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Hands-off approach

Linemen can't use their fingers, so let's cut 'em off

Posted: Tuesday October 4, 2005 10:49PM; Updated: Wednesday October 5, 2005 12:09PM
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MSU running back Jehuu Caulcrick gets some help from a handy lineman in the Spartans' win over Notre Dame.
MSU running back Jehuu Caulcrick gets some help from a handy lineman in the Spartans' win over Notre Dame.
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Do offensive linemen need fingers?

I posed this question yesterday to Bobby Gaston, the Southeastern Conference Supervisor of Officials. "No," Gaston said, "I guess they don't."

Now, I do not wish to put the digits of offensive linemen on the chopping block any more than I wish to see the chop block. But, on any given Saturday I see (and I imagine you do, too) an awful lot of offensive holding calls that are not made. You usually do not spot them during the play, but watch the replay whenever a running back makes a nice gain of more than 10 yards. More often than not, you'll notice a hold. The hold is conspicuous by watching a defender locked up with a blocker. The ball carrier scurries past the defender, with the defender's posterior closer to the rusher. You wonder why the defender does not just turn and tackle him. He can't. His jersey is in the grasp of the blocker.

There was a conspicuous hold on a running play involving Gerald Riggs Jr., on Tennessee's first play in overtime a week ago Monday in Baton Rouge. Last Saturday Michigan State and Michigan committed a number of infractions on one another. You think Michael Hart is a brilliant back on his own? Later, on a play during the Notre Dame-Purdue game, Fighting Irish wideout Maurice Stovall was doing the most zealous grabbing of jersey this side of Tony Soprano.

So it occurred to me, Why do offensive linemen have fingers? In other words, although it would not eradicate offensive holding altogether (to say nothing of defensive holding), why not require offensive linemen to wear a modified boxing glove, something that would eliminate even the temptation of them holding an opponent's vestment?

And so I went to Mr. Gaston. Because, well, everyone does. Every conference has a supervisor of officials, but Gaston seems to be the only one any writer ever quotes. And there's a reason for that. Gaston is eminently quotable.

How often could officials call holding?, I ask.

"You hear the statement that holding could be called on every play," Gaston, now in his 50th year of officiating, tells me. "I'd say it's more like fifty percent. There're three types of holding: there's the holding that could be called, the holding that should be called and the holding that actually is called."

Which one matters most?

"Well, we emphasize that you call it when it occurs at the point of attack and if it has a bearing on the play," Gaston says. "And even then, it's up to the official to use his discretion as to whether it's a fender-bender or a train wreck. If you arm-clamp or take down the defender, that's what we call a train wreck."

But, I say, especially on running plays that gain more than 10 yards, it appears that one could spot an offensive hold on every play. "A lot of coaches feel that holding has gotten a little out of hand," Gaston, with no pun intended, allows.

Coaches may complain about holding -- except when their team has the ball. And there's little to suggest that holding penalties, or penalties in general, detract from a team's success. The most penalized team in the nation is Texas Tech, which currently sports a 4-0 record and a No. 15 AP ranking. The Red Raiders average 12.25 penalties per game, although they've only been flagged for offensive holding seven times. Even USC, the No. 1 team in the land, is near the bottom of the national rankings in penalties per game. So why not grab a little shirt? It's not as if teams outfit themselves in tear-away jerseys anymore, anyway.

Gaston directed me to speak with John Adams, former supervisor of WAC officials, who was able to provide a history of holding. According to Adams, way, way back when Knute Rockne was coaching, a lot of offensive linemen actually had handles on their jerseys. That was because O-linemen were required to keep their arms in toward their chest and the handle made it easier for them to do so.