When does a celebration cross the line?

HEMPSTEAD, N.Y. -- When Jets coach Herm Edwards saw the highlight on Monday, he felt a hot flash of anger. He reached for the phone and called NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue.

"We all have a right to voice our opinion," Edwards said Wednesday at the Jets' facility at Hofstra University. "Obviously, when you have an opinion, you call the people that run the league. I voiced my opinion and that was between the commissioner and myself. I'll leave it at that."

You know the highlight we're talking about:

With just under six minutes left in the first half, Saints wide receiver Joe Horn took a 13-yard pass from Aaron Brooks and scored his second touchdown of the night in what turned out to be a 45-7 blowout. Horn immediately ran to the goalpost in the south end zone and started pawing at the padding. Saints teammate Michael Lewis retrieved the fallen cell phone and handed it gleefully to Horn, who phoned his children at home.

Although the call never went through -- by the time he dialed and hit send he was already nodding his head and pretending to have a conversation -- the official's flag for unsportsmanlike conduct was flying his way.

"This game is all about excitement," Horn explained after the game. "I'll probably get fined for it, and I think it's ridiculous. We should give the fans what they want, what they pay their hard-earned money for, and that's excitement."

One man's excitement, of course, is another man's, well, horse excrement.

"We are professionals," said Edwards, who played cornerback for a decade for the Eagles, Rams and Falcons. "We are the best organization in the whole wide world. There's a certain standard we live by and play by and I just think we have to make sure that the line has been drawn in the sand that we don't cross."

The NFL, naturally, agrees. Horn's celebration was viewed as disruptive, disrespectful and, technically, against the rules. Horn was fined $30,000 for the prank -- a serious roaming charge if there ever was one -- and Lewis received a $10,000 fine as an accessory to the crime, which Horn has said he will pay. Earlier this season, Horn was fined $5,000 for pantomiming the firing of a Tommy Gun.

In the third-to-last weekend in the regular season, there were more than a few things going around the NFL. The Titans rallied heroically against the Bills and the Cowboys beat the rival Redskins to maintain the upper hand in the wildcard race. The Bears and Raiders scored upsets against division-leading teams in Minnesota and Baltimore. The 9-5 Panthers clinched the NFC South, their first playoff berth in seven seasons. The Chiefs and Patriots both climbed to 12-2 in a battle for the best record in the league.

And yet, what dominated the highlights and radio talk shows? Horn's phone episode.

Pity, Chad Johnson, the Bengals' wide receiver who also demonstrated guile and creativity in planting a sign somewhere in Paul Brown Stadium. Johnson, who had reportedly been fined approximately $55,000 already this season for a variety of things, including improper uniform attire and over-the-top end zone celebrations, scored a touchdown on a 10-yard pass in the first quarter and hoisted the sign which read: Dear NFL, PLEASE don't fine me AGAIN!!!!!

Johnson got whacked $2,000 for each exclamation point, a total of $10,000 for his insolence. The fact that Johnson's Bengals won a wild 41-38 game over San Francisco to retain a share of first place in the AFC North was widely overlooked.

We have Terrell Owens to thanks for all of this. In the last several season, the San Francisco 49ers wide receiver has executed a number of clever and creative celebrations, from the spike on the Dallas star to the shaking of a cheerleader's pom-poms to the infamous Sharpie incident. When he shoveled show toward the fans in the end zone after scoring last Sunday, it almost seemed like a spontaneous throwback to the innocent days of the late 1990s before foreign objects became part of the scenario.

"When you go through training camp, you know how grueling that is, you put in all the hard work and you try to score touchdowns on Sunday," Owens told ESPN's Jamal Anderson earlier this year. "There are a lot of people who have played this game that don't get into the end zone that much. Getting into the end zone is not an easy thing, so when you get there, you make the best of it. That's me, so long as I am doing something within the confines of the league and not doing something ridiculous, that I'm cool and everybody's enjoying it ... it is entertainment.

"I am a football player and an entertainer at the same time."

Johnson had a similar perspective. Asked if he thought his sign would draw a fine from the league, he responded, "It shouldn't. That's not fair. If I do, you have got to chip in. I've run out of checks."

Welcome to the machine
Dr. Alan Klein, a professor of sociology and anthropology at Northeastern University, remembers watching Jim Brown as a kid in the 1950s through the distant lens of television.

What did it look like to run behind the offensive line, Klein wondered? What was Jim Brown thinking when he took the handoff?

Today, the mystery is no more.

"It looks like a machine, it works like a machine and, suddenly, someone appears in the end zone and does something that's not part of the machine," Klein explained. "That person is calling attention to the fact that, `Hey, I'm a real person.' I think that's what everybody's relating to.

"The fact that person might pull his helmet off, might pull out a cell phone or a Sharpie, might do something that a normal human being might do -- that's not part of the machine."

Football has always been the most team-oriented sport. There are 11 players on a side who must mesh as one to succeed. Factor in all that protective padding and their uniform uniforms and you have the most successful machine in all of professional sport. Lately, however, there have been a few glitches.

By any measure, the level of self-expression by players (some would call it ego) is on the rise:

  • According to the league, there were five group demonstrations in 2000 that were ultimately fined by the NFL. In 2001, the number fell to two but in 2002 there were six fined group demonstrations. This season, through Week 15, the total was twice that, 12.

  • Taunting, flagrantly disrespecting the opponent, has proliferated, too. In 2000, officials called 11 taunting fouls on the field. The number rose to 34 in 2001 and in 2002 there were 42 such incidents. Through Week 15, the total was 30, which extrapolates to 35 incidents.

    The league -- labeled as the No Fun League some years ago in response to sanctions against players -- is sensitive to the criticism that it doesn't condone fun.

    "We've tried to draw the lines into it over the years by saying, `Have fun with it. Celebrate. Get the fans into it. Leap into the stands,' " said Rick McKay, the new Atlanta Falcons general manager, who is a member of the league's competition committee. "Just don't show up the other player -- that's not what it's about."

    How do you draw a line with something as alive as human emotion?

    "You can't," McKay conceded. "You don't know where it is, because they get creative on you. You think you've drawn the line and someone goes out and knees on the star. You think you've drawn the line and someone pulls out a Sharpie and starts signing the ball.

    "We just have to re-draw the next line to deal with it."

    Owens was asked earlier this week about Horn's cell phone celebration. He said he was impressed.

    "His celebration is a Rembrandt of what I did," Owens said. "The only thing is, I didn't get fined for mine. It just kind of set a rule, set a precedent for future celebrations.

    "I mean, I'm not going to try and top it. But anybody knows me, it's just a matter of time before I do something else."

    Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.