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Thursday, December 9, 2010
Dirty Laundry: Forearms and activist refs

By Kevin Seifert

After spending some time reflecting on the latest Ndamukong Suh controversy, and scouring the NFL rule book, I feel relatively comfortable explaining what I think happened at Ford Field and why the league fined Suh $15,000 this week. In the end, it takes me back to where we started: This penalty was both avoidable and exacerbated by an activist referee. Let me explain.

Ed Hohuli and Jim Schwartz
Referee Ed Hochuli shows Detroit Lions coach Jim Schwartz why he called an unnecessary roughness penalty on Ndamukong Suh.
My initial post referenced Suh throwing a forearm shiver at Chicago Bears quarterback Jay Cutler in the fourth quarter of the Detroit Lions' game last Sunday against the Chicago Bears. After watching it on a frame-by-frame slowdown, you see Suh approaching Cutler with his right arm cocked at a 90-degree angle and then lunging toward him. That said, I'll agree that Suh's first contact with Cutler was with his right hand, not his forearm, and it was followed by a violent, but legal, two-handed shove rather than a shiver.

But in reality, there is never a time when it's smart for an NFL player to run at another with his forearm cocked. Why?

NFL rule 12, Article 3, Section 1(a) defines unsportsmanlike conduct, among other things, as: "Throwing a punch, or a forearm, or kicking at an opponent even though no contact is made."

So if you can be penalized for throwing a forearm shiver that doesn't make contact with a player, why even start the process? Sunday, Suh threw his forearm at Cutler. It just didn't land. Who knows what Suh's mindset at the time was. But based on NFL rules, nothing good can ever come by approaching a player the way Suh did. That's why I think the NFL fined Suh -- even a forearm whiff is considered unsportsmanlike conduct under its rules, and Suh is a multiple offender this season.

Independently, however, referee Ed Hochuli botched both the call and the explanation. His original announcement referenced a hit to Cutler's helmet that simply didn't occur. And his objection to Suh's tackling technique during an interview with a pool reporter was, in my view, out of his jurisdiction.

All Hochuli had to do was state that throwing a forearm, whether it makes contact or not, is illegal under NFL rules. Instead, he referred to the play as an "unnecessary non-football act," a phrase that apparently referenced NFL rule 12, Article 13 (2). That rule protects quarterbacks from "such intimidating and punishing acts as 'stuffing' a passer into the ground or unnecessarily wrestling or driving him down after the passer has thrown the ball." It also requires defensive players to strive "to wrap up or cradle the passer with the defensive player's arms" when attempting a sack.

The obvious flaw here is that Cutler wasn't in the pocket and in fact was running for a first down, an act that withdraws the protection he would receive as a passer. But in his pool interview, Hochuli said: "When you tackle people, you come in and you wrap up and come with your arms and things like that. I felt he delivered a blow to the back [of the] runner...."

Hogwash. In this instance, it wasn't for Hochuli to judge Suh's tackling technique against Cutler, who was no different than a running back at the time. All he needed to say was that a forearm shiver -- real or whiffed -- is illegal.

Hochuli complicated and exacerbated the matter, but as the NFL's subsequent fine confirmed, the play still fell under the category of unsportsmanlike conduct based on the league's rule book. Few of us probably realized that at the time. So it goes.

Now, on to our updated Challenge Tracker: