February 1, 2019 / 11:00 AM / 15 days ago

Players, fans embrace touchdown celebrations as NFL softens stance

NEW YORK/ATLANTA, Feb 1 (Reuters) - It was Week 5 of the National Football League season and Pittsburgh Steelers receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster was lying on his back in the end zone after scoring a touchdown.

Running back James Conner immediately ducked down appearing to tend to his prone teammate. From there, Smith-Schuster pantomimed giving birth to a football, with Conner serving as midwife, resting a tender hand on the receiver after handing him his "baby."

The scene would have been virtually unthinkable just a few years ago, before the league relaxed its touchdown celebration restrictions.

Elaborately choreographed post-touchdown dances and group skits are now the norm, delighting NFL fans and lighting up social media.

"It’s kind of neat to see all 11 guys on offense – or a bunch of them - get together and create stuff," said former Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo, who retired shortly before the rule changes.

"I was a little disappointed because I'm a fantastic dancer," joked Romo, who will be in the broadcast booth for Sunday's Super Bowl LIII between the New England Patriots and Los Angeles Rams in Atlanta.

Reggie Wayne, who played 14 seasons with the Indianapolis Colts and is in Atlanta for the big game, said at first he was "totally against it," but got on board this season.

"It's a new wave," said Wayne, a member of the Super Bowl XLI champions. "As the year went on, it got exciting."

Hall of Fame wide receiver Michael Irvin, who won three Super Bowls with the Dallas Cowboys, missed out on the creative celebrations.

"I like to have fun," said Irvin. "I would have probably choreographed some things with some players."

While certainly not to everyone's liking, fans over the season flocked to Twitter to exchange gifs and video clips of their favorite end zone moves.

"I love how excited football players seem when they do their touchdown celebrations," tweeted Jessica (@jaymytro).

"Can I just choreograph NFL touchdown celebrations for a living??!?!?" wrote another Twitter user, Spookay (@kayscore).

The NFL, referred to derisively as the "No Fun League" when it clamped down on end zone celebrations, has now embraced the trend. It tweeted some of the best celebrations and is hosting a "Touchdown Celebration of the Year" contest on its site ahead of the championship game.

But the relaxed rules do not mean anything goes, with players navigating what can be a confusing new standard. Use of some props and actions seen as taunting the opposition are still forbidden.

The league fined New Orleans Saints receiver Michael Thomas $30,000 for retrieving a cellphone he had hidden under a goal post for his celebration of a 72-yard touchdown catch on Nov. 4.

Days later, when Kansas City Chiefs receiver Tyreek Hill leapt into the stands and commandeered a CBS camera to celebrate a touchdown, he reportedly received no fine - a decision that baffled some fans.

"What!?! M Thomas needs his money back," wrote Twitter user James Cooper Ware (@jcware). (Reporting By Amy Tennery in New York and Brendan O'Brien in Atlanta; editing by Bill Berkrot)

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