One of the more common laments from football fans is that their team is constantly interfered with and the officials just “let it happen.” Offensive holding calls (or perceived missed ones) are perhaps cited at the highest rate. Let’s take a look at the rules on holding to see why these aren’t called as often as many think they should be.
Before we get to what’s not allowed, let’s have a brief chat about what’s considered a “legal block.” From the rule book, (emphasis mine) (reference 12-1-2):
“An offensive player is permitted to block an opponent by contacting him with his head, shoulders, hands, and/or outer surface of the forearm, or with any other part of his body that is not prohibited by another rule. A blocker may use his arms, or open or closed hands, to contact an opponent on or outside the opponent’s frame (the body of an opponent below the neck that is presented to the blocker), provided that he does not materially restrict him. The blocker immediately must work to bring his hands inside the opponent’s frame, and as the play develops, the blocker is permitted to work for and maintain his position against an opponent, provided that he does not illegally clip or illegally push from behind.”
That’s a lot of words to basically say two important things. First, you have to memorize the rest of the rule book for all the other illegal things (leg whip, face mask, and many more). Second, there’s a whole lotta wiggle room unless you “materially restrict” an opponent. There’s more nuance, but we don’t need a dissertation.
What is “offensive holding” then?
Not-so-coincidentally, legal blocking is followed immediately by the illegal blocking rules. For offensive holding we turn to 12-1-3-c. Per this rule, holding is defined as (emphasis mine again):
“Use his hands or arms to materially restrict an opponent or alter the defender’s path or angle of pursuit. It is a foul regardless of whether the blocker’s hands are inside or outside the frame of the defender’s body.”
There’s that language again. Before we get to the NFL’s definition of what it looks like to materially restrict an opponent, let’s discuss what this section is really saying. Until you reach the point of material restriction (or another forbidden act), contact with hands and arms to block an opponent is fine. Now then, it’s not strictly defined but the examples of a material restriction include:
1. grabbing or tackling an opponent;
2. hooking, jerking, twisting, or turning him; or
3. pulling him to the ground.
Basically, you gotta maul a guy for it to be considered holding. The first bullet includes the term “grabbing or” which suggests that grabbing in and of itself should be considered holding. The video rule book explaining this penalty changes the word “or” to “and.” In practice the officials call it as if it’s the latter. Grabbing in and of itself is not holding.
Right there alone is an excellent rationale for why holding isn’t called very often. Grabbing, shoving and generally getting in the defender’s way is cool beans unless you’re pretty dramatic about it. To make things harder though, there are numerous exceptions where offensive players are allowed to hold and it’s perfectly legal. We don’t need to cover all of them as many are oddly specific, but here are a few commonplace ones:
“If the action occurs away from the point of attack and not within close line play;
If the action is part of a double-team block, unless the defender splits the double team, gets to the outside of either blocker, or is taken to the ground; or
If, during a defensive charge, a defensive player uses a “rip” technique that puts an offensive player in a position that would normally be holding.
If the official has not seen the entire action that sends a defender to the ground, Offensive Holding will not be called...”
The first three are specific things you can look for as they’re common exceptions that creep up. The final point is important because officials have a lot to juggle. To translate that one: What it means for an official making their judgment on a call they are to assume it’s a legal block unless they can specifically rule out every exception. Or, if they missed even a small part of an interaction it’s NOT holding.
Stuff to ponder (or an excuse for GIFs)
For this segment we’ll turn to our special guest, Jerry Hughes. A defender who many Bills fans believe is held more often than it’s called.
There’s a hand on the chest and one on the back. It’s possible the hand on Hughes’s chest is tugging his jersey a tad. However, take a look at our material restriction examples above. Hughes’s trajectory isn’t significantly altered so the “grab” isn’t a “hold.” Furthermore, a player’s “frame” is defined by what he’s presenting to the offense. Hughes’s side in this case, meaning his chest and back are considered his frame. As he turns back, the hands of the lineman move to his chest. This is a good no-call.
You see several blocks going on, mostly similar to the one on Hughes. Jerry Hughes starts to win his block and his opponent grabs and shoves at the shoulder. Hughes twists and then falls. The timing on the flag suggests that the flag was pulled immediately once Hughes’s shoulders start to move. This is a great example a material restriction.
At the end of the play there is a material restriction of Jerry Hughes. Slowing this down frame by frame it’s clear that the restriction occurs as Hughes attempts to spin off the block. However, the rip move illustrated in the clip is a lot like invincibility frames in a video game. The rip makes the lineman immune to a holding call for a short duration. It could be argued this is still holding but remember our notes above. Unless the official is 100% sure the restriction wasn’t due to the rip move it’s a no-call situation. At full speed this shouldn’t be a flag.
To explain the rationale take a look at the clip again. A defender using a rip move inherently is lifting the arm of the lineman. By doing so, the defender’s action causes the arm to go up and around the shoulder where the lineman’s force is likely to twist their opponent.
So there you have it
Holding calls are rare due to the broad range of options for an offensive lineman to legally use. An array of exceptions makes holding legal, which complicates the matter further. Perhaps, most importantly for this penalty, the default by rule is to not call holding. When you add it all up, it’s generally only very obvious holding that gets called.