‘You’ve got to abide:’ NFL’s new taunting penalties force Washington to adjust

NFL's new taunting penalties force Washington to adjust originally appeared on NBC Sports Washington

On the second of his three touchdown runs against the Cowboys on Thanksgiving last year, Antonio Gibson sprinted through a wide hole on the left side, blasted past the initial wave of defenders and then literally waved to his final foe as he strolled into the end zone. 

Now, in 2020, Gibson’s bidding goodbye to the Dallas cornerback made for a memorable — and meme-able — exclamation point on a crucial fourth-quarter score.

In 2021, though, as the NFL intends to focus more on enforcing taunting penalties, a similar move will almost certainly result in a flag on the field and perhaps a fine off of it, too.

When asked Wednesday for his reaction to the league trying to crack down on actions that are “not representative of the respect to opponents and others,” Gibson briefly rolled his eyes. Yet he quickly caught himself and delivered a perfectly polite response, even if it wasn’t totally genuine.

“It’s competition, but at the end of the day, they made the rule so you’ve got to abide by it,” Gibson said.

While it’s unclear whether Gibson is aware of this, it’s probably a good thing that he didn’t slam the NFL’s attempt to tame taunting, because his head coach is a part of the nine-man Competition Committee that’s behind the idea.

And just a few minutes earlier, Ron Rivera had the opportunity to speak out on it as well.

Not surprisingly, he was a little more passionate with his words.

“If you make a great play, great,” Rivera told reporters. “Be excited, but don’t do it toward your opponent. That’s all we’re asking. That’s what the rule is for.”

This debate is one where it’s easy to see the case for both sides.

Those in favor of less taunting are trying to be reasonable. Want to spike the ball after a huge catch? Fine. Just don’t spike it right at someone’s shoes. To them, as long as nothing “escalates,” as Rivera put it, the game can proceed without any punishment or stoppages.

Yet for players (and eye-rollers) like Gibson, football is a supremely emotional job. Busting off a six-pointer like the one Gibson produced in his rival’s stadium on national TV is a massive moment, and with that kind of adrenaline going, it can be difficult to pause and think about how a split-second wave will be received by officials. 

But, at least for the time being, the ones with the power have deemed taunting as a problem they want to diminish, and thus, that’s how it’ll go. Rivera at least hopes that there’ll be enough time for guys to grow accustomed to the guidelines that are being bolded.

“Traditionally, if it happens, especially during the preseason, it’s a great time to do it so the players understand what the referees are going to be looking for,” Rivera said.

Washington’s head coach isn’t just aiming to prevent fights (like this one that marred a November Bears-Saints battle) and injuries with his stance, either. He also cares about setting an example for the kids who pay attention to the pros and put on helmets themselves.

“Quite honestly, we don’t need the young people to see that,” Rivera said. “We don’t need the Pop Warner, peewee football kids seeing us act like that.” 

And hopefully, the players will approach the topic like Gibson, so it doesn’t become a hot-button issue and decide any close contests beginning in Week 1. Washington’s running back didn’t come across Wednesday as a devoted supporter — or a supporter at all — of the cause, but he did seem like he’ll do his best to follow along so as not to hurt his team.

“Walk past [an opponent], do whatever you want to do, flex, say something to him — just look the other way,” Gibson said.

This article was written by WTOP’s news partner, NBC Sports Washington. Sign up for NBC Sports Washington’s free email subscription today.

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