Shrinking the Canadian ratio won’t make for a more exciting CFL

Photo courtesy: Edmonton Football Team

Commissioner Randy Ambrosie says he dreams of the most exciting CFL possible, a league were teams are routinely deadlocked 49-49 with a minute left and gamblers always bet the over.

He doesn’t seem to have a clue how to make that happen.

The latest example comes to us via the CFL’s active collective bargaining talks, where the idea of naturalized Canadian status for American veterans is once again on the table. It’s a proposal most fans can wholeheartedly get behind, but a bombshell report from TSN’s Dave Naylor has proved the worst fears of many Canadian football advocates right: the league is trying to use naturalizing veteran Americans as a way to suppress the amount of true Canadians on a roster.

In fact, they believed they had successfully done so during the last CBA negotiations by enacting a rule that would have reduced the number of Canadian-born players on a roster from 21 to 18 and limited the true National starter requirement to as few as four. The CFLPA had a distinctly different interpretation of the agreed upon language and ultimately prevailed, but a ratio reduction was undeniably what the league was angling for.

There is no point in hiding it, the ratio is a hot button topic to me. It may be the only subject on earth that fills me with true patriotic zeal and it takes an embarrassing amount of self-control to not sound like the world’s most pathetic Braveheart impersonator every time it is challenged. In the interest of both your sanity and my own, that is not what this column is about.

If you are looking for an impassioned defence of the ratio, you won’t have to look very hard on this website to find one. Instead of wasting type face on decision-makers who have made clear they’ll never appreciate the structural importance of the ratio in the same manner I do, I thought it was a better use of my time to point out the fundamental flaw in their reasoning for changing it.

The league apparently believes that by replacing the bottom three Canadians on the roster with veteran Americans — and in turn adding three more Americans to the starting lineup — they can raise the level of talent in the league overall. That might be true, but it is their belief that this rise in talent will help achieve the goal of a more exciting CFL that I take issue with.

The reality is that exciting football doesn’t come from raising the overall quality of talent, but rather from the breadth of the disparity in talent that is present.

That is certain to be a controversial statement for some people so let me explain.

As any football purist who enjoys a defensive slobber-knocker will tell you, what we often refer to as an exciting football game is not necessarily good football. The big plays we all crave are often the result of mistakes or superior athletes simply outclassing average ones. Yes, big plays will happen from time to time regardless, but their frequency goes up when there is a mismatch.

That’s why the NCAA is pound-for-pound the most exciting football you can watch. It’s not as crisp as the professional level, but when guys who will be cashing million dollar cheques on Sundays routinely line up against players who have promising futures as accountants and car salesmen, unpredictability and excitement goes through the roof.

Even though the NFL has the best talent in the world, I would argue the same principle is at play there. As people who have played in both leagues will tell you, the average NFL player is not dramatically more talented than a CFL player, but there is a handful of players at the top of every roster that exist on another level entirely. The gap between these physical freaks and the rest has never been wider, with rule changes and a more wide-open style of gameplay only accentuating the differences.

Meanwhile, I would argue that the talent disparity between the CFL’s best players and its worst has never been smaller. On one hand, the quality of Canadian content in the league has never been higher and has raised the level of talent overall — begging the question as to why we are talking about the ratio to begin with — but the top of the league isn’t what it once was either.

For decades, the CFL feasted on players that the NFL summarily disqualified before realizing their value: Black quarterbacks, short quarterbacks, undersized slot receivers and tweener pass rushers. As the NFL has progressed and changed, fewer of those players are slipping through the cracks than ever before. Lamar Jackson, Kyler Murray, Cooper Kupp, and a myriad of other current stars might have ended up in Canada twenty years ago. Now that’s a pipe dream.

The CFL’s talent has never been more impressive, but big plays are harder to come by — and not just because offences are lacking creativity. On some level, the league understands this problem is important. That’s why they have enacted rule changes in favour of the offence and why many favour mandating at least three Canadian players play on defence. They want to create those mismatches, naturally or artificially.

Unfortunately, shrinking the ratio and replacing what teams view as their weakest three Canadians with more spots for established veteran Americans only serves to take away more potential for mismatches. Fans probably won’t notice the change and maybe it does improve talent overall, but the CFL’s stated aim is not to generate excellently played 14-7 football games. If you want fireworks, you need a source of ignition.

Teams have a duty to create the best roster possible and they will always begrudge the ratio for limiting their flexibility in doing so. That’s fine. However, the league must take a bigger picture approach to these issues and understand that an improved bottom of the roster is not equivalent to increasing excitement.

The CFL needs improved talent at the quarterback position and needs to make serious changes to the way it allows offensive linemen to develop, but overall talent isn’t an issue in the slightest.

If you are going to come after a rule as fundamentally important to the entire Canadian football ecosystem as the ratio, you better have good reason. CFL leadership didn’t when they conceived this idea and they are continuing to chase their own tails in pursuit of an easy fix to their complicated problems.

If they ever manage to bite down, the league will suffer.

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.