Imagine the next NFL touchdown reception during primetime.
The receiver runs into the end zone and is met by a network videographer holding a steady camera. He starts to break into his touchdown dance but, in a move hearkening back to Elvis on the Ed Sullivan Show, the camera shoots him only from the waist up.
Is this what the future of NFL celebrations will look like?
OK, so maybe we haven’t reached Footloose territory yet, but after just two full weeks of this NFL season, it’s clear that the league isn’t tolerating many expressions of showmanship.
Last year the league penalized players nine times for “prolonged or excessive celebrations or demonstrations.” This year, there have already been five flags thrown for that penalty. And last season there were a total of 29 penalties for taunting, while there have been 10 flags for it over the first couple of weeks of the 2016 season. At this pace, the NFL will eclipse last year’s number of celebration penalties by Week 4, while flags for taunting should top last year’s mark by Week 6.
It’s basically become a Key and Peele skit every week—three pumps is too much!—and Antonio Brown got to play it out in Week 1.
After scoring a 26-yard touchdown pass against Bashaud Breeland, Brown assumed position and began twerking. The ensuing fine of $12,154? “Nothing to a boss,” Brown told ESPN.
But the 15-yard penalty that came with it? “I never want to put my team in a bad predicament,” Brown told Doug Gottlieb. “Maybe I’ll keep it to a minimum of two pumps instead of three.”
The other four celebration penalties so far this season came against choreographed dances. Arizona’s Chandler Jones and D.J. Swearinger did a little jig after recovering a Jimmy Garoppolo fumble. Victor Cruz did his salsa dance while Odell Beckham Jr. pretended to photograph his teammate. Houston’s Kareem Jackson and Kevin Johnson busted out in an impromptu dance after a 53-yard fumble return. And Panthers receivers Kelvin Benjamin and Devin Funchess were hit with a flag after they danced together in the end zone last week.
“You know that I know that we all know football is an extremely hard sport to play. And I think it’s a reward as a player,” said Cam Newton, who amazingly has never been flagged for excessively celebrating. “I’m going to stay out of it, but I think we need to keep doing things that will make us celebrate.”
Former Saints receiver Joe Horn, famous for his 2003 celebration where he pulled a cell phone from a goal post to celebrate a touchdown, had no problem making his thoughts known, though. Horn blames the recent clampdown on celebrations on the NFL commissioner.
“Roger Goodell wants to control,” Horn said in a recent phone interview. “Referees think you’re overly celebrating and they throw flags. It’s either going to count against your team or it’s going to count out of your pocket. It’s control man. They want to control. He controls the players.”
Horn, outspoken back in his playing days, called Goodell “the devil” last year. He has a new idea this year.
“Roger Goodell is like the Vladimir f****** Putin of the NFL,” Horn said. “You quote me on that shit. Roger Goodell is the Vladimir Putin of the NFL when it comes to players. Putin punks every country when he gets ready to. And there’s no rules when it comes to Putin, and Goodell is the same f****** way when it comes to players. He sets all the standards.”
Simply to entertain this idea, wouldn’t Goodell have a dissenter like Horn killed if true?
“If they read that quote, they would know that he’s not having people killed and none of the players killed,” Horn said. “But as far as dictatorship, as far as making moves to do what he wants, that’s what Putin does.”
The NFL’s rules on celebrations have changed over the years. The 1984 rulebook stated “any prolonged, excessive, or premeditated celebration by individual players or groups of players will be construed as unsportsmanlike conduct.” And, like only a rule from 1984 could, there’s a note that “spontaneous expressions of exuberance will be permitted.”
By the mid-2000s the NFL and its owners believed the celebrations had run amok. Horn was pulling phones out of goalposts (he was fined $30,000 for that), Chad Johnson was using pylons to putt footballs and Terrell Owens was standing on the Dallas star with his arms outstretched.
In 2006, the league’s owners voted 29–3 to ban the use of props and penalize players 15 yards for excessive celebrations. In 2014, the league outlawed dunking the football on the goalpost.
And now, along with extended celebrations, the league and its referees are also keeping a close eye on taunting. Of those 10 penalties, the most controversial came last week in the Browns-Ravens game.
Down five with 30 seconds left in the game, Cleveland receiver Terrelle Pryor caught a 20-yard pass to get to Baltimore’s 10-yard line. In an attempt to flip the ball to the referee, the ball slipped in Pryor’s hand and hit Lardarius Webb in the shoulder pad. Linesman Wayne Mackie threw the flag, which negated the 20-yard gain and put the Browns back at the 30. Josh McCown threw an interception on the next play and the Browns lost.
“Just like our job’s hard, the refs’ job is hard,” Pryor told Cleveland reporters later in the week. “What he saw coming from behind, he saw a ball hit their player. That’s all he saw. He’s going off his reaction. Really if he saw that, he did the right job.”
As diplomatic as the response was, it was spoken like someone who didn’t want to get fined for criticizing the officials.
With 15 flags for celebrating or taunting already this year, the NFL is making its point to players. And Horn said that players really only have two options if they want to continue to dance. One is that they need to be important enough to their teams so that they avoid getting in too much trouble with the coaches for that 15-yard penalty. The other option, according to Horn?
“You better have some money, or else.”