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Dirty Laundry: On holding and horse collars

We had our usual assortment of debatable officiating calls in Week 3, and we'll hit two of them in this edition of Dirty Laundry. The first nullified one of the most unusual and innovative plays you'll ever see at the NFL level.

As you know by now, Chicago Bears cornerback/special teams ace Corey Graham was called for holding during Johnny Knox's 89-yard punt return for a touchdown. Television replays obviously were limited because, like the Green Bay Packers' cover team, the cameras focused on Devin Hester's decoy attempt to field the ball. When you see Graham at that point, he isn't within 20 yards of a Packers player.

But as Jason Wilde of ESPNMilwaukee.com has already pointed out, the penalty came long before then. Graham was lined up alongside Knox as a "jammer" across from Packers "gunner" Jarrett Bush. When you watch the replay of FOX's original live broadcast, you see Knox take off downfield to grab the punt while Graham chases Bush downfield.

About 15 yards past the line of scrimmage, Graham clearly reaches out with his right hand and grabs Bush's shoulder, twisting him slightly. It wasn't the most aggressive hold I've ever seen, but you see it called pretty routinely in the NFL.

You might wonder why Graham felt compelled to reach out at all when it was clear that Bush had already taken the bait of Hester's fake. Bush was running away from the point where Knox was setting up to field the ball, apparently believing Hester was set to catch it. My guess is that part of the decoy called for the Bears' punt-team blockers to "sell" the Hester return, much like offensive linemen have to sell a run on play-action passes.

If Graham had simply let Bush run past him without an attempt to block, in theory he could have tipped off Bush that something was amiss. I understand why Graham did it, but I hope no one thinks this was a so-called "phantom call."

A few hours earlier in Minnesota, referee Ron Winter's crew had whistled Vikings linebacker Chad Greenway for a horse-collar tackle against Lions tight end Brandon Pettigrew, a 15-yard penalty that put the Lions in position for a late field goal. I haven't seen the full replay because of a glitch in the NFL's Game Rewind feed, but many of you have reported that FOX analyst John Lynch adamantly disagreed with the call.

The horse collar is one of the trickier rules in the NFL rule book. Let's review how it's worded.

Rule 12, Section 2, Article 1 (d): "All players are prohibited from: grabbing the inside collar of the back of the shoulder pads or jersey, or the inside collar of the side of the shoulder pads or jersey, and immediately pulling down the runner. This does not apply to a runner who is in the tackle box or to a quarterback who is in the pocket. Note: It is not necessary for a player to pull the runner completely to the ground in order for the act to be illegal. If his knees are buckled by the action, it is a foul, even if the runner is not pulled completely to the ground."

The photograph accompanying this post confirms that at one point, Greenway had his right hand inside the collar over Pettigrew's right shoulder. That satisfies the first part of the rule. Did Greenway "immediately pull down the runner?" By all accounts, he did. Was it with the kind of violence the NFL had in mind when it implemented this rule? Perhaps not. But Winter's crew has the latitude to make a judgment call there, and most NFL officials are going to err on the side of safety.

The horse collar isn't a perfect rule, but it's been around long enough for us to expect this call to be made. In general, defenders would be wise to keep their hands out of any part of an opponent's collar unless it's the only way to save a touchdown.

On to our updated penalty tracker...