Opinion: new CFL roster rules make mockery of the game

Photo: Larry MacDougal/3DownNation. All rights reserved.

Do you have a Ph.D. in statistics? If so, congratulations: you might be able understand the CFL’s new roster rules. For the rest of us mere mortals, we’ve got some studying to do.

One thing that should be clear to everyone, however, is that teams have wasted no time making a mockery of the rules. Calgary Stampeders’ running back Ka’Deem Carey was named the third-best player in the CFL by TSN on Tuesday, though he’ll be a backup when his team open the regular season tomorrow.

The same is true for B.C. Lions’ receiver Dominique Rhymes, who TSN named the eleventh-best player in the league. He’s also a backup now. And the player starting in front of him is a return specialist who has never started a game at receiver in his CFL career.

The reason for this lunacy is the league’s new roster designations of “designated Americans,” “designated nationalized Americans,” and “designated nationals.” That’s right, there are three new roster designations for 2023 as outlined in the new collective bargaining agreement (which still isn’t publicly available, by the way).

Up until recently, there were only nationals (ie. Canadians) and Americans. Then there were nationals, Americans, and Globals. Now there are nationals, Americans, Globals, designated Americans, designated nationalized Americans, and designated nationals. Are still you following along? Don’t feel bad if you find this confusing.

Designated nationalized Americans are players with five or more years of CFL experience or three years with the same team. Under the new rules, these players can replace any designated national for up to 23 offensive or defensive snaps per game. Originally, these substitutions were going to be permitted for up to 49 percent of snaps but, as reported by TSN’s Dave Naylor, it would have been impossible to predict how many snaps would take place over the course of a game.

The spirit of this rule was to extend the careers of veteran American players who were no longer able to secure starting roles. Long-tenured players are good for franchises. Not only do long-tenured players bring experience to help establish team culture but they also often help enrich their local communities through charitable endeavours. One could argue that creating a roster designation to artificially prolong the career of a beloved local American players was worthwhile.

Unfortunately, that’s not how teams are using this rule. Instead, they are shamelessly abusing it to their advantage.

Ka’Deem Carey, the league’s best running back, will be a backup when the Stampeders host B.C. on Thursday. This is because he is the team’s designated nationalized American on offence and, as such, can’t be in the starting lineup.

Though he technically meets the criteria to be a designated nationalized American, Carey doesn’t remotely fit the role for which the designation was intended. He’s a star player. He should be a starter regardless of who else is on the roster.

Carey will sit out for the first snap of the game while Peyton Logan, a return specialist and backup running back, gets the start. Carey will likely enter the game on the very next play as designated nationalized Americans are able to freely replace American players.

The Stampeders will then be able to keep Carey on the field for the rest of the game, provided Logan remains on the bench. If the team wants to get Logan involved in the offence, they can do so for 23 plays. Why? Because he’s merely returning to his place the starting lineup. Carey is the one (technically) replacing the Canadian player. As the designated nationalized American, he can take the place of a designated national for up to 23 plays, remember?

Canadian receivers Clark Barnes, Cole Tucker, and Tyson Middlemost have all been listed as designated nationals, as have fullbacks William Langlais and Charlie Power. This means the Stampeders can replace any of them with Logan as Carey is technically the one filling their spot.

It’s worth noting that designated nationalized Americans do not have to play the same position as the designated nationals they replace. They merely have to play on the same side of the ball.

Carey isn’t the only example of depth chart malfeasance scheduled to take place in tomorrow’s game. Teams are permitted to have a designated nationalized American on offence and defence and the Stampeders have used their defensive designation on veteran defensive back Branden Dozier, who will start behind rookie Michael Griffin.

Is Griffin actually going to play the entire game with Dozier as his backup? It’s possible but seems pretty hard to believe. Don’t be surprised if Dozier trots out onto the field on the second play of the game.

And the B.C. Lions are no better than their upcoming opponent. B.C. has listed Dominique Rhymes as a backup for Thursday’s game but given him their offensive nationalized American designation to ensure he’ll still see the field for virtually the entire game.

On the other side of the ball, veteran defensive tackle Woody Baron is the club’s designated nationalized American behind Global defender Tibo Debaillie. Baron started the final five games of last season, while Debaillie didn’t start any despite dressing for all 18 regular season game. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out who the real starter is.

It stands to reason that we’ll see more teams shamelessly take advantage of this rule over the course of the CFL’s opening week and it’s hard to blame them. Coaches get paid to win and should be expected to use advantage they can possibly get. There are no bonus points for honouring the intent of rules set forth by the league. This is professional sports. Teams should only be concerned with winning.

The blame here falls squarely on the league for failing to close an obvious loophole on a rule that may have otherwise been worthwhile.

There are no winners with these new roster designations. Veteran American players didn’t get the extra protection they were hoping for. All the new player tracking that must be done has created extra work for the league. Fans and bettors are going to be confused as to why some of the league’s best players are suddenly backups.

The CFL has plenty of exciting new initiatives on the go, including an American broadcasting deal, an American streaming service, a new statistics system, and a partnership with Pro Football Focus. However, this new roster rule is an absolute farce. The sooner it is eliminated, the better.

John Hodge is a Canadian football reporter based in Winnipeg.