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Hoge: The real NFL taunting problem is how it’s officiated

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PITTSBURGH — The NFL has a taunting problem. Just not the one they thought they had.

They thought they had a problem with players taunting each other. Now the league — predictably — has a much larger problem with its officials failing to understand how, when and why to identify taunting.

Just like when they didn’t know what a catch was.

And just like when they didn’t know how to review pass interference.

Every year the NFL forces “points of emphasis” on its officials, causing them to look for specific penalties over others. And that’s the root of the problem. Instead of reacting to what they are actually seeing, they are reacting to what they are being told to see.

It’s why James Daniels was called for a low block Monday night when he actually whiffed on his block. That's another point of emphasis this year.

And its why linebacker Cassius Marsh was called for taunting on a crucial third down sack because he “postured” towards the Steelers sideline.

“That was a BS call,” Bears linebacker Roquan Smith said after the Bears’ 29-27 loss to the Steelers.

Smith thought the penalty was called on Marsh’s windmill kick sack celebration that he’s done his entire career. Bears head coach Matt Nagy wasn’t sure why it was called. Marsh didn’t even know it had been called until he was getting screamed at by his position coach.

The real reason?

"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,” referee Tony Corrente said after the game.

 

Yes, Marsh was guilty of looking in the direction of the Steelers bench as he celebrated what at that point was the biggest play of the game and one of the biggest plays of his career: a sack that forced a Pittsburgh punt with 3:40 remaining in the game as the Bears trailed 23-20. This is a guy who woke up Monday morning on the practice squad and was flexed up to the active roster before kickoff. This is a guy who is the definition of an NFL journeyman, having played for eight teams in eight years. He was signed to the Bears’ practice squad last Wednesday and delivered a huge play for his new team.

How dare he celebrate.

But what made this taunting penalty particularly concerning was the way in which Corrente called it. He watched Marsh celebrate and he watched Marsh “posture” toward the Steelers sideline, but he didn’t actually throw a flag until contact was made between the linebacker and the referee as Marsh went back toward the Bears sideline.

Even worse, replays made it very obvious that Corrente was the one who initiated the contact.

“On my way to the sideline, I got hip checked by the ref and it’s pretty clear,” Marsh said. “If I were to do that to the ref and touch a ref, we’d get kicked out of the game. Possibly suspended and fined. So I just think that was incredibly inappropriate and that’s all I’ll say about that.”

When asked about the contact that occurred, Corrente responded by saying, “That I'm not aware of at all, no. I didn't judge that as anything that I dealt with.”

Informed that the replay shows Corrente throwing the flag after that contact occurred, the referee insisted that was not why he called taunting.

“That had nothing to do with it. It was the taunting aspect,” he said.

Marsh insisted he didn’t say anything in the direction of the Steelers’ bench. The league defines taunting as “any flagrant acts or remarks that deride, mock, bait, or embarrass an opponent.” There didn’t appear to be anything flagrant about what Marsh did.

“I think it’s pretty clear to everybody who saw it that I wasn’t taunting,” Marsh said. “It’s just sad to see stuff like that happen in a close game like that. Just rough.”

The time-and-place aspect is certainly part of the NFL’s problem, although the league’s officiating office would certainly argue that a penalty is a penalty regardless of the situation in the game. That’s fair, but what’s not fair is that taunting could be called on many plays throughout a game and it’s completely arbitrary when an official actually decides to call it. There’s very little consistency and, occasionally, there appears to be a premeditated purpose behind the call.

 

At best, Corrente was making a statement in the manner by which he stared Marsh down as he casually tossed his flag in the air. At worst, he created contact with the player to help justify throwing the flag.

Either way, the video reveals a referee that was guilty of a more flagrant act than the player.

The NFL is deep in the weeds on this one, having already publicly put its foot down in defense of the taunting rule. It was a deemed a major problem by the league’s competition committee, which includes Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin, who benefitted from the call Monday night.

Giants owner John Mara was particularly in favor of the taunting penalty, and yet, he has also inadvertently provided criteria that proves this “point of emphasis” has gone too far.

“We get kind of sick and tired of the taunting that does go on from time to time on the field. We tried to balance the sportsmanship with allowing the players to have fun and there’s always a fine line there, but none of us like to see that,” Mara said in August. “It’s just a question of whether you can have rules that can be enforced without taking the fun out of the game too, but nobody wants to see a player taunting another player.”

What played out in Pittsburgh Monday night surely proves that this rule cannot be enforced at its current tolerance level without taking the fun out of the game. But what’s particularly troublesome is that it wasn’t just the fun that was taken out — the  league’s credibility took a hit too.

Please, NFL, end this nonsense now. Before you ruin a playoff game.