Will the NFL taunting penalty surge continue? What to know about the point of emphasis' uptick in flags

After announcing the NFL's proposed rule changes for 2021, McKay, chairman of the competition committee, paused to make a side note. McKay stated that there would be only two points of focus on existing rules during a conference call with reporters. One was the annual emphasis on lowering helmets to initiate contact. He said that the other would be for taunting.
McKay described this strike as a targeted strike against words and acts that "engender hatred between teams", as is long established in the NFL's rule book. McKay said that it would not be focused on celebrating, which was a similar emphasis in 2016. McKay stated that a group of coaches had expressed their belief in the NFL coaches subcommittee's assertion that enforcement of the rule has become "too lax" over the past few years.

One of the league's most prominent early-season trends has emerged from that humble beginning. Officials identified taunting in Week 2 as the cause of eight unsportsmanlike conduct flags, tied for the most since the 2000 season. Caution: Referees don't always mention "taunting," so additional flags could have occurred in recent years. In total, 11 taunting flags were displayed in the first two weeks, one less than in Weeks 1-2 since 2000. This is according to the ESPN Stats & Information database.

Let's take a deeper look at what has been accomplished and where it will go in the future.

What is taunting exactly?

According to the rule book, one of the reasons for unsportsmanlike behavior is "[u]sing taunting acts or words which may engender animosity between teams".

It could be as simple as throwing the ball at someone from another team or calling them a mean nickname. This could include "getting in the faces" of your opponent and turning around to face him, running for a touchdown or giving a hand signal after beating him. Taunting is basically any behavior that can provoke a similar response from another guy. This could lead to a physical post-whistle confrontation.

It seems so innocent for such an emotionally charged game. It seems so innocuous for such an emotional game.

They are the owners and coaches.

John Mara, New York Giants owner and a member on the competition committee, said that he gets tired of the constant taunting on the field. "We try to balance sportsmanship and allowing players to have fun. There's always a fine-line there, but none of the members like that."

It would be easy for owners to take the blame, but the sentiment extends even to former players and coaches.

Frank Reich, the Indianapolis Colts' former backup quarterback, said this summer to The Rich Eisen Show that he doesn't like taunting. "I love the excitement of competition. I want to be the best at everything -- mentally and physically. They should be embarrassed. We want to eliminate the opponent. We want to eliminate every opponent. We want to score 50 points and not let them score any. We don't have the right to taunt. Taunting... is not a good look on anyone. It is not a good look. It's not something young children should see. This is not what I think this game is about.

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This rule is already in place, so why should they be stressed this season?

The number of flags for taunting has dropped significantly in the last two seasons. After an average of 30 in 2013-18, there were 11 and nine flags in 2020. However, coaches and owners felt that the dip didn't reflect a decrease in taunting over the two seasons.

The issue was brought to a boil after Antoine Winfield Jr., Tampa Bay Buccaneers safety, mocked Tyreek Hill, Kansas City Chiefs receiver, with a peace sign during Super Bowl LV. Winfield later claimed that the taunt was in response to Hill's similar gesture towards the Buccaneers in the regular season. Winfield was fined and Hill was not punished for Hill's original offense.

Did players know this was coming?

Yes. Each player is shown a league video during training camp, which explains the new rules and emphasizes key points.

Did the NFL warn them that they would call some very ticky-tacky fouls

Although it's not directly done so, the NFL attempts to influence player behavior by asking officials to refer to anything that is even remotely similar. It's almost like creating a barrier around the possibility of taunts.

John Parry, an ESPN officiating analyst, stated that players have been instructed to review tapes from the league office. "Don't force officials to make a judgement on whether or not it is unsportsmanlike behavior."

Vonn Bell, a Bengals safety, was flagged in Week 2 for taunting. Jon Durr-USA TODAY Sports

Is there any other way to influence player behavior than over-officiating regular season games?

It is possible, but it would require significant changes in the NFL's officiating system for training camps. Parry suggested that officials should spend more time with the teams during training camps than they do on average, which would be two to three days. For example, educating players and coaches over several weeks could set a tone and educate them in a natural way that doesn’t affect any game, preseason or regular season.

The current state of the game is unacceptable to players.

No. JC Tretter, president of the NFL Players Association, stated in a blog post that "This year, don’t blame the players for showing too much emotion, but give the refs a break to do their jobs." Blame those who insist on rules like these every time.

What fines will be assessed for taunting in 2021?

A player who is penalized for taunting could be fined upto $10,300 on their first offense. A second offense carries a $15,450 fine. The fine for a second offense is $15,450. They can appeal and the severity of the infraction (or other mitigating circumstances) may reduce or eliminate the penalty.

What's next?

People will panic, revive the "No Fun League” memes, and claim that officials have destroyed the game.

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Is the NFL going to give them a reason to stop?

It is most likely. If the past is any indication, the frequency at which flags are taunted will decline over the course the season. And it's likely to happen sooner than expected. In 2016, there were 12 flags that were taunted in the first two weeks, and 26 in the following 15. Only once has there been more than 38 flags used for taunting in the last 20 years, when 53 flags were thrown at the 2004 point of emphasis.

This is therefore a temporary issue.

All accounts confirm that yes. Officials and players will adjust once the NFL has made the decision. This episode is likely to be forgotten by the end of the season.