NFL players just want to dance, use the ball as a prop and have a little fun. What’s so wrong with celebrating?

By Kalyn Kahler
March 24, 2017

The NFL’s competition committee will examine the excessive celebration penalty this weekend at the annual league meetings in Phoenix. The current rule was widely criticized last season for its inconsistent application and harsh restrictions. Players were flagged for innocent celebrations such as hugging a referee, pretending to take a nap in the end zone, and making a snow angel. According to data compiled by the NFL, there were 30 excessive celebration penalties called in 2016. Over the previous three seasons combined, there were 34.

A quick refresher of what’s appropriate and what’s not: Spiking and spinning the ball is allowed, but using the ball in any other way as a prop is not. Going to the ground is outlawed, but if you scored on the ground, you can stay there. Individual dancing that isn’t sexual in nature is acceptable, but if another teammate joins in on the fun and mimics the move, it’s illegal. No violent acts, no prolonged celebrations, no unnecessary contact with an official.

How many seconds is a prolonged celebration? And how does an official determine if a celebration is choreographed or if players are just feeding off each other’s energy? In response to the ambiguous definition, the league is developing an educational training video for players to clarify the rules of celebrations—and considering allowing officials more flexibility in issuing warnings to players before flagging them. This is good news for Washington tight end Vernon Davis, Houston cornerback Kevin Johnson and Carolina wide receiver Devin Funchess, three players who were hit with the penalty in 2016. Davis shot the ball through the uprights (using the ball as a prop); Johnson danced on the field with teammates (choreographed/prolonged celebration), and Funchess joined in on teammate Kelvin Benjamin’s celebration (choreographed). The MMQB spoke to the three offenders about their understanding of the rule, why celebrations are important to the game and how they would rewrite the rule if they had a chance.

Vernon Davis gets flagged on his follow-through.
Alex Brandon/AP

KAHLER: Each of you was flagged for excessive celebration last year. Describe what happened from your perspective.

DEVIN FUNCHESS [Panthers]: Week 2 vs. 49ers. I saw Kelvin [Benjamin] do a dance the first game [at Denver], and this was the second game and it was a nice little dance and I thought it was cool. Kelvin was coming off an injury and that kind of confidence is good, so we come to the home game and he scored at home in front of the home fans and he did his dance. I was like, Damn, that’s sweet, so I came in towards the end of it, and they threw the flag. I was just happy that my guy scored and he got that confidence back. It was funny, after we got to the sideline, he said, ‘Yeah, that’s the Pause On ’Em. He called it the freeze on ‘em, the Pause on ’Em. That last motion at the end, where we have one hand on our chest and one out in front, that’s like pause, like freeze.

KEVIN JOHNSON [Texans]: Week 2 vs. Chiefs. It was the second game of the season and I got an interception in the second series of the game, so I was really excited. I caught the interception and I just started dancing in the circle and then all the defensive backs ran up to me—and they started doing the same exact thing I was doing. We were doing it for a little too long, like we probably we’re doing it for 10 or 15 seconds. We were at the 50-yard line dancing, and then the referee threw the flag and O.B. [head coach Bill O’Brien] was pissed. Also, my interception got called back too, because someone jumped offside on the defense, so it was just a big loss all around. I didn’t get the interception, coach is mad, and I got like a $12,000 fine for it.

VERNON DAVIS [Washington]: Week 6 vs. Eagles, Davis’ first touchdown since 2014. I thought it would be fine. I scored, so I shot the ball, like I’ve always done. Then I got a flag, so I figured I couldn’t do it.

 

KAHLER: Vernon, you were flagged because you used the ball as a prop, shooting it like a basketball through the uprights. Kevin and Devin, you guys were flagged because officials deemed your celebrations were choreographed. In the moment you were celebrating, were you aware you broke a rule?  

DAVIS [Washington]: No, I thought it was fine. We had a big meeting before the season started with the league officials, and they were explaining all the dos and don’ts. And in that film that we watched from the NFL, it didn’t show anyone shooting the ball through the goal posts, it just showed dunking. And in the past, I have always done that [shot the ball through the goal posts.] I have always done that. I have never been penalized for it up until last year… I knew about the prop rule, but like I said, they showed everything in that meeting, they broke it down for us what we couldn’t do, and in that film I didn’t see anyone shooting the ball, they didn’t explain that at all. So I was like, Oh wow, so you can still shoot the ball. I even asked some of the coaches and they all said they thought I could do it. No one really knew because we figured that everything that was on that film were all the things that we needed to keep in mind.

