End zone cleverness thrives in relaxed NFL
EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. — The idea for one of the most clever touchdown celebrations of the season was hatched in Minnesota tight end Kyle Rudolph’s mind right before the pass play was called that night.
“ ‘If we score here,’ ” he told his teammates in the huddle, “ ‘whoever scores, you get to be the ducker, and everybody else sit.’ ”
Fittingly enough, Rudolph found himself open seconds later for a 13-yard touchdown. Then a wave of purple rushed toward him in the end zone.
Like grade-schoolers on the playgrounds where they first learned the game, the Vikings dutifully plopped down cross-legged in the grass. Rudolph patted them on the helmet as he jogged around the circle for a nationally televised rendition of Duck, Duck, Goose. Rookie center Pat Elflein was picked as the goose, or gray duck as Minnesotans peculiarly prefer.
“Getting the linemen involved in the celebration was something I thought would be cool,” Rudolph explained later. “Those guys don’t really get to celebrate a whole lot. They’re always kind of left out. They don’t like to dance, so a group dance wouldn’t have been as good.”
The most important source of such silliness after the score was actually the NFL itself.
After years of policing post-touchdown expressions, spawning the derisive “No Fun League” nickname along the way, group celebrations were green-lighted this year. Commissioner Roger Goodell wrote to fans in May about the relaxed rule, crediting conversations with more than 80 current and former players for paving a path to creative pantomiming without fear of a 15-yard penalty.
The yellow flags are still supposed to fly if a demonstration turns offensive, prolonged or into taunting the opponent. New York Giants wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. was reminded of this after his dog-relieving-himself charade drew an unsportsmanlike conduct call. Pittsburgh Steelers running back Le’Veon Bell has been fined for boxing the goalpost, because the only props allowed are the footballs themselves.
“It’s exciting because it puts a little fun back into the game,” Rudolph said. “It was just getting so strict, and you didn’t really know what you could and couldn’t do. For them to relax it, I don’t see how something like that does any harm to the game.”
The first half of the season has been headlined by player-owner conflicts over social justice protests during the national anthem and backlash from fans because of the kneeling. There’s been a steady stream of usual controversies involving players disgruntled about their role, another league-union clash over Goodell’s disciplinary power winding up in court and some particularly ugly injuries of late.
Still, the NFL has managed to keep at least some focus on light-hearted moments this month, thanks to the liberalized celebration rule. As fans watch for what-will-they-think-of-next highlights, players around the league scheme about how to top their peers.
The day before the Vikings played Duck, Duck, Goose, Rudolph was inspired by watching the Philadelphia Eagles pretending to play baseball after Torrey Smith’s touchdown reception. Wide receiver Alshon Jeffery was credited with that plan, initiated by a fake pitch from Nelson Agholor and capped with a home run swing by Smith.
“I don’t care if he missed it or anything, because it’s always going to be gone because it’s an imaginary ball,” said running back LeGarrette Blount, one of the admiring teammates who stood by and acted as if they were watching a ball soar into the seats.
The key word here is imaginary. Even in the macho and intense environment of the NFL, it’s fun to try to come up with the next cool act.
The same day the Eagles took themselves out to the ballgame, Green Bay Packers wide receivers celebrated the go-ahead touchdown catch by Davante Adams with a bobsled team routine. Two weeks later, Bell played Hide and Seek with wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster to tout a Steelers score.
Bell floated the idea to Smith-Schuster about 10 minutes before kickoff.
“We didn’t even practice it or anything. It kind of just happened,” Bell said. “That was us just being dramatic, creative, on what we were going to do. I know JuJu, and he loves doing celebrations. I know he was going to be the guy to do it.”
The next night on the other side of the state, Eagles tight end Zach Ertz left a fastball over the plate for Mack Hollins to take deep. Then on Sunday, the league-leading Eagles struck again when Ertz plunked Jeffery in the back with the ball to prompt Jeffery to charge the make-believe mound.
“Touchdowns are hard to come by. The great thing about the NFL is that it’s an emotional sport. Guys sacrifice a lot and put a lot on the line. Those are big moments, right?” Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith said recently. “So let guys celebrate a little bit, show their character and show their personality. In a moment like that, I think it’s appropriate.”
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