The NFL Holding Crisis: Where Do Refs Have a Responsibility to Throw Flags?

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The NFL Holding Crisis: Where Do Refs Have a Responsibility to Throw Flags?
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In the NFL, there is no gray area. 32 teams, split 50/50 between the AFC and NFC, play against each other with lineups of 22, split into two platoons of 11, across a field-wide line of scrimmage. In timed, regulated intervals, they advance and retreat across a field so rigidly divided it's called the "gridiron."

There are no judges, no subjective scores. There is no transition game. There is no counterattack. There is no flow, no "run of play." No football happens without an official whistling one play dead, making sure everyone's on their own side of the dividing line, then signaling to everyone that the next play can happen.

Fouls and penalties are crystal clear: stay on your side of the line, line up fair and square, no moving right before the snap and don't try to hurt anybody on purpose.

Well, except for holding.

 

Holding Is Subjective

Holding, unlike every other call in football, is purely subjective. Sure, there's a textbook definition:

"Article 3: Illegal Block by Offensive Player. It is a foul if an offensive blocker:

(c) Uses his hands or arms to materially restrict an opponent or alter the defender’s path or angle of pursuit. Material restrictions include but are not limited to: I. grabbing or tackling an opponent; II. hooking, jerking, twisting, or turning him; or III. pulling him to the ground.

Penalty: For holding by the offense: Loss of 10 yards."

...but the whole point of blocking is to "materially restrict an opponent," or "alter the defender's path or angle of pursuit." 

Then, the rule spells out an incomplete list of specific acts that are definitely holding. But what else is holding? That's a gray area.

Bob Levey/Getty Images
NFL referee Ron Winter calls holding far more often than any of his peers.
Check out the sortable official's stats at FOXSports.com. So far this season Scott Green has worked seven games and called holding 15 times for 127 yards. Ron Winter has also worked seven games. He's called holding 36 times for 335 yards.

Clearly, holding is in the eye of the beholder.

 

A Hold by Any Other Name 

Earlier this season, a spectacular return touchdown by the Chicago Bears was keyed off a brilliant decoy play. Unfortunately, it was erased by a phantom holding call.

Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images
It didn't impact the bottom line of the game, which is why it didn't make national headlines. But this no-call was one of the most egregious in recent memory. The holding problem cuts in the other direction, too.

In today's pass-happy NFL, quarterbacks are throwing more often with fewer blockers. Still, the league is trying to protect quarterbacks more than ever before. The result? offensive linemen are committing holding fouls like crazy, especially against gifted speed-rushers.

Here's a collage of blatant holding from the Indianapolis Colts' game against the Buffalo Bills in Week 12:

The Colts' gifted pass-rushers, Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis, were repeatedly subjected to grabbing, tackling, hooking, jerking, twisting and turning. The Bills practically put on a holding exhibition, yet none of the offensive tackles or tight ends were flagged. 

 

Holding Is Punitive

By itself, a holding penalty doesn't sound too terrible: 10 yards without loss of down isn't the end of the world. In the first quarter, starting from 1st-and-20 isn't that much worse than 1st-and-10. But when a team converts a crucial 3rd-and-7, then a holding call walks it back to 3rd-and-17, that drive is dead.

Frederick Breedon/Getty Images
Dead drives take points off the board.

Teams only get so many possessions in a game. One holding call at the wrong time can have a huge impact on the bottom line. That's likely why referees let so much holding go: They'd rather let an offensive lineman protect their quarterback by any means necessary than grind the drive to a halt.

But then, refs insert themselves into the game. They can't fall back on the rulebook. They can't fall back on replay. Huge, game-changing plays are being called back—or allowed to stand—all based on the ref's perception, player performance, player reputation and overall "feel."

 

An Impossible Situation?

When it comes to holding calls, the NFL's ironclad world of black and white is a big fat messy swirl of gray. The old saw says "you could call holding on every play," and it's likely true. But what does that say about the clarity of the holding rule? What does that say about the NFL's ability to police the league?

Hannah Foslien/Getty Images
The NFL has to address holding. The rulebook definition needs to be updated and clarified. If the NFL can't even list all the actions that definitely are holding, it's too vague. After that, perhaps an extra official can be added to specifically watch line play.

Finally, the enforcement needs work: Either reduce the yardage cost to five and call it more strictly—or increase the yardage cost to 15 and only flag the worst offenders.

What do you think? Let's hear your plan for addressing the NFL's holding crisis in the comments.

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