The league’s senior vice-president, football is visiting each team’s coaching staff to explain the changes and outline what the officiating priorities are for this year – including reducing the number of penalties by the hundreds.
Johnson’s first stop was in Winnipeg on Wednesday, where he met with Blue Bombers coaches and had a session with media.
He said CFL games ran an average of two hours and 52 minutes last season, down three minutes from 2014 even though penalties and stoppages were up.
“We put headsets on officials (last season), which helped speed up the game?” Johnson said. “We found a bunch of other ways, just by being more efficient with communication, to have that time go down.”
One of the new changes he believes will add to that efficiency is having a video official in the command centre, a first in North American pro sports.
The video official will be able to communicate through a wireless set with the referee on the field when there’s a call that’s not instantly clear-cut.
For example, if officials are huddled up trying to decide who committed a penalty, the video official could quickly look at the video and tell the referee who it was so the game could resume faster.
That could shave six or seven seconds off the indecision, Johnson estimated, which could add up throughout a game. The length of replays decreased 20 per cent last season to an average of one minutes and 31 seconds, he added.
Penalties did go up nine per cent last season over 2014 and Johnson wants to cut that in a big way.
“We’re not trying to take 10 or 15 penalties out, we want to take hundreds out, literally hundreds out of the game,” he said.
“In just the categories of defensive offside and procedure by the offence, we’ve got over 600 penalties in 81 (regular-season) games.”
One penalty that’s being dropped relates to offensive linemen. Now they can move their heads or make a signal when they’re in their three-point stance and not be dinged for illegal procedure.
“We had over 100 of those penalties last year, where they moved in a three-point stance,” Johnson said. “It’s an annoying penalty, it does nothing to make the game better.”
Educating coaches, players and officials about the rules is another way to reduce penalties, he said.
Every official went to a team’s training camp last season to practise real-time scenarios. A pilot project also sent some officials to team practices, which will be expanded this year.
“(If) we’ve got receivers and (defensive backs) doing one-on-ones, we’re there and we can help officiate. We can tell them what we think is a penalty, what’s not.”
While fans always complain about officiating, Johnson said they are held accountable. Three were fired last season because of their overall performance, while five others were sent back to gain more development doing university games. Eight prospects will attend the officiating camp this year, the most since about 1992.
He added the accuracy rate for officials last season averaged in the mid-90 per cent, but perfection on the field isn’t realistic.
“It’s hard to get that last two or three or four per cent right,” Johnson said. “Sometimes that official’s in a spot where they never, ever had a chance to get it right because they’re looking through something or they’re behind somebody or they’re blocked out. Whatever it is, they could never have gotten it right.
“You can’t expect perfection. So to get closer to it, video helps us get that last two or three per cent.”
Johnson continues his team visits in Ottawa next week.