Saturday, December 11, 2010
One very touchy subject
By Greg Garber
NEW YORK -- Carl Johnson, smiling after a brisk walk from NFL headquarters, strides into the suite of a midtown Manhattan hotel and enthusiastically extends his hand.
The league's first-year vice president of officiating is on hand to break down the weighty subject of holding for a television feature. As a line judge for nine seasons, he has heard the incessant complaints from players -- especially on defense.
"They'll be standing in the tunnel before the game and they'll claim they're being held," Johnson said, laughing.
Indeed, in researching the subject over several months, ESPN found that defensive players are nearly unanimous in their sentiments:
"If there are 70 plays," Jets linebacker Jason Taylor said at the team facility in New Jersey, "I'm held on 68 of them. It's like picking who's the cutest baby or cutest puppy -- they're all cute. They all hold!"
"In the NFL we live in today," said Ravens linebacker Terrell Suggs, sounding like a conspiracy theorist, "they want to see touchdowns, so it's not called that often."
"If the offensive linemen grab you on the inside of the pads, it's not holding -- supposedly," said Bears linebacker Brian Urlacher. "We hold, but we get called for it."
The last result on the first Sunday of this season turned on a holding call. You may remember that Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo hit Roy Williams in the end zone for what appeared to be the winning score as time ran out. Problem was, Alex Barron was detected holding Brian Orakpo. The touchdown came off the board and the Redskins won 13-7. The Cowboys never recovered.
As Jets center Nick Mangold said, "You don't want to get that holding penalty because you know they're going to say it on TV and they say it in the stadium and everyone knows it was your fault."
If you have the impression that you've been seeing more yellow laundry flying through the air during NFL games, you're right. As it turns out, the holding numbers are up appreciably. The league is on pace to have 89 more holding calls than last season.
Through Week 13, there have been 553 holding calls, 57 more than last year (496 through 13 weeks).
The biggest reason for the increase is the NFL's decision to move the umpire from behind the defense to behind the offense for 53 minutes of each 60-minute game. According to the league, umpires were involved in more than 100 collisions with players last year.
"We had ones who required surgery," Johnson said. "We had to get them out of there. In addition to making calls, he was running for his life out there.
"We decided he would get a better view of holding and other fouls and do his job safely if he was on the other side of the football."
Urlacher, for one, is happy about that.
"It's a great thing, especially for me since me and the umpire bumped into each other seven, eight times a game," he said. "It's been an ongoing battle."
With 22 players on the field -- that's 44 hands with a job to do -- grasping an opponent is a vital, necessary part of the job.
"I tell my offensive linemen all the time, 'Hey, hold them,'" Suggs said. "If they don't call it, it's not illegal."
As Houston Texans quarterback Matt Schaub said, "It's one of those rules that if you're not caught, then it didn't happen."
"It depends on who is calling it," said San Francisco 49ers coach Mike Singletary, who was a Hall of Fame linebacker for the Chicago Bears. "I have seen some guys after the play, the jersey is over halfway off and holding is not called."
There is a reason for this, Johnson explained.
"Most people would say you can call holding every play -- no you can't," he said.
Players lock up all the time -- linemen in the trenches, running backs and linebackers, receivers and defensive backs -- but if it doesn't affect the play, there's no call. Johnson described three major categories of holding.
"We want to see a grab and restriction, a hook and restriction and a takedown," he said. "And all of these must happen at the point of attack. If it doesn't, if the defender is not materially affected and it doesn't happen where the ball is, then we don't want holding called."
Still, the subject of holding is a squeamish one for many players.
"I can tell you who is very good [at it] -- no, I can't tell you," Suggs said. "I can't tell you who don't do it. Every offensive lineman does."
There are times, said Jets tight end Dustin Keller, when a 10-yard flag for holding is a good result.
"You'd much rather get the penalty there then have that title -- the guy that let Mark Sanchez get knocked out of the game," Keller said. "I think you have to have offensive penalties because you have to give something for defensive players to complain about.
"I don't know if I want to give out my techniques, because I'll just be telling on myself and the refs will be looking for it."
Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.