I've saved this season's Dirty Laundry posts for events that genuinely fall into a gray area of officiating or spur significant confusion, and I think we have one that qualifies this week.
The second-quarter play that left Chicago Bears quarterback Jay Cutler concussed, took $30,000 from the pocket of Houston Texans linebacker Tim Dobbins and officially never happened (because of offsetting penalties) has led to a disparate set of contradictory explanations and protests. So let's sift through the layers and explain why the penalty flag on Dobbins was justified regardless of other circumstances.
First, a reminder of what happened on the play. With two minutes, 56 seconds remaining in the first half Sunday night, the Bears had a third-and-nine from the 50-yard line. Cutler scrambled from the pocket, headed upfield and threw a short pass to receiver Devin Hester as he approached the line of scrimmage. An instant later, Dobbins flattened Cutler with a hit as Hester turned the pass into a 42-yard gain.
Referee Gene Steratore's crew threw multiple flags: One against Cutler for an illegal forward pass (beyond the line of scrimmage), and the other against Dobbins for unnecessary roughness. In his announcement, Steratore said Dobbins was penalized for a "hit above the quarterback's shoulders."
That wording prompted justifiable confusion; if Cutler was in fact beyond the line, he was no longer protected by the NFL's long list of rules regarding hits on quarterbacks, otherwise known as "roughing the passer." Instead, he would be viewed as any other ball carrier. The NFL rule book states in case study 12.50 that "roughing the passer rules apply on all legal or illegal forward passes, as long as the pass is thrown from behind the line of scrimmage."
I realize it was a close call as to whether Cutler was fully past the line of scrimmage when he threw the ball, as required for that penalty to be called. For the sake of this post, however, let's assume Steratore was correct and that Cutler was merely a ball carrier and not a quarterback. Dobbins' hit would still be illegal.
Unnecessary roughness rules, applied to all positions, prohibit a player from using his helmet to forcefully hit an opponent. Here is the exact wording from Rule 12, Section 2, Article 8(g) of the rule book: "A player uses any part of his helmet (including the top/crown and forehead/'hairline' parts) or facemask to butt, spear, or ram an opponent violently or unnecessarily."
Go back and watch Dobbins' hit. The front of his helmet appears to hit Cutler's jaw and facemask. Cutler's head turns pretty decisively to the left on impact. Was Cutler turning away from the contact or did the force of Dobbins' blow cause that movement? It's difficult to tell for sure, but the play sure appears to fit the description of using "any part" of the helmet to "ram an opponent violently." (Former NFL vice president of officiating Mike Pereira, now an analyst for Fox Sports, drew the same conclusion this week).
Dobbins might not have gotten the same opportunity to make such a hit on a running back or receiver, of course. Most ball carriers would be better braced for impact than Cutler was as he focused on Hester. But if he had, based on NFL rules, the same unnecessary roughness penalty would be justified.
During a Twitter discussion Wednesday, some of you thought Dobbins' $30,000 fine suggested the NFL viewed Cutler as a passer. I'm not sure about that. There is precedent for players to face elevated fines for helmet-to-helmet hits on non-quarterbacks. Two years ago, in fact, Atlanta Falcons cornerback Dunta Robinson was fined $50,000 for a hit that gave Philadelphia Eagles receiver DeSean Jackson a concussion.
Now, let's update our NFC North penalty tracker, updated through Week 10: