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Holding patterns: Passing attempts are up and so are holding calls

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Holding was called once for every 40.3 pass attempts last season. (US Presswire)  
Holding was called once for every 40.3 pass attempts last season. (US Presswire)  

As news circulates about the league negotiating a new contract with game officials -- and even taking steps in case of an impasse -- I wanted to take a look at an infraction some fans say could be called every play.

The call is holding by the offense.

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It is called mostly against the offensive linemen, and with all the passing these days, holding calls likely will play a bigger role in the outcome of games.

Some say the penalty is not flagged nearly enough, and others say it would slow the game down too much to call it ever time it occurs.

One NFL offensive line coach said, "without holding we couldn't get the job done of protecting the QB."

A defensive coordinator said, "We need to get a free rusher to the QB because the people being blocked just get held so much it's frustrating."

The holding numbers from 2011 may surprise you.

In 2011, quarterbacks threw 17,410 passes -- the most in the past 10 years. The 10-year average (2002-2011) was 16,928, meaning 2011 beat the 10-year average by 482 throws, or 15 more pass plays per team than the 10-year average.

But did all that increase the number of holding calls?

The average 2011 team in the NFL was called for holding on one of every 40.3 pass plays, nearly one per game.

Here's a look at the frequency of holding calls since 2006 and the reality is -- as passing attempts increase, so to the number of holding calls, with a slight dip in 2011:

Holding calls per pass -- past 6 seasons
2006: One for every 53.8 passes
2007: One for every 48.7 passes
2008: One for every 47.2 passes
2009: One for every 45.6 passes
2010: One for every 40.0 passes
2011: One for every 40.3 passes

As one offensive line coach said when I ran they stats by him: "I tell my guys if they call you for holding, don't worry, they probably won't call you again in the game."

The top five teams to avoid holding calls by the ratio of holding calls to pass attempts was an interesting group. Basically the teams listed get called for holding once every two games:

1. Packers 1 hold every 78.8 passes
2. Cardinals 1 hold every 78.5 passes
3. 49ers 1 hold every 75.1 passes
4. Rams 1 hold every 68.6 passes
5. Browns 1 hold every 63.3 passes

The worst five teams that need to fix the problem this offseason. Three of these teams were playing rookie quarterbacks, so the linemen likely dealt with a QB who struggled to get rid of the ball on time or had unpredictable escape plans that can lead to holding calls:

1. Raiders 1 hold every 21.8 passes
2. Panthers 1 hold every 22.8 passes
3. Broncos 1 hold every 23.8 passes
4. Bengals 1 hold every 24.3 passes
5. Vikings 1 hold every 30.0 passes

The ratio of holding calls to pass attempts over the past 10 years is interesting.

A fan emailed, saying he thinks the officials just stopped calling holding. I asked him which team was his favorite, and he said Seattle. If you look at the top five teams in avoiding holding calls, you can understand why he feels that way.

Three of the top five teams in the NFL that don't get holding calls are from the NFC West, and it doesn't include the Seahawks. The Cardinals, 49ers, and Rams were called only 21 times for holding in 1,550 passes thrown or 1:73.8 attempts. It's not like Kevin Kolb. John Skelton, Alex Smith or Sam Bradford was afforded extra protection or their offensive lines were underrated.


Pat Kirwan has been around the league since 1972, serving in a variety of roles. He was a scout for the Cardinals and Buccaneers, a coach for the Jets as well as the team's Director of Player Administration where he negotiated contracts and managed the team's salary cap. He is the author of Take Your Eye Off the Ball: How to Watch Football by Knowing Where to Look, and the host of Sirius NFL Radio's Moving the Chains.
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