For players, fans and coaches alike, celebrating touchdowns in the National Football League has always been as much a fabric of the game as lacing up the shoes.
Last spring, after a decade of archaic, old-school rules limiting player celebrations, the league announced an about face on this issue.
This season, the players are allowed to use the football as a prop after a touchdown, celebrate on the ground and do group demonstrations.
The players haven’t disappointed in taking the league up on the chance to celebrate a score with teammates and fans.
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Some of the celebrations have included a game of ping-pong, hot potato, a track meet, sack race, duck duck goose, hide and seek game, bowling pins, a Thanksgiving dinner, electric slide dances and even simulations of hitting a home run in a baseball game complete with a fake pitch.
For many with the Dallas Cowboys, Chad Ochocinco’s touchdown celebrations were a hallmark of celebrating a score at the game’s highest level.
“The one where he putted the ball with a pylon,” quarterback Dak Prescott said, “That’s the one I remember the most. It’s the one we wanted to do on the playground.”
Going back in time, Elmo Wright’s celebration dance is considered to be part of the initial evolutionary step of what brought on the excitement of scoring at the game’s highest level. His high-knee lift running in place and spike became a classic.
It evolved from what the New York Giants Homer Jones started doing in 1965, something even Jones had difficulty explaining in what became known as spiking the ball after a score.
Since then, celebrating has taken many forms, from Billy “White Shoes” Johnson’s “Funky Chicken”, to the Washington Redskins Fun Bunch, to former Cowboys receiver Terrell Owens’ Sharpie to Ochocino. All were part of the showmanship and entertainment value of the game.
But administrative blowback from celebrating began almost as quickly as they began.
By 1984, the NFL began inserting language into seasonal rulebooks to outlaw excessive celebrations.
Jones in 2012 told writer Greg Bishop of the New York Times that he regretted spiking the ball.
“It’s caused so many things,” he said. “I wish I hadn’t started it.”
The most recent ban came in 2006 as Roger Goodell became commissioner of the NFL.
It was seen as the latest attempt to strip players of an avenue to be expressive.
It took more than a decade for owners and Goodell to reach the conclusion that perhaps the league had overstepped a boundary.
“It’s been a great change,” Prescott said. “It’s part of being a professional football player and it’s something you dream about as a kid because you’ve seen so many players get the chance to do that when they score.
“I think the league got this one right.”
With the decision to relax the rules, results have been better than expected already.
The Houston Texans used the ball as a prop baton to run a track relay in the end zone after a Lamar Miller touchdown catch against Arizona last month.
Pittsburgh’s JuJu Smith-Schuster played hide and seek after a score and the Minnesota Vikings played a game of duck, duck, goose after another.
The creativity is a decade in the making and Goodell’s letter to fans last spring seemed like more of an apology than an announcement.
Fans and media began calling the NFL, the “No Fun League” in recent seasons.
With an onslaught of player backlash mounting over several issues in the previous few years, be it Colin Kaepernick’s social injustice protest or the string of severe suspensions in the face of botched league investigations, creating some positive marketing hype gave player celebrations a lifeline.
“It’s cool to see the guys really getting into it and showing off some of their personality,” Cowboys receiver Ryan Switzer said. “I think it was the right thing to do because at the end of the day, it’s a game and brings some life to the locker room and maybe one of these days, I can do my own.”
That happened in week 13 against the Redskins as Switzer broke open an 83-yard punt return and took a dive-roll into the end zone at the 1-yard line.
While it’s something that probably made coaches cringe with injury worry, it’s a celebration that would have likely been penalized in the past 10 years or so.
Despite the good-natured fun, players have been penalized this season for something deemed excessive.
The Kansas City Chiefs’ Marcus Peters was hit with a 15-yard penalty for dunking the ball over the goal post after returning a fumble for a touchdown.
Likewise, LeVeon Bell was hit with a penalty as well for boxing at the goal post while Smith-Schuster pretended to take pictures.
In both of those situations, the players used the goal post as a prop. There is still wording in the rules for not using the goal post as a prop.
Some of those not penalized included the Giants’ Odell Beckham pretending to be a dog, then urinating in the end zone of Lincoln Financial Field to draw a rebuke from Fox play-by-play announcer Joe Buck.
He called the celebration “classless” on the air.
Whichever the case, scoring celebrations at the professional level appear to be here to stay again, differentiating from the amateur levels.
“Yeah as a kid, that’s something you think about doing on Sundays for sure,” Switzer said. “It’s obviously frowned upon in college and high school ball and people try to associate it with showboating, but touchdowns are hard to come by at whatever level you play and I think every player should be able to express themselves.”