If you want to find joy on an NFL field this year, the only reliable place to look is the end zone. Everywhere else, people are angry, injured or drawing up legal papers. But there, grown men are dancing and pretending to be baseball players, sword fighters and children.
The league’s offseason decision to relax prohibitions on celebrations after touchdowns and big plays has turned into a rare unqualified source of whimsy. For years, the NFL punished any choreographed celebration and prohibited using the football as a prop for a demonstration. But a dozen weeks after officials decided to relent and permit such acts, only one question remains: What took them so long?
In short order, players concocted intricate and delightful dances. NFL players, upon reaching the end zone, have transformed into bobsledders, potato-sack racers and a family gathered around a Thanksgiving table. The Philadelphia Eagles defense performed the Electric Slide after an interception this past Sunday. The demonstrations have had almost no downside. Officials have called just three delay-of-game penalties after touchdowns this season, according to the NFL, and taunting penalties after touchdowns have remained static.
“The celebrations so far have been playful and imaginative,” NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy said in an email. “As important, the players have been respectful to stay within the boundaries of sportsmanship and not draw the ire of their coaches with prolonged celebrations that result in delay-of-game penalties. Yes, in line with our expectations during the offseason when we worked with the players and clubs to liberalize the rule.”
The league continues to prohibit offensive celebrations — those sexually suggestive or miming violence — and still forbids taunting and using the goal post as a prop. It still has draconian rules pertaining to, among other features, how a uniform must be worn. But after years of fans and players calling for more individualism in a sport that earned the moniker “No Fun League,” the NFL ceded on one front.
“We saw a lot of interest in … allowing the players a little more freedom to be able to express their joy, their individuality and, frankly, celebrate the game,” NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said at the time.
The rule changes have gone as well as could have been expected. The Minnesota Vikings sat in a circle and passed around imaginary plates of food during a Thanksgiving Day game. Atlanta Falcons running back Devonta Freeman “shot” the ball toward guard Andy Levitre, who formed a basketball hoop with his arms. Running back Alex Collins of the Baltimore Ravens gave an ode to his unusual hobby, Irish step dancing. After turnovers, Washington Redskins defensive backs pat each other down, like cops searching suspects.
The Eagles, who own the best record in the league and therefore have provided themselves ample opportunity to dance, have been the vanguard. Early this season, wide receiver Torrey Smith pantomimed a batter smashing a home run off a pitcher one week. The next week, the Eagles broke out the same skit, only the “pitcher” hit the “batter” with the imaginary pitch, and then the batter charged him. In another skit, 10 Eagles lined up like bowling pins and let a football, rolled by the 11th teammate, knock them down.
“I do have the concern, though, there is a 40-second clock that’s moving after touchdowns and scoring plays, so they have got to hurry up and get off the field,” Eagles Coach Doug Pederson said. “But they are enjoying each other right now. They enjoy coming to work every week, and this game is hard enough, and when you score, you kind of want them to celebrate together, and that’s a great thing.
“It’s a lot of fun. Listen, the guys are having fun doing it. They are having fun playing together. Obviously, when you’re winning in this position, it is definitely fun and all that.”
A trace of eye-roll could be detected in Pederson’s words, which would not place him in the minority among NFL coaches. They are obsessed with preparation and detail, and the post-touchdown displays provide proof their players are spending at least a few minutes planning how to celebrate a score.
When asked before last Sunday about the celebrations across the league, New England Patriots Coach Bill Belichick responded, with an expressionless face and the grimmest monotone, “We’re really more interested in trying to keep the other team out of the end zone. None of us really spend a lot of time on the halftime show.”
Sunday, Patriots wideout Brandin Cooks scored a touchdown and then jumped on tight end Rob Gronkowski’s back and rode him around like a horse. The Patriots, under Belichick, had of course been banned from premeditated celebrations.
“Yeah, that was not planned or anything,” Gronkowski said afterward, wearing the world’s worst poker face. “We got yelled at. We’re not allowed to talk about celebrations. That’s what we got told. But I kind of want to talk about it, but I kind of don’t because I’ll get in trouble, so I don’t know what to do. So, it just happened on the spot. It wasn’t planned. We’ll just keep it there.”
Some NFL players have found inspiration abroad. For years, European soccer stars have scrawled messages on shirts worn under their jerseys, revealing the words after scoring a goal. On Thanksgiving, Vikings defensive end Everson Griffen recorded a sack, peeled away from the pile and yanked down a white T-shirt emblazoned with a message: “I just had a baby boy, what should we name him?” (Days later, Griffen revealed he and his wife, Tiffany, had decided on Sebastian Gregory.)
Another child-themed celebration unfolded Sunday. Bengals cornerback Adam Jones welcomed Adam Jr. on the eve of Cincinnati’s game against the Browns. Jones returned a punt for a touchdown. Jones laid on his back, stuck the ball under his uniform and proceeded to “push” the ball out in the manner of a woman giving birth, into the hands of a waiting teammate who returned the ball to Jones. He then held it aloft, to the glee of a screaming home stadium.
Alas, the score was called back because of an illegal blocking penalty, to the chagrin of the football’s parents.
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