Even though four games were lopped off the normal 18-game regular season schedule, I was so excited to see the Canadian Football League return in 2021 after losing a season due to the pandemic.
I was hoping for wide-open, high-scoring games, capped off by the Hamilton Tiger-Cats lifting the Grey Cup.
Unfortunately for me, the Ti-Cats had to settle for the silver medal to Winnipeg’s gold (and blue), and high-scoring games were the exception instead of the norm.
Montreal averaged a league-leading 22.4 points per game last season, while Ottawa was last in scoring at 13 points per outing. And at 43.1 ppg combined, scoring was down almost 13 percent from the 2019 campaign.
But perhaps help is on the way.
The CFL announced several rule tweaks earlier in the week, most designed with offense in mind. One with the chance to have the most immediate impact involves moving the hash marks closer to the center of the field. Now, instead of being 24 yards from the nearest sideline, they’ll be 28 yards away.
“Moving the ball closer to center will encourage teams to use the entire field and their entire playbooks,” CFL commissioner Randy Ambrosie said. “Our football leaders told us the current hash marks too often had the effect of taking the 12th man on the field – the receiver on the far side – out of the play. A throw to him was consistently seen as too risky. And that, in turn, was diluting the impact of our huge field, which is perhaps the most unique thing about Canadian football.”
Mike O’Shea, head coach of the two-time defending Grey Cup champion Blue Bombers, is a former linebacker and has a defense-first philosophy. However, he understands why the CFL made changes ahead of the 2022 schedule.
“Offensively, it (the hash mark changes) should open up the playbook a little more and allow you to use the entire field,” O’Shea said during a teleconference on Wednesday. “The hope is, it generates more excitement and I’m sure it’ll have some of the desired effect. It should be more exciting also in a variety of different aspects of the game.
“Nobody wants to watch 9-6, really. I mean, I like 9-6 games, because I’m a defender. But for the most part, the CFL’s a wide-open scoring game.”
Saskatchewan Roughriders coach Craig Dickenson says he likes the measured approach to the alterations, although they might not provide instant gratification.
“Is there a way we can increase scoring and somehow open the game up without drastically, in my opinion, changing things like the ratio? I think that’s why you see the hash marks (moving),” he said during his Thursday teleconference. “Do we know if it’s going to work? No, we don’t, but we’re willing to roll the dice and see what it does. I don’t think it’s going to change the game as we see it. The casual fan may not even notice it.”
Other changes include:
* After a made field goal or single point, drives will start from the 40-yard line instead of the 35-yard line. Teams kicking off for any reason will do so from their 30-yard line instead of the 35-yard line. The only exception is kickoffs following a safety: in 2022 they’ll be made from the 20-yard line instead of the 25-yard line.
* All no yards penalties – which are assigned when the cover team invades a five-yard halo around the returner as he fields a punt – will be 15 yards. Previously, a no yards penalty was 15 yards only if the ball had been fielded in the air – and only five yards if the punt had bounced. Also, any punt that sails out of bounds before it reaches an opponent’s 15-yard line will be assigned a penalty – instead of only punts that sail out of bounds before they reach the 20-yard line.
* Two quarterbacks will be allowed on the field at the same time, provided all other ratio rules are satisfied.
* A “communications coordinator” from the officiating department, connected to the on-field officials via headset communication, will be imbedded on each team’s bench.
* A penalty that occurs at the end of the first or third quarter will be assigned at the start of the next quarter, rather than triggering an extension of the quarter.
* The circumstances under which the Command Centre is allowed to help on-field officials – without a coach’s challenge or an officials’ huddle – will be expanded to include possession rulings, boundary rulings and administrative rules such as a formation without an end or ineligible receivers downfield.
* Introduction of a new objectionable conduct penalty for quarterbacks who “fake” giving themselves up by pretending to initiate a slide while carrying the football.
* Automatic ejection of any player guilty of two unnecessary roughness penalties or two objectionable conduct penalties (or a combination of the two for infractions that occur following a play).
Among the “best of the rest” amended rules for 2022, I’m going with the 15-yard penalty that will now be levied when a punt returner’s five-yard halo is broken.
Let’s face it – in years past, it was worth a defender’s while to draw the flag because the penalty was much more palatable than allowing a guy to scoop and scoot.
Now there are consequences.
“Our coaches, general managers and team presidents all agreed that the kick return is an exciting and essential part of the Canadian game,” Ambrosie said. “When teams purposely commit an infraction to prevent any return, it takes away some of the excitement of our game, and it creates a stoppage in play while the penalty is assessed. We wanted to address that.”
As for the other rules, none made me cheer or jeer – although I truly had no idea two QBs couldn’t be on the field at the same time.
For those who wanted a seismic shift in the way the Canadian game is played (Four downs! Eleven players! Horses allowed in the backfield!), I’m sure these adjustments are met with shrugged shoulders. Personally, I think they’re steps in the right direction, even if they’re relatively small ones.
I’m just glad rookie camp opens May 11, training camp starts May 15, and the first preseason game is May 23 with Winnipeg playing at Saskatchewan.
Of course, with the new USFL in action and XFL 3.0 coming next February, football is heading for a year-round schedule.
For me, though, the dawn of the CFL season always feels like the “official” start of football.. And I’m truly looking forward to it – rule changes notwithstanding.