When the NFL stepped up taunting penalties, it had this player in mind

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More often than not, there is an incident that shifts the NFL’s bad idea factory into overdrive. And the league’s renewed emphasis on taunting — which is off to a predictably poor start in the preseason — is no different.

So where did this all begin? Or more appropriately, who did it begin with?

Meet Tyreek Hill. The electrifying Kansas City Chiefs wideout whose pre-touchdown celebrations allegedly tweaked more than one member of the rule-emphasizing establishment last season.

That’s according to two league sources familiar with conversations between members of the NFL’s competition committee. Both pinned a large part of the renewed push to tamp down taunting on Hill, who had made a habit of throwing up “deuces” at defenses as he coasted away for touchdowns. That, along with a few backflips into the end zone last season, helped fuel momentum for the new taunting emphasis.

“[The backflips], when you’re watching that and the gesturing, it’s not a part of a touchdown celebration,” one source said. “It’s obviously taunting. It’s purposely being disrespectful and you saw in the Super Bowl where it came back. A guy retaliates because he saw that it was being disrespectful and then now he’s getting him back.”

The incident being referred to? It was Tampa Bay Buccaneers safety Antoine Winfield Jr. throwing the deuces back in Hill’s face with victory all but assured in the Super Bowl last February. Winfield Jr. was later fined for the move, which was an easy call for the league because it drew a penalty on the field and Winfield Jr. literally called it "taunting" afterward.

“The taunting, man it’s something I had to do,” Winfield told reporters. “When we played them earlier [in the season], Hill went off on us. He backflipped right in front of my face and gave me the peace sign. So it was only right that I gave him the peace sign right back to him. It felt amazing to be able to do that.”

Amazing, but ultimately costly for all of the players because it added momentum to an ongoing conversation between competition committee members that started during the regular season. It was a conversation that apparently involved the backflips that Winfield mentioned, as well as Hill’s penchant (as well as some others) for making gestures toward other opponents after big plays.

Since the pre-touchdown gestures weren’t part of what the league considered a sanctioned celebration, some competition committee members started to question why flags weren’t thrown. And there was no good answer.

But it was clear that Hill’s actions became a foundational piece of why taunting became a larger conversation. Not just his signature “deuces” gesture, but also something else that appeared on the verge of getting out of hand: Hill doing backflips into the end zone.

Tyreek Hill's
Tyreek Hill's "deuces" celebration wasn't the only taunting problem in the eyes of the NFL Competition Committee. (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

As Winfield mentioned, Hill pulled off a backflip into the end zone in a Week 12 win over the Buccaneers, spinning around to look at defenders before doing so. He then repeated it a week later in a nationally televised Sunday night win over the Denver Broncos.

While the touchdown against the Broncos was negated by a penalty, Hill’s backflip in that game was even more pronounced, leaving an impression on more than one competition committee member. On the play, Hill actually came to a complete stop and paused after turning around, then performed his flip after looking at Denver defenders. The moment seemed to at least slightly rub Al Michaels the wrong way on the broadcast, dubbing it “histrionics.”

While the officials were sorting out a holding penalty, the referee announced to the capacity crowd and national television audience “there was no foul for the flip into the end zone.”

That apparently didn’t sit right with at least a few competition committee members — especially after Chiefs coach Andy Reid later told reporters later that “unless it’s taunting, it’s not a penalty.”

“In the eyes of [some committee members], it was obviously taunting,” one source said. “Then you get a continuation of things where you’ve got Winfield talking about leveling the score in the Super Bowl. At that point you have to discuss whether some things need to be checked.

“And that’s not to say it was all Tyreek Hill. There are definitely examples of other players taunting. But [Hill] was an example of things going further and further and then some score-settling.”

While there has been fallout from the new emphasis in the early stages of the preseason, there was clearly some foundation for it. The question now isn’t just whether the taunting in 2020 was enough to justify the new emphasis, but whether the league will swing the pendulum back too far in the opposite direction.

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