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The year the NFL got weird

The 2015 season has felt like a slog most weeks, but the little things have kept it interesting.

Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

"Sad sign of the times: the twenty-first century sanctifies uniformity in the name of efficiency and sacrifices freedom on the altar of success." -- Eduardo Galeano, Soccer in Sun and Shadow

Will Hill's scoop and run off a blocked field goal was the first time I stood and yelped this season. He ran 64 yards until he hit the end zone and the Ravens had beaten the Browns. Two awful teams, sure, but for a moment it was fine to forget that and enjoy the moment that happened in a flash.

It was wish fulfillment at its best -- a wish you wish with no effort because you have no hope that it will come to be. It's a lottery ticket you may as well throw away as soon as you buy it, a thought you entertain only because it's entertaining. You may wish a hundred times in any given game, any time you estimate the long odds of a comeback, quietly, in your head. After a hundred thousand wishes, one of them comes true, and you become so happy because you've received a gift.

Regardless of what you think about this NFL season -- I'm about to tell you it has been dull, and you may disagree -- let's establish that that was fun, suffering Browns fans excepted.

* * *

The space between games should, hopefully, be filled by the games -- the wonderment and anguish at what happened, the hope and fear for what's next. There has been some of that. There was Will Hill, and there's always Odell Beckham Jr., praise unto him.

Mostly, 2015 has been the year of begrudgingly talking about things. Before the season began there was the scandal that wore out its novelty long before it concluded. There was the NFL taking money from players for expressing themselves or raising awareness in a manner unapproved by a bylaw, and an NFL owner paying and politicking for a scumbag because the scumbag had been punished as far as bylaws mandate, and is a great player on top of which.

There was Cam Newton dancing, and no that issue isn't in the same solar system as domestic violence. The fact that it flared up almost more than any issue this season is what's insufferable. Newton's problem is that he's good, so good that reaching the end zone becomes routine. He dances to break that routine, to make every score unique -- maybe because he's bored, or selfish, or enjoying himself, who knows. One week, he danced so long that a Tennessee mother accused him of inciting the crowd to boo and curse, as if booing and cursing never existed before Newton had thrust a pelvis. Travis Kelce did the Quan two weeks later and that was wonderful, too.

* * *

The biggest uproar has been for the referees and the calamities they cause every week. The Seahawks illegally batted a fumble out of the end zone, which cost the Lions their first win. The Steelers almost lost because of an egregious clock error. The Ravens did lose because referees missed an offsides foul on the Jaguars. Cardinals head coach Bruce Arians called the officiating in a Week 12 game against the 49ers "FUBAR," which means Fucked Up Beyond All Recognition, and when spelled out may be the biggest indictment a winning coach has ever given an officiating crew. The losers weren't happy, either. The Lions lost, again, when referees botched a facemask call and the Lions helped the Packers pull off one of the great miracles in NFL history.

Even Hill's return, one of the fastest reversals of fortune one will ever see, was marred because of the faulty human eyes of officials whose word is bond. Ravens cornerback Anthony Levine didn't realize that his hand and head were in the neutral zone when the ball was snapped, nor did referees who could have handed the Ravens a 5-yard penalty and given the Browns another chance to kick.

The foul would have violated the spirit of the rule -- Levine gained a negligible advantage, and he didn't contribute to the blocked kick at all -- but it would have been the correct call, and it may be something that someday will be rectified by sensitive cameras or laser guides or something.

In the meantime, the NFL has had to accept that officiating is one of the few human elements it can't stamp out.

* * *

The NFL's platonic ideal is parity, a league in which every team has a chance to beat any other every week, in which chaos reins and every fan has a reason to be invested late into seasons. The NFL has been successful at achieving parity relative to the rest of professional sports, a fact it likes to trumpet even though it's probably due more to a shorter schedule creating higher variance than anything else.

Still, the system works as intended. The Wild Card races in both conferences are wide open with 15 teams within two games of .500 with four weeks left to play. Just 12 teams have worse than a 10 percent chance of making the playoffs, according to Football Outsiders.

But parity also means mediocrity. Perfect parity is 32 teams going 8-8. 8-8 makes people angry. 8-8 teams lose as often as they win. 8-8 stands for inconsistency. 8-8 coaches get fired, or makes fans want to fire their coaches, or otherwise lament why their mediocre team is never exceptional. Perfect parity is the absence of exceptionalism.

Parity doesn't let you leave. The Buffalo Bills, Houston Texans, Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Atlanta Falcons don't have winning records, but at 6-6 apiece there's a reasonable chance that one of them sneaks into a Wild Card spot, so fans watch, hoping for an outcome to satisfy their entertained thoughts. Good football is a bonus.

But outside of those wished-for moments, what is there? Five divisions -- the AFC East, AFC North, AFC West, NFC South and NFC West -- have largely been decided. Two divisions, the NFC East and AFC South, are being fought between a pair of 5-7 and 6-6 teams, respectively. 7-5 teams currently occupy three of the four Wild Card spots, meaning a team will almost certainly be rewarded for bad football this postseason.

There have been few things worth caring about that isn't an outcome, and it's the reason that the 2015 season has felt like a slog.

* * *

2015's saving grace is its weirdness. This is the year that Andy Dalton became an MVP candidate, the year that Philip Rivers threatened to break the single season passing record with spare parts, the year Peyton Manning broke the all-time passing record in the same game he got benched, the year the Seahawks couldn't stop blowing fourth quarter leads, the year the Lions won at Lambeau, the year the Rams set their field on fire and the year of the worst undefeated team ever.

The best way to enjoy this season is by appreciating it in a way it wasn't meant to be appreciated, by finding the cracks in the edifice, the things that let us know this inhumane thing was designed by humans, and must be until such a time when robots can do it better.

In the quote at the top, Galeano was referring to the 2002 World Cup in Soccer in Sun and Shadow and another competition played in parallel, RoboCup 2002, which pitted robo-soccer players against each other. He was troubled. As soccer becomes standardized and technology improves, he implied, who's to say we won't just let the machines play the perfect game and leave our humans selves out?

The good news is the machines still suck and football would be much more complicated to program. The question will go unanswered for a long time, and until then nothing will be perfect.

* * *

The Cleveland Browns became the first NFL team to be mathematically eliminated from the playoffs in Week 13, with a quarter of the season's games to be played. They were supposed to improve, even if modestly, after having a good draft off a season in which they went 7-9 in a competitive division.

They were bad at everything in 2015, and had to suffer humiliations on and off the field -- Will Hill, and more tortured drama surrounding Johnny Manziel.

The Browns may lose their coaching staff as soon as the season ends, which is a natural course for NFL teams who fall to the cellar.

It's rash, but it's also the quickest path to wishful thinking and happy surprises. The NFL still does that well, thank goodness.