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Can NFL Refs Do What Analysts Never Could: Get Coaches To Pass More?

Through the first two weeks of the season, holding penalties in the NFL are at an all-time high.1 Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised. Heading into the 2019 season, the NFL competition committee mandated that referees enforce offensive holding more strictly than they have in the past. The points of emphasis document published by the NFL states that “back-side” holding — action that occurs behind where the ball carrier is running — will be more closely monitored.

A play from the Cleveland Browns’ and the Tennessee Titans’ matchup in Week 1 helps illustrate what the NFL is trying to prevent. The play shown below is a counter run to the left, away from the “strong” side of the offensive line. The idea is to fool the defense into thinking that because there’s an extra blocker to the right,2 you’ll run that direction. To help sell the deception, Cleveland running back Nick Chubb takes a false step toward the right and then quickly cuts across the field in front of the quarterback and heads left, looking for a hole.

Chubb ends up finding some room to run, but only because the majority of his linemen were breaking the rules. While the actions of No. 85 David Njoku best match the description of backside holding, the referee probably could have thrown flags for a number of penalties on this run. There’s an old saying in football that you can call holding on any play, and officials now appear to want to. Refs are calling these fouls at a rate that is unprecedented in recent NFL history.

Offensive holding penalties in the first two weeks of the season rose 78 percent this year, from 82 in 2018 to 146 in 2019. If the current rate of holding penalties called continues over the course of the entire year, we might wonder: Are there winners or losers from the new rule emphasis?

If we look at the number of holding penalties called on each NFL team year-over-year since 2009, there is some evidence indicating that teams take a portion of their holding penalties with them from one season to the next.3 Teams with many holding penalties called on them in 2018 — such as Washington, Cleveland, Tampa Bay, Denver and Indianapolis — might be negatively impacted by the new rule emphasis the most.

Some teams have a hard time letting go

Number of offensive holding penalties by team in 2018, including penalties that were declined

Team Offensive Holding Penalties
1 Washington 31
2 Tampa Bay 29
2 Cleveland 29
2 Denver 29
5 Indianapolis 28
6 Dallas 26
6 Buffalo 26
6 New York Jets 26
9 Jacksonville 25
10 Seattle 24
10 Los Angeles Chargers 24
12 Miami 23
12 Minnesota 23
14 Arizona 22
14 New England 22
14 Kansas City 22
17 Detroit 21
18 Atlanta 20
18 New York Giants 20
18 Oakland 20
21 Tennessee 19
22 New Orleans 18
22 Baltimore 18
22 Cincinnati 18
22 Green Bay 18
22 Philadelphia 18
27 Carolina 17
28 Houston 16
29 San Francisco 15
29 Pittsburgh 15
31 Los Angeles Rams 13
32 Chicago 9

Source: ESPN Stats & Information Group

Meanwhile, teams such as Chicago, the L.A. Rams, Pittsburgh and San Francisco were largely able to avoid holding penalties last season and may be in better shape than others if they continue their by-the-book performances.4

Of course, it could also be the case that all teams will be similarly affected by the increased number of holding calls. The year-to-year stability of the penalty at the team level isn’t terribly strong, and the league is now cracking down on a very specific type of holding. But even if the increase in holding calls is relatively constant across the league, there may be another way for teams to gain an edge in light of the new rules emphasis.

It turns out that holding is more likely to be called on a running play. From 2009 to 2018, holding was called on 2636 rushing attempts and 1673 passing attempts,5despite the fact that the majority of plays over that period were passes. Since 61.2 percent of holding calls on these plays occur when rushing, it suggests that running is more risky, and therefore less valuable.

NFL teams hardly need further incentive to call more pass plays, but nevertheless, here is potentially another reason to move away from the run game. Teams that pass more often than they run would stand to benefit the most from the new emphasis on back-side holding. Perhaps the officials will do what analysts have been unable to do all these years; that is, finally convince the NFL to reevaluate the frequency with which they run the ball.

Footnotes

  1. For the period for which we have data, 2001 to 2019.

  2. In this case, the tight end, No. 85 David Njoku.

  3. Year-to-year holding penalties correlate at 0.25, which is significant at the 0.01 level.

  4. Though through two weeks, the 49ers have tied for the third-most offensive holding penalties.

  5. Holding on plays where scrambles or a sack occurred was excluded.

Josh Hermsmeyer is a football writer and analyst.

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