Even the game announcers are saying it: The refs are calling more penalties and slowing down the NFL games. It does feel like there are a lot more yellow flags on the field, but what do the numbers have to say? So far, the answers are mixed.
The NFL office openly admits that officiating crews are instructed to lookout for certain penalties. With the continuing push to make the game safer, fans expect the unnecessary roughness and unsportsmanlike conduct calls to increase. But why does it seem like we’re seeing an increase in holding and pass interference calls?
Let’s check the numbers.
The numbers don’t lie. Through the first five games of the season, the number of holding calls have definitely gone up. But they haven’t really gone up by as much as it seems from the comfort of a Sunday couch or a seat in the local sports bar.
Through five games, the NFL zebras have called 218 offensive holding penalties. That’s a significant increase over the last three years. Last year, the refs called a total of 555 holding penalties for a weekly average of just over two a game. Through five weeks, that would be an average of 173 holding calls. So far this year, holding calls have increased on average of nine calls a week, spread across all the week’s games.
With the bye weeks kicking in, the leagues plays 14 games each week. Those nine additional holding calls then result in less than one per game, but for the season, the trend is for more than 150 added holding calls from last season. Last season saw a 80+ jump in holding calls from the 2017 season.
Holding calls are definitely up.
Defensive Pass Interference
Defensive pass interference seems to be the call that most boils the blood of the fans. Of course, if your team in on offense, then interference calls are generally missed, and visa-versa if your team is on defense. But here, the numbers tell a very different story.
Through five games this season, the referees have called defensive pass interference 69 times. That is an average of 1.8 calls per game. Yes, it seems like more, but the numbers seldom lie.
Compared to the last three full seasons, this is right in line with those stats. Through the first five games of the last three years, the defensive pass interference calls were: 71, 73 & 79. This year has actually shown a slight decrease in DPI flags at 69.
Penalties – A Recent History
There is a case to be made for a long, slow increase in penalties called in the NFL. Over the last 10 years, the most penalized teams average in the high 130 range for the year. The highest ever was the 2011 Raiders with 163 flags on the year. The lowest was 128. But in the previous decade (’00-’09), the average was a solid two penalties less per game.
The increase has been slow but steady to the point where between 2000 and 2019, there are 2.2 more penalties assessed each game across all teams and conferences.
Another Reason Why
What can explain why announcers, players, coaches, and fans are complaining more about penalties? The increase is real, but it has been slow and, according to the league, focused on safety.
One of the chief complaints is that penalties slow down the game. In fact, penalties have always been part of the game. What is new and aggravating are the increased replays. The penalty doesn’t take five minutes or more to assess, but the replay does. And more penalty replay opportunities have been added each of the last three years.
Another reason are the commercials. The networks now go to a split screen with the referee peering into the on-field monitor in one screen, and a truck commercial in the other screen. Replays mean more opportunities for commercial sponsorships.
This holding penalty brought to you by Dr. Pepper.