Late last season, New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady was frustrated by the three offensive holding penalties his line took in a loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers. “Obviously there’s holding on every play in the N.F.L.,” he said, fuming. So far this season, it appears N.F.L. officials agree.
There have been 228 offensive holding calls through the first three weeks of the season, 60 more than at this point in 2018.
This drastic increase from a season ago prompted a conference call among the league’s officials on Saturday night. After the conference call, 45 flags were thrown on Sunday and Monday, notably below last season’s weekly average.
The inconsistent enforcement of the infraction leaves players and coaches stumped over how to avoid being flagged.
“You know a blatant hold when you see it,” Jets offensive lineman Brandon Shell said last week. “But some calls be like, how do they call holding? Why are you calling holding — his hands are inside?”
There were 91 offensive holding calls in Week 2 and 10 on Thursday night when Tennessee faced off against Jacksonville, the second highest amount this season. (A San Francisco-Cincinnati game had 11.) Brady again expressed frustration, tweeting that he could not watch these “ridiculous penalties.”
Referees are throwing more yellow flags after meeting in February with the coaches’ subcommittee of the N.F.L. competition committee to discuss offensive holding. The league had made it a point of emphasis for 2019, prioritizing holds at the line of scrimmage, where, they reasoned, lobster blocks — when an offensive lineman grabs an opponent from the back at the torso or shoulders, usually on a run play — made the game unsafe.
Hal Hunter, the Giants’ offensive line coach, said officials are trying to prevent players from tackling defenders on every snap. He tells his players that if they are restricting someone’s movement, they are going to be called for holding.
“If you coach bad fundamentals and you play with bad fundamentals, it’s going to catch up to you,” he told reporters. “One thing that we’ve never tried, we’ve never taught holding. We don’t teach that type of stuff.”
But others admit that the focus on holding will change the way they play.
“We can always improve our technique and fundamentals,” said Dowell Loggains, the Jets’ offensive coordinator. “We need to do that with a sense of urgency.”
Officials are going to call it as they see it, Loggains said, so all he can do is tell players to be smart and keep their hands inside the framework. But the official language in the N.F.L. rule book calls even that contact illegal “regardless of whether the blocker’s hands are inside or outside the frame of the defender’s body.”
For Shell, the increased emphasis is frustrating, he said, because it feels as if his position is now being targeted by the officials.
“The defensive guys hold, too, and they don’t ever get called, but we always get called,” he said. “Sometimes you don’t mean to hold, it’s just how your hands are placed and how you have a guy and controlling him, you don’t want to let go.”
The Jets have been flagged 24 times this season, seven for offensive holding. But while running back Le’Veon Bell said he believed the team was hurting itself with penalties this season, he did not see offensive holding as an issue.
“That’s an admissible play, guys kind of just battling it out,” Bell said. “Self-inflicted wounds — pre-snap and post-snap penalties — those are the frustrating ones because we can control that. Those are all mental.”