- The league was buried under an avalanche of controversies in 2017, but the decision to relax celebration rules and re-introduce a little bit of fun into the game proved to be popular with everyone
Kelvin Benjamin caught it at the 3-yard line and absorbed two hits before spinning and falling backward into the end zone. He popped up, dropped the ball and immediately went into the celebratory dance he dubbed the “Pause on ’Em.” Teammate Devin Funchess had seen the signature routine before and couldn’t help but get caught up in the moment, sidling up next to Benjamin and joining in: Right, left, right, and a punch forward with the right hand flexed. As soon as the two receivers hit the punch and froze (the “Pause” in “Pause on ’Em”) an official threw a flag. Group celebration.
That was 2016. One season later, on the eve of Super Bowl LII, the Philadelphia Eagles took home the NFL’s Celebration of the Year honor, making its debut at the league’s annual awards show. The Eagles won for their electric slide celebration; in Week 12, rookie corner Rasul Douglas pulled down a (soon-to-be-overturned) interception, then was joined by six of his teammates for an impromptu and enthusiastic group performance of the wedding reception classic.
It's amazing how far the league has come in one year. The day after feting the Celebration of the Year, the NFL aired its annual Super Bowl commercial at the end of the third quarter. The 60-second spot had Odell Beckham Jr. and Eli Manning hard at work at the Giants practice facility. But rather than running drills, they were rehearsing a choreographed Dirty Dancing-inspired celebration routine, complete with the famous lift. The quarterback gracefully hoisted his dance partner into the air. The tagline: “To all the touchdowns to come.” The NFL relaxed the rules last March, and instead of quietly moving on from its habit of prohibiting any hint of personality in celebrations, it chose to devote its biggest marketing moment of the year to the new celebration-friendly climate. Look how far we’ve come.
The relaxation on celebration rules was the best decision the league made in 2017. The NFL had rightly come under intense criticism during the ’16 season for legislating fun out of the game. There were 30 excessive celebration flags thrown that year—there had been 34 combined over the previous three seasons (2013-15). This year’s approach allowed for group celebrations, using the ball as a prop and going to the ground to celebrate, meaning Funchess’ dance with Benjamin would be perfectly legal in today’s climate. (However, Manning and Beckham’s Dirty Dance might prompt a flag for dragging on a bit too long.)
Players took advantage of the new platform to show their personalities. The group celebration aspect was by far the most impactful part of the rule change, resulting in the infectious fun of clearly premeditated moments, like the Steelers’ hide-and-seek, and the Vikings’ duck-duck-goose celebration.
“We had a best celebration vote on Facebook, that chose the award for NFL Honors,” says Sam Howard, director of advertising for the NFL, “and the celebrations that performed the best with fans were the ones that were inclusive.”
The NFL stuck to the familiar Football is Family tagline for the previous two years’ Super Bowl spots, but Howard says the league likes to get a feel for the season before starting to plan the annual commercial. The positive fan response to the Vikings’ duck-duck-goose celebration in Week 5 got Howard and his team thinking about building this year’s commercial around the joy of touchdown celebrations.
“That group celebration became the focal point for every team,” says Howard. “And we saw this amazing thing on Twitter where elementary schools in Minnesota were reenacting this celebration and doing their school chants, it was like bringing fandom into the classroom in a fun way.”
During the week of practice before their Monday night game in Chicago, Vikings running back Latavius Murray had mentioned the idea of playing the kid’s game as a celebration possibility. Moments before their scoring play, tight end Kyle Rudolph remembered Murray’s idea. He quickly passed instructions around in the huddle during an injury timeout. Hey look, when we score here, whoever scores, you be the duck-er and everyone else sit in a circle.
On the following play, Rudolph caught a touchdown pass, and eight of his teammates, including most of Minnesota’s offensive line, ran into the end zone as fast as they could and plopped down cross-legged for a game of duck-duck-goose. Rudolph jogged around the circle, tapping each helmet, Duck, duck…
“We like to joke around that the linemen have always been the kids that get picked last [at recess] and they just feel left out,” Rudolph says. “Up until this point the linemen couldn’t participate in celebrations because it would have been a penalty for a group celebration. Now that they are able to, it’s always fun to get them involved.”
Every week this season it seemed like teams outdid one another in the celebration department. The Chiefs staged a potato sack race in Week 9, the Eagles went bowling in Week 12 with players rigidly falling over as the pins, and the Lions danced a Rockettes-style kickline in Week 15.
