‘You should not lose a game because of that:’ Inside the NFL’s crackdown on taunting and how the Bears and Cassius Marsh were caught up in the sweep
CHICAGO — The defense for common sense would like to call its next witness. Would the curly haired blond fellow in the No. 59 jersey please come to the stand.
Please state your name and profession for the record.
— Witness: Cassius Lee Marsh. I’m a linebacker for the Chicago Bears.
And how many games have you played for the Bears?
— Witness: Just one. I was signed to their practice squad two weeks ago and then flexed to the active roster for that next game.
So you recall then where you were on the night of Nov. 8?
— Witness: Yes, sir. Heinz Field in Pittsburgh. “Monday Night Football.”
And do you remember where you were at approximately 11:03 p.m.?
— Witness: I do. I was in the game as a pass rusher as part of a dime package our defense was using on a key third-and-8 play.
So what happened next?
— Witness: Three of my teammates — Angelo Blackson, Mario Edwards Jr. and Robert Quinn — went after Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and pressured him. When he started scurrying up through the pocket, I looped around a block and buried him.
That felt good, didn’t it?
— Witness: Felt great.
So what did you do next?
— Witness: I did what I’ve often done in my career when I sack a quarterback. As a tribute to my younger days doing taekwondo, I did a spinning, jumping martial-arts kick to celebrate.
Just for fun?
— Witness: Yeah, man. Just for kicks.
So what did you do after your spinning kick?
— Witness: I walked about six or seven steps to my left, toward the Steelers bench, stopped between the hash marks and the numbers on the field and just stood there for a second.
How far would you say you were from the Steelers sideline?
— Witness: At least 45 feet. Maybe 60.
Did you confront any members of the Steelers?
— Witness: No, sir. Their punter was coming onto the field. But I wasn’t really near him.
Did you say anything?
—Witness: No, sir.
So you simply walked toward that bench for a few steps, stopped and then turned around?
— Witness: Yes, sir. And I started jogging back to our sideline.
Did anything happen on that jog?
— Witness: Yes, sir. I didn’t realize it at the time but the referee, Tony Corrente, hip-checked me as I went past.
Hip-checked you? How would you describe that bump?
— Witness: Incredibly inappropriate.
Anything else occur in that moment?
— Witness: Yes, sir. The referee threw a flag.
— Witness: Taunting.
Because you bumped into one another?
— Witness: No, sir. He said later it was because I was taunting the Steelers. He told a pool reporter immediately after the game that he noticed me “posture in such a way” that he felt was taunting.
Were you strutting at all?
— Witness: I mean, yeah. A little bit. I had just come up with a huge third-down sack in the final minutes of the fourth quarter of my first game with my new team. Who wouldn’t have a little bounce in their step?
Can you see how Mr. Corrente and his boss may have interpreted your strut as a taunt?
— Witness: I mean, I guess. Maybe. But it seems like a pretty big stretch.
Mr. Marsh, you are familiar with the NFL’s emphasis on cracking down against taunting this season, correct?
— Witness: I am.
Are you aware that on the league’s Football Operations website, they define taunting as “any flagrant acts or remarks that deride, mock, bait or embarrass an opponent?”
— Witness: I didn’t know that exact phrasing. But sounds about right.
And were you attempting to deride the Steelers during the moment in question?
— Witness: No, sir. I didn’t think so.
Were you mocking anyone?
— Witness: No, sir. I didn’t think so.
Baiting or embarrassing anyone?
— Witness: No.
But you were penalized anyway. So what was the impact of that penalty?
— Witness: Well, sir, it gave the Steelers 15 free yards. So instead of fourth-and-15 and a punt, they had first-and-10 at our 39 yard line and later kicked a field goal to go ahead 26-20.
So that penalty likely cost your team three points?
— Witness: Yes sir.
And you guys later lost that game by two after another Steelers field goal?
— Witness: Yes, sir.
And had they not gotten the previous field goal, they might have needed more than a field goal to win at the end?
— Witness: Yes, sir.
So is it fair to say that taunting call may have had a significant influence on the game’s final result?
— Witness: That’s fair to say. Correct.
Was there any other punishment for you associated with that behavior?
— Witness: Yes. The league fined me $5,972 for unsportsmanlike conduct.
Just to be clear, Mr. Marsh, you had no intention of taunting?
— Witness: No, sir.
And on the night of the game and the morning after, is it accurate you even had texts from Steelers players absolving you of any wrongdoing and expressing their disagreement with the call?
— Witness: I did. They told me they agreed the call was bogus.
