Houston Texans 10 at Chicago Bears 3 (Week 10)
Third-and-9, Chicago at Midfield, 2:56 of Q2
(2:56) (Shotgun) 6-J.Cutler pass short middle to 23-D.Hester to HOU 8 for 42 yards (24-J.Joseph; 25-K.Jackson). Penalty on CHI-6-J.Cutler, Illegal Forward Pass, offsetting, enforced at 50 - No Play. Penalty on HOU-52-T.Dobbins, Unnecessary Roughness, offsetting. Chicago challenged the illegal forward pass ruling, and the play was Upheld. (Timeout #1.)
This play was strange because it included not one, but two extremely rare penalties. Jay Cutler, reacting to pressure in the backfield, scrambled a little too far forward and thew a forward pass beyond the line of scrimmage, which is an illegal forward pass. Right after his release, Timothy Dobbins landed a powerful hit on Cutler, which was flagged as unnecessary roughness (although explained to the press box as hitting the quarterback above the shoulder).
Cutler was past the line of scrimmage, however, so why is he receiving extra protection? Behold the danger a referee raises when explaining a ruling: either due to confusion or simply to make a questionable flag fit into another penalty, the two often get mixed. Here, the referee informed us that the foul was assessed for hitting a quarterback above the shoulders. Unfortunately, that is not one of the predicate actions for unnecessary roughness. It is actually a quick summary of roughing the passer. Cutler, being past the line of scrimmage when the throw occurred, could not draw a penalty for roughing the passer, because he was no longer a passer:
3-22-3: A player who makes a legal forward pass is known as the passer until the pass ends.
So the reasoning clearly does not match up with a penalty. Bad call? Not quite. The call was unnecessary roughness, so let's see what qualifies:
12-2-7: It is a foul if a player initiates unnecessary contact against a player who is in a defenseless posture.
(a) Players in a defenseless posture are: (1) A player in the act of or just after throwing a pass ….
Despite the fact that this rule requires a player throwing a pass, it does not specify that it must be a passer performing a pass, merely a player. Despite Cutler throwing an illegal forward pass, he is still a player, and he is still throwing a pass. Therefore, he was defenseless and hitting him was unnecessary roughness.
Is this called if Matt Forte is the one throwing? Absolutely not. Was it a necessary call? Absolutely not. Was the call correct? Absolutely. Part of the problem fans have assessing the performance of officials and the results of their work is being hung up on the idea of calls that are "good" rather than "correct." Moving outside of this framework allows everyone to better understand the practice of officiating, and in the process focus more on what matters: the action on the field.
As a final note, don't trust the extremely fat lines the networks paint on the field. The line of scrimmage (except where extended, as in the rules for free blocking) and line to gain are razor-thin. Look at the chains and how they relate to the edge of the CGI line, not the entire width of the line.