Football snaps bones, shreds ligaments, and scrambles brains like eggs, so naturally the NFL decided to protect its players’ feelings. Before this season, the league instructed its officials to more strictly enforce the rules against taunting. In the prior two NFL regular seasons and postseasons, there were 19 combined taunting penalties. In the first half of the 2021 season, there were 27 taunting flags. Monday brought the worst one yet, a game-changing penalty against Bears linebacker Cassius Marsh that was called because he looked at the Steelers sideline in a funny way.
Marsh was playing in his first game with Chicago, as he climbed from the Bears practice squad to their active roster after being cut by Pittsburgh in August. On the play in question, he shook off a block from Steelers guard Trai Turner before sacking Ben Roethlisberger to force fourth down. Marsh stood up and did a spinning kick in celebration. While running back to the sideline, he brushed against referee Tony Corrente, who seemed to stick his butt into Marsh before extravagantly throwing a flag and holding the follow-through. It appeared Corrente taunted Marsh far more than Marsh taunted the Steelers.
Tony Corrente leaned into the contact and then held his flag toss like a walk off three pointer. What a joke pic.twitter.com/MhNlNVewJx— Will Brinson (@WillBrinson) November 9, 2021
But Marsh wasn’t penalized for the karate kick, nor for his contact with a referee. He was penalized for … uh, well, looking at the Steelers. Instead of running directly to his own sideline, Marsh initially took a few steps toward the Pittsburgh side. In an interview after the game, Corrente made clear that his call was based on how Marsh looked at the Pittsburgh sideline. “I saw the player, after he made a big play, run toward the bench area of the Pittsburgh Steelers and posture in such a way that I felt he was taunting them,” Corrente said.
The key word here: “felt.” Referees have a long history of determining when a player crosses a line on the field of play, but it’s harder to determine when something crosses an emotional line. You could flip a middle finger to your buddy who makes fun of what you’re wearing or you could flip a middle finger to a stranger who cuts you off in traffic, and you’d get two extremely different responses. But a law against flipping your middle finger would inherently outlaw both. This is why enforcement of taunting is doomed: It can either be based on strict definitions of what constitutes taunting, or it can have officials throw flags when they think something crosses a line.
The NFL’s solution is the worst of both worlds. Not only are officials regularly penalizing harmless actions that violate the letter of the law without sparking a reaction from those who are supposedly taunted, but they’re also throwing flags whenever they think something generally feels like taunting.
Giants president and longtime competition committee member John Mara said fans want an increase in taunting calls, telling reporters back in August that “nobody wants to see a player taunting another player.” Mara is wrong. I love when players taunt other players, and I’m not alone. I’ve watched this “NFL Best Taunting Moments” YouTube compilation a dozen times, adding to the video’s more than 10 million views. The best part of Super Bowl LV was when Buccaneers cornerback Antoine Winfield performed Chiefs wide receiver Tyreek Hill’s celebration right in Hill’s face. Taunts can be some of the most memorable moments in sports: Muhammad Ali flexing on Sonny Liston, Allen Iverson stepping over Tyronn Lue, Terrell Owens celebrating on the Cowboys’ logo at midfield. Instead of banning taunting, the league should go the other way. I would once again like to propose the creation of a channel called NFL TauntZone on which I can watch taunting all day long. I’d pay for it, and so would you.
The NFL’s 2017 decision to limit penalties for touchdown celebrations has been massively popular, among both players and fans. So why would the league once again decide it’s essential to police non-football on-the-field behavior? I understand that the powers that be want to prevent players from getting into fights. If that’s the intent, though, the league should do more to eradicate dirty hits, which are actually the cause of most NFL brawls.
I watched all 27 of this season’s taunting penalties to find the five most egregious—calls on things that were barely taunts, but made legitimate impacts on the outcomes of games. Before we get to those, let’s recognize a few of the honorable mentions. There’s the time refs thought Rayshawn Jenkins was trying to replicate The Iverson Stepover, when really his legs were tangled with the guy he just tackled. (Nobody tries to taunt an opponent after giving up a huge completion in the red zone.)
Don't know if there were any words exchanged (which would draw a flag) but that's really not taunting. Yeah, there is a zero-tolerance emphasis, which is warranted, but in this case (unless something was something verbal) it would have been best to hold the flag pic.twitter.com/lWH00T1DIr— Fᴏᴏᴛʙᴀʟʟ Zᴇʙʀᴀs (@footballzebras) October 17, 2021
There’s the time Byron Murphy lightly brushed against Danny Amendola:
And there’s the time Darren Waller just spiked the ball:
Darren Waller was called for taunting for SPIKING the ball.— Ari Meirov (@MySportsUpdate) October 5, 2021
IT WASN'T EVEN TOWARDS AN OPPONENT pic.twitter.com/dNDwoHoLLR
None of these acts are taunting. All of these acts were flagged. Now let’s get to the truly outrageous penalties on our list.
5. Leonard Fournette Invents Tauntflopping
Maybe the worst part of the league’s newfound emphasis on enforcing taunting is that it’s entirely possible for players to draw flags on opponents. Look at this call from a critical fourth-quarter drive of the Bucs-Eagles game in Week 6.