So players on the very team you were accused of taunting, players who benefited directly from the penalty issued against you didn’t think that particular call was just?
— Witness: That is correct.
The defense for common sense has nothing further.
‘It’s about respect’
Where should we even begin? How can we start to make sense of how the NFL’s well-intentioned push to reduce taunting in the game suddenly has become so controversial and so widely panned? Perhaps it’s wise to focus on the enforcement of a rule that became a point of emphasis this season after the competition committee, with input from league owners and representatives of the NFL Players Association, agreed some cleanup to the game was necessary.
Many within the league wanted fewer face mask-to-face mask verbal battles that had the potential to escalate. There was a push to increase sportsmanship within the game. A quest to reduce unnecessary post-play tussling elevated.
Baltimore Ravens coach John Harbaugh, who will bring his team to Soldier Field to face the Bears this weekend, is on a subcommittee of the league’s competition committee. Harbaugh was asked in mid-September about the objectives of this new taunting emphasis.
“I agree with the idea,” he said. “Sportsmanship is very important. And the way we treat each other is very important. I think the NFL is out in front in so many ways. We’re high profile. Kids watch us all the time. So the way we treat one another on the field is very important. It’s about respect. How that gets interpreted from game to game, that’s something you have to work through.”
Steelers coach Mike Tomlin is one of the four coaches on the competition committee and, as it turns out, a recent beneficiary of the taunting crackdown. (Marsh’s alleged posturing aided Tomlin’s 29-27 victory over the Bears two weeks ago.) A day after that controversial moment, Tomlin was asked again about the league’s push to reduce taunting.
“We’re just trying to clean our game up,” he said. “(With) this game being played at the highest level, we understand that people who play at a lower level watch us and often mimic the things we do and how we conduct ourselves. Just largely as a league competition committee specifically, there was a desire to improve in that area.”
To be fair to the league’s officials, a majority of the 37 taunting penalties issued this season fit the profile for exactly what the league is trying to get rid of.
Players making a big hit and looming over their opponent in an imposing manner? Not allowed. Players getting right up in another player’s face and jawing well after a play is finished? Prohibited.
In a short video produced by the NFL Department of Officiating and shown to all teams during the preseason to educate players and coaches on the rule changes and points of emphasis, the league highlighted actions from last season that no longer are being tolerated.
Indianapolis Colts receiver Parris Campbell, for example, bounced up after taking a big hit from Jacksonville Jaguars linebacker Myles Jack and immediately bodied Jack while flexing. Cleveland Browns receiver Jarvis Landry was shown spiking a football in the direction of Houston Texans safety Eric Murray.
‘That is a penalty?!?!’
Still, at times — and notably during that debatable Monday night chaos two weeks ago — the enforcement of the taunting rule has proved head-scratching. Perhaps even result-changing. As ESPN analyst Louis Riddick noted in the aftermath of Marsh’s penalty, “That is a real, real tough one, man. … You should not lose a game because of that.”
Three-and-half weeks earlier, Philadelphia Eagles linebacker Genard Avery was involved in a tackle on Tampa Bay Buccaneers running back Leonard Fournette, then spent a moment or two jawing at Fournette. Referee Clay Martin was having none of it, threw his flag and penalized the Eagles 15 yards.
Instead of second-and-8 at their 27, the Buccaneers had a free first down at the 42 with 5 minutes, 32 seconds remaining in a game they led 28-22. The penalty helped the Bucs drain the clock. The Eagles never got the ball back.
Fox Sports color analyst Troy Aikman was miffed in that moment, wondering how the punishment fit the crime.
“I know that’s a point of emphasis and everyone has been talking about it,” Aikman said. “But that is a penalty?”
Responded play-by-play announcer Joe Buck: “It is now.”
Heading into Week 11, officials had called 37 taunting penalties over the season’s first 150 games. The Chicago Tribune reviewed every call and identified a handful of notable facts and figures.
— For starters, defensive players have been called for taunting nearly twice as often as offensive players — 24-13.
— Defensive backs (16 taunting calls) and receivers (seven) have been responsible for more than 60% of the infractions overall.
— Nine teams had yet to be called for a single taunting violation while nine others had been penalized for at least two such infractions.
— The crews of referees Land Clark and Brad Allen have called taunting most often with Clark’s group throwing seven such flags and Allen’s crew handing out five.
— Only two players, Jaguars safety Rayshawn Jenkins and Buffalo Bills cornerback Levi Wallace, have been repeat offenders.
