PHILADELPHIA — In the Eagles’ Week 5 game against the Arizona Cardinals, Torrey Smith scored a 59-yard touchdown, turned around, and hit a home run. Smith’s fellow wide receiver Nelson Agholor pitched him an invisible baseball, and Smith, still holding the football, knocked it out of the imaginary park. He sprinted back to the bench as his dreamed-up moon shot sailed into the stands of Lincoln Financial Field, where Philadelphia fans were losing their minds.
“Alshon [Jeffery] said in the beginning of the season that when we catch bombs, that’s a home run,” Smith said Wednesday, standing in front of his locker at the Eagles’ practice facility. “So I hit one. We’re just out there celebrating, having a good time.”
Football took a lot of hits this year: Star players — many of them quarterbacks whom the league markets heavily — suffered season-ending injuries. TV ratings were down. President Donald Trump wouldn’t stop tweeting about players protesting social injustice. Evidence mounted that the game is very bad for men’s brains.
But in an often dark season, there was a small bright spot for both fans and players: The NFL, after more than 10 years, lifted the rule prohibiting group celebrations. Watching the Vikings play Duck, Duck, Goose (or, Duck, Duck, Gray Duck in Minnesota), or the Lions pretend to play pingpong, or the Eagles dance the Electric Slide in the end zone made watching “the No Fun League” a little more, well, fun.
“I’m glad we’re allowed to do them again,” said Eagles wide receiver Greg Ward. “Everybody’s getting creative and having a good time with it.”
Players made these delightful displays weird, wonderful, and elaborate: The Colts acted out an adaptation of the movie Heat, the Packers went speed walking, the Eagles pretended to be bowling pins. The Lions played Rock ’Em Sock ’Em Robots and went curling. The Chiefs had a potato sack race. Whenever someone like the Falcons’ Devonta Freeman shot free throws with a football into his teammate’s outstretched, hoop-like arms, Sundays became a little more playful.
“We’re literally all a whole bunch of big kids who want to have fun and bring up old memories of games we used to play,” said Vikings running back C.J. Ham.
Celebrations became more complex as the season progressed. Endless amounts of planning goes into a football game: practices, film reviews, workouts, and sessions with trainers and nutritionists. As I watched players jump into formation after scoring, I wondered if similar preparation goes into pantomiming intricate scenarios while the adrenaline of a touchdown pumps through players’ veins.
“Eh, there’s not really a process,” said Eagles wide receiver Mack Hollins. “It’ll literally be before a game and someone will say, ‘Hey, let’s do this.’ Sometimes during the week of practice someone will say, ‘Oh, this’ll be cool.’ They’re shower thoughts. Someone has a thought in the shower and brings it to the team.”
“Shower thoughts” of celebrations fall into three categories, according to Eagles wide receiver Marcus Johnson. You have your “in the moment” reactions, where you spike the ball or dance spontaneously. Then you have whatever dance is popular at the moment, à la Cam Newton’s dab phase from a few years ago, or a scene from a movie.
“Thirdly, you have family dances,” Johnson said. “The Electric Slide, and other things you grew up on or would do at family cookouts. Those types of things.”
For the Eagles, the wide receivers and running backs lead the charge on brainstorming. Offensive linemen aren’t often a part of the conversation, according to Hollins.
“They awkwardly don’t know what’s going on when everybody’s doing the stuff,” he said. “If you look, you’ll notice that on a lot of teams, receivers will be celebrating and the linemen will just be standing there, and kind of jump in once it’s going. The best celebrations are when the linemen, all 11 players, are involved.”
Players occasionally have to regroup on the sidelines if they find out a team that played earlier in the day scooped their idea. (Johnson said this happened to the Eagles, but couldn’t remember which team beat them to what celebration.) In addition to the hasty planning, what makes the choreography all the more impressive is that players don’t practice it before they get onto the field.
Out of the 15 players I talked to for this piece, only the Jaguars’ rookie Ben Koyack admitted to rehearsing: He told me the Jacksonville tight ends once went over miming free throws before a game.
