Offensive Holding and Defensive Secondary Penalties Have Both Increased by Over 40% Since 2011

By Jason Lisk
Oct 27, 2016, 2:00 PM EDT

One of the refrains affecting the watchability of NFL games has been the number of penalties making the games a slog. We saw Sean McDonough take this on directly while broadcasting a Monday night game a few weeks ago.

So I thought I would look back at the specific types of penalties, after I already took a look at scoring and other factors in primetime games.

I ran a search of all “no plays” in the play finder database for scrimmage plays, through the first 7 weeks of each season since 2011. Thus, this won’t be all called penalties (a penalty that was declined would not be included), but would have all offsetting penalties and accepted ones. I went with 2011, by the way, since that was the last year before the officiating lockout of 2012.

I then ran a keyword search for the type of penalties. Here are the results, first for offensive holding.

Last year showed a spike in holding calls compared to the previous four seasons, and so far this year, those numbers have continued to climb. Offensive holding calls are 43% higher in 2016 compared to 2011.

Now, to other types of passing penalties (holding can of course occur on both run and pass plays).

Here is the year-by-year breakdown of offensive pass interference, defensive pass interference, defensive holding, and illegal contact.

Offensive pass interference was barely called in 2011. Those numbers have climbed in the last three years (probably accurately in many cases, as teams were getting away with clear pick plays downfield).

Defensive pass interference is at its high mark in 2016. We’ve seen a differing emphasis on exactly which penalty gets called. In 2014, illegal contact was all the rage, and those numbers have gone back down somewhat. Defensive holding spiked the last two years, at the expense of pass interference.

However, if you combine all three categories, the defensive passing penalties are up 45% compared to 2011, though they are down from the high water mark of two years ago.

If it feels like you are seeing more plays called back due to holding on offense, and more flags for pass interference, well, you are so far in 2016.