The Tangible Value of NFL Holding Calls

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July 21, 2017
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July 31, 2017

The Tangible Value of NFL Holding Calls

Derrik Klassen

Offensive holding calls are devastating. In the same way that sacks kill drives, holding calls often derail an offense’s chances of converting a first down or scoring. Although there is no loss of down like there is with a sack, a holding call puts an offense much farther behind the chains than they would be otherwise and forces an offense off-schedule. It’s never good to get off-schedule as an offense.

All data comes via Pro Football Reference’s ‘drive finder’ feature.

I charted holding calls similarly to how I charted sacks a month ago. I logged the down-and-distance, yardage lost, whether or not the offense converted, and any additional data, such as scores. Declined and offsetting holding penalties were not counted. Only accepted holding calls were counted.

Let’s start from the top.

I logged 510 total holding calls for the 2016 NFL season. There were 231 holding calls on passing attempts and 279 holding calls on rushing/scramble attempts. Despite there being fewer penalties on passing attempts, holding calls on passing attempts were more detrimental to an offense’s success.

Teams were able to convert after 75 of the 231 passing holding calls, good for a 32.47% conversion rate. To compare, teams were only able to convert 16.01% of the time following a sack. Offenses are much better off surrendering a holding penalty than they are giving up a sack.

Following holding calls on rushing/scrambling attempts, however, teams were able to convert 112 times out of 279 penalties, coming out to a 40.14% conversion rate. The conversion rate following a run-related holding call was about 25% better than the conversion rate following a pass-related holding call.

Part of the reason for the discrepancy is that holding calls on rushing attempts aren’t necessarily an automatic 10-yard loss from the line of scrimmage. If holding occurs at or behind the line of scrimmage, it is an automatic 10-yard loss, and that is always the case on passing plays. It isn’t on running plays, though.

For example, a running back can run for a gain on a first down in which a wide receiver gets a holding call three yards down the field, but the penalty results in 1st-and-17 rather than 1st-and-20. The penalty is called from the spot of the foul, in that scenario. On passing plays, however, the penalty is called from the line of scrimmage, so the offense loses 10 yards, unless they are backed up near their own end zone, in which they would only lose half the distance to the goal.

On average, holding calls on passing plays result in a 9.63-yard loss, while holding calls on running plays render an 8.81-yard loss. The average loss of yardage is minimal on the surface, but only 12.12% (28 of 231) passing holding calls did not result in a 10-yard loss, as compared to the 25.09% (70 of 279) running holding calls that did not end in a 10-yard loss. Running holding calls more often granted easier situations for the offense to handle.

Similarly, how often teams were about to still score following a holding call depended on whether the call came on a passing play or a running play. When offenses got holding calls on passing attempts, they were only able to salvage 70 of 231 (30.30%) drives into points. Conversely, offenses found a way to score following holding calls on running plays on 110 of 279 drives (39.43%).

Maybe the most interesting piece of data is the down-by-down splits on passing holding calls vs rushing holding calls. While running holding calls were able to be overcome more often than passing holding calls, most of that difference was because of how differently teams converted after holding calls on first down.

Passing Conversion No Conversion
1st Down 36/96 (37.5%) 60/96 (62.5%)
2nd Down 35/100 (35%) 65/100 (65%)
3rd Down 3/24 (8.82%) 21/24 (91.18%)


Rushing Conversion No Conversion
1st Down 75/158 (47.47%) 83/158 (52.53%)
2nd Down 34/96 (35.42%) 62/96 (64.58%)
3rd Down 3/24 (8.82%) 21/24 (91.18%)

When holding calls occur on 2nd or 3rd down, the conversion rate is almost identical across the board. On first down holding penalties, offenses are able to convert roughly 10% more often when the penalty occurs on a rushing play rather than a passing play. Why the difference in conversion rate can only be seen on first down, I am unsure, but the split is interesting, nonetheless.

To recap: holding penalties aren’t quite as bad as getting sacked, but holding penalties on passing plays are worse than holding penalties on running plays. Holding calls of any kind diminish the offense’s chances of success on a given drive.

In the near future, this piece will be followed up with a team-by-team assessment of which teams were able to overcome holding penalties, as well as where their penalties most often occurred.