The Hamilton Tiger-Cats and Toronto Argonauts may be entering the post-season without much recent success, but they’re on major winning streaks compared to the third team that’ll be on the field Sunday.
We’re not actually referring to the specific seven men who will wear striped shirts in the eastern semifinal — chosen on merit from their work throughout season — but to CFL officiating in general. This has not been a hall-of-fame year for the flag throwers.
Yes, we know it is a difficult job with not a lot of opportunities to practice at the speed of the professional game. And, yes, this was a season of adjustment for not only the players but also for on-field officials with the league instituting new regulations on contact between receivers and defenders, and on downfield releases during punts, and it is just the second year of coaches permitted to challenge defensive pass interference.
But the concern with officiating — especially in places like, oh for instance, the stands at Tim Hortons Field — has often overshadowed the game itself.
And we cannot have that, or even a small part of it, in November, the CFL’s showcase month. Grey Cup lead-up is when the league makes its pitch to new full-time fans for the following year and tries to further ramp up the enthusiasm of its already-committed followers. That’s done through strength of play, not through officiating controversies that nip away at the integrity of the game.
Consider that the league, to its credit and that of director of officials Glen Johnson, has admitted that at least two incorrect calls have directly changed the outcome of a game: two weeks ago in the Ottawa game when not just one, but two, illegal blocks were called against the Tiger-Cats, costing them what would have been a game-turning interception return by Brandon Stewart; and an illegal procedure call which cost the Bombers a game when the alleged offender had already been told by an official that he was in a legal position.
That’s not counting plays like last weekend’s clearly-wrong, yet non-challengeable, offensive interference call against the Ticats’ Tiquan Underwood, which altered momentum in a game to decide home field advantage for the conference final. Just about every team in the league has had a similar kind of complaint of a critical officiating error against them which coloured a game’s complexion, and some have had more than one.
Two may not seem like many games to be directly affected by missed calls, but that’s only the ones which were publicly conceded and where there was a strongly identifiable cause-and-effect.
And remember, this is only a nine-team league. Pro-rated, that pace of big-cost mistakes would translate to six wrong-result games in the NFL and if that ever happened, you’d be hearing about it on the floor of Congress. Office pools would sue the league.
The issue is probably far more acute in Hamilton because the Cats — and we like this about them — play it close to the edge. It’s part of their mystique of anger and ferocity. They are not the CFL leader in “preventable fouls” because of missed calls.
And the pigskin populace here will never quite erase from its institutional memory Brandon Banks’ Cup-winning return being completely and utterly wiped out by an illegal block, no matter how much that call went according to the book. A book, though, which few fans have ever read.
The CFL is not unaware of the widespread perception that there’s a problem, and we’d drop the “perception” part: there is a problem, even if we can debate its source. Some portion of the problem could be addressed in the off-season, perhaps with new procedures and maybe even new rules, some could be addressed by personnel decisions and some we’ll likely just have to live with because in fluid sports like hockey, basketball and football where there is the potential for foul on every play, there is no such thing as a perfectly-officiated game.
It’s pointless to urge officials to ‘try harder’ because they’re all trying all the time.
But over the next three weekends, players are being asked to rise to a higher level in all parts of the game, including judgment. Each official has to look in the mirror and ask that of himself too, because a missed call at the wrong time won’t just decide a game ….it will wrongly send four dozen players home early.