A 15-yard penalty is a big deal. For an offense, it can be a crippling setback that usually kills a drive and for a defense, it’s an automatic first down that gives momentum and valuable field position away.
So NFL officials need to stop throwing potentially game-altering flags for inconsequential celebrations and taunts.
In the offseason, the NFL adjusted the rulebook so that a pair of unsportsmanlike conduct penalties — including excessive celebrations and taunts — would result in an ejection. That means that not only could the game be tremendously affected by the 15-yard penalty, but a team could lose an important player because he celebrated inappropriately twice.
And through the first four weekends of the 2016 NFL season, officials are being more strict than ever.
In 2015, there were 22 taunting penalties accepted and 24 in 2014. In just four weeks, there have already been 13 such violations in 2016, on pace to more than double the marks in the last two years.
The official rule for the penalty is "Using baiting or taunting acts or words that engender ill will between teams." But officials are throwing flags for plays that don’t appear to spark any hard feelings or ill will.
Stop the madness:
Allen Robinson spins the ball
Just from a common sense, bird’s eye view, the idea of 15-yard penalties would be to make the game safer by offering a severe penalty for those who commit dangerous penalties. Like, say, a helmet-to-helmet hit on a defenseless receiver.
Robinson was drilled in the head by an Indianapolis Colts defender after hauling in a first-down reception. The Jacksonville Jaguars receiver celebrated by getting up and spinning the ball on the ground. An official — apparently concerned for the feelings of the Colts defenders who just attempted to remove Robinson’s head — threw a flag for taunting that nullified the 15-yard penalty on Indianapolis.
Instead of first-and-10 on the Colts’ 13-yard line, it was another second-and-2 from the 32. The Jaguars managed to drive 32 yards for a 1-yard rushing touchdown by Blake Bortles, though.
Bortles celebrated his score by punting the ball into the crowd. The officials didn’t throw a flag for taunting — a decision the NFL’s head of officiating Dean Blandino explained on Twitter:
Spinning/spiking ball at opponent is taunting. Kicked ball into stands is not directed at opponent so no foul. Both subject to fines #NFLUK— Dean Blandino (@DeanBlandino) October 2, 2016
OK, that makes sense, but wait ...
Terrelle Pryor pays homage to LeBron James
If the idea is to punish players for directing celebrations at opponents and Bortles is free to boot the ball off the field, why did Pryor get a 15-yard penalty for using the ball as a prop in his touchdown dance?
The Cleveland Browns wide receiver paid homage to LeBron James by doing his signature move, but did it with the football in his hand, which made it a prop, I guess? And even if it did, he clearly wasn’t directing his celebration at an opponent.
If holding the football during a celebration is using it as a prop, surely punting it to the moon is too, right?
This came just one week after Pryor received a back-breaking taunting penalty against the Baltimore Ravens. The 20-yard pass to Pryor would’ve set up the Browns 10 yards from a go-ahead touchdown with less than 30 seconds to go, but instead the taunting penalty was offset by a Ravens offside penalty that made the play nothing but a time waster.
"What [the official] saw coming from behind, he saw a ball hit their player," Pryor told the Cleveland Plain-Dealer. "That's all he saw. He's going off his reaction. Really if he saw that, he did the right job. ... (But) I was really trying to throw it to the ref and it slipped out of my hand."
Don’t pretend to use medieval weaponry
Even if you don’t use the football as a prop, there are plenty of ways to draw a penalty for a celebration that doesn’t include directing it at an opponent. Josh Norman got one for "shooting a bow and arrow."
The NFL bans violent celebrations like "throat slash" or "machine-gun salute" and apparently that extends to archery.
Are you allowed to swing an imaginary battle axe?
Were Browns players so incensed and threatened by the motion that retribution was on the way? Nah.
Cam Newton vs. the Falcons
It was a rough start for the Carolina Panthers on Sunday, falling into a 14-0 hole right away. It didn’t help that on the third play from scrimmage, a taunting penalty on Newton backed up Carolina.
Newton has always marched through the defense to point upfield after a first down, so Falcons defenders made sure to hold their ground and not let him through. Newton didn’t appreciate it much and flipped the ball toward Falcons rookie linebacker Deion Jones.
Of the silly taunting penalties in Week 4, this one seems the least silly. The NFL can’t just allow players to bounce the ball off defenders after the play, so it’s not surprising that this one drew a flag.
Odell Beckham Jr. gets heated
On Monday Night Football, the Giants’ Odell Beckham Jr. was flagged for taunting against the Vikings, and it was a pretty weak call.
Beckham has been visibly frustrated at times this season, and Monday night was no exception after he was held to just three catches for 23 yards. Giants head coach Ben McAdoo has said he would like to see Beckham control his emotions, and it’s not a bad idea if Beckham wants to avoid being ejected.
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Ultimately, football isn’t a very nice game. Wide receivers and cornerbacks have something to say to each other after just about every play, and defensive players love to get in a comment to a quarterback after every hit.
Among the other taunts in 2016 was Carolina Panthers offensive lineman Trai Turner bouncing up and down after a touchdown and Kansas City Chiefs cornerback Marcus Peters wagging his finger after defending a pass intended for Houston Texans wide receiver Will Fuller.
There’s a line that the officials must draw to prevent games from getting out of hand. Bouncing a football off your opponent like Newton did is protection from fights and chippiness that takes away from the game.
But nothing about the penalties on Robinson, Norman, or Pryor came close to inciting anything or insulting the defenses. Everyone would’ve been perfectly fine with just continuing on and that’s something the NFL would’ve been better off doing, too.