A detailed look at why the CFL playoff format needs to be changed

Photo courtesy: Scott Grant/CFLPhotoArchive.com

People don’t like change.

However well-reasoned an argument is your instincts usually tell you to stick with what’s familiar; it’s a form of confirmation bias. But, of course, the easy decision isn’t always the right one.

The CFL has serious problems with its playoff format — and has for a very long time. I’m going to do my best to explain what they are and why they are problems and I’ll also suggest a couple of possible improvements.

I’m not interested in being shouted at unless you can come up with a legitimate reason why you disagree, but if you can do that then by all means. I’ll even attempt to present more facts than arguments and let you draw your own conclusions based on those facts.

Let’s get to it.

Pfft, what problems?

It’s not shocking that, on average, West fans are more disgruntled while East fans wave the discussion off as nonsense. Western teams are the only ones who have gotten ripped off for close to two decades.

Here’s a very bare fact to start off: 2019 will be the first season that the East has had a team with a clear top two record – much less top one – since 2010. I could generously include 2013 when 14-4 Calgary led 11-7 Saskatchewan, B.C. and Toronto, but it’s been impossible to have No. 1 face No. 2 in the Grey Cup, which is the first problem.

Naturally, 2010 was the Anthony Calvillo Alouettes, second in the league at 12-6 and a game behind Calgary. It was also one of the most beautifully even seasons imaginable – 1st, 3rd, 6th, 7th in the West versus 2nd, 4th, 5th, 8th in the East. Meanwhile recently we saw fifth in the West drop a 55-8 bomb on third in the East in the Lions and Argos game. Third place teams are supposed to make the playoffs, not get blown out by last place teams.

You’d have to go back to 2001 to find the last time the East division got the worse end of the format; every year since it’s been the West or close to equal. So what’s the point?

In big bold letters: better teams get punished while worse teams get rewarded.

That’s it, that’s the problem. The system is unfair.

How is it unfair? Gimme details.

Home games, byes and quality of competition. Three types of playoff reward for regular season record. Let’s take 2016 for our step by step example, since it’s clear, recent and contains all of the major themes.

League standings, independent of divisions:

  1. Calgary 15-2-1
  2. B.C. 12-6
  3. Winnipeg 11-7
  4. Edmonton 10-8
  5. Ottawa 8-9-1
  6. Hamilton 7-11

Montreal (seven wins), Saskatchewan (five), Toronto (five) out.

We can trace all the paths to the final game.

No. 5 Ottawa finishes with eight wins and a losing record but gets a first round bye and then a home game against either the 4th or 6th place team.

No. 1 Calgary’s reward for being best in the league isn’t bad with a bye and a home game, but they still have to play either the 2nd or 3rd best team, which is tougher than what Ottawa gets with seven fewer wins.

Winnipeg’s ‘reward’ for finishing 3rd in the league is a road game to the No. 2 team followed by a road game against the No. 1.

Edmonton, in 4th a game behind Winnipeg, also has two road games, but they’re against the No. 6 and No. 5 teams instead.

And seven-win Hamilton gets a home game against the No. 4 team with an eye on facing the No. 5 team next, compared to the other division runner up, 12-win B.C., hosting the No. 3 team and then going right on to the No. 1 team.

To encapsulate it all: 8-9-1 gets a bye and a home game against a weak team while 11-7 gets two road games against the two best teams. A better team a) plays an extra game, b) on the road the whole way, c) against tougher opposition, among other issues. The 5th place team gets far and away the easiest road to the Grey Cup. It says the 10-15 games that those top teams each won mean hardly anything because of geography.

The results-based argument: yeah but an East team won the Grey Cup in 2016 and 2017.

From what we’ve just discussed, the eventual Grey Cup winners Ottawa and Toronto had much too easy paths to the Grey Cup, or put another way, were disproportionately rewarded for mediocre-at-best regular season performance.

We know anybody can win in November. That’s why it’s so important to make sure teams are rewarded properly for regular season accomplishments, with the best teams earning the easiest road to the big game. I would suggest that this argument is actually a point in favour of “there’s a problem” – it should’ve been harder for Ottawa and Toronto to accomplish what they did.

Statistically, Grey Cups have quite high randomness because they’re one-offs. There’s nothing wrong with that – “it’s why they play the games” – but it’s imperative to remember that something happening once or twice doesn’t make it a favourite to happen all the time. The statistics word here is ‘outlier’ and of course outliers still count in history.

But an 18-game season is a hugely better indicator than one, two, or three games in November. It’s literally why the NHL, NBA and MLB all play five- or seven-game series to decide a winner, though physically that’s impractical in football. (By the way – the last time the third place team in the East reached the Grey Cup was 1970, when the CFL played a best-of-three format in the division finals. Although the 5-11 Rough Riders made it from second place in 1981.)

Okay, fine, but it’s a new phenomenon.

CFL commissioner Randy Ambrosie likes to say so. Except that it’s completely untrue. As mentioned, 2001 is the last time the East had it worse, holding the first, second and tied third best teams. I could go back decades, for example 1986:

Think that’s too far? Well, let’s try 2008:

Hmm, okay, one more. 2003:

What do they all have in common? The West had at least four of the five best records in the league.

You’re cherry picking!

A little bit, sure. The problem is the flip side *doesn’t exist*. You can’t find examples of Eastern superiority. Go and look through the history books if you don’t believe me, it starts and ends with 2001.

