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NFL offensive-holding calls plunge 56% so far in 2020

Offensive holding calls are way down in the NFL so far this season, part of the reason stars like Patrick Mahomes are piling up the points.
Offensive holding calls are way down in the NFL so far this season, part of the reason stars like Patrick Mahomes are piling up the points.

Flags for offensive holding in the NFL have plunged 56% so far in 2020. Overall, penalties are down 29%.

Coincidence? Not on your life.

It’s “consistent” with what former NFL officiating boss Dean Blandino understands was the league’s directive to game officials this year.

“The language that they keep using is ‘clear and obvious,’” Blandino said in a phone interview this week from his San Diego home.

That is, officials only throw their flags for clear and obvious transgressions.

Blandino worked integral jobs in the NFL’s officiating department for two decades, culminating in a four-season run as the league’s vice-president of officiating from 2013-16. He’s now an in-game officiating analyst on FOX telecasts of both NFL and NCAA games.

What’s clear and obvious this NFL season to Blandino, he said, is what could come next if offensive holding and other infractions continue to be permitted at this rate. More on that in a moment.

First let’s look at the raw numbers. They suggest an irrational approach by the NFL since 2018 with regard to flag-throwing at season’s start. The league provided the following infractions totals through Week 5 in each of the past three seasons:


2018 259 1,288 (16.51 per game)

2019 351 (+36% from 2018) 1,466 (18.79 per game)

2020 156 (-56% from 2019) 1,040 (13.51 per game)

All over the map, right? It’s a wonder any NFL offensive lineman or coach has the slightest clue what constitutes holding anymore.

“The emphasis in 2019, early on, was on a certain technique,” Blandino said. “And I think, quite frankly, it was an over-correction. It was really too strict of a standard — things that weren’t traditionally called as holding.

“Then, kind of as we anticipated, players adjusted and we saw the numbers return to a more historical average. And now this year it just feels like this is more of a directive, that the league only wants fouls to be called that are clear and obvious, which I think takes it to another level.”

Indeed, benchmarks for some infractions that go back decades seem to have been discarded, Blandino said.

“With offensive holding, we always taught the officials to see the entire act. Don’t be overly technical. Don’t call ticky-tack fouls, but if the foul is there you have to call it. Saying ‘clear and obvious’ now insinuates a higher bar before calling a foul. I think that’s what we’re seeing — in not just holding, but other areas.

“Offensive pass interference is down. Defensive holding is down. Things like that have declined this year.”

It’s not that the actual infractions are occurring less often, Blandino stressed. In fact, there likely will be even more of these rulebook transgressions as the season progresses, whether they’re flagged or unflagged — unless the league’s keeper-of-the-rules, the competition committee (composed of select owners, executives, GMs and head coaches), steps in.

“Offensive linemen didn’t miraculously stop holding,” Blandino said. “It’s just a different penalty standard from where it’s been. If the competition committee is comfortable with that, and the clubs are comfortable with that, then there won’t be any changes. If there is some level of discomfort, then there could be a correction. As it is now, teams have to adjust to a new standard.”

One undeniable effect of the penalty plunge? Scoring is way up — on a record pace. Never before had teams, combined, scored 453 touchdowns or 3,958 points through Week 5, as this season.

Because an offensive holding penalty typically kills a possession, it stands to reason that fewer offence-wobbling infractions means more extended possessions — and the longer any drive lasts, the likelier it is to result in points.

In interviews with Postmedia since 2014, Blandino has insisted that coaches and players are fast to detect such officiating trends, and exploit them. What’s more, Tampa Bay head coach Bruce Arians has said coaches around the league scout that week’s assigned officiating crew nearly as much as they do that week’s opponent. Blandino said teams now are savvy enough to have deduced that if one crew, for instance, threw an uncommonly high number of offensive holding calls last week, it’ll get graded harshly for it by the NFL’s officiating department and — human nature being human nature — it’ll be less likely, as a consequence, to call even the normal number of such infractions this week. Coaches are keen to this.

So, how are coaches and players reacting to the dearth of offensive holding calls in 2020?

“Some teams will look to gain an advantage, and rightly so,” Blandino said. “They’ll say, OK, we’re going to be more aggressive on the offensive line because officials are not throwing as many flags. So that becomes problematic if it continues. It’ll be interesting to see how the numbers go for the rest of the season and what, if anything, the competition committee does about it.”

Wouldn’t it be near impossible to jam that genie back in the bottle in the same season, should transgressions such as offensive holding become more rampant than ever?

“No question,” Blandino said. “Do you over-correct with too many fouls, or under-correct with not as many fouls? Imagine going from less than two holding calls per game, as now, to the historical average of 3½ — in one week. That would seem like a drastic change. And that’s where the competition committee needs to continue to monitor this. If they feel it’s a problem, then you want to kind of incorporate it into the game over the course of several weeks.

“And don’t do it like last year, when we had these outrageous holding numbers to start and then, in Week 3, they dropped drastically. That’s a significant change to the game in a short window that, ultimately, is not good for the game.”

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Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2020

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