Let’s get this out of the way first: the Detroit Lions did not play good enough football to beat the Chicago Bears on Sunday. The offense was putrid in the second half, and the defense was, again, awful on third down.
But there was a turning point in this game in which the Lions did not get any favors from the officials. In the third quarter of a 13-13 game, the Lions appeared to pick up a sack/fumble on third down, forcing the Bears into an impossibly-long fourth down and a punt.
However, after some discussion, the officials ruled that Justin Fields’ arm was moving forward and it was an incomplete pass. That call saved the Bears at least 10 yards, likely more.
That call, upon review, appears correct. Fields was very close to being down for a sack, but his arm is clearly moving forward and it’s out before he hits the ground.
On third and long, this was ruled an incomplete pass….and not intentional grounding. Bears scored the next play. What are officials doing. pic.twitter.com/vGePxszMNC— Charles Robinson (@CharlesRobinson) December 10, 2023
The problem, however, is that there should have been intentional grounding called on the play. There was no eligible receiver in the area, and Fields wasn’t out of the pocket.
Before the Bears ran the next play, officials went on mic and declared there was no intentional grounding on the play, because the hit from Julian Okwara impacted the throw.
Now, there is a stipulation in the rulebook that says if a hit impact the throw it is not intentional grounding. Here’s the section in the NFL rulebook (I’m adding emphasis for clarity):
Item 1. Contact by Team B Player. If contact by an opponent materially affects a passer after the passer begins his throwing motion, it is a forward pass if he passes the ball, regardless of where the ball strikes the ground, a player, an official, or anything else. When this occurs, intentional grounding rules do not apply.
Here’s the problem, though. Okwara’s contact came BEFORE Fields’ throwing motion, not after. And the very next line in the NFL rulebook says this:
When a passer is contacted by an opponent before beginning his throwing motion, the direction of the pass is the responsibility of the passer, and intentional grounding rules apply.
With the penalty and loss of down, the Bears would have almost certainly punted. Instead, facing a fourth-and-13, the Bears went for it, got the Lions to jump offsides, and Fields found DJ Moore for a 38-yard touchdown pass to take a 19-13 lead.
Of course, it’s completely unacceptable to give up a big play like that, but if the officials would have called the previous play correctly, it would have never happened in the first place.