If you watch a game, there are times you may notice that officials take a few extra moments to throw a flag after the infraction takes place. Sometimes people comment that “the flag was pretty late.” But many times the official throws a late flag because they are weighing the impact of the foul on the actual play.
Officials never automatically throw a non-safety flag (holding, illegal contact, illegal block). They weigh the infraction against the play, called the advantage/disadvantage philosophy. Did the foul give a team an unfair advantage? Or, was the foul of little consequence? Many times the official needs to let the play fully develop before determining whether to throw the flag. If the team that was fouled protests, the official will say that the infraction happened away from the play, thus no flag. The official will make sure to talk to the fouling player and tell him something like, “If they play had come your way, I would have flagged you.”
That’s why the runner is already through the hole and off to the races and the holding flag flutters in behind him. The official saw the foul, judged how the foul impacted the play and then threw the flag.
Why do officials do this? If they would flag every hold, illegal contact, or tug there would be double the number of flags in a game. Officials pass on inconsequential fouls to keep the game moving.
Deep down players and coaches appreciate this, because too many flags chop up the game flow which is frustrating for all involved.
This philosophy is only for non-safety fouls. Officials will always call safety fouls like a leg whip. chop block, clipping, illegal helmet contact, taunting, face mask, hands to the face, unnecessary roughness and targeting, no matter the impact of the play.
This is where experience and good judgement come in and separates the good officials from the great ones. It takes several years to develop that good judgement before the an official is NFL-ready.