Still, for those who might have guessed that the league’s high-profile crackdown on taunting would lead to heightened awareness and thus a reduction in the number of violations as the season moves along? Well, 16 taunting flags were thrown in Weeks 8-10 compared with just 10 over the previous six weeks.
Earlier this week, the NFL sent a memo and another video to teams warning the crackdown would continue and emphasizing its push to punish acts of disrespect that are directed at opposing players or an opponent’s bench.
The Bears, believe it or not, have been penalized for taunting as much as any team this season, tied with the Buccaneers, Seattle Seahawks, Los Angeles Chargers and Jaguars with three such infractions.
Clark’s back judge, Greg Meyer, was the one who found reason to punish Bears safety Tashaun Gipson in Week 2 after Gipson celebrated an energizing third-down stop by clapping emphatically as he stood near Cincinnati Bengals receiver Ja’Marr Chase. After that game, Gipson was perplexed by the ruling.
“I wasn’t really saying much,” he argued. “I just clapped, man. That was a huge play on third down. (Just) pumping up my guys. That’s just the type of energy that you’re playing with. I don’t want to be out there if I can’t be happy for my guys when they make big plays. That’s what this game is about. It’s just adrenaline.”
In the same breath, Gipson owned his blunder as best he could. “It was costly,” he acknowledged, “and that was something I just can’t do. … It’s a fine line right now. You don’t know if you can be happy.”
Not to worry. That call was so iffy it likely earned the Bears a return gift later that afternoon when Bengals safety Vonn Bell blitzed Andy Dalton, forced an incompletion and shouted at Dalton. The Bears quarterback quickly marched toward umpire Paul King and began pleading for equal treatment.
King heard the appeal, ripped out his yellow flag and hit Bell for taunting.
Nine weeks later, though, Gipson is still attempting to sort through the interpretation of what qualifies as taunting and what does not. That can depend on the week and which officiating crew the Bears might be sharing the field with.
Two weeks ago in Pittsburgh, Gipson made a third-and-2 stop on Steelers tight end Kevin Rader and found himself suppressing his natural emotional reaction. He didn’t like the feeling.
“I’m a little older now. I’ve been doing this for a long time,” Gipson said. “So it’s truly habit. It is, man. When you make a play, it’s hard to not want to celebrate with your guys and show that type of emotion. Now it’s in the back of your mind.”
Gipson jokes he is still scarred by the taunting penalty from Week 2, which was accompanied by a fine notice for north of $10,000. “It’s a real thing,” he said. “They’re taking real money.”
That fine was reduced on appeal, and Gipson said he later knocked additional financial dues off by taking a video course.
“Any way to save money, man,” he said. “I’m frugal.”
To be clear, in this particular crusade, the NFL is not trying to act as the fun police. They are more interested in curtailing avoidable conflict. The message to teams and players has been straightforward since the summer. Excitement and happiness are still acceptable — so long as they are channeled in a proper direction and not directed toward opponents.
As Bears cornerback Jaylon Johnson put it after the defeat of the Bengals in September, “We were telling each other, ‘Keep bringing the energy. Keep celebrating.’ But we have to celebrate with ourselves. We can’t get anywhere close to the offense. Just celebrate within ourselves and keep bringing the juice.”
That’s a message Bears coach Matt Nagy has echoed. He stressed this week that he understands the spirit of the rule and the extracurricular nonsense the league wants to reduce. The intent, Nagy realizes, is for the NFL to serve as a model and provide examples of sportsmanship for younger generations to emulate, down through the high school ranks and into the earliest levels of youth football.
“It’s an exciting game. It’s a game that’s very emotional,” Nagy said this week. “But there are times where some people are egregious with celebrating and it can be over the top. Probably the biggest message is, ‘Let’s calm this down a little bit. Because people watch and people want to see a little bit of respect.’ ”
Nagy’s appreciation for the intention of the rule probably stems as much from his role as a father of four teenage boys as it does from his duties as Bears coach. He understands the natural urge for kids to imitate what they see in NFL games and cited Odell Beckham Jr.’s legendary one-handed touchdown catch in 2014 as a moment that suddenly prompted kids trying to copy that highlight-reel moment.
“That’s the last thing coaches tell you to do — ‘Use two hands to catch the ball,’ ” Nagy said. “But Odell’s out here making spectacular (one-handed) catches. He’s all over the media because it’s unbelievable. And then every kid is out here trying to catch the ball one-handed — including my four. So you have to tell them, ‘Listen, man, that’s awesome (but) …' Well, it’s the same thing in this regard. It’s our job to do it the right way.”
