Umpire's move helps lead to increase in holding penalties

By Mark Maske
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, October 9, 2010; 10:18 PM

NFL offensive linemen had better learn to be more discreet about their clutch-and-grab tactics this year: Holding calls have increased sharply in the early stages of the season.

According to the league's figures, offensive holding penalties are up 23 percent through four weeks of the season over the number called during the same period last year. It's an increase the NFL's leaders attribute in large part to the offseason decision to move one of the game officials, the umpire, from a spot on the defensive side of the ball to the offensive backfield near the head referee.

"I don't think there's any question that moving the umpire is causing that number to go up," said Atlanta Falcons President Rich McKay, co-chairman of the NFL's competition committee. "We anticipated that. I think we even put that in our report, that the number of holding calls was likely to go up until the players adjusted. . . . We've given the umpire an unobstructed view that he didn't have before. Some things that potentially were not being seen before are being seen now."

The NFL moved the umpire for safety reasons. He previously was stationed a few yards behind the line of scrimmage on the defensive side of the ball, where the risk of collisions with players was considerable. Now, with some exceptions at certain points in games, the umpire is positioned behind the quarterback and running backs on the offensive side of the ball.

Ray Anderson, the NFL's executive vice president of football operations, said it's not immediately clear if there are any other factors in the increase in holding penalties.

"I can't say if it's solely that [the repositioning of the umpire], but we had anticipated that. . . . It's still early in the season," Anderson said this week. "We certainly want it to play out and see what happens. We'll review it at the end of the season.

"We wanted to make sure the offense wasn't getting an advantage by allowing guys to hold people. If you talk to anyone who's a defensive coach, they'd probably applaud it."

According to the league's figures, there were 191 offensive holding penalties in the first four weeks of this season, up from 155 in the first four weeks of last season.

Overall, penalties are up about 5 percent through four weeks of games, from 892 last season to 936 this season. So most of the overall increase is because of the increase in holding calls.

The umpire generally is responsible for monitoring holding by the center and two guards while other officials watch the two offensive tackles. Those responsibilities vary a bit based on the offensive formation. Anderson said he did not have a breakdown that would indicate whether the increase in holding penalties is mostly attributable to calls made by the umpire.

The 10-yard penalties that result from holding calls can stall drives for offensive teams. There have been some high-profile holding calls this season, including the flag on Dallas Cowboys right tackle Alex Barron that nullified a game-tying touchdown pass on the final play of the Cowboys' opening-night loss to the Redskins at FedEx Field.

Yet the trend seems to have generated little attention so far.

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