A day after a taunting flag played a role in the outcome of "Monday Night Football," Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin spoke out in support of the NFL's new emphasis on penalizing infractions.
The NFL is likewise reportedly on board with the controversial penalty.
“We’re just trying to clean our game up,” Tomlin told reporters at his Tuesday news conference, per the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. “We embrace the responsibility that comes with being the role models that we are. With this game being played at the highest level, we understand the people that play at a lower level watch us and often mimic the things we do and how we conduct ourselves."
Tomlin, a member of the NFL's competition committee, addressed the subject after a late taunting penalty against the Chicago Bears aided his Steelers in Monday's 29-27 win. Inside the final four minutes of the game, Bears linebacker Cassius Marsh sacked Ben Roethlisberger on third-and-7. The result of the play would have led to a Steelers punt with Pittsburgh leading 23-20 and 3:16 remaining in regulation.
But referee Tony Corrente flagged Marsh for taunting, setting the Steelers up with a first down. They went on to kick a field goal on the drive that proved to be the decisive margin in Pittsburgh's two-point win.
Marsh called out Corrente postgame
Marsh criticized Corrente for the penalty after the game.
“I think that one was bad timing," Marsh told reporters. "It was pretty clear to everybody that saw it that I wasn’t taunting.”
He also said that Corrente intentionally "hip-checked" him as the two made contact right before Corrente threw the flag.
Tony Corrente leaned into the contact and then held his flag toss like a walk off three pointer. What a joke pic.twitter.com/MhNlNVewJx
— Will Brinson (@WillBrinson) November 9, 2021
“I just think that was incredibly inappropriate," Marsh said.
NFL reportedly backs Corrente's decision to penalize Marsh
The penalty on Marsh was certainly not one that would have been called prior to the league's 2021 emphasis on taunting. Marsh didn't gesture at the Steelers or say anything directly or close to a Steelers player. That it played a role in the outcome of Monday's game is the exact scenario critics of the emphasis have leveled since the NFL announced it in the preseason.
Corrente explained his decision to throw the flag to pool reporter Adam Hoge.
"First of all, keep in mind that taunting is a point of emphasis this year," Corrente said. "And with that said, 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."
On Tuesday, an NFL source backed Corrente's decision while speaking with The Washington Post's Mark Maske.
"The call was the definition of taunting, with the player gesturing toward the sideline and opponent," the source said, per Maske.
NFL repeatedly backs controversial taunting calls
Citing NFLpenalties.com, the Tribune-Review reports that NFL officials have called 27 taunting penalties through nine weeks, almost tripling the total of 10 called the entire 2020 season. When taunting infractions have become stories this season, members of the NFL's competition committee that draft the league's rule proposals have repeatedly spoken out in support of the new emphasis, citing the league's influence on lower levels of the game.
“Largely as a league, and the competition committee specifically, there was a desire to improve in that area," Tomlin continued on Tuesday. "That has been expressed to our guys. We’ve been shown examples of that through team development, and we continue to reinforce that as examples in a negative way turn up during the course of this journey for us and for others.”
Washington Football Team head coach Ron Rivera is also on the competition committee. He's likewise voiced his public support of the taunting emphasis amid blowback. He said in August that the league wants to shield children from witnessing taunting.
"Quite honestly, we don't need the young people to see that," Rivera said of the NFL's definition of taunting in August. "We don't want the Pop Warner, peewee football kids seeing us act like that."
None of these explanations help the Bears in the standings. Marsh and the Bears are right to be upset with Monday's call. But there's nothing they can do about it.
This is what the NFL wants.