. Coughlin’s excuse was that he wasn’t fully aware of the situation because he multitasks during games. Fair in theory, except for the fact that this was his best player racking up flagrant fouls totaling almost half a football field. Coughlin really didn’t find it worthy of his time to examine why?

Beckham was ultimately suspended one game, while Norman was fined $26,000 for his role as a rabble-rouser. When asked about the controversy on ESPN's Countdown, Texans RB Arian Foster offered this defense: “It’s hard for us to be classy warriors.” While true to an extent, Beckham was an idiot—not a warrior—when he targeted Norman’s head

8. Concussion protocol goes awry

In 2011, then-Browns QB Colt McCoy was sent back onto the field two plays after absorbing a crushing helmet-to-helmet blow by Steelers LB James Harrison. McCoy was not given a concussion test, even though Stevie Wonder could have diagnosed him with one. 

In part to further avoid such failings, the league enacted a more stringent concussion protocol in 2013.

Fast forward to Week 11 of this year when Rams starting QB Case Keenum was driven to the ground during the final drive of the team’s loss to the Baltimore Ravens. Keenum was slow to get up, disoriented and uncoordinated—all “observable signs” listed within the league’s concussion protocol that mandates pulling a player for evaluation. But Keenum stayed in the game, completely failed by the system. Given the emphasis of health and safety, this was a terrible look for both the Rams and the league, and it was an incredibly dangerous situation for Keenum, who spent the next week sidelined with the effects of the concussion that those watching knew he suffered.

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7. Daily fantasy sports come under fire

Just a few months ago, DFS may have been a foreign acronym to many. But that changed this season when daily fantasy sports’ heavy-hitters FanDuel and DraftKings bombarded us with low-budget commercials promising big riches, and sponsoring everything from NFL teams to hot dog carts in New York City. It seems everyone was (literally) invested in the growth of these enterprises, ranging from major media companies to NFL owners Bob Kraft and Jerry Jones.

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But nuisance turned into scandal in October when The New York Times reported that a DraftKings employee with access to confidential information won $350,000 on rival FanDuel’s website. Scandal then turned into deeper questions about the legality of DFS, creating a plethora of lawsuits and leading several states and the FTC to investigate whether or not daily fantasy sports were a game of skill or luck. The most damaging outcome occurred in November when New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman declared DFS illegal in The Empire State, shutting down one of the industry’s largest markets for nearly a month until a temporary stay was granted. But the damage had been done. The commercials greatly dissipated and while the DFS industry fights on, continued government enforcement seems likely in its future.

Editor’s note: FanDuel is a sponsor of Sports Illustrated. This piece was written independent of that business relationship. Sports Illustrated also has a partnership with DailyMVP, another daily fantasy sports provider.

6. McCoy-Kelly disagreement

LeSean McCoy was furious when he was unexpectedly traded from the Eagles to the Bills in exchange for LB Kiko Alonso in March. Trading McCoy was part of a complete overhaul by Eagles coach Chip Kelly that also included releasing WR DeSean Jackson, CB Cary Williams and LB Trent Cole. They also failed to re-sign WR Jeremy Maclin.

In an interview with ESPN, a bitter McCoy claimed that Kelly’s moves were racially motivated:

“It's hard to explain with him. But there's a reason he got rid of all the black players—the good ones—like that.”

Kelly denied the claims—and the Eagles did go on to sign DeMarco Murray, among others—but did admit he could have handled the McCoy trade better. When the Eagles and Bills faced off earlier this month, McCoy preemptively said he wouldn’t shake his former coach’s hand. Meanwhile, Kelly remains under the microscope for myriad reasons, including his relationship with his players.

• ​PERLOFF: Why Chip Kelly should not be fired after this season

5. Cam Newton dances

Cam Newton, the NFL’s likely MVP, is having a magic carpet ride of a year. So it is only natural that he's ebullient on the field—for Newton the celebration typically culminates in a dance move known as “the dab.”

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Following the Panthers Week 9 win over the Titans, Rosemary Plorin, a Nashville mom who attended the game with her nine-year-old daughter, wrote a letter to the Charlotte Observer expressing horror over Newton’s dancing and the example it set. She cited tough questions from her supposedly scarred daughter, and suggested that Newton failed to live up to his role model status.

Some folks used Plorin’s complaints as a platform to examine Newton through a microscope, with more than few specks of racism seeping through. But mostly she was mocked. Meanwhile, Newton’s dance moves went viral. Following Week 16 victories, Falcons owner Arthur Blank and Chiefs head coach Andy Reid were seen doing the dab.

