Three-time Grey Cup champion Chris Morris blames pervasive ‘Trestman system,’ not rules for CFL’s offensive decline

Photo courtesy: Alberta Golden Bears

CFL offensive output is at a record low, but you can throw out the proposed rule changes.

There is one man responsible for the league’s current lack of points and his name is Marc Trestman.

That’s the opinion of University of Alberta head coach Chris Morris, though the situation isn’t necessarily Trestman’s fault. As the fourteen-year CFL offensive lineman and Edmonton Elks’ Ring of Honour inductee told 630 CHED’s Reid Wilkins, it is the ubiquity of the offensive strategy he employed that is driving down the league’s entertainment value.

“One of the issues, to be God honest with you, in the CFL is that there’s a whole bunch of people that are under the same coaching umbrella right now and that’s the Trestman system on offence,” Morris remarked. “I think so many people have used it and it’s become such a common thing to do, the defences are on to it.”

Already considered an NFL quarterback whisperer, Trestman first arrived in Canada in 2008 as head coach of the Montreal Alouettes. His team won the East Division regular season title four times and claimed back-to-back Grey Cups in 2009 and 2010. He accumulated 59 wins in 90 regular season games and went 5-3 in the playoffs, before being hired as head coach of the Chicago Bears.

His west-coast style offence helped turn Anthony Calvillo into one of the greatest CFL quarterbacks of all-time and was widely copied around the league. Many of today’s CFL offensive coordinators played or entered the coaching ranks at that time, or learned the system under a head coach who did.

“It’s just a way of throwing the ball. It’s a way of reading the defence. You throw a lot of short game in it and you take what the defence has given you and you just sort of march your way down the field systematically,” Morris explained. “You read the contour of the defence pre-snap and you get the ball out. It’s just a way of looking at how to attack a defensive system.”

Trestman returned to the CFL in 2017 as head coach of the Toronto Argonauts and took the team to a Grey Cup championship in his first season. However, his 15-23 overall record and tumultuous 2018 campaign ultimately led to his departure a year later. He last served as head coach of the XFL’s Tampa Bay Vipers.

The popularity of his system, which also helped produce current NFL coaches like Scott Milanovich and Marcus Brady, has outlasted the three-time Grey Cup winners’ tenure in the league, but defences now have the blueprints.

Most teams are happy to drop eight or more players into zone coverage, take away primary reads and force offences into their quick checkdowns, eventually choking out the conservative-style attack with a two-and-out brought on by an individual mistake.

The system is a sound one and helped boost offences when it first arrived, but the playing field has tipped the other way. Having been around the CFL for 30 years, Morris recalls when Adam Rita’s innovative new offensive concepts took the league by storm. Once every team was employing them, the boost in production dried up and teams had to look elsewhere, just as they must now.

“Almost all the people in the league right now that are in the coordinator positions are from that school of thought. Some of them are doing really well with it and some of them aren’t, but the reality is there’s other ways of doing it,” Morris insisted.

“When everybody starts looking at offensive football the same way, it’s a lot easier for the defences to be on top of it. I’m not the be-all, know-all expert on this, but it just seems to be a pattern to me. I saw it happen in the early nineties and I’ve seen the same sort of thing happen now.”

The lack of innovation by CFL coaches to spark an offensive upswing has caused the league to consider major rule changes, including a switch to four downs. While that is thankfully off the table for 2022 according to the commissioner, ideas like narrowing the hashmarks remain in serious consideration.

In the eyes of Morris, that would change little, as a savvy OC can already shorten the wide side of the field with splits and motions if he so chooses. The problem remains that coaches simply haven’t been innovative enough and they are the only ones who can fix it.

“It’s a cycle, just like it’s been since the beginning of time,” Morris said. “Right now the defence is a little bit ahead of the offence, but things will change and somebody will come up with a different way of looking at the game and then the offence will pull ahead again.”

Whoever that offensive mind is, they simply can’t arrive in the CFL soon enough.