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Holding up(?) the league: Why Week 1 saw the fewest holding penalties ever called

Only 15 offensive holding penalties were called in Week 1, which is less than one-quarter of the holding penalties called in Week 1 of 2019.

BRONCOS VS CHIEFS Photo by Joe Amon/MediaNews Group/The Denver Post via Getty Images

I don’t need to write that 2020 has not been normal, but I will anyway.

Following in this theme of not normal, there were only 15 offensive holding penalties called in Week 1 of the 2020 NFL season. For comparison, there were 64 called in Week 1 of the 2019 season and 74 called in Week 2 of the 2019 season. Last year it felt like half of those 74 were called against Garett Bolles.

2019 2018 2017 2016 2015 2014 2013 2012 2011 2010 2009 Weekly Average
week 1 64 53 46 44 50 49 43 42 38 49 31 46.3
week 2 74 38 51 52 59 40 40 47 37 35 33 46.0
week 3 45 53 45 54 45 33 44 42 34 41 36 42.9
week 4 43 40 41 55 39 33 38 27 41 36 32 38.6
week 5 48 33 45 32 36 40 28 36 31 32 29 35.5
week 6 40 39 29 45 45 42 35 40 30 28 33 36.9
week 7 49 24 32 50 35 35 35 33 33 46 29 36.5
week 8 46 35 37 35 33 39 29 23 27 33 25 32.9
week 9 37 36 36 35 33 23 24 31 36 26 28 31.4
week 10 36 31 45 32 39 27 22 36 42 34 40 34.9
week 11 41 26 34 29 39 34 31 34 34 42 28 33.8
week 12 38 31 36 41 46 42 44 35 43 30 42 38.9
week 13 35 73 39 41 43 31 27 44 34 37 30 39.5
week 14 34 46 41 58 46 37 34 40 46 37 38 41.5
week 15 27 53 43 35 48 49 33 54 41 33 30 40.5
week 16 35 52 35 30 42 39 32 37 30 30 19 34.6
week 17 28 48 29 33 32 33 25 27 23 29 33 30.9
yearly total 720 711 664 701 710 626 564 628 600 598 536 641.6

NFLpenalties.com has data back to the 2009 season. The average NFL week sees 37.7 offensive holding penalties called over this entire time period. However this has gradually increased year over year with 2009 seeing an average of 31.5 calls per week and 2019 seeing and average of 42.4, which was the highest yearly value.

The only week close to what was witnessed in Week 1 of 2020 is Week 16 of the 2009 season when there were only 19 offensive holding penalties called. For reference, the Broncos lost 27-30 to the Eagles that week as Donovan McNabb led the Eagles over Kyle Orton’s Broncos.

Weekly Average
2019 42.4
2018 41.8
2017 39.1
2016 41.2
2015 41.8
2014 36.8
2013 33.2
2012 36.9
2011 35.3
2010 35.2
2009 31.5

So why were there fewer than half of the average called in Week 1? That’s a good question and I will posit some theories later. First, let’s look at this graphically since for some, a chart is easier to digest than a table.

One could look at the chart above and conclude that the league was making a concerted effort to call offensive holding in the first four weeks of the 2019 season but realized it had gone too and then had to course correct in weeks five through seventeen. Note that week 16 of the 2009 season is off-scale (19) as is week one of the 2020 season (not shown on chart) with 15.

Now some thoughts on offensive holding and why the increase:

Theory one

There is more passing now and so there will be more holding calls. In 2009 there were 17,033 passing attempts in the regular season. In 2019 that had gone up to 17,853. While that is an increase, it is not consistent with a 25% increase in offensive holding penalties called. So it can’t just be a result of more passing. FWIW 2015 saw the most regular season passes in NFL history with 18,298, but that increase alone would not account for the increase in offensive holding penalties.

Theory two

Pass rushers are getting better. There was a time when many NFL teams did not have a really good pass rusher and a really good pass rush. That time is long gone. Even the worst teams in the NFL generally have the ability to rush the passer with only a handful of exceptions. In 2019 the best team in the league at pressuring the QB (the Steelers) were able to pressure the opposing QB on 30.5 percent of dropbacks. The average NFL defense got pressure on 23.1 percent of opponent’s dropbacks in 2019. Only one team in the league, Miami, was below eighteen percent. Data is from pro-football-reference.com

So this theory might have some merit. IOW, defenses in 2019 are just better at rushing the passer than teams were in 2009. There is a related theory though.

Theory three-ish

Offensive line play has gotten worse. This has been lamented by a number of former offensive linemen, including Mark Schlereth and our OL coach, Mike Munchak. Just Google “NFL offensive line crisis” if you want to read more on this theory, but the central tenet is that FBS-level offenses in college are not preparing offensive linemen for the NFL game.

This gets compounded by the fact that players get less practice time now than they did 20 years ago. In other words, fewer offensive linemen enter the NFL knowing how to pass block. One could see where this would lead to an increase in offensive holding calls, but I’m not willing to swallow that the decline in OL play has been on the same magnitude as the increase in offensive holding calls. Do you think that OL play has gotten 25% worse over the last 10 seasons?

My thoughts

So now some thoughts on why this single week with only 15 offensive calls might have happened.

First, the refs are still in preseason form so they might have been somewhat more reluctant to throw the flag, but they also might have been a hair slow to follow the plays and that might have led to them just missing what many viewers saw as obvious holds. Face it, there is holding on just about every NFL play, but only a small fraction actually gets called. So the “rusty” refs that normally catch five percent only caught three percent in week one. This might account for the huge drop in offensive holding calls. IOW, the refs were just incompetent in week one.

A second theory is more conspiratorial. This theory, for which I cannot take credit, posits that the league mandated that refs NOT throw offensive holding flags in week one. The theory states that this was done because viewers want entertaining high-scoring games and offensive holding hurts the “fun factor” and offensive scoring.

I tend to disagree with this theory because I don’t think that the league office is that controlling of what the refs do, but it might have some merit. There might have been a directive to be a little more lenient given the relatively high number of offensive holding calls in the first two weeks of the 2019 season.

In other words, the league saw the problem in 2019 and was trying to get out in front of it. If so, then they over-corrected.

Poll

Why do you think there were only 15 offensive holding penalties called in week one of the 2020 season?

This poll is closed

  • 51%
    Refs were told not to call it
    (255 votes)
  • 1%
    OL play improved
    (5 votes)
  • 1%
    Defenses were not being agressive
    (8 votes)
  • 2%
    Defenses were not able to rush the passer as well as they did in 2019 week one
    (13 votes)
  • 4%
    Offensive coordinators schemed to help their OL’s avoid holding calls
    (21 votes)
  • 14%
    Garret Bolles improved his game
    (72 votes)
  • 2%
    something else - mention in comments
    (11 votes)
  • 22%
    Refs were just rusty
    (113 votes)
498 votes total Vote Now