How the NFL is manipulating games in 2020: Fewer holding calls, faster games and way more offense

In its entire 100-year history, the NFL has never opened a season on the kind of scoring tear we've seen in 2020. Teams are averaging 24.7 offensive points per game during the first three weeks, 16% better than 2019 over the same period, and 22% higher than their average during the previous two decades.

There are a number of theories for the surge, from high-level quarterback play to the coronavirus pandemic-related loss of home-crowd advantage. All have merits. But there is another direct correlation, an inorganic root emanating from the league office. At the direction of its new leadership team, on-field officials have changed the way they enforce penalties -- especially offensive holding -- in a way that is too dramatic to ignore.

The decision has not only helped offenses, by cutting their penalty yards in half, but it also has led to slightly quicker games and certainly less public discussion about officiating.

Few fans would object to such aesthetics, and you've heard no complaints from teams. It's fair to ask whether the league can or will credibly sustain this effort, and to question where it will lead to as players and coaches test their new boundaries. More than anything, this episode is a stark reminder of how the NFL can manipulate its product without changing a single rule. It is football's equivalent to juicing the ball, an artificial injection of energy into the game.

ESPN has made multiple requests to interview the NFL's officiating leadership team about this and other developments during the past few months. All have been declined. But retired referee Walt Anderson, who has effectively taken control of the department as its new senior vice president of training and development, told the league's website recently that he wants officials focused on "clear and obvious" fouls and not "all of a sudden to start calling the ticky-tack stuff." Anderson acknowledged that it's what "the NFL likes and what the audience likes."

Through the first 48 games of 2020, officials have thrown flags for 95 offensive holding penalties. That's 59% fewer than in 2019, when they were operating under instructions to increase such penalties, and 45% lower than the previous five-year average. At the same time, flags for defensive pass interference have risen 22% from 2019 to 72, the most through three weeks since at least 2001. Despite the increase in pass interference, the league's current average of 13.63 flags per game is its lowest through three weeks of a season since 2001.

While NFL players are highly skilled, no reasonable observer would believe that they have changed their blocking styles to such an extent, not after a virtual offseason and without the benefit of a single preseason game. It's far more likely that officials have changed their standards, similar to previous seasons when they have been asked to focus on other points of emphasis, such as roughing the passer.

"Officials are good soldiers," ESPN officiating analyst John Parry said. "They hear the message and they perform based on what they've been instructed to call. At this level, they are that good. Whatever the marching orders are, that's how they will officiate."

NBC officiating analyst Terry McAulay noted one example on Twitter to illustrate the extent to which officials are looking the other way. The video shows how an obvious takedown went uncalled during a touchdown reception by New Orleans Saints running back Alvin Kamara.

It's unclear why the NFL felt compelled to reorient offensive holding this season. A point of emphasis on certain blocking techniques last season prompted an ugly spike in flags, but it leveled off after Week 2 and didn't seem to need further adjustment. Scoring certainly hasn't dropped in recent seasons; two of the NFL's highest-scoring seasons have occurred in the past four years.

But the NFL has known for a while that it would open its season amid the most crowded sports calendar in its history. The delayed NBA, WNBA and NHL seasons were still underway. Major League Baseball, meanwhile, had returned for an intense, shortened season followed by an expanded postseason.

The NFL also understood that it had put its officiating department through a significant transition that might be better suited to instructions for limiting its flag throwing. In addition to new leadership, it has replaced a total of 11 officials because of retirements, attrition and pandemic opt-outs. The group also lost out on valuable training camp and preseason preparation time, and most crews didn't meet each other in person until they convened to ride to stadiums for their Week 1 games.

In any case, there can be little debate about public preferences for games that move quicker and maximize scoring. Those goals ranked atop the list of focus groups conducted by the XFL during 2018 and 2019, and were the crux of the nascent league's on-field philosophy.

According to the Elias Sports Bureau, the non-overtime portions of NFL games this season are finishing 41 seconds sooner than during the same period in 2019. The NFL, which adjusts its time-of-game statistics for weather and other unnatural delays, reports it has shaved 46 seconds off the 2019 number.

There is also a clear connection between offensive penalty totals and the subsequent yards lost, and sustaining drives. Since the start of the 2001 season, it has been twice as difficult to gain a first down on the play after an offensive penalty (19.9%) than on all others (39%). And according to ESPN's expected points added (EPA) model, the worst plays in football come immediately after a penalty. Their EPA is minus-0.1 per play. And it almost goes without saying that an increase in defensive pass interference calls will help passing as well. In 2020, offenses have gained 33% more penalty yards via pass interference (1,022) than during the first three weeks of 2019 (764).

But why the seemingly random choice to focus on offensive holding? Historically, it is the most frequently called foul in football. The NFL has been trying to calibrate it for years, beginning in Week 13 of the 2018 season and continuing into the start of the 2019 season. Uncalled holding fouls, moreover, don't register on the public outrage meter the way uncalled pass interference or roughing the passer penalties do, largely because they go unseen by fans who are watching the ball. A surge in called pass interference calls could generate some public angst, but ultimately it contributes further to point scoring.

In truth, the only risk here is the natural instincts of competitors. Although they don't get nearly the same public airing as some other analytics, officiating trends are closely monitored by teams. If the red line for a holding call has changed, coaches will notice and instruct their players to adjust accordingly. That would not only mean a higher frequency of blocks that would have been penalized for holding in previous seasons but also an effort to push the standard further. Without a pullback by the officiating department at some point, football games could become wrestling matches.

Until that time, however, the NFL has produced an on-field start that fits all the boxes for modern fans: more scoring, faster pacing and fewer flags.