Trying to make sense of the crazy Ottawa-Edmonton ending

The new CFL season is only a week old and we have our first major controversy thanks to the end of regulation in the game between the Ottawa Redblacks and Edmonton Eskimos on Saturday night.

Let’s set the scene. Ottawa was down by three with under a minute left when they take the ball at their own 26-yard line. They drive down efficiently and have the ball at Edmonton’s 48 with 10 seconds left following a completion from Trevor Harris to Brad Sinopoli.

Screen Shot 2016-06-26 at 2.01.17 PM

So far so good, but this is when things go off the rails.

Since Sinopoli does not get out of bounds, the clock should start again once the ball is spotted and play is whistled in, which is exactly what happened. With the clock ticking down, Ottawa rushes to the line to, I would assume, either get a quick snap off or to spike the ball to kill the clock (they were without a timeout, having used it earlier in the drive.) But at the same time, they also try to rush on their field goal unit and in all the confusion the clock ticks down from 0:10 to 0:07 and the play clock from 20 to 16.

Screen Shot 2016-06-26 at 2.02.08 PM

Then the clock just stops and everyone is confused about just what the hell is going on.

We then go 35 seconds in real time before everything gets settled and Maas calls his timeout (likely to get his special teams unit on the field) with zeros on the clock and 13 seconds remaining on the play clock. Now, since there were 10 seconds remaining in the game before the whistle to start play had been blown after the Sinopoli catch, then 10 seconds, not 13, should have been remaining on the play clock when the clock hit 0:00. But the game clock stayed at 0:07, so only seven seconds came off the play clock. That’s important because it shows that play had been whistled before the mass substitution by Ottawa was attempted. How do we know this? Because the officials did not tell the timer to put the additional three seconds back on the game clock (as they did earlier in the drive when Ottawa called their timeout).

Confusion wasn’t limited to on the field as many fans watching the game were just as flummoxed as to what the heck actually happened.

The online uproar forced the CFL to clarify what happened at the end of regulation and they did so around halftime of the Calgary-BC game when they sent out of the following tweet from their @CFL_PR account:

One big problem with that statement is this:

Screen Shot 2016-06-26 at 3.22.15 PM

Notice the official with his arms up on the bottom of the screen? That is the signal for the substitution gates being closed. If Edmonton could not substitute, then neither should Ottawa.

From anyone’s point of view, this looks bad. It looks like Ottawa was given a chance they shouldn’t have been. The league’s explanation simply does not align with what we see. So just what the heck was going on?

We reached out to CFL vice president of football Glen Johnson to get further clarification on just what the heck happened and this is what he had to say:

“Ottawa began to substitute prior to the play starting or the gates being up in front of their bench that would prohibit them from substituting. The Referee incorrectly blew the play in while this was happening but quickly stopped it when he realized Ottawa was substituting. Ottawa was correctly allowed to continue substituting and the defense allowed to match personnel before continuing the play.”

Now, if we accept what Johnson is saying as fact – and we should, given that Johnson has acknowledged officiating errors when they were made in the past – the mistake they made is not in what transpired on the field. Ottawa should have been allowed to substitute their field goal unit onto the field before Andre Proulx whistled the play in. Is that answer satisfactory? That is up to you to decide.

Here is why, despite them ultimately getting it right, this error is still a problem. All it would have taken to quell much of the furor over what happened is for Proulx to simply get on the mic and explain everything to the crowd. He would have gotten booed mercilessly by Eskimos fans, but at least we all would have understood what was going on and why Ottawa was seemingly given a chance they didn’t deserve. Instead, we got nothing out of Proulx at the time and that is what pretty much sparked this whole controversy. Then we got a short Twitter response that satisfied no one, and we sat for close to 36 hours after the event occurred before we got a larger explanation.

Also, and this cannot be understated, the league spent a lot of time this offseason talking about fixing officiating. It was a main focus because, rightly, the fans thought officiating was not performing at an acceptable level. So not getting through the first week without an refereeing snafu is, to say the least, unfortunate.

The league being right is no longer the issue; what happened on the field was correct whether we like it or not. But the league’s response, both on the field and in the immediate aftermath, was misguided and ill-advised. I don’t know if they thought this would just go away with a simple tweet, but it didn’t. In fact, the tweet probably did more harm than good. Fans wanted answers and what they got looked like more obfuscation. It didn’t line up with what they saw and heard, and the league needed to be more in tune with the controversy that was brewing.

Josh Smith has been writing about the Ticats and the CFL since 2010 and was sporting his beard way before it was cool. Will be long after, too.