What’s Going on With Holding Calls in the NFL?

Nothing slows down an NFL game quite like a penalty. It can take fans and players out of the action. 

Early this season, the NFL decided to crack down on offensive holding. What was the impact of the NFL calling more holding, how did the players react, and what happened after they did? 

How holding calls impact the flow of an NFL football game

One commonly repeated adage among football fans is that you “can call holding on every play.” While that may not true, holding is the most common infraction referees flag players for. 

In 2018, offensive holding was the most commonly called penalty, occurring 708 times. Refs called defensive holding 238 times. 

There are a number of ways in which holding can impact an NFL game, including: 

Decreased pace of play

The more times the officials have to stop play to call a penalty, the slower the game moves. Fans watch football for action-packed plays and highlights. If a game is stopped every-other play for a penalty, fans get frustrated.

Changes the way players strategize

When it’s clear that officials are making more holding calls, that signals to the offensive and defensive linemen that it’s a penalty the refs are looking out for.

That’s going to enter the minds of the players and impact the way they play. It may make offensive linemen more hesitant to play aggressively, thereby making it harder for the quarterback and running back to get away from any rushing defensive linemen. 

Affecting sports betting

Scoring dropped from 21.97 offensive points per game in 2018 to 20.9 during the same stretch in 2019. Through week two, 20 of 32 games had gone “under” (meaning the total number of points scored was less than the over/under Vegas set prior to the game). If this trend continues, it may see a shift in how gamblers place their bets. 

The number of holding calls in the first two weeks of the NFL season

According to ESPN football writer Kevin Seifert, there were 174 holding penalties in weeks one and two of the 2019 season. Compare that to 2018, when the same two-week span saw officials dole out 107 holding calls. 

Seifert pointed out in his tweet that it may be due to “the point of emphasis on backside blocking.” It seems as though the NFL’s dedication to calling more offensive holding calls was being realized. 

But is that number of penalties sustainable?

What’s going on with holding calls in the NFL? 

It appears the NFL officials were rather quick to react to the numerous complaints about the propensity of holding calls in the NFL. But according to a piece that appeared on The Ringer, the calls were due to the lobbying of defensive coaches. 

“NFL defensive coaches were complaining about a specific type of block that they did not like,” said former offensive lineman and current SB Nation writer Geoff Schwartz, who played for four teams across six years. “They wanted more holding called. So they got more holdings called. The problem is when you ask officials to look for one specific block, they’re going to be on high alert for any type of holding now.”

While this wasn’t a specific rule change, it was stricter rule enforcement. This all changed when Tom Brady tweeted about the number of holding calls in the Titans vs. Jaguars game during week three. Brady begged the refs to “Just let us play!!!!” 

A four-exclamation point declaration from the league’s most visible player was apparently enough for the NFL to take action. The NFL held a conference call with officials the following Saturday to try to curb the number of holding penalties. 

ESPN reported that the uncommonly high number of holding flags thrown in weeks one and two rapidly declined in week three. 

“Officials threw 41 flags for offensive holding in 14 games Sunday, an average of 2.9 per game, according to ESPN Stats & Information research. In the first 33 games of the season, there were 188 such flags, a rate of 5.7 per game.”

It seems as though the league’s emphasis on NFL holding calls has stabilized. Only time will tell if the increased number of calls return over the course of the rest of the season.