The Easiest Fix

Holding is football’s worst idea

The Davis Darts are massive underdogs.

They’ve shuffled through the season, only winning two games. Their opponent, the Clearfield Falcons, are undefeated. If Clearfield wins tonight, they’ll face off against Northridge, also undefeated in addition to being the reigning state champions, next week. Davis County is already buzzing that the matchup might be shown on ESPN.

Clearfield scores first, but the Darts march down the field. They have a touchdown called back for offensive pass interference. Questionable? Sure. But, they’ll roll with it.

Davis regroups fifteen yards back. They run a fly sweep in for another touchdown. The celebration starts again.

Another flag flies.

Holding.

Another flag flies.

The Davis coach is flagged for arguing.

Another flag flies.

The coach is ejected. The ball moves well into their own territory. The Darts have to punt. All energy gone, they lose 35-0.

It’s been fifteen years since I saw this scene from the stands as a teenager, and it is still the angriest I’ve ever been watching a football game.


As any millennial, my education in football came from pre-canned tidbits from John Madden and Pat Summerall, as we attempted to win games using a pass-heavy strategy that would be eventually co-opted by Mike Leach. The little bits of wisdom were repeated so often that they became unquestioned truth by an entire generation.

One sticks out in particular.

“Holding happens on every play. It’s just a question of how much the refs are willing to tolerate.”

At the time, it was a bold statement to be made by a video game. The faces of the league were essentially admitting that holding was a random penalty, and when it was called against you, you had reason to be upset. It was the ref’s decision, not an empirical act of justice.

Holding isn’t only a pox for pre-teen offensive coordinators throwing six consecutive Hail Marys. Holding is the most common and most damaging penalty in football. For the past six NFL seasons, it has accounted for more flags and penalty yards than any other infraction. During the previous decade, false starts eclipsed it for frequency for a few seasons, but no penalty has cost teams more yards since at least 1995 when Pro Football Reference started tracking the frequency.

It’s the most common and costly penalty, and it is always the right call. The rule states that holding includes using hands to “grasp, pull, hook, clamp or encircle in any way that illegally impedes or illegally obstructs an opponent.” The difference between grasping and proper blocking is the difference between a closed and open fist, a minute distinction for a referee to see thirty feet away.

Offensive linemen grasp opponent’s jerseys all the time. Most of the time, they get away with it, so it just isn’t feasible to argue with any holding calls. We are all debtors, and thus all in need of forgiveness.

Thus, the argument in the stands becomes less about whether the play was actually holding, but rather whether it was the right time of the game to call it.

For example, whether a ref should call holding to negate a touchdown on a second consecutive play.

So if it could be called on every pay, why isn’t it?


You can divide most rules into three categories: rules of order, laws of safety, and standards of aesthetics.

You can only cast one vote in an election: a rule of order. You have to drive the speed limit: a law of safety. You have to wear a shirt and shoes to get service: a standard of aesthetics.

The rules of order structure the game: the play clock, the numbers on the field, the pre-snap procedure. Without these rules, the game descends into anarchy. Imagine a world without an offsides penalty: players stand in their opponent’s huddle; defensive linemen line up right next to the tailback, ready to tackle him as soon as the play starts.

Laws of safety evolve as necessary. Football was once a sport where players dying on the field was a fairly regular occurrence. We penalize the grabbing of face masks because if it were legal, broken necks would be commonplace. In recent years, all levels have emphasized penalties on helmet-to-helmet hits, hoping to stem the number of long-term head injuries plaguing the sport.

Standards of aesthetics exist to make the game watchable. Pass-Interference is called because contact between players, while the ball is in the air, would result in more incomplete passes, which would discourage passing altogether. As the recent TV ratings indicate, the game is most popular when more passes are being completed.

Holding isn’t necessary for order, doesn’t make the game safer, and likely has a negative impact on the enjoyment of the spectator.

Why does it exist?

Aesthetics

There are those who prefer a defensive struggle, who value sacks over touchdowns, and who feel that league has stacked the game in favor of star quarterbacks. To them, holding is a standard of aesthetics.

