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Labriola on taunting, 'super seniors'

Ready or not, here it comes:

Let's begin with this: In the eyes of the NFL, there is a difference between celebrating and taunting.

Not since the NFL instituted its player safety initiative a month into the 2010 regular season has a "point of emphasis" captured the imagination and enraged the fan base to the degree the league's mandate to eliminate taunting has so far in 2021. And things reached something of a crescendo on Monday night in the fourth quarter of Steelers vs. Bears at Heinz Field.

Everyone has seen the video of Cassius Marsh sacking Ben Roethlisberger in a situation that would've forced the Steelers to punt, but instead of getting the ball and an opportunity to do something about their 23-20 deficit, the Bears found themselves back on defense after referee Tony Corrente penalized Marsh for taunting. That 15-yard unsportsmanlike conduct penalty gave the Steelers an automatic first down, and by the time the possession was over a Chris Boswell field goal had extended the Steelers' lead to 26-20 in a game they eventually won, 29-27.

The howling began even before Boswell's game-deciding field goal pierced the uprights with 26 seconds left, and in various pockets of the media and social media it continues to this day. But not only is the NFL not backing down, but the league is doubling down based on a video released by the NFL's officiating department.

In that video, Senior Vice President of Officiating Perry Fewell defended Corrente's decision by saying that the call against Marsh was correct, and that officials will continue to enforce the point of emphasis against taunting.

"(Marsh) takes several steps toward the Pittsburgh bench, posturing toward their sideline. Taunting is a point of emphasis to promote sportsmanship and respect for opponents. This was recommended by the competition committee and coaches," Fewell said in the video.

And it would be best if players, coaches, and fans get it through their heads that this is the new way things are going to be done in the NFL, just as was the case in 2010 when the point of emphasis was to eliminate using the head and hitting the head. Then, as now, the league wants this to happen, and it's willing to penalize, and possibly fine and/or suspend until it gets what it wants.

In the span of a fortnight back in 2010, James Harrison went from a feared and hard-hitting player who hadn't been flagged for a personal foul or unsportsmanlike conduct penalty in thousands of defensive snaps to a guy who was getting flagged regularly and paying large sums of money in fines. Harrison hadn't changed the way he was playing the game one iota, but the enthusiastic enforcement of the point of emphasis turned him into Public Enemy No. 1.

I don't think the league cares whether fans or players or the media like this point of emphasis. It wants to eliminate taunting, or anything resembling taunting, from its game. I don't think the league cares if the timing of a penalty for taunting alters the course of a game, because it wants taunting out of its game. I don't think the league cares if a taunting penalty in a critical situation alters the course of a game and demonizes the individual player responsible, because it wants taunting out of its game. In cases such as this, and the player safety initiative, it's either adapt or get buried under a mountain of yellow cloth.

This is going to happen.

So, players: learn to celebrate with your teammates in a way where you do not engage or even make eye contact with players, coaches, or other personnel from the opposing team, or even with the opposing team's sideline in general. Celebrate with your teammates in a way where you don't engage or even make eye contact with opposing fans. Anything else, anything that deviates from these general guidelines could be interpreted as taunting, and if you are penalized the league will respond by coming out in support of the official who threw the flag.

This is going to happen, behavior will be changed, and it will take as long as it takes. The sooner everyone involved understands and accepts that, the sooner the focus can go back to football instead of the silly antics associated with it. And included on the list of silly antics are penalties for taunting.

Apparently, it's never too early for Christmas shopping, Christmas decorating, and NFL mock drafts. The click-baiting can begin as early as the day after one draft ends, and while Steelers fans are no different when it comes to being targeted with this drivel, things seem to be ratcheted up by the expected retirement of Ben Roethlisberger following the 2021 season.

Adding to the faux suspense of this mock draft season is that the Steelers and the University of Pittsburgh share the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex on a daily basis, and Pitt quarterback Kenny Pickett does a lot of his work on the same patch of Heinz Field grass as Roethlisberger. Ordinarily, such details would mean little to nothing, but in 2021 Pickett has put himself on the fringes of Heisman Trophy discussion by putting up the following numbers during Pitt's 8-2 season that includes its overtime win over North Carolina on Thursday, Nov. 11: he has completed 260-of-385 (67.5 percent) for 3,517 yards, with 32 touchdowns, four interceptions, and a rating of 119.8 if calculated using the NFL method. Pickett also has rushed for 223 yards on 83 attempts with four more touchdowns.

Still to be determined is whether Pickett can play himself into consideration as a Heisman finalist, and then during the long slog of the pre-draft process whether he can establish himself as a first-round pick on April 28, 2022.

Already underway and gaining momentum every day, however, is the process of linking him to the Steelers. Beyond the Roethlisberger situation, the click-baiters most recently have been all over the "reports" that General Manager Kevin Colbert was in attendance for North Carolina vs. Pitt, even though the fact the venue (Heinz Field) is a 10-minute drive from Colbert's office at the team's practice facility and made it the easiest and shortest scouting trip of his year.

Anyway, enough of that. Where Pickett gets drafted and which NFL team becomes his future employer will get figured out during the first four months of 2022, and I'm here only to present a few things NFL teams will be considering that largely are being ignored by the click-baiters. Readers should understand that Pickett will be highly drafted and deserves to be highly drafted and that the things to be presented are not indictments of him or his talent or his production, but merely facts professional scouts and NFL general managers will consider in making their evaluations of him.

Pickett is a "super senior," a category implemented by the NCAA in wake of the impact the COVID-19 pandemic had on the 2020 college football season. Because of COVID-19, the NCAA ruled that the 2020 college season would not count against any player's eligibility clock. That allowed players whose eligibility was set to expire after the 2020 season were allowed to return for one more "super senior" year.

Pickett took advantage and based on the caliber of his play to this point in 2021, it was a savvy career move by him because where he would have been drafted in 2021 wouldn't have been as early as where he figures to get picked in 2022. And that could mean a significant increase in the amount of the rookie contract he eventually signs. Which is good for him and his family.

But the NFL will look a little deeper into this, and when it does it will find that Pickett will have played around 52 games during his college career, in many cases a full season's worth more than recent college quarterbacks who have been selected in the first round of recent NFL Drafts. More games played means more experience, and more experience means a higher comfort level against competition that is less experienced. It's not to the degree where Pickett could be viewed as a varsity player competing against junior varsity opponents, but it's logical to expect him to be taking advantage of this situation in which he finds himself.

As a comparison to Pickett, Mac Jones had 30 games of college experience; Trevor Lawrence had 40; Justin Fields and Patrick Mahomes both had 32; Lamar Jackson and Roethlisberger both had 38. The experience issue is a factor in judging the individual's college statistics, which means Pickett's numbers will be viewed within the context of his enhanced experience.

Also to be considered, and in conjunction with experience, will be Pickett's age. He will be 24 about a month after the 2022 NFL Draft, and not that 24 makes him a prematurely old man, but the difference between a 24-year-old athlete and a 21-year-old athlete can be significant in some cases, just as the maturity level of a 24-year-old person can be significantly different from that of a 21-year old.

Not a deal-breaker in any way, mind you, but Kenny Pickett currently is taking advantage of circumstances that won't be available to him in the NFL. And that's something that will be considered when Pickett is discussed and ultimately graded in NFL draft rooms.

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