Even the most hard-core Tennessee Titans fan might have felt a touch of empathy for Seattle Seahawks cornerback D.J. Reed in the fourth quarter of Sunday’s game at Lumen Field.
On a first-and-10 from the Titans’ 48-yard-line, Reed broke up a long Ryan Tannehill pass intended for A.J. Brown. Brown and Reed tumbled to the ground after battling for the ball. When Reed got up, he pumped his fists, then turned briefly toward the sprawled Brown and appeared to say something before he continued toward the sideline.
Did Reed’s short reaction merit the ensuing taunting call, which gave the Titans 15 yards and a first down in Seattle territory?
If the incident had occurred in 2020, the answer would have been “not likely.” Officials flagged taunting just 10 times in 256 games last year, according to nflpenalties.com, an average of just .04 times per contest.
But it’s a much different scenario so far in 2021, as officials already have called taunting 10 times in two weeks, an average of .31 times per game. Taunting has been flagged just as many times this season as some more commonly heard penalties, such as illegal use of the hands and illegal block above the waist, per nflpenalties.com.
Why the big change, which has met with plenty of pushback from NFL players and fans on social media?
During the offseason, the NFL’s Competition Committee made taunting – which had already been in the rule book – a points of emphasis for the 2021 season, looking to crack down on “any flagrant acts or remarks that deride, mock, bait, or embarrass an opponent.”
Two taunting penalties committed by an individual player will result in an automatic disqualification. In addition, the taunting player may be subject to additional discipline depending on the severity of the action.
But has the crackdown gone too far, infringing on player celebrations?
That was the question asked this week of Titans coach Mike Vrabel, who just happens to be one of four head coaches – along with Indianapolis’ Frank Reich, Pittsburgh’s Mike Tomlin and Washington’s Ron Rivera – on the committee that recommended the increased emphasis on taunting.
“I think anything that is directed at an opponent, whether you point at them, spike the ball, things that are directed at opponents, should be taunting,” Vrabel said. “Things that are directed at your teammates, your fans, your crowd is a celebration. I think there is a difference. I am not going to look at them at a case-by-case basis, but that is one of the things that we focused on is not trying to do things that hurt the team, and taunting would be one of those things that we put under that label.”
A number of players have voiced their disapproval of the taunting crackdown.
One is Tampa Bay quarterback and NFL legend Tom Brady, who added a one-word comment – AGREED! – to a Tuesday tweet from ESPN’s Field Yates, who’d written that the new taunting rule stinks.
Another is NFL Players Association President J.C. Tretter, starting center for the Cleveland Browns, who took to the NFLPA website just before the regular season – already concerned about the taunting emphasis he’d seen in preseason contests. Tretter made two points very clear: First, the NFL’s Competition Committee consists of 11 members – and just one of them is an NFLPA representative. Two, any suggestion that players favored a crackdown on taunting was wrong.
“I can assure you, as an attendee of the competition committee meeting myself, that was not the case,” Tretter wrote. “On the contrary, we would support the removal of this point of emphasis immediately. Fans enjoy the intensity and the raw emotion that our players show on the field; and the overwhelming majority of the time, players understand the line between that emotion and bad sportsmanship.”
Rivera told media Tuesday that one goal of the taunting crackdown is to eliminate escalation of emotions that can lead to brawls, noting that players on the receiving end of taunting often feel the need for payback, and “the next thing you know, you’ve got a big fight on your hands.”
Meanwhile on Tuesday, Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, held out the possibility that if players get the message early this season, the number of taunting calls may drop.
“When you see a heavy dose of it early (officials are trying to make a point), they’re trying to stop that,” Jones said on radio station 105.3-FM in Dallas. “I think that’s what you’re seeing. Hopefully that’ll get back to a level that’s ordinary, not extraordinary.”.
In the meantime, however, players must realize anything that’s borderline taunting – even if many fans and players feel otherwise – is going to be flagged. So, feel free to express your emotions on the field, but don’t even glance in the neighborhood of an opponent while doing so.
“If you are excited, go make a play,” Vrabel said. “If (Titans cornerback) Kristian Fulton makes a play, there is no reason for us to talk to (Seattle wide receiver D.K. Metcalf afterward). We should go and congratulate and celebrate with Kristian Fulton.”