2016 NFL officiating awards: Best and worst calls, most-penalized player

NFL official Jeff Triplette and his crew led the NFL with 20 combined ejections, taunting penalties and unsportsmanlike conduct penalties this season. Jeff Haynes/AP Images for Panini

Thankfully for all involved, the NFL avoided this season the type of large-scale drama that plagued its officiating performance in 2015. There were no illegal bats, no running clocks, no inadvertent whistles and no overt discipline (that we noticed, at least). If the biggest controversy is whether a place-kicker was roughed on a field goal attempt, then you've probably had a pretty decent season.

That said, plenty of storylines coursed through the world of NFL rules, officiating and administration in 2016. Some of them will carry into the offseason, and the best are highlighted below in this snazzy regular-season awards column.

Worst call

Let's go with the failure of referee Tony Corrente's crew to notice that a 4-yard pass to New York Giants receiver Odell Beckham Jr. in Week 15 actually hit the ground, then rolled between Beckham's legs before it was "caught." Back judge Todd Prukop had the same view as the photo below. Yikes.

With that said, let's note that every year, there is a crew that trouble seems to follow. Jeff Triplette's most definitely qualified in 2016.

Line judge Sarah Thomas inadvertently produced another candidate for photograph of the year, wherein she appeared to be looking for the football after a fumble while Cleveland Browns running back Duke Johnson Jr. held it above his head right next to her. (NFL senior vice president Dean Blandino called it a "bad visual" but said Thomas saw a Redskins player recover the ball first, before Johnson took it away, and was trying to get players off the pile at the time of the shot.)

Triplette called a penalty against the wrong team in Week 14, and that cost the Detroit Lions 10 yards on an illegal use of hands to the face foul that had been committed by the Chicago Bears. The play was not reviewable.

Triplette's crew might have been the least consistent in its weekly penalty frequency, calling a league-high 35 penalties in a Week 7 game and a league-low four in a game 10 weeks later. Finally, Triplette appeared to have taken most seriously the NFL emphasis on behavior penalties. He accounted for six of the league's 13 ejections this season and called a league-high 12 unsportsmanlike conduct penalties.

Best call

Officials are like offensive linemen: They're usually noticed for their mistakes rather than their successes. In this case, we'll recognize the smooth and orderly way that referee Clete Blakeman handled an unusual situation in the Week 12 game between the Baltimore Ravens and Cincinnati Bengals.

Protecting a 19-12 lead with 11 seconds remaining, the Ravens intentionally held all nine Bengals who were rushing a punt on fourth-and-8 at the 23-yard line. The Ravens' protectors grabbed, tackled and otherwise did everything they could to prevent the Bengals from getting near punter Sam Koch.

Koch caught the snap and stood his ground until the clock expired. Then he ended the play by stepping out of the end zone for a safety, a strategy similar to what the Ravens followed to help secure a victory in Super Bowl XLVII. Blakeman correctly called the holding penalty, but he also recognized that it did not require an untimed down to extend the game. From chaos came order, quickly -- one of the key tasks of any NFL official.

Cam Newton epilogue

One of the year's prevailing themes was accusations of a double standard on hits to Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton, beginning with a pounding he absorbed in Week 1 from the Denver Broncos. In Week 8, Newton himself declared a discrepancy and said it was "taking the fun" out of the game for him.

Here's what I can tell you, based on ESPN Stats & Information research: NFL officials called three roughing-the-passer penalties on plays involving Newton this season. Two of them were offset by penalties on the Panthers. They called one unnecessary roughness penalty on a play on which Newton ran out of bounds and was then hit by the Saints' Vonn Bell.

That is three penalties on the 972 snaps Newton took this season.

Could there have been more penalties? Probably. Is Newton clearly and without question discriminated against? I don't know how you could make that argument without knowing exactly how many missed calls there have been on other quarterbacks and accepting that roughing penalties are matters of judgment that vary from referee to referee. What if officials miss the same rate of calls against other quarterbacks, but it's more pronounced for Newton because he is so active outside the pocket? It's worth noting that he ranked third in the NFL, with a contact rate of 20.3 percent.

Some of the plays that generated outrage -- a non-call in Week 15 against the Redskins, for example -- are not nearly as straightforward as they seemed when you read the rule book. I can't dispute that officials have missed calls on plays involving Newton. I just don't know how it can be stated without equivocation and with nothing more than emotion that it happens to Newton more than to other quarterbacks.

Most-penalized player

Washington cornerback Josh Norman was penalized 19 times, including instances that were declined or offset, to lead the NFL field in 2016. Five of those fouls came in a Week 8 tie with the Bengals, after which Norman criticized field judge Brad Freeman. The NFL fined him $25,000 for his remarks.

Norman seemed to make peace with his plight at that point, and he was called for only six additional penalties the remainder of the season. His season tally included six penalties for illegal use of hands, three apiece for pass interference and offsides, and two apiece for unnecessary roughness, unsportsmanlike conduct and defensive holding.

