The Pittsburgh Steelers had just made a crucial stop on third down forcing the Kansas City Chiefs to punt this past Sunday. This was a huge game for both teams. A win by the Steelers gave them a playoff spot for the first time since 2011. A win by the Chiefs would keep their dwindling playoff hopes alive.
The play in question was made by the Steelers’ fine inside linebacker Lawrence Timmons near the Pittsburgh sideline. He had just made an excellent, open-field tackle to prevent the first down and you could see the emotion as he crawled forward and start to get to his feet.
Behind him was his teammate, cornerback William Gay, who proudly stood behind Timmons with his arms crossed in a pose that said, “Not in our house!”
Then a penalty flag came flying in… What on Earth could this be for? The play was over. The only Chiefs player in the vicinity was half-way back to his sideline when the flag came in. The call was made by the official on the Steelers’ side of the field and immediately he ran to the head referee to state what the penalty was.
“Taunting, number 22 (Gay). That’s a 15-yard penalty and first down Kansas City.” Ballistic doesn’t do enough to describe Mike Tomlin’s reaction. His player was just called for taunting his own teammate as Gay was directly facing Timmons the whole time. The Chiefs’ player didn’t even know what was going on behind him, yet the flag came.
But then later on Sunday night, the Seattle Seahawks were pulling away from the Arizona Cardinals when running back Marshawn Lynch broke free on a long touchdown run. As he approached the end zone, Lynch did a 180, leaped into the air and grabbed his genitals. His actions were clearly directed at the chasing Cardinals’ players yet guess what?
The two situations could not have been more different. If you showed people each video and then asked them to choose which one received a taunting flag, the overwhelming majority would have said the Lynch crotch grab.
This is the problem the National Football League has created for its’ officials. It started with the assault on taking the violence out of the game several years ago. This season it continued with the “illegal contact” BS on defensive backs and now it has emerged in targeting players for taunting the opposition.
Officials are so uncertain of what to call now we have started to see more and more troubling flags like the one Sunday in Pittsburgh. Quite frankly, little can be done to address the subjective nature of calls that come for “targeting” or “leading with the helmet.” But something can be done to make these erroneous taunting calls go away.
Officials need to address the situation first before even thinking about reaching for the flag. Is the player directly aiming his intentions at the opponent? Is there more than one person involved in the alleged taunt? Perhaps officials should answer those questions first before throwing the yellow napkin.
The flip-side could also go a ways towards helping the officials. If the NFL would allow players to celebrate together, especially after a score, players would be more likely to not taunt because the celebrations would mean more to them.
I’m not naive however, I know the “No-Fun League” would never hear of such celebrations coming back. That’s fine as long as they can figure out when a player is celebrating and not taunting his own teammate.