Philadelphia defensive end Genard Avery was playing with fire by standing above Tampa Bay running back Leonard Fournette after this 2-yard run. But it feels like that would’ve gone unnoticed if not for Fournette making sure that the refs noticed Avery. He walked directly into Avery, threw his hands up in the air, and pointed a quizzical finger at the Philly player.
If anything, Fournette is the one who was taunting here—he initiated contact with an opponent, then pointed in his direction, both of which are outlawed by the rule book. But Avery got the flag. Fournette knew just how eager NFL officials were to make a taunting call, so he pretended that Avery’s actions had made him upset. James Harden would be proud.
This flag helped Tampa Bay ice the game. The Bucs were ahead 28-22 and trying to run out the clock, and the penalty gave them a fresh set of downs.
4. Jordan Akins’s Illegal Game of Dreidel
Players are specifically prohibited from spinning the ball at opponents, and Akins seemed to know that. After corralling this catch for a first down, the Texans tight end realized Browns safety Ronnie Harrison Jr. was standing to his right and Grant Delpit was standing behind him. So Akins faced away from both and spun the ball, presuming he was safe.
Jordan Akins snags the first completion of Davis Mills' career pic.twitter.com/shPLgRIWzh— Rivers McCown (@riversmccown) September 19, 2021
Unfortunately, Akins ended up spinning the ball in front of the Browns sideline, which the referees identified as the most taunting anybody can possibly do. Instead of taunting two people, he taunted 50! Unforgivable!
NFL players, please only spin a football in the privacy of your own home.
3. Mike Edwards Scores in Reverse
Mike Edwards had two pick-sixes against the Falcons in Week 2. On the second, he decided to turn around to look at the 21 players trailing him en route to the end zone. Somehow, this was penalized.
Mike Edwards got a taunting penalty for— Keaton (@Bogosianorris) September 19, 2021
Running backwards into the endzone pic.twitter.com/3Njsbq5SYI
This call feels particularly absurd in comparison to several noncalls in which players seemed to taunt the opposition more than Edwards did. Lamar Jackson front-flipped into the end zone on his game-winning touchdown against the Chiefs, leaving the entire Kansas City defense staring at his upside-down butt. Ezekiel Elliott high-stepped into the end zone while scoring a touchdown against the Giants, which seemed like a pretty direct taunt of the defenders who weren’t close enough to catch him. But the letter of the law makes Edwards’s turnaround a violation because he celebrated at his opponents; Jackson and Elliott were smart enough to mock their opponents while facing in another direction. To be clear: I don’t think any of these should be penalized, but it feels stupid to flag the play that seems least likely to provoke an opponent.
At least NFL taunting penalties are enforced after the play, so they don’t take touchdowns off the board. That’s not the case in college … and I’m still fuming about the refs ruining LSU’s fake-punt touchdown in 2011.
2. Elijhaa Penny Signals a First Down
When a team picks up a first down, officials point forward. But they should exercise caution when doing so: According to a call made during the Week 8 Monday Night Football game between the Giants and Chiefs, this gesture can be highly offensive. The refs flagged Giants fullback Elijhaa Penny for pointing forward on a critical drive in the fourth quarter of a 17-17 game.
After picking up a key first down—his first and, to date, only catch for a first down this season—Penny pointed forward, like the officials do. The officials saw this and determined that Penny was taunting Chiefs linebacker Ben Niemann, who happened to be standing directly downfield of Penny. Refs flag players for making gestures in the direction of opponents, and Penny was technically pointing in the direction of Niemann. But anybody watching the game immediately understood that Penny was simply gesturing in the direction that the Giants offense was moving.
The call had a direct impact on the outcome of the game. Penny was still awarded a first down, but the 15 yards of field position that New York was docked proved critical. The Giants’ drive stalled at their own 42-yard line, leading to a punt. With 15 extra yards, they might have opted to go for it on fourth down, or been able to pin Kansas City deep. Instead the Chiefs got the ball with decent field position, and promptly drove for the game-winning field goal. Great job by Giants owner Mara, one of the loudest voices in pushing for the crackdown on taunting—you cost your team a game.
I just hope the officials think about this call going forward. Every time they signal a first down, they run the risk of pointing at a player who just gave up a first down. After all, Penny didn’t come up with this vicious, humiliating celebration by himself. He learned it from watching the refs.
1. The Cassius Marsh Stare
After watching all 27 taunting penalties this season, it’s indisputable: This is the worst call on the list in every possible way.
For one, it was the most high-profile taunting call, as it happened in the closing moments of a tight Monday Night Football game. It was also the wrongest taunting call. Marsh didn’t get in a Steelers player’s face. The rule book bans using insulting “language or gestures to opponents,” but it doesn’t seem like Marsh said anything, and he clearly didn’t make any gestures. He walked in the direction of his opponents and looked at them.
Cassius Marsh called for... taunting.... pic.twitter.com/OZ0jkCqWOp— Justin (@hobokenjustin) November 9, 2021
And it was the most consequential taunting call. The Bears had sacked Roethlisberger for a loss of 7 yards on a third-and-8; because of this penalty, the Steelers got 15 yards and an automatic first down. Pittsburgh went on to kick a field goal, and eventually won by two.
The NFL thinks fans hate taunting. But what fans hate is officials changing the outcomes of games based on baffling interpretations of minor inoffensive actions that don’t have anything to do with football.