The N.F.L. announced on Tuesday that as part of its stated commitment to “protecting players from unnecessary risk, while keeping the game fair, competitive and exciting,” it would implement new rules and emphasize others for the betterment of the game.
Chief among its priorities for the coming season: disciplining players for hits targeting an opponent’s head, a Covid-19-related relaxing of rules around how long injured players are ineligible and making sure that players do not tease each other too much.
Making it a point of emphasis, the league told officials to strictly enforce taunting rules, which include automatic ejection of players who accrue two taunting penalties in a game. The player may also be fined or suspended, or both, depending on the severity of his transgression.
“The N.F.L. Players Association, coaches and competition committee have all made a strong statement regarding respect among everyone on the field,” the league said on Tuesday in its annual rule changes and points of emphasis video. “We saw an increase in actions that clearly are not within the spirit and intent of this rule and not representative of the respect to opponents and others on the field.”
The renewed effort to enforce taunting rules will target “baiting or taunting acts or words” and “abusive, threatening or insulting language or gestures” toward players, coaches and game officials, as defined by the N.F.L.’s unsportsmanlike conduct rules.
But the broad and subjective definition of taunting could mean a crackdown on some of the game’s most spontaneous and entertaining displays of personality, which could include gestures that have become trademarks for some players.
In one of the most memorable moments of the last Super Bowl, Tampa Bay safety Antoine Winfield Jr. thrust a peace sign into the face of Chiefs receiver Tyreek Hill, mocking Hill’s usual touchdown celebration. Winfield was flagged for taunting and fined $7,815 for the gesture, a fraction of the maximum, $15,450, that can be levied against a player by the league, depending on the severity of his action.
Hill was not penalized for having flashed the peace sign at Winfield on the way to the end zone in a Week 12 game, the play that prompted his Super Bowl revenge.
Some notable instances of taunting last season, however, spilled beyond a play or two. The Ravens were flagged for taunting in their wild-card playoff win against the Titans after members of the defense celebrated a fourth-quarter interception by stamping on the Titans’ logo. Baltimore cornerback Marcus Peters, who pulled in the interception, was fined $15,000.
Peters and the Ravens were retaliating for an incident before a game in Week 11 in which Malcolm Butler and other Titans players gathered on the Ravens’ logo, sparking a confrontation with Baltimore players and Coach John Harbaugh. Tennessee was not penalized for taunting.
In Week 8, Bears receiver Javon Wims was ejected from a game, and later suspended, for punching Saints defensive back Chauncey Gardner-Johnson, leading to a midfield scuffle between the teams that was broken up by officials. Wims said Gardner-Johnson had provoked the fight by spitting on him and ripping out his mouthpiece. No one was flagged for taunting.
Taunting calls result in a 15-yard penalty for the offending team, though flags for gestures like stare-downs or first-down celebrations have dwindled alongside the N.F.L.’s scaling back of rules against excessively celebrating touchdowns, which began in 2017. The league issued 10 penalties for taunting last season and eight in 2019, down from an average of 24 flags each season from 2013 to 2018.
This spring, the competition committee sent to all 32 teams its report recommending that the officiating department pay more attention to taunting, reportedly because coaches on the committee felt enforcement had become lax.
“Any flagrant acts or remarks that deride, mock, bait or embarrass an opponent are considered taunting,” the report said.
Under the league’s new plan, that means no spiking or spinning the ball, pointing the ball or a finger, verbal taunting, or standing or stepping over an opponent for too long or in a way that provokes them. Gestures that simulate handcuffs would be considered taunting, as outlined in the report.
In the video announcement of the change, released on Tuesday, the N.F.L. used as an example a clip of Colts receiver Parris Campbell flexing in Myles Jack’s face after taking a hit from the Jaguars linebacker in a game last season, for which Campbell was flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct. It also included Browns receiver Jarvis Landry spiking the ball near a Texans defender after a first down in a 2020 game. Landry was called for taunting.