Say what? CFL defences at a disadvantage without headsets

From hand signals in Hamilton to pictures of TSN anchors in Edmonton, CFL teams have unique ways of sending in plays from the sidelines.

Some, like a ferrett-esque call by the Eskimos, are goofy. Others straightforward.

But there’s no way around them, at least on the defensive side of the ball.

Since 2010, the league has allowed quarterbacks to receive plays through speakers in their helmets. Still, offences in Edmonton and elsewhere occasionally send in plays from the sidelines when in no-huddle or hurry up situations.

Defences, meanwhile, do it constantly. Without an audio system, they have no other choice.

“It’s hard for me to imagine the middle linebacker doesn’t have a microphone in his helmet like the quarterback does,” said Tiger-Cats coach June Jones.

It’s something the NFL implemented in 2008, a decade after his tenure with the San Diego Chargers.

“I’m just a little surprised, at the professional level, that they don’t have the headsets in both the defence and offence,” he added.

So are his players.

“If the quarterbacks can wear headsets, why can’t the linebackers, why can’t a defensive player?” asked defensive lineman Justin Capicciotti. “It doesn’t make sense.”

CFL spokesperson Lucas Barrett said the reason offences have access to audio systems while defences do not is largely financial. There’s a “significant investment” to purchase the equipment, “so it was determined the league would only allow it on one side of the ball and started with the offence.”

The league would not disclose what it cost to implement the systems initially, but Barrett said it would carry a price tag of at least $250,000 to expand them to defences across the league now.

Capicciotti, who played for Edmonton, Ottawa and Saskatchewan before he was traded to Hamilton in 2016, said he feels for middle linebacker Larry Dean who has the tough task of communicating the calls.

“He’s got to kind of do it all,” he said. “With a headset, I’m sure his job would be easier and he could just focus on tackling people.”

Dean concurs. While he’s comfortable relaying plays — it’s something he’s done since high school — an audio system would make his job easier. Hamilton has a complicated process for communicating plays, which involves two or three people sending signals simultaneously, only one set of which are live.

“I would definitely like it if we had a defensive headset,” Dean said. “But you’re given lemons, you make lemonade, right?”

Cost isn’t the only barrier. The fact that audio systems would streamline communication for players like Dean is apparently at odds with the CFL’s desire to improve offence — something it has achieved through changes to illegal contact rules, for example, which were designed to create more room for receivers and improve game flow.

But it’s not entirely clear that is the case.

After an initial jump in 2010, the decision to allow quarterbacks to wear audio devices doesn’t appear to have had a significant effect on offensive numbers — everything from points per game to second down conversion rates to net offence remained relatively stable.

In fact, by 2014 — the so-called year of the defence — the numbers were actually worse on virtually every measure than in 2009, the year before the change was implemented.

Since several rules were amended in 2015, including the illegal contact standard, however, offensive numbers have improved almost universally. Meanwhile, quarterback sacks and two-and-out rates have virtually dropped year-over-year over the same four-season span.

According to Barrett, the league is actually reconsidering audio systems for defences. He said the issue will be discussed by the CFL’s competition committee and management council in the off-season.

That will make Dean glad.

“I am definitely an advocate,” he said. “The defence should have a head set.”


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