Numbers suggest that these people are a minority. Also, their well-developed philosophy indicates that they are the type of person who will complain about football, but never stop watching it.

Last season saw a pronounced dip in ratings. Most conservative pundits blamed Colin Kaepernick, but the 2018 rebound, when nearly all of the league’s best quarterbacks were healthy and performing, indicates that the quality of play was the primary driver of disinterest.

Drew Magery of Deadspin wrote an article arguing for the abolition of holding. He was fed up with watching offenses sputter and proposed the league do everything in its power to prop them up. His sentiment, if not his solution, is generally popular.

Viewers want to see Patrick Mahomes have time to throw the same way that the wanted to see Michael Jordan have space to drive to the paint. Although there will always be naysayers against NBA rule changes that enhanced Jordan’s ability, the results are clear: fans want to see great players being great.

Safety

There’s some irony in the intentions behind the rule. According to the rulebook “Illegal use of the hand or arm is unfair play, eliminates skill and does not belong in the game.” The powers at be don’t want holding because it cheapens the value of a block. If an offensive lineman can impede a defender by grasping his jersey with an outstretched arm, then how can we call him a good lineman?

No mention of safety or fairness. Just skill.

What the rulebook wants, especially on passing plays, is for an offensive lineman to square up, make helmet-to-helmet contact, keep his hands inside and hidden (where it’s harder to see him grab fabric), and repeatedly batter the oncoming defender. If he fails in this, the rules dictate that he should let his opponent gain a full head of steam and hit the unsuspecting quarterback.

For a game trying to decrease concussions, this seems like an odd strategy.

In 2012, Chuck Klosterman, writing for Grantland, proposed the elimination of holding penalties. Klosterman wasn’t concerned with aesthetics, unlike Magery. He was worried about safety, writing less than a month after Junior Seau’s suicide. He argued that fewer full-speed sacks and hits would lead to fewer concussions. He even offered that allowing defensive holding as well would negate the offensive advantage.

Unfortunately, Klosterman’s musings did not start a movement. Both college and professional football has focused on implementing stricter targeting rules, a subjective call that has been (as mentioned above) very controversial in its application.

So the question remains, why try to limit helmet-on-helmet collisions with a lousy rule when you could do the same thing by eliminating one?

Order

Imagine you’re a corrupt ref.

There aren’t many known examples of this, admittedly. However, recall that this fall the Pac-12 admitted that a senior conference official had called into the replay booth to overturn a targeting call. Anything is possible.

In the past year, since the Supreme Court essentially legalized sports betting, gambling has become an increasing presence in sports discourse. Recall or research the effect that bookies and gamblers had on the competition with which it is most associated: boxing.

So, imagine that you are an underpaid referee who being is pressured from outside forces to impact the outcome of a game. How would you go about that?

You can’t fabricate false starts. You can’t make touchdowns appear. But if you are even moderately more focused on calling holding on one side rather than the other, perhaps three separate calls, you could tilt the game in favor of your chosen team dramatically and quietly.

In the first four weeks of this season, there were 22 games in which two things occurred.
The referees called holding more than the league-wide average (three or more)
The calls favored one team by two penalties or more.

In those 22 games, the team with more holding calls covered the spread only eight times.

In the Nov 4 game between the Washington Redskins and Atlanta Falcons, the Redskins were flagged for holding four times in their first six drives. Three of the calls led directly to a punt while the fourth pushed them out of field goal range at the end of the first half.

The Redskins, who entered the game as slight favorites, lost 38-14. The Washington Post noted the penalties but didn’t stoke any controversy.

Holding negates first downs and touchdowns all the time. As in the Washington-Atlanta game, it can kill drives in before they’ve even started rolling and push teams out of field goal range. Most importantly, because it is widely agreed that it happens on every play, every call you make will be justifiable. It wouldn’t even raise an eyebrow for anyone but the aggrieved team, whose coach is forbidden from criticizing you publicly and whose fans will be deemed delusional.

In the stands during that Clearfield game, I heard a lot of even-tempered people alleging a conspiracy. But no one really believed it. No one investigated.

With so much money on the line, that is a potential disaster.