FUNCHESS [Panthers]: They said we can’t do like Calvin Johnson and dunk on them no more. They said you can’t physically touch the crossbar. I actually asked the question, I said, ‘So we can’t dunk on it, right?’ And they said, ‘Yes, you can’t physically touch the goalposts.’ They never said we couldn’t throw a ball.

JOHNSON [Texans]: No, I didn’t know other people couldn’t join in. We were just celebrating and excited and then my teammates joined in as well and we were going with the flow. It just happened.  After the game, we talked about why the referees thought it was choreographed. O.B. is all about guys being excited after making a big play, but don’t get flagged. Get excited, but keep it in the rules so we can focus on winning that game.

Devin Funchess is flagged for being a little too good at Kelvin Benjamin's "Pause On 'Em" dance.
Logan Bowles/AP

KAHLER: So you did not choreograph your celebration?

FUNCHESS [Panthers]: No, and if you watch it, you can see I messed it up a little bit. I didn’t practice it. I thought it was harmless. I just joined in because I thought it was cool. The only thing they showed us [in the rules meeting] was a clip of the Giants, they were taking pictures of each other. They said we couldn’t do stuff like that. I mean, I wasn’t even on beat with it [Kelvin’s dance]. I was just happy for my guy; this is a team sport so I was happy for my guy. I thought I would join in as a good teammate.  

JOHNSON [Texans]: When they showed the choreographed dance in the rules meeting, it was literally a choreographed dance. It was two players who were doing something that was obviously planned out, but ours wasn’t like that, so I wasn’t thinking about that rule. I wasn’t thinking that we were violating it because we were just going with the flow. When I think of dancing, we weren’t like nae nae-ing in the middle, we were just going with it. That rule didn’t pop into my head. I didn’t think, Oh shoot, I’m doing a choreographed dance right now.

 

KAHLER: Vernon, does it make sense to you that spiking the ball is allowed under the current rule, but shooting it like a basketball isn’t? To me, it seems like the ball should be considered a prop if you’re spiking it.

DAVIS [Washington]: It doesn’t make sense to me at all. You’re absolutely right because if you are using the ball for anything, then you should be penalized. It’s the same as shooting the ball. It’s the same thing. There really shouldn’t be an argument about it because it is the same thing. It should be really simple, we should know that we can’t use the ball as a prop for anything. So for them to allow spiking and not allow shooting, I just can’t fathom that.

 

KAHLER: In the future, what will you do to celebrate?

DAVIS [Washington]: I shoot the shot, but without the ball. That’s my go-to now. As long as I don’t have the ball, I’m safe.

FUNCHESS [Panthers]: I do my celebration that we do in Detroit, it’s called the Boss Up. Actually during my rookie year, me and Cam [Newton] actually did the Boss Up. They can’t go back and fine us now because this is two years later. Cam joined in and did that with me and we didn’t get fined, so I felt like it was all right when I did it with Kelvin. Two years later, I guess they’ve changed the rules. Everything in the league is inconsistent. Everything, every rule, every flag is inconsistent. Let us celebrate. Take us back to the Ochocinco days and let us celebrate.

JOHNSON [Texans]: Man, there is no telling [what I’ll do]. I’m definitely going to be excited and I’m definitely going to swag, but it’s not going to be in a way that will cost us. In the future, if I do get an interception, I think the swag is inevitable.

 

KAHLER: Maybe you should count to five in your head to make sure you aren’t prolonging your celebration?

JOHNSON [Texans]: No, no, I’m not going to do anything like that. I’m just going to make sure I’m not doing anything ridiculous where I am going to get a flag. Now I know about the teammates doing things, so if they come in, I might just have to run away. I’ll definitely be excited and have fun, but at the same time, you don’t want to cost your teammates. If I do end up dancing with other players, then maybe you just gave me a good idea with the five count. I might have to stop it at the three seconds just to be safe though.

KAHLER: If you could rewrite the excessive celebration rule, how would you define it?

DAVIS [Washington]: I would just tell guys that when it comes to celebrations, anything is allowed, as long as it isn’t inappropriate, like the humping and anything that is sexually driven, or anything that has nothing to do with the game. As human beings, we all know right from wrong. We know this, so we just have to keep that in mind. They just have to explain to guys, Hey, if you know it is wrong, don’t do it. If it is something that you wouldn’t want your kids to do, then don’t do it, like smoking cigarettes or rolling up marijuana. Anything that we know is wrong, we shouldn’t do. I think that is the key. That makes sense, because we want to do things that we want the young guys to do, we want to be a great example of what you are supposed to do when you are playing this game, and that carries over to life in general.

