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In one way or another, most NFL teams track the tendencies of referee crews during the season. Knowing how crews have operated in previous weeks might not be reliable enough to build a game plan around, but it can be helpful to players and coaches nonetheless.
This week's example is offensive holding, one of the most subjective penalties in the NFL. When you hear a football person say that it could be called on every play, technically they're right. The section of the NFL rulebook devoted to holding is filled with notes, exceptions and parsing of phrases that leaves substantial interpretation to officials.
Consider the following excerpt, which attempts to provide context for whether a lineman's hands can contact a defender outside his body frame:
"A blocker may use his arms, or open or closed hands, to contact an opponent on or outside the opponent's body 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."
What does "materially" mean? What is a reasonable expectation for "immediately?" It's up to the officials to decide.
Not surprisingly, some crews use a different interpretation than others, as you can see in the chart embedded in this post. As in most cases, the range is the most interesting aspect of the analysis. If you're assigned the crew of referee Jerome Boger (35 offensive penalties), Carl Cheffers (34) or Brad Allen (33), you're likely to see offensive holding called more tightly than if you get Walt Coleman (nine) or Bill Vinovich (nine).
To me, it's fascinating that the most active crews have called nearly four times as many holding penalties as two of their counterparts. But that frequency can't solely be traced to officials, of course. Some teams have players who are more likely to hold, and schemes that are more likely to lead to it, than others.
Sorting the total number of holding penalties in the ESPN Stats & Information database by team reveals four tied at the top with 18: the Atlanta Falcons, Dallas Cowboys, Indianapolis Colts and Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Four teams are at the bottom: the Cincinnati Bengals (before Thursday night's game in Cleveland), the Kansas City Chiefs, Oakland Raiders and New Orleans Saints. The Bengals, Chiefs and Raiders have all been called for holding nine times; the Saints have six. The remaining 24 teams fall in a range between 10 and 16.
According to the excellent Football Zebras website, Vinovich will be the referee for the Saints' game Sunday against the San Francisco 49ers. When you combine his crew's history with the Saints' performance thus far, you wouldn't expect offensive holding to be a major factor in the game. Offensive lineman should feel more comfortable with aggressive blocks.
Note: As always, the bar graph at the top of this post documents the per-game frequency of all penalty calls this season, by crew. Cheffers' crew continues to be the most active at 20.5 penalties per game.