The CFL is poised to take yet another run at dealing with the biggest complaint most CFL fans have about the league: too many penalties.
While the agenda has yet to be finalized, sources say the rules committee meeting set for next week in Toronto will focus on three things: the expanded use of replay, reducing the number of penalties and player safety.
There are unlikely to be, however, large scale rule changes like the ones approved before last season, which included revision of the illegal contact and defensive pass interference guidelines as well as a significant alterations to special teams coverage. The extra point was also moved back to the 32 yard line.
While reaction to those changes has been mixed, sources say the league’s Board of Governors – who have the ultimate say over rules committee recommendations – would prefer to see another full season under the new rules before making any further significant revisions.
However, changes to replay system could see a third member added to the replay command centre in Toronto charged with helping on-field officials make correct decisions on penalties, ball position and non-challengeable calls.
For example, in situations where there’s uncertainty on whether a defensive player was drawn offside by movement on the offensive line, the third replay official could provide instant clarification with a quick, unsolicited replay review.
On the player safety side, the committee is expected to examine several different kinds of blocks made by offensive players against their defensive counterparts. The possible addition of a second replay official and the player safety issues was first reported by TSN’s Gary Lawless.
But after a second straight season of record-setting penalty numbers, reducing the number of flags also remains a high priority. There were more than 23 penalties per game called in the average game last season, a nine per cent increase over 2014 and a 22 per cent jump over 2012.
Those numbers are concerning when coupled with a slight decline in attendance and a more significant drop in television ratings over the last two seasons. Frustration over the constant interruptions to the flow of the game and the sheer number of flags has been a familiar refrain among CFL fans across the country.
One possible solution under consideration is changing the standard for which certain flags are thrown. For example, the CFL had 170 procedure penalties last season and a significant portion – more than a quarter – were the result of offensive linemen gesturing to defensive assignments after coming to a set position (something that is permitted in the NFL but not the Canadian game.)
Eliminating that restriction while also examining the standards around offensive holding and other high-volume calls, could help reduce the number of penalties the thinking goes. A second year under the revamped pass interference guidelines – there was a significant decline in the number of those calls in the second half of 2015 – should also help.
The CFL has been proactive in its use of replay and the possible expansion of its use would continue that trend. Given the issues faced by the league in training its officials – there is simply not enough high-level football in Canada to fully prepare them for the speed of the pro game – the additional use of technology could help in correcting the obvious mistakes that frustrate fans need players and coaches and undermine the credibility of the league.
Any changes agreed upon by the rules committee – and that’s not a given – would have to be approved by the Board of Governors before being implemented for the upcoming season. But anything that can reduce the number of orange hankies on the field – or improve the quality of the officiating is likely to be strongly favoured by fans.