Will the fate of the Esks force the CFL to contemplate changing playoff format?

By Gregory Strong

The fate of a fifth-place team was not top of mind when the CFL created its crossover rule more than two decades ago. It’s something the league may want to consider for the future.

The rule gives a fourth-place team a crossover playoff spot when the club finishes with more points than the third-place team in the other division. It happened again this year when the B.C. Lions (9-9) finished with a better record than the 5-13 Montreal Alouettes, who were third in the East.

However, for the first time in the rule’s history, the Edmonton Eskimos – who were at the bottom of the five-team West at 9-9 – missed the playoffs despite owning a better record than both the Alouettes and the East’s second-place team, the 8-10 Hamilton Tiger-Cats.

Unfortunately for the Eskimos, there is no provision for when the five teams in the West have better records than all but the first-place team in the East. As a result, Edmonton will be on the outside looking in when the post-season kicks off this weekend.

“I feel like we’re as good as anybody, I really do,” Eskimos head coach Jason Maas said at his season-ending availability. “I know our record doesn’t necessarily prove that, except that there are two playoffs teams with the same record and a lesser record in the playoffs right now.”

It’s unclear whether the issue will be explored in the off-season. CFL commissioner Randy Ambrosie was not immediately available for comment.

This is the fourth time the crossover has been needed in the last five years.

Since the rule made its debut in 1996, there have been 10 seasons where the West has had five teams and this unique scenario has even been possible. The Winnipeg Blue Bombers have had to move back to the East at times to fill vacancies when Ottawa hasn’t had a team in the league.

It can be tough to ensure playoff balance in a nine-team league, especially in a year when one division is far superior to the other. The crossover rule was implemented to try to maximize meaningful and competitive games down the stretch and to reward the better teams with playoff spots.

“I love the way they’re doing it,” TSN broadcaster and former CFL star Milt Stegall said from Atlanta. “I think the pros outweigh the cons, it adds some intrigue.”

The West Division, led by the 13-5 Calgary Stampeders, did not have a club with a losing record while the four-team East had just one squad – the 11-7 Ottawa Redblacks – finish above the .500 mark. Hamilton, Montreal and the 4-14 Toronto Argonauts were all well behind.

The Lions and Eskimos both finished with 18 points, but B.C. won the season series over Edmonton to secure the final West playoff spot.

Proponents of adding a fifth playoff team out of the West could argue the Redblacks should qualify out of the East and that all five West clubs should be rewarded for their records. In such a scenario, divisional winners could get regular first-round byes but the No. 2 team would host the No. 5 club in the West while the No. 3 team welcomes the fourth-place side.

Such a change would also eliminate a regular gripe about the crossover rule: that the fourth-place team has to travel for the division semifinal even if that club owns a better record than its opponent.

This year, B.C. has to make the cross-country jaunt to Hamilton to play outdoors at Tim Hortons Field rather than in the cosy confines of BC Place. If the Lions win, they likely would return home for a few days before making another long trip to Ontario for the East final against Ottawa.

Another option would be to get rid of the divisional playoff structure altogether and simply seed the top six teams at season’s end. Seeds No. 3 through No. 6 could play off to set up league semifinals against the top two seeds and the winners would advance to the Grey Cup.

The NHL did something similar for a couple years by seeding the top 16 teams for first-round matchups before switching to a divisional playoff structure in 1982.

CFL purists often point to the history of the East versus West playdowns as a reason to eschew further change.

However, that tradition was essentially upended when the crossover was introduced. After all, the Vancouver-based Lions are two wins away from being crowned East Division champions.

A crossover rule explainer note on the CFL website points out that the format keeps the entire league competitive, rewards the top six teams with playoff berths and is sensitive to the East-West rivalry. But there is no mention of the scenario that the league finds itself in now, where a fifth-place team in the West has a better record than the second-place team in the East.

South of the border, the NFL has had similar situations where underperforming teams were given playoff spots ahead of clubs with better records.

In 2010, the Seattle Seahawks won their division with a 7-9 record and hosted a playoff game against the 11-5 New Orleans Saints while two 10-6 teams missed the post-season. Four years later, the Carolina Panthers took their division crown with a 7-8-1 mark while the 10-6 Philadelphia Eagles missed the playoff cut.

The Canadian university football playoff structure is far from perfect too. A pair of 2-6 teams – Sherbrooke and McGill – actually made the Quebec conference playoffs before being blown out last weekend in the opening round.

Recent history suggests that regular-season records don’t seem to matter that much once the playoffs begin. The Argonauts won the Grey Cup last fall after a 9-9 campaign while the Redblacks took the 2016 title after an 8-9-1 regular season.

This week’s West semifinal pits the 12-6 Saskatchewan Roughriders against the visiting Blue Bombers (10-8). The East and West Finals are set for Nov. 18 and the Grey Cup goes Nov. 25 at Edmonton’s Commonwealth Stadium.

– CP

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