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In Sunday’s back-and-forth affair between the Packers and Vikings at the Metrodome, a pair of points awarded to the home team in the first half ended up being a huge factor in the one-point win by Minnesota. It happened when Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers was attempting to avoid being tackled in the end zone for a safety. While stumbling to the ground, he blindly flipped the ball in underhand fashion, conjuring memories of a certain quarterback who preceded Rodgers as a Packer. Here’s the video.


Pausing the video at 0:07 (Mmmmichael Scarn) shows that the ball landed less than two yards short of the line of scrimmage, and in the general vicinity of a receiver. Initially, the officials awarded a safety to the Vikings. After an on-field conference during which the debate seemed to focus on whether a receiver was in the vicinity of the throw and/or whether the ball had gotten back to the line of scrimmage, referee Alberto Riveron announced that Rodgers had thrown an illegal forward pass, which equated to a safety. In our view, Riveron called it an illegal forward pass because he realized that it wasn’t intentional grounding. Under Rule 8, Section 3, Article 1 of the 2008 Official Playing Rules, intentional grounding would have occurred if there had not been a “realistic chance” of completing the pass, or if the ball had not landed “near or beyond” the line of scrimmage. (Rodgers clearly was out of the pocket, which is a prerequisite to avoiding a grounding call by throwing the ball “near or beyond” the line of scrimmage, regardless of whether a receiver is in the area.) We base our conclusion in this regard on in-game images of Packers coach Mike McCarthy’s argument with the officials, which images strongly suggested that the decision resulted from the unconventional Favre-esque throwing motion that Rodgers had used. (McCarthy confirmed this after the game: “The interpretation that I was given was that it was an unnatural throwing motion so with that decision it was a safety.”) It clearly wasn’t a “natural” throwing motion; but the rules don’t require a pass to be thrown with a “natural” motion. Under Rule 8, Section 1, Article 1, a legal forward pass is any pass (including an attempt to fumble forward) made from behind the line of scrimmage, if the ball hasn’t moved beyond the line of scrimmage and then returned behind it. An illegal forward pass is "[a]ny other forward pass.” So the ungainly desperation toss by Rodgers wasn’t an illegal forward pass. The league apparently realizes this. In an e-mail on Sunday night, NFL spokesman Greg Aiello said that it wasn’t an illegal forward pass, per se. “It was intentional grounding,” Aiello wrote. “The QB was out of the pocket but he didn’t get the ball back to the line of scrimmage. The ball was snapped from the 10 and the ball landed at the 8. The referee announced illegal forward pass, which is what intentional grounding is.” Riveron seemed to adopted this same approach after the game. When pressed by reporters on the “illegal forward pass” call, Riveron said, “Intentional grounding.” But intentional grounding isn’t an illegal forward pass. They are two distinct penalties, with two separate sets of consequences. Intentional grounding results in a loss of ten yards or the spot of the foul, whichever is greater, and a loss of down. An illegal forward pass results in a five-yard penalty and no loss of down. (For either penalty, an infraction in the end zone is a safety.) So we’ll stand on our belief that Riveron played the “illegal forward pass” call based on the throwing motion, because one or more other members of his crew were insisting that a receiver was in the area and/or the ball was sufficiently “near” the line of scrimmage. And so the lesson that this first-year referee likely has learned today is that “I know it when I see it” logic has no application to a 111-page rule book in which a visceral belief as to conduct that should trigger a penalty doesn’t always constitute a violation.