Runners-up in penalty total were offensive linemen Greg Robinson of the Los Angeles Rams and Mike Remmers in Carolina, each of whom were flagged 15 times.

No Fun League epilogue

The NFL clearly pulled back on its early-season emphasis on sportsmanship, specifically taunting, but still finished the season significantly ahead of its 2015 pace.

It more than tripled the number of ejections, from four to 13, in part because of a new rule that disqualified players who committed two unsportsmanlike conduct penalties. That ties what is believed to be the NFL's modern-day record. Meanwhile, taunting penalties rose from 22 to 35, and unsportsmanlike conduct calls went from 78 to 93.

It seems clear that crews interpreted the emphasis differently. Triplette's crew led the NFL with 20 combined ejections, taunting penalties and unsportsmanlike conduct penalties. Blakeman's crew called only two total, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

Most out-of-character moment

The NFL keeps fans at arms' length from officials, preferring attention be focused on players and coaches. Referee Ed Hochuli's semi-celebrity status derives mostly from what we see during games: his tight sleeves and long-winded explanations.

As such, it was fascinating to see referee Ronald Torbert reveal a side none of us could possibly have known. In Chicago for Week 15, on a day with minus-4 degree windchill, Torbert went a little nuts. He did a little shadow-boxing number on the base of the goal post, then turned around, clapped his hands, looked to the sky and screamed while shaking his arms.

It was enough to earn him a spot on ESPN's "Come On, Man" feature (a referee with personality?). Those of us who live in the Upper Midwest -- Torbert is from Michigan -- would view his performance as steeling oneself for a three-hour exposure to icy elements.

Torbert is a Harvard-educated attorney who, in my one conversation with him last summer, fit the personality he otherwise displays on the field: steady, dignified and soft-spoken. Not so much on that particular Sunday in Chicago. Good for him.

Most confusing moment

You know trouble has arisen when a referee has to flip on his microphone and holler, "The half is not over!"

That's how Walt Anderson tried to restore order after a series of gaffes -- mistakes so obvious that Blandino corrected one of them via Twitter within minutes -- in a Week 9 game in Seattle. It started when Anderson's crew failed to penalize Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman for unnecessary roughness after he hit Bills place-kicker Dan Carpenter. As a result, they forced Carpenter off the field for a play because time had been called to evaluate him for an injury. In the ensuing confusion, Anderson failed to reset the play clock. An ensuing delay penalty cost the Bills 5 yards on a kick Carpenter ultimately missed.

This was the one instance this season in which I thought the NFL might issue Anderson and/or his crew a public discipline, in addition to the downgrade they surely received on their game evaluation. The mistakes were of administration, not judgment, which roughly matched the league's justification for suspending side judge Rob Vernatchi last season, when he failed to notice that the game clock was running during a timeout.

But there was no discipline, which seemed to confirm a theory that former NFL officiating chief Mike Pereira suggested in an interview. The league seems to have resumed its previous methods for handling mistakes, rather than resorting to public embarrassment.

Most- and least-penalized referee

Referee Brad Allen's crew led the NFL this season with an average of 18.4 penalties called per game; they called at least 20 in five games. Bill Vinovich's crew ranked at the bottom, with 12.5 penalties per game, having never called more than 16 in one outing.

That's nearly a 50 percent discrepancy between the the highest and lowest crews, statistics every NFL team tracks as it prepares for games. Here's a full ranking of the 17 crews:

Best and worst challengers

Broncos coach Gary Kubiak, who retired this week, won all four challenges this season. Eagles coach Doug Pederson led the league with 11 challenges and won seven of them. The worst percentage went to Bengals coach Marvin Lewis, who went 0-for-3 and was the only coach without one successful overturn.

Here's the most interesting nugget: Patriots coach Bill Belichick challenged only one play all season -- and he won it, in Week 3 against the Texans. No other coach challenged fewer than three. As ESPN Patriots reporter Mike Reiss noted, the Patriots are the fifth team in the past 10 years to challenge just one play in a season.

Biggest revelation no one seems to care about

Three times in 12 months, Pereira has gone on record to accuse NFL referees of circumventing league policy by accepting illicit help from replay officials via their wireless headsets. The league allows discussion between the parties only in cases of official reviews or certain administrative issues. But Pereira said he sees it occur much more often than that. In essence, he is calling out clandestine discussions that arbitrate games in a way that can't be accounted for.

I've noticed very little recognition of this revelation, which the NFL has not commented on, but to me, it is a big deal.

The intent might be noble, and the end result productive, but there seems to be something inherently wrong with the process. As Pereira noted, everyone involved in the game -- players, coaches and fans -- should know how games are being officiated and who is making the decisions. Are the conversations equal and fair to both teams? Is an agenda being followed? These are among the questions raised when stated policies are disregarded.