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  1. A Primer on Holding

    As the season moves toward its climactic weekends, the officials are coming under more scrutiny (if that's even possible). Calls and no-calls get magnified by the importance of the games. The stakes are very high. So, if you're one of those guys who sits at a game and hollers at the officials about holding ... or if you have the misfortune to be sitting in front of or next to that guy ... this is for you. Holding: The Most Misunderstood Foul Holding is, without a doubt, the foul that is most misunderstood by players, coaches, fans, media … and yes, sad to say, by officials, too. The barrier to our more complete understanding of the holding foul is our desire for simplicity, clarity, and consistency. The complex nature of the holding foul is unlikely to satisfy that desire. Recognizing and calling the holding foul requires a disciplined “mental checklist.” The first item that must be checked off is “illegal technique.” The blocking rules are fairly complex, when applied to 7 or 8 blocks on each play, many of them occurring simultaneously. A thorough knowledge of what is permitted and what is not is essential for properly calling this foul. Notably, the rules do not distinguish between holding that occurs inside the shoulder pads and holding that has the hands outside the pads, although the latter is much easier to detect. The second essential element of holding is a “restriction” imposed on the movement of the player being held. This includes the concepts of “disengagement” and “superior legs.” It is never enough to simply hold an opponent. There must be restriction of movement to consider a foul. If a player is content to merely maintain his position while the opponent has a handful of his jersey, and never attempts to disengage from the hold, there’s no foul. Similarly, if an offensive lineman has a grip on an opponent’s jersey, but is simply driving him away from the point of attack through superior leg position and drive, the fact that he is holding the opponent’s jersey becomes irrelevant. The third item on the checklist is “effect on the play.” Location is key. To be called a holding foul, the contact must normally include not only all the preceding elements, but also be located at or near the point of attack. Keep in mind, there can be several distinct points of attack in a single play. I once spent an entire playoff game watching the visiting team’s right tackle, who was badly overmatched by the home team’s all-state defensive end, hold on virtually every pass play. I never threw the flag once. The reason, the shotgun QB never held the ball for more than 2 seconds. It was strictly a rhythm passing game. When he wasn’t doing that, he was rolling away from that side. There’s no way the defensive end could have gotten anywhere near the QB before the ball was long gone, even if his rush had been unopposed. Therefore, since the fact that he was held had no effect on the play, no foul. I hope I have more luck explaining this concept to you than I did telling it to the all-state defensive end and his coach that night. Since each of these elements involves a degree of judgment on the part of the covering official, with so many judgments to make on a single potential foul, it is no wonder that consistency is a concern. A few guidelines can help officials call this foul more consistently: Call holding well away from or behind the play only when absolutely necessary and then, only with reluctance. What do you do when two guys get locked up well away from the play and one just obviously takes the other down, right out there in front of everybody? Do you lose credibility if you pass on such an obvious foul? You can help the situation by using “preventive officiating,” talking loudly to the players as they lock up and encouraging them to disengage. You can also term this “unnecessary roughness,” since it’s well away from the play, and make it a personal foul, instead of holding. But you’re probably going to need a takedown to sell that calla. If at all possible, the situation should be handled with a “talk to” instead of a flag. Ditto for calling holding on a double team block. The theory here is that the offense is committing two players to a single opponent and, therefore, any advantage gained by the holding is negated by the fact that there is another player unblocked. This is only a guideline, and defensive players have been known to defeat a double team on occasion. So questionable contact on a double team simply requires an extra pause to more carefully scrutinize the action to determine if the criteria are met. Make It Be There. As an official, you always get in more trouble for calling the foul that wasn’t there, compared to missing one that was. If you’re going to throw the flag for a holding penalty, remember: we’re fishing for whales, not minnows. There is so much hand contact in blocking that if you get nitpicky about holding, you are only opening yourself up to claims of inconsistency. So when you call a hold, make sure it’s one that will jump out at you on the video. Because of both the nature and the number of judgments needed, calling holding penalties will never be free from controversy. I hope this helps explain why.