In the National Football League, the end zone is a stage, and this season, exuberant players have become Players in plays.
You can’t say you saw this coming when the notoriously humorless NFL relaxed its “No Fun League” scowl to allow at least a few more expressions of “Glee” — er, glee.
In: group celebrations and, oddly, “celebrating on the ground,” as NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell wrote in a May 23 letter to fans. Out: taunting and anything crude. (There’d been a problem with twerking by the Pittsburgh Steelers.)
Despite the bigger headlines and misdirected confusion regarding kneeling protests during the national anthem early in the season, the players have been so on board with the freedom to Act that they’ve prepared end-zone skits. Many have been surprisingly coordinated and disarmingly innocent: Scenes of hide and seek. Red light, green light. Duck, duck, goose.
Three Kansas City Chiefs performed a potato sack race. Five Detroit Lions formed a boisterous (if bulky) Rockettes-style kickline. Flocks of Philadelphia Eagles danced the Electric Slide.
Victory rituals have been part of football for decades. (Fun Bunch, anyone? The Washington Redskins’ leaping high-fivers prompted rules crackdowns in the 1980s.) But this season’s repertory ensembles are different from the soloists who have historically commanded the end zone, from Billy “White Shoes” Johnson and his Funky Chicken to Ickey Woods, practically an old school vaudevillian doing his light-footed soft shoe known as the “Ickey Shuffle.”
Flashy wide receivers Terrell Owens (famed for his get-out-your-popcorn touchdown moment declaring himself the ultimate Hollywood-caliber athlete) and Chad Johnson (whose “Riverdance” dance was terrific) vied a decade or so ago for marquee supremacy. The New York Giants’ Jello-hipped Victor Cruz recently had a trademark touchdown salsa that was Broadway quality. (Fun fact: Broadway once actually had a play called “Dancing in the End Zone.” It flopped in 1985.)
One of the most beautiful celebrations in sport is Green Bay’s Lambeau Leap, a locally rooted ritual in which a happy Packers player’s momentum sweeps him through the end zone and up — partially — into the stands, his torso gripped by arms of frigid fans as his feet dangle three feet above the field. It’s a community hug.
Traditionalists grouse that it’s hard to picture Jim Brown doing any of this, and Colin Kaepernick’s champions aren’t likely to be diverted from their charge that the league has blackballed the former San Francisco 49ers quarterback for single-handedly starting a substantial civil rights movement on their turf. The relaxed policy has generally gotten good reviews, though, and the authorities have to be pleased with an image of the players in their concussion-plagued league as young at heart, still playing the game with joy.
Most obviously, the theatrics hit the five-second sweet spot of Snapchat-size “moments”: They help slake the inexhaustible Internet appetite. So nosh a GIF. Here is a plate of this season’s freshly inspired macho nachos acting like kids.
Minnesota Vikings: Leapfrog. What does this mean? Impossible to say. The Vikings also pantomimed a Thanksgiving dinner in the end zone, sitting in a circle and passing the holiday food.
Kansas City Chiefs: The potato-sack race. Badly executed — two players barely made two hops before tumbling — but almost as unexpectedly childlike as . . .
The Atlanta Falcons’ red light, green light. Which actually looks sort of elegant.
Honorable mention to the Pittsburgh Steelers for excitedly rolling dice like the gamblers in “Luck Be a Lady” from “Guys and Dolls.”
The Green Bay Packers’ “Cool Runnings” pantomime: three players sitting in a line and swerving as if on a bobsled.
The Pittsburgh Steelers’ weight room drama, a tableau that took seven players to act out. One played the bench, one played the weightlifter and five spotted him as he bench-pressed the football.
Detroit Lions: Wide receiver Golden Tate dropping onto the football with the spectacular, crushing rasslin’ maneuver known as the “People’s Elbow.”
Seattle Seahawks, “The Riverdance Variations”: perhaps the most unexpected celebration of the season, with four players hopping in a circle and miming playing the flute. (A lot of these carefree histrionics happen against the Redskins. Sad.)
The Detroit Lions in “Maim,” a.k.a. “Mame”: a kickline in pads instead of plumes.
Best Play goes to: The Philadelphia Eagles’ bowling skit, for use of the entire offense, and for professional timing. Wide receiver Alshon Jeffery rolls the bowling ball; his 10 teammates fall like pins. Strike.