Holding!!! Or is it??

As Dwight Freeney enters his eighth game of 2006 with just half a sack to his credit for the season, a hot topic amongst Colts fans is the lack of offensive holding calls that seem to be contributing to the situation. But an offseason rule change is partly responsible...

You've seen it on more than one occasion this season. In fact, you've probably noticed it multiple times in single games this year while watching speedy defensive end Dwight Freeney battle with opposing offensive lineman. Sometimes briefly, sometimes blatantly, the blocker is grabbing a handful of Freeney's jersey. And rarely do you see a penalty flag on the ground to compensate Freeney and the Colts for the apparent transgression. Maddening, isn't it?

Well, get used to it. During the offseason, the NFL changed the interpretation of what constitutes offensive holding, and you're simply seeing the result of it in action. Defensive linemen across the league are now legally being mugged as referees have a lot more latitude now in deciding whether or not to throw a flag for holding. And the general rule of thumb is in situations where interpretation is involved, the men in black and white prefer to err on the side of not throwing a flag than tossing one to the turf that could be wrong -- as it should be.

So what's changed? Well, the new rule for offensive holding involves the referee determining whether or not a blocker "materially restricts" his opponent or alters his path or angle of pursuit during the play. So you aren't going to see a flag thrown everytime you see an offensive lineman with a fist-full of his opponent's jersey.

As a result of the "materially restricts" wording in the rule, a major point of focus for the referees in deciding whether or not to throw the flag will be where the potential foul occurred. They will be looking primarily at the offense's point of attack at the time the foul occurred to help them decide whether or not a penalty truly occurred.

In the most simple of examples, suppose a team runs a right sweep towards left defensive end Robert Mathis, but the left offensive tackle clearly holds right defensive end Dwight Freeney on the play and the ball carrier gets tackled a few yards past the line of scrimmage. You shouldn't see a flag hit the ground on that one as the point of attack is clearly moving away from Freeney and he wasn't likely going to play a big role in the outcome of the play. But if the exact same hold occurs while that play is being run to Freeney's side of the field, you should see a flag flying.

Bottom line, in addition to seeing the holding action, the referee will now decide whether or not it really impeded the defender's ability to make the play on the ballcarrier, which now interjects a higher level of judgment calls into these situations.

The impact on passing plays should be less dramatic, unless the opposing team has a mobile quarterback. While a quarterback is in the pocket, all of the defenders who are rushing him are heading towards the point of the offense's attack, the quarterback. But if that quarterback rolls out, you could see fairly blatant holds to the opposite side that won't be called if the referee doesn't believe the defender could have made the play on the quarterback anyway before he released the ball.

If a blocker is near the area of the offense's point of attack, he should be flagged under the revised rule if:

-- He grabs and restricts a defender. A good example of this is getting a good enough hold on the defender that he can't possibly break free to reach out and attempt a tackle on a running back who is shooting through a nearby gap.

-- He alters the angle of pursuit of a defender by jerking or hooking him. This is one that Freeney and Mathis face with their wide arc of attack on passing downs. If they've beaten their man and can't continue to swing towards the quarterback because the defender reaches out and hooks one of them or grabs and jerks them off their natural path, a flag should hit the ground if the passer was in the pocket or close by at the time the action occurred. Or as in the case in the picture of Montae Reagor to the right, if the defender has a direct shot at the quarterback inside and gets jerked off his path, the blocker should be flagged.

-- He tackles the defender or pulls him to the ground. But again, you may not see a flag on this if it happens away from the point of attack if the referee doesn't feel it had an impact on the outcome of the play.

Another important change this year that is no longer a holding penalty involves pushing a defender to the ground. So if the defender tries to shoot a gap by lowering his head and is simply pushed to the ground by the blocker -- even if he then falls on top of the defender -- there is no penalty. As long as the blocker doesn't wrap up (tackle) the defender during the motion or pull him to the ground, it's legal this year.

Bottom line, it appears that the NFL doesn't want a hold by the offensive line that doesn't likely have anything to do with the outcome of a play to be called. And that makes sense. Just don't confuse the above change with how referees call defensive holding as that hasn't changed. While that may seem a bit of a contradiction, it really isn't. If a receiver is held, even away from where the pass eventually was thrown, it already had an impact on how the play developed since seconds earlier the quarterback reviewed his options of eligible receivers as he went through his checks.

So as you watch this week's game against New England, you'll be able to realize why some of those offensive holding calls aren't being made against both teams when you see jerseys being grabbed. But undoubtedly, there will still be some that will leave you scratching your head wondering why the referee didn't think a blatant hold "materially restricted" someone from making a play in his general vicinity. Just remember, offensive holding has now becoming a real grey area for the men in black and white.

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