As for ‘new’, well, lately it’s been as bad as it gets. Most of us probably remember the last few years. In each of 2016 and 2017, teams one, two, three and four all came out of the West while 2018 was a year with ‘only’ four of the top five in the West, thanks to 11-7 Ottawa. Instead, 9-9 Edmonton missed the playoffs while 8-10 Hamilton qualified.

I searched all the way back to the 16-game season of 1983 and even regardless of having the sixth best record the 2018 Eskimos were the first team to miss the playoffs with a 9-9 record – literally the best team ever to not make the postseason. The one and only 8-10 team to miss the playoffs over the years was the 2014 Argonauts, making 2018 that much crazier. (Although in 1982 a 9-7 team missed while a 5-11 team qualified – old-era CFL is wild.)


That’s the summary of why the current format is bad. How do we make it better? Somewhat ironically, the commissioner has been advocating ‘forward thinking’ with initiatives in player safety and of course CFL 2.0 globally and yet turns a blind eye very close to home.

The first obvious answer is one division. A united CFL. If and when a Maritimes team finally brings the total to 10, the schedule becomes very simple: two games between each team, one home and one away for a total of 18. Suddenly there’s no third game against Ottawa and Winnipeg to tell Hamilton and Calgary apart, for example. There’s no question one division is the most ruthlessly fair system, where the top six teams will make the playoffs with no funny side rules. It’s also the largest break from ‘tradition’.

So, there’s a second, slightly more complicated option for the ‘but tradition’ crowd that’s pretty close to a midpoint between the existing format and one division.

West Final, East Final

– Top team in West/East division hosts a division final, same as now.

– Seed the rest of the league strictly by record, with 3v6 and 4v5.

– Winner of 3v6 game faces No. 2, winner of 4v5 faces No. 1.

– No reseed after round one.

– Guarantees the top three teams get a home playoff game.

– Ensures the possibility of No. 1 vs. No. 2 in the Grey Cup, as well as West-1 vs. East-1.

– Every game matters, but intra-division games still matter the most.

There’s the added option of reseeding after the first round like some other leagues do. This idea doesn’t solve every problem – most importantly it assumes the top East team is competent and more often than not in the top two of the CFL, which has been far from the case – but it makes a few important guarantees.

Chief among them is the ensured possibility of having the top two teams in the league play in the Grey Cup while maintaining the same for the West No. 1 vs. the East No. 1. That’s because whichever division the best non-division-winner is in, they can’t possibly play the No. 1 team in the Division final because they have to play the No. 2 (or worse) team. Foolproof.

Where it says ‘intra-division games matter the most’, it means that West vs. West and East vs. East games still have a slight edge over West vs. East in importance because of the existence of the first place bye to fight for.

It also improves the likelihood of teams that deserve a home game (and a big batch of ticket sales with it) getting one and absolutely guarantees the top six teams make the playoffs. It’s a medium sized step forward, but would at least be a step forward – or in other words an improvement but not a solution.

A note on ‘going East’ vs. ‘going West’

You know the argument: ‘no crossover team has ever reached the Grey Cup.’ Therefore, supposedly, going East is harder.

Do you know the last time third place in the West reached the Grey Cup?

The 2005 Edmonton Eskimos.

Yep. Not only that, from 2006 on, teams finishing in 3rd place have won a total of four playoff games while 4th place teams have won… four playoff games out East. That’s without necessarily having a crossover every single year in that span, giving crossover teams a better winning percentage. Remember the trivial fact that the team finishing in 3rd is better than the team finishing in 4th. They’re still tied.

Nobody’s saying it’s EASY for a 4th place team to go through the East. It’s EASIER. Relativity is everything.

(A brief pause for interest: 2017 came tragically close to having 3rd in the West vs. 4th in the West in the Grey Cup, if not for some Ricky Ray magic and a bit of a Rider choke in the East plus some Jason Maas’ing in the West.)

But 2019!

Hamilton, through 18 weeks, is the best team in the CFL. That’s makes 2019 as close to ‘parity’ as the league has seen in a long time, but it isn’t true parity for one simple reason: four is bigger than two.

That’s the number of playoff teams in West and East, but more importantly the number of ‘not completely awful’ teams in West and East. Additionally no West team had a losing record in eight games against the East, while only Hamilton finishes above 0.500 against the West.

The good news is that in years like this the crossover helps with a couple of the potential issues and we will as usual have the top six qualify. The bad news is, as mentioned, it’s the first time since 2010 that the top two teams will be in different divisions and thus able to face off in the championship, and also there are still problems.

Montreal is worse than (remember strength of schedule when all is said and done) and likely to finish behind all of Calgary, Saskatchewan and Winnipeg, but one of that West trio will go on the road against a very strong team while Montreal will host sixth place Edmonton instead of the Eskimos and Alouettes both travelling to visit better teams.

A point regarding strength of schedule, from 3DownNation contributor Jonathan Hudson:

One last side note

Stampeders quarterback Bo Levi Mitchell did an interview in February that includes some of his thoughts on the playoff format in the last couple paragraphs. In particular, “everyone sees one team running the East and a dogfight in the West” has held oddly, brilliantly true.

In conclusion…

Those are the major points. You are of course allowed to disagree, but it seems very clear that the way things are isn’t good enough. If nothing else, it ought to be seriously discussed more than it has been.

Mike Ludwig enjoys math, chess, and football, all of which are kind of related. He lives in Edmonton and does not endorse Rod Black's metaphors. Follow him on twitter at @CityOfChamps14.