A couple of comments have asked for more details on holding calls, and what officials look for in holding. This week was a good one to examine holding.
With most fouls, enforcement is highly dependent on why the conduct is outlawed. Holding is outlawed because there is a general sense that not being able to hold makes the game of football more fun. This contrasts with rules designed to protect player safety, and even those designed to ensure fair competition. The reason is simple – penalties are not fun. They slow the game down, and frequently remove exciting plays. So when the point of a rule is to make the game more fun, but enforcement makes the game less fun, limited enforcement is key. With player safety, we should enforce the rules rigidly and any time we are in doubt. With fun as the goal, we should enforce only when big plays require us to.
I have used a three step process for deciding to call a hold throughout my career. First, is the player engaging in a prohibited blocking technique. To find this, we tend to look for arms that are quite out of motion with the direction of intent of the two engaged players, as well as looking at jerseys and if they get pulled (though this is much harder and less valuable of a tool). This step leads to the common adage that officials could call holding on every play – players use impermissible blocking technique quite frequently. However, there are further criteria to be met before it’s a foul.
The second criteria is does the impermissible technique impede the opponent. This tends to be very easy to see, honestly its easier to see this than just impermissible technique because players being dragged down from the side or behind look distinctly different from players not being dragged down.
The third criteria is does the impermissible technique likely impact the result of the play – if the hold is irrelevant to the outcome of the play then its not a hold. Most egregiously, if the held player makes the tackle, it sure as heck was not a hold.
My standard used to be used at all levels of football. This year the NFL is diverging significantly from it. One thing that the league seems to have pushed during the offseason has been to change how they want holding called. Officials are calling a lot fewer holds from technique only (I think of these as Garret Boles holds – his style uses his arms very far outside of his body and looks hold-like on many plays even when he never met the second or third criteria – in past seasons he would have been called for holding many times for this where this year the officials are letting it go). However, officials are also not looking to the impactfulness of the hold when calling holding plays.
In week 1, Justin Strnad was called for a hold that did not impact the play on a punt return. Miami was called for one in the 4th quarter against Denver on a punt this week, as well as on offense during the second quarter. In neither case did the hold impact the play, though both were very clearly impeding the defender. I have been very interested in this development, and am curious if the league will revise their instructions to officials (they often do) or if this becomes a more permanent standard. While the league may change their minds on this, the important thing for us all to remember is that theoretically it does not matter how they decide to enforce holding – as long as they do it fairly for both teams.
Silent Replay Review
One topic that I emphasized a lot last year was how much officiating crews are using replay review to correct calls without informing spectators (or teams), and mostly without impacting the speed of the game. This is a really good idea. There are a few things that it is very tough for officials to call correctly with any degree of precision because of where the officials are. For example, forward progress on sacks and the exact spot of illegal blocks downfield are very tough to see and mark accurately. Sometimes there are other glaringly obvious corrections that can be made from the stadium.
One of these happened this week, when the tackle on Tyreek Hill in the second quarter appeared to not bring him down and he gained another fifteen plus yards before finally being brought down. Replay showed that his knee was clearly down, the replay official radioed to the referee, and an adjustment was made. Good use of replay like this is very empowering for officials, because it allows them to not rule Hill down if they are not sure (because you cannot unblow a whistle to end a play) and leaves the excitement of the play alive while also not inducing delays.
Officials are aware the game is supposed to be fun and that long reviews after big plays destroys the fun. The move towards silent quick reviews, like the Hill one, is one of my favorite evolutions in professional officiating. I will continue highlighting when this works well going forward, because its easy to miss
This week I charted seven missed or bad calls from the officials. Six went against Denver. The worst call they missed was a dangerous illegal hands to the face block by Miami against Josey Jewell in the first quarter that needed catching. They called back a Jerry Jeudy touchdown on an illegal shift that was not obvious or unfair at all. Miami had lots of motion, and twice had illegal motion (moving forward before the snap) uncalled. The officials decided to not really care at all about formations for either team (which contributed to the low sack numbers). The officials were passive too often, and when they chose to insert themselves into the game they did so over some lame conduct. The officiating did not end up deciding the game, or anything close to that, but it very easily could have in a closer contest as they made big questionable calls and had big misses.
Its easy for officials to turn off during blowouts, but with better leadership they could have used the opportunity to work on improving their game. Instead they put forth a weak showing in a weak game. There was work by some of the officiating crew that I really enjoyed, but as a whole I want to forget the officiating as much as most Denver fans want to forget everything else about this game.