‘I don’t want to be a developmental league’: Stamps’ special teams coordinator Mark Kilam against four downs, changes to return game

Photo courtesy: Scott Grant/CFLPhotoArchive.com

With his wild eyes and flowing hair, Calgary Stampeders’ special teams coordinator Mark Kilam roams the sideline with the ferocity of a Spartan warrior.

When it comes to his own Battle of Thermopylae, there is only one issue on which Kilam would be willing to make a 300-style last stand.

“I’m throwing it out there right now, we’re talking about all these rule changes and everyone’s so hyped on how we can make it better, but if we lose the special teams aspect and the return game aspect of the CFL, we’ll be hurting,” Kilam said in an appearance on The Rod Pedersen Show. “We’re hurting the league that way.”

Across the rest of pro football, special teams play has become devalued in the name of player safety. That has not yet happened in the CFL, where unique rules and an abundance of space have long made the return game of added importance. However, recent explorations into possible American-style rule changes have placed that in potential jeopardy.

With offence on the decline, the CFL has said they would explore any and all rule changes, including a potential shift to four downs. The idea had first circulated during the league’s unsuccessful talks with the upstart XFL. That league has since signed an official partnership with the NFL, a path some in the CFL would also like to explore but currently isn’t viable due to the rule differences.

If the league turned to four downs to achieve that goal in the near future, special teams play would be heavily affected. That is a scenario that Kilam simply cannot abide.

“This is way above my pay grade, these rules conversations with the decision-makers of the league, but I’m a traditionalist and I don’t want to be a developmental league for anybody,” he said.

“I know players come up here and that’s the mindset, you want to have an opportunity to make some money and then get an opportunity to be in the NFL. I just think four downs, especially as a special teams guy, we’re losing. It’s not gonna be as fast paced as it is. You’re losing special teams plays. I think the NFL special teams are boring, truthfully.”

Some have argued that the NFL has surpassed the CFL in recent years in terms of entertainment value, leading to a vocal minority demanding change. In Kilam’s opinion, that is simply further testament to the Canadian league’s originality.

“I mean the game has gotten better in the NFL, but that’s because they copied everything that was happening in the CFL,” he said. “I think that we need to give ourselves more credit. We’re always in the shadow of everything in the United States and I think that we should stand strong.”

Critics of that point of view argue that CFL traditionalists are resistant to any form of change, old fogies clinging to a dying mindset in the face of youthful American innovation. In his forties, Kilam has accepted plenty of rule changes in the league with open arms, including on special teams, but the Lethbridge native will never accept a fully US-based game — that isn’t progress, it’s Canadian erasure.

“Lots of things have changed and those have been great and we’ve adapted and evolved, that’s not what I’m saying,” Kilam insisted. “I want to evolve the game, but I don’t want to be NFL 2.0, lite or whatever you want to call it — that’s not what I’m about.”

That’s especially true of his beloved return game, where uniquely talented athletes like Gizmo Williams, Brandon Banks, Roy Finch and DeVonte Dedmon have reached heights that the NFL would never allow.

“I really think the return game is one of the best parts of the CFL. Exciting, wide open, it’s an another avenue for undersized returners and guys that wouldn’t even have an opportunity in the NFL to come out here and be stars,” Kilam said. “I just don’t want to lose that part of the CFL.”

Abbott is a UBC student, youth coach and lifelong CFL fanatic. He specializes in coverage of the CFL draft and the league's global initiative.