By Michael David Smith
Hand(s) or arm(s) that encircle a defender -- i.e., hook an opponent -- are to be considered illegal and officials are to call a foul for holding. Blocker cannot use his hands or arms to push from behind, hang onto, or encircle an opponent in a manner that restricts his movement as the play develops.
-- Digest of rules, 2005 NFL Record & Fact Book, Page 770
By the above definition of holding, Seattle Seahawks right tackle Sean Locklear committed holding on the controversial fifth play of the fourth quarter of Super Bowl XL. He hooked his right arm around the right shoulder of Pittsburgh linebacker Clark Haggans and restricted Haggans' movement. The call negated a pass that would have given Seattle first-and-goal at the 1-yard line. By the letter of the rules, it was the right call.
But if something is a penalty on one play, it should be a penalty on every play. And during the rest of the game, the officials didn't enforce holding by the letter of the rules. To determine whether the holding call was justified, I studied the tape of Super Bowl XL, watching both offensive tackles on every passing play to see how often they committed the type of infraction for which Locklear was penalized. The results are bad news for the NFL: Using the standard that was applied to Locklear on the infamous play, the four offensive tackles committed 22 uncalled holding penalties on passing plays.
By the letter of the rules, Locklear committed holding 10 times (he was flagged twice). Seattle left tackle Walter Jones should have been called six times. Pittsburgh tackles Marvel Smith and Max Starks should have been called four times each.
Here we present each of the four tackles and the plays on which they should have been flagged for holding:
Third-and-9, 12:40, first quarter: As Haggans rushed to the inside, Locklear reached his left arm out and hooked Haggans' left shoulder. Locklear was called for holding, and Haggans sacked Hasselbeck anyway.
Third-and-16, 5:53, first quarter: As Haggans rushed to the outside, Locklear used his arm to hang onto Haggans.
Third-and-23, 0:35, first quarter: At first Locklear engaged Haggans and seemed to get the better of the matchup, but as Haggans broke free and tried to rush to the outside, Locklear hooked him.
Third-and-5, 14:11, second quarter: Locklear got an arm around Haggans as Hasselbeck completed a pass to Joe Jurevicius.
Third-and-3, 8:47, second quarter: Haggans rushed to the inside and Locklear stuck his left arm out to restrict his rush.
Third-and-4, 13:45, third quarter: Locklear hooked defensive end Brett Keisel.
Third-and-15, 4:30, third quarter: Locklear wrapped his right arm around Haggans.
Third-and-5, 14:17, fourth quarter: Locklear hooked Haggans.
First-and-10, 12:35, fourth quarter: The infamous penalty call. Locklear's hold was no more flagrant here than on any of the previous seven uncalled holds. After he was flagged a second time, Seattle adjusted its offense to keep Locklear from having to block Haggans' outside rush, giving him outside help from Mack Strong for the rest of the game.
Second-and-10, 0:34, fourth quarter: One last time, Locklear hooked Haggans.
Third-and-9, 12:40, first quarter: This was the first time Locklear was called for holding, and using the strict standard, Jones also should have been called. He hooked his left arm around Joey Porter.
Third-and-16, 5:53, first quarter: Smith again tried to get past Jones to the outside, and Jones hooked him.
First-and-10, 2:08, first quarter: This was the Darrell Jackson touchdown that was called back for offensive pass interference. If the officials had used the strict definition of holding all game, it also would have been called back for Jones getting his left arm around Porter as Porter rushed upfield.
Second-and-6, 1:13, second quarter: Porter tried to beat Jones to the inside, and Jones stuck his right arm around Porter's midsection.
Third-and-4, 13:45, third quarter: Jones used his left arm around Porter on an outside rush.
Third-and-15, 4:30, third quarter: Jones hooked Kimo von Oelhoffen with his left arm on an outside pass rush.
Third-and-19, 10:32, first quarter: Starks blatantly hooked Bryce Fisher -- a much more egregious hold than the one for which Locklear was flagged.
First-and-10, 4:53, second quarter: Craig Terrill looped to the outside and Starks hooked him with his right arm.
Second-and-10, 4:47, second quarter: Fisher rushed to the outside and Starks hooked him.
Third-and-4, 10:27, third quarter: Starks encircled Fisher with his right arm.
Third-and-19, 10:32, first quarter: Smith held Grant Wistrom.
First-and-10, 0:17, first quarter: Smith hooked Wistrom, then encircled him with both arms.
Second-and-20, 4:21, second quarter: Smith held Wistrom, Wistrom beat him for a sack anyway.
Third-and-2, 2:58, third quarter: Smith hooked Wistrom.
That's 16 uncalled holding penalties on Seattle and eight on Pittsburgh. Because Seattle passed more than twice as often as Pittsburgh did, Pittsburgh's tackles actually committed holding at a higher rate than Seattle's, although the Steelers were never flagged.
If the officials had called holding on two inconsequential plays and ignored it the rest of the time, no one would much care. But Locklear's penalty negated an 18-yard Jerramy Stevens catch that would have given the Seahawks first-and-goal from the one-yard line, where they very likely would have scored and taken a 17-14 lead with less than 12 minutes remaining in the game. Instead they faced first-and-20 from the 29-yard line, Matt Hasselbeck threw an interception three plays later, and Pittsburgh's subsequent touchdown effectively ended the game.
These are my opinions. Someone else watching the same plays might come to different conclusions, thinking there were more or fewer than 22 uncalled holds on the offensive tackles. But no fair observer can say that given the way the rest of the game was called, Locklear should have been assessed that game-changing penalty. Just as in boxing, two judges can watch the same fights and see different things, but when a judge goes beyond the pale, impartial analysts need to call him on it.
And if the NFL doesn't like having its officials compared to boxing judges, a good way to start would be to improve the way it defines penalties. The NFL needs tighten the definition of holding. Change the rules so that the actions described above, which happen on every play, are legal. Then, whatever is contained within the new, more narrow definition, needs to be called consistently and always.
As it stands, the definition of holding is a joke. Here's another part of the NFL's digest of rules:
A runner may ward off opponents with his hands and arms but no other player on offense may use his hands or arms to obstruct an opponent by grasping with hands, pushing, or encircling any part of his body during a block.
Pushing? PUSHING? If pushing is illegal, does anyone out there -- fan, player, coach, referee -- have a clue what is legal? Is there ever a play when an offensive lineman doesn't push a defensive lineman? The NFL has some explaining to do.