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Dirty Laundry: Contact and the pocket

I was trying to multi-task last Sunday afternoon, catching up on the Metrodome roof collapse while also watching the Green Bay Packers' game at the Detroit Lions. Late in the first quarter, I looked up and saw both coaches losing their minds. It wasn't uncommon for Lions coach Jim Schwartz, but I've rarely seen Packers coach Mike McCarthy that upset.

A quick rewind and a second viewing of the play revealed the source of the ruckus. Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers had thrown a deep pass to receiver Greg Jennings, who had a step down the middle on Lions safety Amari Spievey. The ball hit Jennings squarely in the hands, and just before he took off for what would have been a 73-yard touchdown, it ricocheted out and toward Spievey for an interception.

It was a huge play, obviously, but three flags on the field led to a delay while referee Gene Steratore sorted things out. The key penalty was an illegal contact on the Lions; Steratore later announced it on No. 43, but I believe he intended it for Spievey (No. 42). Normally, the penalty would have resulted in a reversal of the interception and a 5-yard walk off for the Packers.

But Schwartz, whose team has had its fair share of officiating fiascoes this season, sprinted some 15 yards onto the field waving his right arm, arguing that Rodgers was outside of the pocket when he threw the ball. NFL Rule 8, Section 3, Article 3 defines illegal contact this way: "Beyond the five-yard zone, if the player who receives the snap remains in the pocket with the ball, a defender may use his hands or arms only to defend or protect himself against impending contact caused by a receiver. If the receiver attempts to evade the defender, the defender cannot initiate contact that redirects, restricts, or impedes the receiver in any way."

Indeed, Steratore waved off the flag and announced Rodgers had not remained in the pocket, as the rule states. That decision set off McCarthy, who was as livid as I've seen him on the sideline during a game. Rodgers protested as well.

When you watch the replay, there is no question Rodgers drifted to his right and ultimately left the pocket before throwing. Clearly McCarthy couldn't have missed that.

The NFL defines the "pocket area" as "from the normal tackle position on each side of the center and extends backwards to the offensive team's own end line." The ball had been snapped from the right hash mark. Right tackle Bryan Bulaga set up between the right hash mark and the numbers. When Rodgers threw the pass, he was about a yard away from the numbers.

But here's the rub: Where was Rodgers when Spievey initiated the illegal contact? McCarthy was not asked about the play in the aftermath of a 7-3 loss, but I bet that was part of his argument.

Unfortunately, the television copy of the game feed doesn't offer a view of the illegal contact, so we don't know if Rodgers was outside the pocket when it happened.

Regardless, I would guess that relatively few people know that a quarterback has to be inside the pocket for contact beyond five yards to be illegal. It's one of the few advantages granted to defensive backs. If a quarterback scrambles to buy more time, he also reduces the strict ban on contact against receivers.

A little lesson for us all.

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