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In support of the NFL’s taunting rule

The new point of emphasis around taunting has a lot of people up in arms. But consider a point Mike Tomlin has raised.

Detroit Lions free safety Tracy Walker III (21) stands and flexes over Cincinnati Bengals wide receiver Ja’Marr Chase (1) as he s called for a taunting penalty in the first quarter of the NFL Week 6 game between the Detroit Lions and the Cincinnati Bengals at Ford Field in Detroit on Sunday, Oct. 17, 2021. Sam Greene/The Enquirer / USA TODAY NETWORK

I’m on board with the NFL’s point of emphasis on taunting this season.

That’s not the same thing as saying I agree with all the flags that have been thrown because I don’t.

I do, however, support the league’s intent on this matter and thus am going to attempt to explain and defend it. Frankly, at this point, someone has to.

One glance at social media pretty much any time a taunting flag is thrown this year is all the evidence needed to realize most of you won’t agree with me even a little bit. That’s fine, at least you’ll hopefully understand it a little bit better.

The primary motivating factor behind the rule is that coaches, administrators, and the powers that be at lower levels of football have asked the NFL for it. Or at least made it clear to the NFL that the increase in taunting in pro football in recent years is having a negative impact at their level. You may not care about that but the NFL does and so do I.

“We’re trying to clean our game up. We embrace the responsibility of being the role models that we are,” Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin said this week when asked about it, adding, “We understand people at a lower level watch us and mimic what we do.”

By the way, that’s Mike Tomlin saying that. One of the coolest if not the coolest coach in the entire league. He’s not some septuagenarian owner screaming at the kids to get off his lawn from an ivory tower. Tomlin is actually on the NFL’s competition committee that decided to make this a point of emphasis this season in the first place. So is Titans head coach Mike Vrabel, by the way, who not only is one of the younger coaches in the NFL but actually played double digit seasons in the NFL so he knows “what it’s like” in the heat of the battle.

Unlike most of you, I watch a decent amount of high school and even some 7-on-7 football videos because of an athletic recruiting service, GoBigRecruiting.com, that I started my last year as a player. Some of the things I’ve seen the last couple of years are so disrespectful it makes my blood boil. I can’t tell you how many times a wide receiver “Mosses” a defensive back in a contested catch situation in 7-on-7 and then stands over them if they are on the ground or gets in their face or makes some other kind of demeaning gesture towards them.

Is that what we want? Is that a good thing? Frankly, I have no idea how the defender doesn’t immediately punch them in the face when they do it because that certainly would’ve been my reaction.

And that, ultimately, is what the NFL is trying to get rid of and curtail as much as possible. They don’t want interactions that could lead to altercations, not only in NFL games but at every level of football.

One of the common refrains is that the NFL is trying to take the emotion out of the game with this rule. That’s just not the case. At this point, the NFL pretty much encourages the entire defense to celebrate together in the end zone after a turnover. They like when players show emotion and so do I, they just want it to be positive and celebratory with teammates as opposed to demeaning and confrontational with opponents. What’s so wrong about that?

Plus, at this point, every player in the NFL knows it’s a point of emphasis this season and that they are calling it tight so they can either complain about it or stop doing things that might put them in a position to get flagged. It’s a rule now so follow it.

What I do think is a fair criticism has been the enforcement. According to Ari Meirov of PFF, the NFL called 31 taunting penalties through the first nine weeks of this season which is 11 more than they called in the 2019 and 2020 seasons combined (20). That includes 12 in just Weeks 8 and 9 alone.

Perhaps the most controversial one of those came on Monday night in the game between the Bears and the Steelers when referee Tony Corrente threw a critical taunting foul on Bears edge rusher Cassius Marsh late in the game. I didn’t agree with the call although watching Corrente taunt Marsh as he flagged him for taunting by staring at him and holding his hand in the air like he just drained the game winning three pointer was an objectively hilarious and infuriating moment all wrapped into one.

In a video released by the league’s officiating department, Senior V.P. of Officiating Perry Fewell said that the call against Marsh was correct, and the officials will continue to enforce the point of emphasis against taunting.

“He takes several steps toward the Pittsburgh bench, posturing toward their sideline. Taunting is a point of emphasis to promote sportsmanship and respect for opponents. This was recommended by the competition committee and coaches,” Fewell said.

This is where the NFL loses me a little bit. You can have a happy medium and get the point across without calling a bunch of questionable fouls. Out of the 31 they’ve called this year I’d guess I’m probably on board with about 20 of them which is still a significant enough uptick to curtail behavior without impacting the outcome of games on borderline behavior.

Really, it’s not that different than how I feel about the uptick in roughing the passer penalties these days as well although that is perhaps a topic for another day.

Maybe.