The refs blew the call on the Houston Texans’ TKO of Chicago Bears’ quarterback Jay Cutler on Sunday night (11/11/12). No, not because Cutler might not have had all of his back foot over the line of scrimmage, and therefore the refs should not have flagged the Bears for an illegal forward pass. And no, not because the refs should have thrown the Texans’ defender out of the game for violently going helmet-to-helmet with Cutler.
No, here is where the refs screwed up. As we all know, the NFL is trying hard to give greater protection to quarterbacks, because they are the stars and it would not be good for business if the QBs were all walking around in a daze. As a result, we have all kinds of special rules for assaults upon the QBs, some under “roughing the passer” and others under “unnecessary roughness.” Bottom line: If you are playing defense, you do not want your helmet to come into contact with the other team’s quarterback, anwhere, anytime, regardless of how inadvertent, incidental, minor, or even gentle the contact might be. The rules are less stringent once the QB leaves the “pocket,” but even then the QB still gets preferred treatment.
The rest of the “skill players ” – the wide receivers, flankers, tight ends, fullbacks, and, especially, the human tanks known as running backs – get far less protection. So long as you are not going way out of your way to maim a running back and your behavior is more or less central to the main action on a play, a defensive player can do to a running back virtually anything he might want to do, so long as it does not involve a concealed weapon.
Here’s the problem: once a QB is no longer in the pocket and appears to be “trying to advance the ball,” he has become, as far as the NFL is concerned, a running back. Were that not the case, there would be almost no way to defend against a quarterback sneak, a quarterback draw, or just about any part of Michael Vick’s game. But, you might say, what does that have to do with Jay Cutler, who wound up actually throwing a pass – and thereby proving that, while he was running around and escaping J.J. Watt, he was also at least thinking about throwing that pass and thus was not really trying to advance the ball as a runner? Here’s the answer: by declaring that Cutler had thrown an illegal pass, the refs were ruling that he had crossed the line of scrimmage, which means he could no longer throw a legal pass, which means he was, alas, a running back! Which means, the Bears were legally entitled to apply near-lethal force to any part of Cutler’s body, so long as it was reasonably connected to trying to bring him to the ground.
The refs blew the call.