FUNCHESS [Panthers]: It’s a team sport, so we should be able to do anything, but it shouldn’t take longer than five seconds. If a celebration is under five seconds, you’re good. Excessive celebration should be longer than 10 seconds. If anything is over 10 seconds, that is a fine. That is what excessive means, a long period of time. Like Odell [Beckham Jr.], he gets beat the most, but I think his stuff is cool, he’s got his own game to him. It’s like, why are you flagging him, why? It’s not over 10 seconds and it’s bringing pizazz to the game. Let him do it.

Choreographed? Sure. Kevin Johnson (30) celebrates with teammates after picking off Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith.
Eric Christian Smith/AP
JOHNSON [Texans]:

 

KAHLER: Vernon, does your definition of excessive celebration mean you think you should be allowed to use the ball as a prop, making your jump shot legal?

DAVIS [Washington]: I think so. If you can spike the ball, then you can shoot the jump.

 

KAHLER: Do you think the penalty should be reduced to just a fine for the player responsible, instead of a fine and a yardage penalty that affects the whole team?

DAVIS [Washington]: The NFL does both for a reason, because they know that some guys don’t care about paying the fine. They don’t care, that’s what they want to do. But if you make it about the team, guys know that if they do this, then they are hurting the team. If they aren’t hurting the team, they’ll take the fine and do whatever they want to do. So, the NFL is being smart about it.

 

KAHLER: One of the proposals on the table is to allow referees the discretion to warn players about questionable celebrations rather than flagging outright. Do you think that is a good solution?

JOHNSON: Yeah, like I think about [Seattle safety] Earl Thomas hugging a ref, maybe you shouldn’t have hugged a ref, but don’t flag him for it. Just say, ‘Hey, Earl, you can’t hug me next time or else I am going to flag you.’ I think the process should probably be like that a lot more than just flagging guys without taking something into consideration or giving a guy the benefit of the doubt.

KAHLER: Do you think it is important to be allowed to get creative and have fun with celebrations? Why?

FUNCHESS [Panthers]: Everything was down this year, TV viewers, people watching, and why is that? Because we can’t have fun. Nobody wants to watch a boring league. The Not Fun League, that’s what we call it, it’s not fun. Like last year, Cam did the dab, he got everybody with the dab. He put that on the map. Every little kid was doing the dab. We used that to bring people closer, every ethnicity, in certain areas in this country, by just having fun… It shouldn’t be as if they are controlling our happiness. That’s not what you should do in the game of football or any game, period. If it is going to be the ultimate team sport, we should be able to have the ultimate amount of celebrations without getting too crazy.

DAVIS [Washington]: I think the dances seem to make up the game, starting with Ochocinco, when he started dancing. He’s the one that made them crack down on it, because he went above and beyond with his celebrations. I get it, I understand they are trying to keep everyone in line, and keep us doing things the right way because there is a large audience that is watching. But if there is going to be a penalty for one thing, then just make it so that it makes sense. Right now, it doesn’t really make sense, because everyone like you is asking, why should I be penalized and someone spiking the ball shouldn’t? I feel like they need to clear up some things and make it known to us what we can and can’t do.

JOHNSON [Texans]: I just think that celebrations are part of the game, it’s part of the reason why we play the game and we love the game, because you are on this big stage and you are making these plays and you can get excited about it. Part of the reason why fans come to games is to see guys put on a show, because at the end of the day it is a business, and letting guys have that fun, I just don’t see any harm in it. With Antonio Brown, yeah, he was twerking, but I don’t think he’s sexually harassing anybody though. I don’t think anybody was sexually uncomfortable because he did that. And then you see like, I am having a celebration with my teammates and then you got guys jumping into buckets [Ezekiel Elliott into the Salvation Army kettle] that don’t get a flag. It’s not an exact thing where they are flagging everyone. I think we should let guys have fun, but nothing ridiculous where it’s like, what is this dude doing? Do a little something, something here and there and then keep it moving. Maybe you can do whatever you want and you have a five-second time limit to do it.

FUNCHESS [Panthers]: It’s wrong to be cracking down on celebrations because [Patriots receiver] Brandin Cooks, ever since he came into the league, he’s been doing the arrow, and they got rid of that. So it’s like they are making it not fun, but this is what our supporters and the fans look for. They are putting too many rules on it and not making the league fun anymore. We are physically blessed to not have to work at a desk to have fun. We go out there and put on a show, so let us have fun a little bit.


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