4. Officiating becomes worse than ever

We could attempt to list all the missed calls year, but that would result in a Dostoevskyian length novel. The officiating in the 2015 season has not only been consistently awful; erroneous calls have impacted a number of game outcomes.

Just one of multiple examples: In the final play of the Seahawks-Lions matchup in Week 4, with Seattle leading 13–10, Lions WR Calvin Johnson fumbled the ball just shy of the end zone, and Seahawks LB K.J. Wright batted the loose ball out the end zone. The call on the field was a fumble and touchback for Seattle, signaling the end of the game. However, the call should have been an illegal bat on Wright, giving Detroit the ball on the one-yard line. Seattle improved its record to 2–2 instead of potentially having to dig out of a 1–3 hole.

Dissenters claim officiating is no worse this season, but that seems impossible. Dean Blandino, the NFL’s VP of officiating, is so frequently apologizing for a wrong call, he’s probably better known than half of the league’s starting quarterbacks.

Though there are no quick fixes for the officiating woes, here’s one suggestion for the NFL: Stop tinkering with the rules so the people tasked with enforcing them have the opportunity to understand them.

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3. The Johnny Manziel saga

All’s well that ends well, I guess. Johnny Manziel is finally the starting quarterback of the Browns, and that’s that.

Not so fast.

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​​As always, Manziel remained at the forefront of the news cycle in 2015. From his self-admittance into rehab to his domestic dispute with his girlfriend to partying during the bye week when he promised to lay low, there’s always something with Manziel. He’ll never be a choir boy, but ultimately he may be a decent quarterback—something it took Browns coach Mike Pettine a little too long to recognize.

Manziel, while rough in spots, gave the Browns the best chance to win this season, but Pettine relegated Manziel to second string behind Josh McCown. Pettine was very blunt and parental in his handling of Manziel, and despite Manziel’s off-field antics, it all felt like a bit much. No matter what happens with Manziel, Pettine and the Browns in 2016, Johnny Football will continue to make news.

2. The Cowboys embrace Greg Hardy

Not one to shy away from risk, Cowboys’ owner Jerry Jones signed All-Pro defensive end Greg Hardy, who was convicted of assaulting his former girlfriend and communicating threats. (Charges were dismissed when she failed to show at the appeal hearing.)

The risk was not nearly worth it.

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Hardy showed no remorse in his first media session ahead of the Cowboys Week 5 tilt against the Patriots. He also creepily expressed excitement over the possibility that Tom Brady’s wife, Giselle, would be in attendance. A thought even more creepily echoed by Jones. In the next game, Hardy, in disgust, smacked the clipboard of a Cowboys’ special teams coach. Jones responded by calling him a leader. Then in November, Deadspin, after obtaining court documents, released graphic photos of the damage Hardy inflicted on his ex-girlfriend.

Hardy has consistently been embraced by Cowboys brass. Meanwhile, the team reportedly released RB Christine Michael and CB Corey White in November for “locker room issues.”

1. The D-word

From international expansion to expanded playoffs, Roger Goodell is always tinkering with the status quo. Yet it is the ongoing saga known as Deflategate that has likely stained his legacy for good. 

A story that began rooted in whether or not Tom Brady was complicit in the deflation of footballs dissolved into a story about the league’s integrity. Three months and over a million dollars later, and with a close edit by league counsel Jeff Pash, the mostly ambiguous Wells Report concluded that it was “more probable than not” that Brady was guilty. Goodell used the even more ambiguous power granted by Article 46 of the CBA to suspend Brady for four games. But Judge Richard Berman vacated the ruling after he concluded that Goodell acting as arbiter was “not free to merely dispense his own brand of industrial justice.”

Instead of admitting defeat and prioritizing more serious issues, the league fights on. The next Brady v. NFL hearing, this time in the Second Circuit, is set for March 3, 2016.

A wrap on Deflategate is our unequivocal top wish for 2016. Here are a few others:

  • Peyton Manning comes back for one more playoff rus, then retires.
  • One or more of the top quarterback prospects—Paxton Lynch, Jared Goff or Connor Cook—performs like a franchise quarterback from the get-go.
  • We finally uncover life’s greatest mystery and learn what constitutes a catch in the NFL.
  • Steve Smith returns for a 16th season with the same vigor he’s had in the previous fifteen.
  • The NFL enlists Ray Rice to speak at its rookie symposium.
  • Roger Goodell decides to hold bi-weekly town hall meetings in all NFL markets with no questions off limits.
  • Chip Kelly and the Eagles are enlisted for 'Hard Knocks'
  • We don’t have enough items to fill out a “Top 10 controversies of 2016” list.