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The context behind Vonn Bell’s taunting penalty

A game-changing moment went against Bell and the Bengals’ defense.

NFL: San Francisco 49ers at Cincinnati Bengals Joseph Maiorana-USA TODAY Sports

Self-inflicted wounds from the last two weeks have the once 7-4 Bengals bleeding into a 7-6 record and out of playoff seeding.

Among the plethora of mistakes that cost the Bengals another win, Vonn Bell’s taunting penalty stands out as the most questionable one.

On a crucial third down towards the end of the first half, the Bengals stopped the 49ers near the red zone thanks to a Cam Sample pressure that forced a bad throw from Jimmy Garoppolo. The ball hit the turf a couple times before Bell picked it up and started running with it in celebration. Amidst this celebratory jog, Bell pointed at 49ers center Alex Mack as he went over to his teammates on the sidelines. Seeing this, the sideline referee dug for his flag and flung it a good 15 feet in the air.

The optics of the moment look bad for Bell. There have been plenty of egregious taunting penalties this year, and that’s an unfortunate reality when a new rule becomes a point of emphasis, but this one looked like something the refs would flag.

What was Bell doing? According to his teammate. D.J. Reader, he was telling Mack: “You almost hit me.”

Bell was not genuinely taunting Mack, but that doesn’t matter. It’s the way you look while doing so that determines whether or not a flag gets thrown.

That’s the biggest problem with this rule, aside from it existing at all. Enforcing it with any degree of consistency is an impossible task because it comes down to how individual refs perceive them happening. They have guidelines of what to look for, but these things happen so quickly that the slightest action can change a game. They’re similar to other penalties from that point of view, but it’s the intent that creates a hard to judge gray area.

Sure enough, the 49ers took advantage of the penalty and scored a touchdown on the very next play. Assuming they would’ve made a field goal instead, that’s a four-point swing in a game that went to overtime and was decided by three points.

Is it dumb that simply pointing at an opposing player in a joyous fashion results in a penalty? Of course it is. No one outside of the people who instituted this rule disagrees. But since it is a rule and there’s nothing players can do to change it right now, Bell simply can’t do what he did; at least not in a way that makes already trigger-happy refs reach for the yellow.

Bell and the defense shouldn’t have even been on the field at this juncture. Darius Phillips muffed his second punt of the day after the 49ers went three-and-out on the previous series. Another costly error that has helped dug the hole they are now residing in.

That represents who the Bengals are right now, fair or not.