A six-point plan to address the CFL’s headshot crisis

It seems almost inevitable that the start to the CFL playoffs would be marred by a horrendously missed call on a play where a vulnerable player was injured. The league has struggled this year (and in previous years, although that’s beside the point right now) to come to grips with headshots, especially on quarterbacks.

On Sunday, what was undoubtedly one of the largest television audiences of the season for the CFL watched in prime time as Saskatchewan quarterback Brandon Bridge was hit hard, a second or two after releasing a pass. Winnipeg defensive lineman Jackson Jeffcoat rammed his helmet into Bridge’s helmet, hard enough to violently snap the QB’s head from side to side. Bridge dropped like a stone to the ground, where he lay prone for a full minute, then spent another couple of minutes on his back before sitting up gingerly and being helped to the sideline, possibly suffering the early after-effects of a concussion.

Under any interpretation of the rules, this play with eight seconds left in the game constituted unnecessary roughness and/or roughing the passer. No penalty was called, however. As the “ref cam” worn on referee Tom Vallesi’s ballcap showed, Vallesi’s view of the hit was obstructed by Saskatchewan blocker Patrick Lavoie. The umpire – ordinarily the only other official in position to call roughing on shots against quarterbacks – presumably also failed to see anything illegal.

With their starting quarterback removed from the game, the Roughriders were forced to use their third-string pivot, David Watford, for one final Hail Mary pass attempt to win the West Division semifinal game. Watford’s desperation pass was thrown into a wall of Blue Bomber defenders and was intercepted, sealing Winnipeg’s 23-18 victory.

There’s a decent chance a Hail Mary thrown by Bridge wouldn’t have been any more successful, but again that’s beside the point. Quarterbacks are the most important players in football, and once again a quarterback was knocked out of a game by an illegal hit, in this case with no penalty applied.

The only reason Saskatchewan had to resort to a third-stringer for its final stab at victory was that its No. 1 quarterback, Zach Collaros, had been knocked out of the Riders’ previous game on a similar helmet-to-helmet hit by B.C.’s Odell Willis. Collaros, who had been expected to start Sunday’s playoff game, was a late scratch; while no reason was given, speculation abounded that he was suffering from a concussion or at least concussion-like symptoms.

Other quarterbacks including Bo Levi Mitchell, Mike Reilly and Travis Lulay (all former winners of the league’s most outstanding player award) have also been victims of heads shots this year, and many of those shots have gone unpenalized. Willis’s hit on Collaros was one of those, although a challenge by Saskatchewan coach Chris Jones resulted in the CFL’s Command Centre ordering an unnecessary roughness call against Willis after reviewing replays of the hit.

Unfortunately for the Riders, Jones could not challenge the Bridge play because it occurred in the final three minutes of the game. Coaches can challenge a call (or non-call) of roughing the passer, but only if they have a time-out available. Jones had used both of his time-outs earlier in the game, the last one with 1:40 remaining in the fourth quarter.

So why didn’t the Command Centre, which has access to all of TSN’s replays, inform the ref that the hit was helmet-to-helmet and therefore should have been considered unnecessary roughness? Because it is not permitted to do so. Under the league’s somewhat convoluted rules, “following the three-minute warning in the fourth quarter, all plays become subject to review by the Replay Official for Standard Reviewable Aspects only.” Roughing the passer is not considered a “standard reviewable aspect” but instead falls under the definition of “Coach Reviewable Penalties” (which are also described as “Coach Challengeable Penalties).” Despite the inconsistent nomenclature, the rules are explicit on this point: “Coach Challengeable Penalties are never reviewed as part of any Replay Official Initiated Review.”

On Sunday, a short time after the Jeffcoat hit on Bridge, CFL commissioner Randy Ambrosie issued a statement saying the play “was clearly a missed call.” This was Ambrosie’s second such mea culpa in two weeks. After the Willis hit on Collaros, the commissioner said the league’s response had been “clearly inadequate,” adding, “We are reviewing our processes, protocols and rules to ensure this chain of events is not repeated.” And yet it happened again, just two weeks later and with the same team’s quarterback victimized again.

Ambrosie announced the addition of an eighth official tasked with looking for quarterback headshots for the remainder of ther playoffs and pledged a “complete review” in the off-season. Despite fans braying on social media for an immediate war on head-hunters, the commissioner is well aware that he can’t unilaterally impose greater penalties on players who violate rules. The league’s collective agreement has stipulations on this, and any change to those stipulations must be bargained with the CFL Players Association. The current collective agreement expires after this season, so Ambrosie will soon be able to bargain for greater penalties.

Here are a few suggestions about what he should demand:

• A new category of penalty should be created for deliberate or avoidable helmet-to-helmet hits: the “flagrant foul.” This would be similar to (or folded into) the existing “Rough Play” penalty, which states that “a player shall be penalized and subject to disqualification for any act of rough play against an opponent, including but not limited to: striking an opponent with the fist, hand, knee or elbow in an excessively rough manner, kicking an opponent or any other act of excessive roughness considered by the Referee to warrant disqualification.” As with (rarely called) rough play penalties, offenders would be ejected from the game and the offending team would lose 25 yards.

• Players ejected for helmet-to-helmet hits should be subject to the maximum fine allowed, whatever that ends up being under the next CBA.

• Those players should also be subject to suspensions: one game (without pay) for a first offence, three games for a second offence, and nine games in the unlikely event anyone is dumb enough to do it a third time.

• Flagrant fouls should be called only by the Command Centre, based on review of replays that can be initiated either of its own volition or on request from the referee. Referees would not be allowed to call flagrant fouls on their own; the game is simply too fast and officials are not always in position to see things clearly in real time.

• Because players would lose substantial amounts of money, a process for appeal – to the commissioner, not a third party – would be required. But a very limited set of appeal grounds should be established. “I didn’t mean to” or “I just couldn’t slow my momentum” should not be considered grounds for a successful appeal.

• The commissioner should be able to grant an appeal if he determines, based on a full investigation of all circumstances, that the player who was on the receiving end had deliberately put himself at risk by positioning his helmet to be hit. Players being determined to win at all costs, this could conceivably happen from time to time, despite the clear risks.

There are a number of challenges facing the CFL, including Halifax expansion and a new collective bargaining agreement with the players. But the issue of player safety is of paramount importance and Ambrosie must formulate a comprehensive plan to deal with an issue that threatens both the well-being of the participants and the support of the fans.

• Paul Woods has worked as a senior editor for the Toronto Star and the Canadian Press and is currently the executive director of the National Newspaper Awards. A dedicated CFL historian and lifelong Argo fan, he is the author of Bouncing Back: From National Joke to Grey Cup Champs which chronicles the journey of the 1983 Toronto Argonauts.

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