‘Not buying it’: Stamps HC Dave Dickenson blames CFL’s scoring decline on defensive scheme, not Canadian personnel

Photo Scott Grant / CFLPhotoArchive.com
Photo courtesy: Scott Grant/CFLPhotoArchive.com

Dave Dickenson knows a thing or two about offence.

Whether it was as an MOP winning quarterback, a record-setting offensive coordinator or as one of the most successful young head coaches in CFL history, the leader of the Calgary Stampeders has never had any issues putting points on the board.

That is, until this year.

Calgary is still a respectable third in the league in terms of points per game, but the CFL as a whole has hit a historic lull in offensive output. On pace for the lowest average total points scored per game since 1979 and dropping below the NFL in that same category, the league is facing a crisis and the alarm bells are being sounded throughout the media.

“I definitely noticed it. I don’t think it’s drastic. I think our games actually have been quite good,” Dickenson said Thursday when asked about the phenomenon.

“The things I’m chalking it up to right now is I do think there’s been a lot of zone coverage where teams have decided to force the other team to basically be patient, and better punters. These are the best punters I’ve ever seen in the CFL. It’s not like we have short fields.”

CFL offences have been trending down slightly ever since 2017, but the pandemic-imposed cancellation of the 2020 season appears to have sparked a serious plummet. Scoring is down more than six points on average from 2019 and league officials are in a race to figure out why.

“I don’t feel like the big plays have been there. I don’t feel like the 40, 50, 60 yard touchdown throws, the YACs [yards after catches], the big runs are there. Partially [because] we’ve got a lot of speed on our defensive teams,” Dickenson again pointed out, noting that he speaks only from a Calgary perspective.

“It’s much tougher with the three down game if you don’t have big chunk plays to continually score touchdowns.”

For some, the decline of offensive line play since the CFL restricted padded practices back in 2017 may be the crux of the issue. Dickenson understands that argument, with less well-developed young linemen leading to more sacks and smaller holes in the run game, but he doesn’t see that changing anytime soon.

There is another recent safety rule hampering offences that could be addressed however: the elimination of cut blocking in the open field.

“A lot of the big plays are on screen plays where people cut guys down and areceiver just runs and off he goes for 60, 70, 80 yards. When you took cutting out of the game, you’ve limited wide receiver screens. You’re not as good anymore,” Dickenson pointed out.

“I do believe that rule should be peeked at and potentially brought back. I didn’t see a lot of injuries occur when the guy cut the guy in front of him.”

Other critics of CFL offences have suggested that the decline has come from the high number of Americans who are starting on defences across the league. Most teams choose to employ the bulk of their National starters on the offensive side of the ball and some have argued that placing ratio caps on both phases could strengthen offences and weaken defences.

That is a suggestion that Dickenson bristles at. The finite number of Canadian players on the market means teams need to be as flexible as possible in how they use them and limiting that ability won’t change a defensive imbalance he sees as a product of superior scheme, not personnel.

“I’m telling you, you’re not matching up one-on-ones anymore. People aren’t playing a lot of man coverage anyway. They’re just playing zones defensively,” he countered, before highlighting the strengths of the modern National athlete.

“There’s really fast Canadians and good football players out there that are making an impact. My receiving corps, I’ll just tell you right away, the Canadians are making lots of plays, that’s just the way it is. I think it’s overblown. I think people have probably decided to take that rhetoric and run with it. I’m not buying it.”

The coach doesn’t have any radical solutions of his own to solve the CFL’s scoring crisis, only time will fix that, but he does stand firm on his belief that Canadian football is besting the NFL in one major category: officiating.

While fans love to complain about the amount of laundry thrown on CFL fields, Dickenson believes the league’s officials mostly let the players play. That isn’t the case in the NFL, where rules tilted heavily in favour of the offence are providing too many free yards and artificially inflating those record offensive numbers that CFL critics love to point to.

“Fans don’t want to see a lot of penalties. I watch a ton of NFL, I really do, and I get so tired of seeing third-and-five or third-and-nine illegal contact or grabbing penalties that extend drives and aren’t warranted. I don’t want to see the refs take over the game. Let’s make sure the players earn the right to score,” Dickenson said, before praising the CFL’s own officials.

“You can say [NFL] scoring is up, but is it better? No.”

J.C. Abbott is a University of British Columbia graduate and high school football coach. He covers the CFL, B.C. Lions, CFL Draft and the three-down league's Global initiative.