The unintended consequences of unfettered challenges

One of the big rule changes the CFL made in the offseason was to allow coaches to challenge more calls than in previous years. Offensive pass interference, roughing the passer, illegal contact on a receiver and no yards were just a few of the penalties now able to be reviewed.

Coaches have responded to the additional challengeable plays this season by throwing over twice as many challenge flags as last season. After 16 games in 2015, there were 18 challenges, with seven being overturned; so far this year after the same number of games, we have seen 39 challenges, with 20 being overturned. The spike in challenges might also speaks to level of officiating in the CFL so far this season, but that is another topic for another day. Teams can challenge more plays and the ability to do so has seen a rather large difference in the number challenges from last year to this year.

But with unfettered challenges comes unintended consequences, which is what we saw in Montreal last Friday when the Als hosted the Ticats. After a Rakeem Cato fumble late in the third quarter, Alouettes head coach Jim Popp threw a challenge flag claiming that Hamilton’s Johnny Sears, Jr. had made contact with Montreal receiver Nik Lewis. The call of no penalty stood and Hamilton retained possession of the ball after recovering Cato’s fumble.

It was a desperation attempt that even the TSN commentators pointed out when Popp threw his challenge flag. Sears came nowhere near interfering with Lewis, and in fact he spun out of the way to avoid contact with the burley Montreal receiver.

And this is where the new rules regarding challenges shows its biggest flaw. This wasn’t a challenge to correct a missed call, this was an attempt to try and find anything that would have stopped Montreal from turning over the ball. When the league changed its challenge rules, this is not what they were intending. It is a loophole, and no one is faulting Popp for using it, but it does show an area that needs to be cleaned up.

While it is too late to do something now, perhaps the league should look into changing the penalty for an incorrect challenge this offseason. Currently, a team is charged a timeout if its second challenge is unsuccessful. If the penalty for an unsuccessful challenge was a delay of game penalty, since delaying the game is exactly what they are doing, or a general 15-yard penalty teams might be less inclined to make frivolous challenges like the one we saw from Popp on Friday night.

While some would like to see the entire instant replay system scrapped, many know that it is here to stay. With that being the case, the league needs to look into ways to improve it, and since the league has shown a willingness to make changes, so there is no reason to think they won’t look at what happened and react accordingly.

The system is not broken, but just in need of some tweaks. To stop the type of pointless challenges like the one we saw from Popp on Friday, the needed tweak might be to make the punishment for an incorrect challenge a little bit harsher.

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.