Holding penalties plummet by 59 percent, leading to a spike in scoring

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It’s becoming clear and obvious that the NFL’s focus on clear and obvious penalties is clearly and obviously aimed at one thing: Increasing scoring and in turn the excitement generated by NFL games in 2020.

Kevin Seifert of ESPN.com takes a closer look at the impact of relaxed officiating on the 48 regular-season games played to date. Holding fouls have plummeted by 59 percent in comparison to 2019.

On the second Sunday of the season, NFL.com published an article with quotes from NFL officiating supervisor Walt Anderson, who explained that the league has instructed officials to avoid ticky-tack fouls, and to flag only clear and obvious instances of rules violations. Setting aside the question of whether teams should have been told this before the season (they weren’t), the cat has now escaped the bag, allowing teams to be coached to do things that won’t be flagged under the new standard.

The new standard undoubtedly is boosting the product. Via Seifert, NFL teams have generated an average of 24.7 offensive points per game through three weeks, 16 percent more over the first three weeks of 2019 — and 22 percent higher than the average generated during the preceding 20 years.

The NFL first realized in the ’70s that scoring sells. That led to a relaxation of the passing game via a tightening of the rules regarding the things defensive backs could do to receivers before the ball was in the air. More and more tweaks have led to the point where effective passing happens more than ever, which results in more points and more exciting games. It also results in greater output for those who play fantasy football, an important driver of interest in NFL games.

Whether the league should do this isn’t the issue. As Seifert correctly notes, “More than anything, this episode is a stark reminder of how the NFL can manipulate its product without changing a single rule. It is football’s equivalent to juicing the ball, an artificial injection of energy into the game.”

The timing is brilliant. Amid a pandemic and in the final countdown to an election that gets more contentious and divisive by the minute, people have more important things to worry about than whether the integrity of the game is being undermined by a deliberate effort to goose scoring in the NFL.

To most, the game isn’t being undermined; it’s being enhanced. The games have more scoring. They’re more exciting. They’re “better,” even if the boost comes from something other than better players or better plays or better execution of those plays or anything inherent to the men who make the game go. The officials are, essentially, standing back and standing by, letting players play even if that means some players will take liberties with the rules that buy more time for quarterbacks and/or create larger running ranges for tailbacks.

If that happens, good. More points. Better games. More excitement. And the perception of better football.