The natural follow-up question, though, is whether high-stakes games in a billion-dollar industry should be swung on controversial calls that are, in part, made to help set a better example for kids.
Gipson, too, is both a competitor and a father. His oldest son, Tashaun Jr., is 9 and locked into sports. Gipson knows firsthand how the younger generations look up to players.
Still, he raises an eyebrow at the grand suggestion that perceived taunting gestures are ruining the youth.
“Honestly,” Gipson said, “for us to show passion is a lot of what makes these kids want to be football players when they grow up. When you go to these games and you see these guys showing emotion and bringing that energy, it’s a big deal.
“Obviously there are instances where it’s a little more brash and distasteful. And I understand trying to take that out of the game. But half these penalties they’re making examples of, they’re just teetering with the line. Are we really setting an example? Or is it something we’re just experimenting with at the expense of the players?”
Rules are rules
In Week 8, Giants running back Elijhaa Penny punctuated a 16-yard catch in the fourth quarter of a tie game against the Kansas City Chiefs by flipping the ball forward and doing a bit of an emphatic head bob in the direction of linebacker Ben Niemann.
With a little more than seven minutes remaining, Penny’s penalty hurt his team. That Giants drive resulted in a punt, and the Chiefs drove for the game-winning field goal on the ensuing possession.
Even more costly and controversial: the flag against Marsh and the Bears the following Monday. That was widely criticized as an overreach by Corrente. Questions were raised as to why — if Marsh’s “posture” toward the Steelers sideline was so egregious — it still took Corrente several moments to throw his flag, launching it into the crisp fall air only after he and Marsh bumped.
Corrente stood by his call after the game. And the league’s director of officiating, Perry Fewell, backed him up in a video detailing some of the most debatable calls from Week 9. In that video, Fewell further admonished Marsh.
“He takes several steps toward the Pittsburgh bench, posturing toward their sideline,” Fewell said.
Marsh took exception to that explanation.
“Just sounds like them not being able to admit that they’re wrong honestly,” he said last week during an interview on WMVP-AM 1000. “It is what it is. ... I think it’s ridiculous that they’re referring to my posture, you know? If I can’t show posture on the field, what can you do?”
Added Gipson: “I’ve watched that play over and over again. As a parent at home, that’s not something I’m going to say to my son, ‘Hey, don’t look at that. That’s what we don’t do.’ I mean the guy made a play. Huge play. Impactful play. Fourth quarter. Close game. We’re getting the ball back. Show some damn emotion! I would have been worried if he just got that sack and went to the sideline.”
If that incident wasn’t the most ridiculous taunting flag thrown so far this season, it’s certainly a top nominee. Other candidates:
Buccaneers safety Mike Edwards was hit with a flag after his second pick-six of the fourth quarter against Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan in Week 2. Edwards’ transgression? Backpedaling the final 5 yards on his rip into the end zone.
In Week 4, Las Vegas Raiders tight end Darren Waller made a 21-yard reception but then quickly lost 15 of those when he bounced the ball with his left hand on the sideline. Referee John Hussey detailed the violation as “spiking the ball in the bench area.”
Former NFL official and current ESPN officiating analyst John Parry didn’t agree. “It is a point of emphasis,” Parry said. “But he’s not looking at the defender. He’s just putting the ball down on the ground in the white. I don’t think it’s directed at the opponent. … I don’t think there’s any intent there.”
Then there was the flag thrown on Chargers rookie Chris Rumph II at the end of a kickoff last weekend. Rumph was involved in a bit of post-play pushing with Chazz Surratt and Blake Lynch of the Minnesota Vikings. Chris Rumph Sr., who is the Bears defensive line coach, was watching live on TV, still scarred by what happened to his team six nights earlier. Then his son also drew a flag for taunting.
Rumph’s instant reaction?
“I’m not talking as a coach right now,” he declared. “As a dad? They robbed my son.”
Somewhere, Curtis Marsh Sr. is likely nodding.
Said Gipson: “Energy and passion is what this sport is all about. Taking that away from the game is tough. You’re taking away passion. Guys work all year-round. You may get one opportunity to make a play and change a game. To not be able to show that energy and passion is tough for sure.”
With eight weeks left in the regular season plus 13 postseason games beyond that, it’s a good bet the taunting rule will attract the spotlight again soon.
“You’ve got to understand the rule,” Nagy said “And now I need to do my job to teach that to our players so they understand it. And understand that these are the rules. We can’t change that. So know how we roll with that.”