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.
"I hadn't noticed," said former Jacksonville Jaguars offensive tackle Tony Boselli. "There's an ebb and flow to these things, what officials are emphasizing and how they're calling things."
Boselli said it "would make sense" that the move of the umpire would be a significant contributing factor.
"That guy isn't dodging out of everyone's way and he probably gets a better look at things," said Boselli, now a broadcaster. "A lot of times, guys hold because they get beat, and they reach out and grab the [defensive player] while they're catching up. Now when that happens, it's probably right in front of that official."
Defensive players have complained in recent seasons that NFL rules have been tilted in favor of offenses - and in favor of quarterbacks and receivers in particular. The competition committee made a crackdown on illegal contact by defensive backs a point of officiating emphasis prior to the 2004 season, and there were safety-related rules enacted to protect quarterbacks and receivers from certain hits by defenders during games.
Last season, offenses averaged an all-time-high 670.3 total yards per game and the league had record numbers of quarterbacks surpass 4,000 passing yards, 25 touchdown passes and a 100 passer rating.
Now, defenses might be getting a break from a rule change. But it probably isn't a game-changer. According to McKay, scoring this season is down only about 1 percent from the five-year league-wide average.
There also have been 33 games this season decided by seven or fewer points, the most in the first four weeks of a season since 1988, and the second-most ever. So NFL officials don't seem too worried, at least for now, that the quality of play has been affected greatly by the holding penalties.
"Scoring is down just slightly," Anderson said. "The average margin of victory is down a point and a half. That's good. It means games are closer. We're looking for exciting, competitive football, and that's what we're getting."
McKay said it's too early in the season to make any judgments about the increase in holding calls.
"It will tend to level out," he said. "You can't evaluate something as a trend over this period of time. It can take years sometimes to see how these things ultimately work out. I do believe the players will adjust. . . . I don't think it's anything we're overly concerned about at this point because it is something we anticipated."