“You’re an athlete, you know?” Hollins said, when I asked him how such coordinated improvisation was possible. “You gotta be able to do these things.”
“Yeah, we don’t really practice them,” said Ham. “It’s kind of hard to see how it’s going to be formatted, but it kind of just rolls together. Your mind starts working. It all happens so quickly after a touchdown, that it kind of just comes together.”
For celebrations like the kids’ game theme the Vikings have followed all season, this makes sense. Duck, Duck, Goose is easy if you spent any amount of time in an elementary school classroom: You sit in a circle, and the guy who scored the touchdown is, naturally, the one who tags people. To act out freeze tag, like the Vikings did against the Saints in the playoffs, you just play freeze tag. Although Ham did say he was impressed with how long quarterback Case Keenum held his pose.
“I honestly didn’t even realize he held it that long until I saw it on social media,” Ham said. “I was like, ‘Wow, Case was really out there for a while, really selling that.’”
Sometimes, however, a little practice isn’t a bad idea. The thrown-together nature of the celebrations occasionally shows in endearing ways.
“One that entertained me was when Alshon acted out getting hit by the pitch and rushed the mound,” Eagles defensive end Chris Long said. “But there was something wrong with it. The catcher chased Alshon. Alshon got hit by the pitch, and the catcher got up and chased him. That didn’t make sense.”
Sometimes practice wouldn’t make a difference anyway. The rush of scoring in the NFL can be overwhelming, and players occasionally get so excited they forget what they were going to do. For Koyack, a seventh-round pick who scored his first professional touchdown — and the game’s only touchdown — in the AFC Wild Card Round, simply being in the end zone was too much.
“The tight ends talked about multiple things before the game,” he said. “But in the moment, you almost black out. You don’t really remember what you did until you get back to the sideline and your heart’s pounding. The only thing I could think to do was to spike the ball. We grade our spikes when we watch film. If the ball goes out of the screen, it’s a good spike. If it doesn’t, it’s not a good spike.”
Koyack’s spike, for what it’s worth, received high marks from the rest of the class.
Coming up with original celebrations has gotten harder as the season has gone on. Most of the good ones have been done already, but Ham wouldn’t say what the Vikings have planned for the NFC Championship game on Sunday. Most of the Eagles players I talked to said they hadn’t come up with anything yet. (I suggested something dog-themed, like Red Rover, so if they do that ... well, you’re welcome.)
Obviously, these plans fall more to the offensive players than the defense. But those guys don’t seem to mind.
“No, I don’t feel left out,” Eagles defensive tackle Fletcher Cox said. “Because I’ll be on the bench chilling. I’ll let [the offense] get their shine on.”
Football is exhilarating because anything is possible on any play. There’s no better example of the sport’s unpredictability than the Vikings’ 61-yard touchdown to beat the Saints last weekend while the clock expired. It gave us perhaps the best touchdown celebration of the season: a massive dogpile in the team tunnel, fueled by pure elation and disbelief. It couldn’t have been better even if the team had been able to act something out amid the hysteria.
One team’s thrill is another team’s heartbreak, of course. But throughout games, touchdown celebrations add a bit of the sublime to already sky-high emotions. They’re snapshots of pure joy amid a dangerous game. They allow players to express their sillier sides, pay homage to where they come from, and let their personalities, as Cox said, shine through.
The group in group celebration — as the rulebook states — matters here. Football is a team sport, especially for the four franchises remaining in the playoffs (although it’s worth noting that the Patriots don’t celebrate touchdowns so intricately).
The Eagles built up one of the best defenses in the league with a collection of journeymen. The Vikings slowly marched to success by keeping the same players for years, which created a strong team chemistry. The Jaguars’ coaches took a team that went 3-13 last year and got them to work together. Under Bill Belichick, the Patriots have always made a big deal about putting the team first. All are focused on the collective whole, whether they’re scoring touchdowns or celebrating them.
“It takes more than one man to get there,” Smith said. “So it’s that appreciation, to celebrate with your guys. To have fun. To be a kid in the moment.”