Stampeders’ GM John Hufnagel admits he voted to explore four downs, claims situation was ‘misconstrued’

Photo: AP/Adrian Wyld

Calgary Stampeders’ president and general manager John Hufnagel has admitted to casting his vote in favour of exploring the possibility of switching to four downs at the CFL’s annual rules meeting in Toronto in March.

Hufnagel says his intention with the ballot has been misinterpreted.

“The story was misconstrued a bit,” Hufnagel said. “We had a project of how can we improve game flow and create more bigger plays during the game. The discussion was: ‘Do we think four-down football would help?’ And that’s when I voted that, yes, I’d like to further the discussion on it, because I do think that it would have an impact.”

Sportsnet’s Arash Madani was the first to report that the Stamps voted in favour of exploring a switch to four downs, joining the Toronto Argonauts on the losing side of a 7-2 decision to maintain the status quo. The CFL had been undergoing a review of all aspects of its gameplay following a scoring dip in 2021, with commissioner Randy Ambrosie not ruling out the fundamental change to the Canadian rulebook until after the vote on the subject was final.

Hufnagel emerged as a surprising four-down advocate in the process, though the Canadian Football Hall of Famer downplayed how much he actually supported the idea.

“I’m not a very smart man, but if you have four downs, you’re not going to have as many three-and-outs as you do now in the Canadian Football League,” Hufnagel explained. “It was just a project that we were doing and that was just one of many aspects that we had talked about. There wasn’t truly an official vote, let’s put it that way.”

Though the vote may not have carried real weight, the surrounding controversy certainly captured the attention of CFL fans and alumni. While the Stampeders’ viewpoint found some support, most notably from franchise quarterback Bo Levi Mitchell, most others spoke out strongly against the potential change.

Stampeders’ head coach Dave Dickenson did not provide his own opinion on the issue, but expressed some frustration over the tone of the offseason conversation.

“Sometimes with not playing, COVID, and all that sort of stuff, people started talking a little more on the negative side, but I still love our game,” he said. “I think we have a great game, great players, well-coached, and well-managed. I think we can get better and that’s what Huff’s saying. As a league, we’ve got to try to change to be better.”

“Certainly the foundation has been not only solid in my opinion, it’s great. I wish we focused more on what was good about the CFL. Everybody wants to see certain things change and that’s fine, but I think there’s a lot of great things about our game.”

Ultimately, the CFL went in a much different direction in order to achieve their end goal of better game flow and more big plays, adopting nine smaller changes to the rulebook. Hufnagel and Dickenson were pleased with the end result of the process.

“I really don’t think there’s anything in these rules that’s groundbreaking,” Dickenson noted. “It’s tweaks and that’s what I think it should be.”

While four downs didn’t make the cut, the largest change was also championed by Hufnagel: a narrowing of the hashmarks in order to make the far side of the CFL’s 65-yard wide field more fruitful ground for offences. The change hasn’t been popular with everyone, with the most vocal opponent being three-time Grey Cup champion head coach Marc Trestman, but most have found the idea much more palatable than an extra down.

“Nothing’s ever easy in professional football, but I believe that it will be less difficult for the offences to attack the wide-side field, especially on the wide-side out and comeback throws,” Hufnagel explained. “It just makes it a little bit more difficult for the defence.”

There have been slight changes to the kicking game as well with the penalty for no-yards being upgraded to 15 yards in all scenarios, kickoffs moved back, and punts out of bounds before the 15-yard line set to be penalized. Dickenson believes all those changes are equally justified.

“I don’t think you just want to just throw things at the wall and see what sticks, we do it for a reason,” he said. “The kickers have gotten so good in our league, kickoff and punts, that we feel like this will give offences a starting position that’s a little more conducive to hopefully seeing a little bit more scoring.”

The changes should have a stimulating impact on the CFL’s perceived decline in excitement and most fans will hardly notice their implementation. The same can be said of Hufnagel’s now-questionable voting record, which will likely become little more than a footnote to his legacy so long as the four-down question stays dead and buried.

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.