The Lions now have a six-player “committee” that does the majority of celebration idea brainstorming. “On Saturdays after walkthrough we throw ideas out, what guys think we should do, and then we vote,” says receiver Golden Tate, a member of the committee.
Tate and his celebration board welcome ideas from family, friends and even fans. Go ahead and tweet your best idea at him, and you might see it on the field next season. “We accept ideas from anyone and we take any idea,” he says. “We have an arsenal full of them. We actually had duck-duck-goose on our list in the preseason, but then the Vikings did it.”
The league couldn’t ignore the players’ obvious joy with the rule change and the overwhelming support from fans. “It felt like an unquestionable positive,” Howard says. “We wanted to lean into that.”
Both Beckham and Manning were immediately on board with the commercial proposal. The spot took only five hours to film, but Howard says that Manning, ever the perfectionist, put in extra time before the day of the shoot to practice the routine. “When players respond to creative, it is usually the right thing, and I think the way that players responded to this shows all the positive facets of our game,” Howard says. “It’s not about me, it’s about us, adopting a child-like game.”
Beckham as a star of this commercial was an interesting choice by the league, since he has been flagged and fined twice in his career for unsportsmanlike conduct in celebrations, and once for excessive celebration, a total of $48,617 in fines. In 2016, he was punished for removing his helmet in the end zone, and for pantomiming taking a photo of teammate Victor Cruz while Cruz salsa-ed. His most well-known violation came this past season, in Week 3 at Philadelphia, when he imitated a dog lifting his leg and peeing. He later implied the celebration was a response to Trump’s “son of a bitch” comments referring to NFL players. Officials ruled it unsportsmanlike, presumably under the part of the rule that still outlaws any offensive motions, depicting violence or deemed sexually suggestive. (We can only hope that the choreographer for the commercial taught Beckham a few more legal moves to use next season, since he clearly needs further instruction.) But since he’s such a popular player, Beckham’s controversial celebrations of the past didn’t concern Howard and his colleagues. “People are going to look forward to Odell’s celebrations, because he is that kind of charismatic athlete,” he says.
But perhaps the best thing about the Dirty Dancing spin-off is that it incorporated a quarterback. Since QBs are usually the furthest from the end zone on any passing touchdown, they rarely get to join in on the fun. My challenge to all quarterbacks in 2018: Hustle to the end zone and get assigned to a role in the celebration. We all need to see Ben Roethlisberger amble 25 yards downfield to hide behind an unsuspecting cameraman while Juju Smith-Schuster searches for him. I reviewed this season’s 30 or so most memorable touchdown celebrations, and Vikings quarterback Case Keenum is the only signal caller consistently involved in group celebrations. He played along in duck-duck-goose and in a game of freeze tag in the playoffs. His most pivotal role required serious acting and detailed pantomiming: passing the “plate of turkey” in the team’s family-style Thanksgiving dinner celebration. Russell Wilson also got in on a group celebration in Seattle, in which several Seahawks, led by tight end Luke Willson, played imaginary flutes and jumped around in a circle. Carson Wentz earned major points in the celebration stylebook when he hustled 65 yards to the end zone after throwing a deep touchdown pass to get in position as an umpire on receiver Torrey Smith’s home run.
In a stunningly high-scoring Super Bowl, featuring the most yards in NFL history, it was surprising that neither team treated us to a celebration after any of the game’s nine TDs. And a little disappointing, considering stylistic group celebrations were the Eagles’ M.O. all season long. There were only three group celebrations (group, meaning coordinated with two or more players) in the entire playoffs, and all three were orchestrated by the Vikings. Minnesota went curling after their lone score in the NFC championship game, and celebrated two touchdowns in the divisional round with an airplane takeoff and a game of freeze tag. Maybe the increased importance of the games makes players wary of appearing cocky, at risk of blowing a lead in 28-3 fashion?
Rudolph, who was involved in many of the Vikings’ inclusive celebrations, sums up the effect of the rule change nicely: “When the NFL relaxed the rules, I’d imagine this is what they had in mind. Just adding a little bit of fun to the game.”
And in a season dominated by the President’s inflammatory comments, backlash to social activism, concussion protocol gaffes, questionable officiating and a second consecutive season of TV ratings decline, a little bit of fun is exactly what the league needed.
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