The League

Doug Farrar
Writer

Doug Farrar

A FootballOutsiders.com staff writer

It's Not Helping Scores

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The frustration that Bill Polian and others feel when it comes to consistency in penalty calls is certainly understandable, but the Competition Committee had an obvious imperative to move the goalposts after the 2005 season. During the 2006 Owners' Meetings, which is where the Committee meets every year to discuss and implement rules changes, co-chairman Rich McKay discussed a new emphasis on seeing the foul and not just the "ingredients" of a hold. In other words, you can't assume that a blocker held because a defender went to the ground.

"We've got a big section in our book that will be on blocking clarifications and dealing with holding, really, and really just rewriting the rule, not changing the way it's officiated, but rewriting the rule so everybody has a clear understanding as we tried to do with defensive pass interference a number of years ago," McKay said at the time. With that in mind, it's no wonder that the number of called holds has declined.

The larger issue is that penalties decreased have pretty radically across the board from 2006 going forward, and while there have been fewer holds, there doesn't seem to be a concerted effort to call a lower percentage of holds:

hold1.jpg

We see that penalties have decreased, and that holding has gone down within that specific decline, but not necessarily independent of it. The 2008 percentage could reflect a renewed unspoken emphasis on no-calls, or it could be sample size. We can but wait and see.

What are the effects of fewer holding calls? More offensive production, you'd certainly assume. Fewer sacks and more touchdowns, because any disadvantage to a defender should be marked by an offensive upswing, right? Let's look at specific offensive trends over the last five years:

hold2.jpg

The only correlation you can really make stick between fewer holding calls and offensive production is a decrease in sacks. So far, the 2008 sack numbers are basically in line with 2007, percentage-wise (3.5% to 3.4%). Offensive touchdowns still haven't bounced back to the 2004 high, and that high occurred before the penalty drought started. I was surprised to see passing yards per attempt stay pretty much the same through this time period, since the knowledge among offensive linemen that they're going to be able to get away with fractions of infractions would ostensibly extend plays and allow quarterbacks to connect with receivers on longer routes.

Whatever the intent with the new view on penalties, it seems to be affecting quarterback safety more than any uptick in scoring. We know that the difference between 2004-2005 and 2006-2008 reflects an adjustment in how holds are viewed and called. What we don't know is whether the pre- or post-adjustment emphasis is better for the game. Judging from the number of complaints this year, the Competition Committee will be reviewing this subject at the 2009 Owner's Meetings.

By Doug Farrar  |  October 9, 2008; 11:30 AM ET  | Category:  NFL Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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