Grant Cohn: Refs hold hard line on holding

  • Referee Walt Coleman, left ,talks with line judge Mike Spanier during a preseason NFL football game Friday. (Associated Press / Mike McCarn)

The NFL says this season it will emphasize the defensive holding penalty and the illegal contact penalty. This is a big development, emphasizing these points of emphasis. It will help the 49ers and I will explain why.

But first, can you explain how a penalty can be a point of emphasis?

I don’t get it. Why would something that is already a penalty need emphasis? A penalty is a penalty is a penalty.

Hey, officials, call it. There’s your point of emphasis.

After God dictated the Ten Commandments to Moses on Mount Sinai, God didn’t say, “Moses, make sure you emphasize the Seventh Commandment; I’m serious about that one and I’m watching.”

Defensive holding and illegal contact have been penalties in the NFL rule book for decades – the officials just haven’t called those penalties consistently. Officials mostly have let cornerbacks play physically the past decade. You may want to substitute “dirty” for “physically.”

Which created a problem for the league. Defensive players and defensive coaches have bent the rules in their favor. Naturally. If a penalty is not enforced, why honor it? Is a penalty really a penalty if officials don’t enforce it?

The NFL doesn’t want to slow down the game, so in the past defensive holding paid off because the officials called only a few of those penalties every game. And when the officials penalized defensive holding, it was just a 5-yard penalty. This was the key equation. Officials hardly called defensive holding and when they did the price was small. So if you were a defensive back, sure, you’d pull jerseys and get away with fouls like the villains in pro wrestling.

The Seattle Seahawks have gamed the system especially well. It’s what they do. Former vice president of NFL officiating Mike Pereira told the Wall Street Journal that the Seahawks believe they “may get called for one (defensive holding or illegal contact penalty), but not 10.”

Pereira told the Wall Street Journal the Seahawks sometimes intentionally commit a blatant defensive holding call early in a game. “They want to see what kind of tone the officials are going to set,” Pereira said. It’s a diagnostic penalty. Will the officials call the penalty or won’t they?

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