The CFL has unveiled eight changes designed to leverage some of its game’s greatest strengths: a big field, exciting kick returns, and high-octane offence.
“The most comprehensive and collaborative product review in our history has brought us here: the next step in our mission to make our game the most fun, the most exciting and the fastest moving football,” said commissioner Randy Ambrosie in a statement.
The process started with an extensive fan survey and included business and football leaders from each of the nine CFL clubs, as well as representatives from the Canadian Football League Players’ Association. It produced a number of proposed changes which were approved this week by the league’s Board of Governors.
The league unveiled three “major” changes along with their rationale for each one.
Change: Hash marks on CFL fields will be moved closer to centre field. Each one will be 28 yards from the nearest sideline, instead of 24 yards. As a result, they will be 9 yards apart instead of 17 yards apart.
“Moving the ball closer to centre will encourage teams to use the entire field and their entire playbooks,” Ambrosie said.
“Our football leaders told us the current hash marks too often had the effect of taking the 12th man on the field — the receiver on the far side — out of the play. A throw to him was consistently seen as too risky. And that, in turn, was diluting the impact of our huge field, which is perhaps the most unique thing about Canadian football.”
Canadian football features 12 players per side and its field (110 yards long and 65 yards wide with 20-yard end zones) measures 87,750 square feet. U.S. football has 11 players per side and its field (100 yards long and 53.3 yards wide with ten-yard end zones) is roughly 57,564 square feet.
If CFL defences have to protect the entire field and be mindful of every offensive player, there is a lot of potential open space for offences to take advantage of: 7,313 square feet per player in Canada, compared to 5,233 square feet per player in the U.S.
Change: Offences will get more of a head start. After a made field goal or single point, drives will start from the 40-yard line, instead of the 35-yard line. Teams kicking off for any reason will do so from their 30-yard line instead of the 35-yard line. The only exception is kickoffs following a safety: they will now occur from the 20-yard line instead of the 25-yard line.
“These changes should mean improved field position for the start of offensive series, and that should contribute to more scoring and more sustained drives, which makes for better game flow,” Ambrosie said.
“We know offences starting in the shadows of their own goalposts are bound to be more conservative in their play calling, while good field position gives offences more options. Plus, moving the kickoff following a safety back five yards may discourage coaches from choosing to surrender a safety to protect field position. Having a player take a knee in the end zone may be perceived as strategic but it is anything but exciting to watch.”
Change: Strategies to limit opportunities for kick returns will be discouraged more severely. All no yards penalties — which are assigned when the cover team invades a five-yard halo around the returner as he fields a punt — will be 15 yards.
Previously, a no yards penalty was 15 yards only if the ball had been fielded in the air and only five yards if the punt had bounced. Also, any punt that sails out of bounds before it reaches an opponent’s 15-yard line will be assigned a penalty instead of only punts that sail out of bounds before they reach the 20-yard line.
“Our coaches, general managers and team presidents all agreed that the kick return is an exciting and essential part of the Canadian game,” Ambrosie said.
“When teams purposely commit an infraction to prevent any return, it takes away some of the excitement of our game, and it creates a stoppage in play while the penalty is assessed. We wanted to address that.”
Some of the changes are incremental, he acknowledged, but Ambrosie said this will allow the league to monitor the results and consider further changes in the future if they are needed or are deemed beneficial.
“I want to thank Greg Dick, our chief football operations officer, and Darren Hackwood, our associate vice-president of officiating, for leading a very thorough and effective process, our coaches, general managers and presidents for contributing tremendous insight, our governors for their support, and our fans for sharing their views in our market research and during my road trip across the country. Finally, my gratitude goes to our players who participated through their players’ association.”
The league has made six other changes as outlined below.
Change: Two quarterbacks will be allowed on the field at the same time, provided all other ratio rules are satisfied. This will allow for some additional imaginative play calling.
Change: A “communications co-ordinator” from the officiating department, connected to the on-field officials via headset communication, will be imbedded on each team’s bench. This will allow information to be shared with coaches without requiring the referee to approach the sidelines, improving game flow. This will also make it easier for coaches to alert the officiating crew that they are initiating a timeout or a challenge.
Change: A penalty that occurs at the end of the first or third quarter will be assigned at the start of the next quarter, rather than triggering an extension of the quarter. The non-offending team could still insist the penalty be imposed within the quarter if there is a clear advantage, such as wanting to keep the wind behind it for a crucial kick.
Change: The circumstances under which the Command Centre is allowed to help on-field officials — without a coach’s challenge or an officials’ huddle — will be expanded to include possession rulings, boundary rulings and administrative rules such as a formation without an end or ineligible receivers downfield. This is designed to allow the Command Centre to get in front of a coach’s challenge where an obvious outcome is known, improving the flow of the game. It is to occur via headset communication and without stopping the game.
Change: Introduction of a new objectionable conduct penalty for quarterbacks who “fake” giving themselves up by pretending to initiate a slide while carrying the football. The ball would also be spotted where the fake occurred. The safety of all quarterbacks is jeopardized when measures to protect them are instead used to gain an advantage.
Change: Automatic ejection of any player guilty of two unnecessary roughness penalties or two objectionable conduct penalties (or a combination of two UR and OC penalties) for infractions that occur following a play. This will discourage the type of conduct that can threaten player safety and disrupt game flow.
“With training camps scheduled to open in just three weeks, we’re looking forward to a full season of great CFL football,” Ambrosie said.
“Throughout the year, we will be measuring the impact of these changes on the fun, excitement and speed of our game. We have great fans and we want more of them. We have great players and want to showcase their talents. A great product is job one as we work together to grow our league.”