Tuesday, November 27, 2007


Everyone seems to be saying today that the Grey Cup was thrilling if you're from Saskatchewan, unwatchable if you love Canadian football.

All week there was whole vive-la-difference going on comparing how healthy the league is financially -- attendance up, TV ratings up -- compared to the last time the Grey Cup was in Toronto in 1992.

It's almost a complete opposite a complete mirror image in terms of the quality of the game. Around the time of that '92 Grey Cup, when Doug Flutie passed for more than 500 yards -- more than the combined output of Ryan Dinwiddie and Kerry Joseph on Sunday -- the CFL was hurting financially.

It was the choice of the football coinnoisseur, though. Sports Illustrated sent its nuts-and-bolts football guy, Paul Zimmerman, up to cover that Grey Cup, and he raved about CFL ball being a "chessboard gone mad." Compared to the NFL, where Bill Parcells-Joe Gibbs ball-control offences ruled, it was a revelation.

Fifteen years later, contrast that with the overnight reviews:

"This was one time the network should have switched to Heidi." -- Montreal Gazette

"...the 95th Grey Cup game was a few moments of glory wrapped in 31/2 hours of poor throws, dropped passes and one team, the Saskatchewan Roughriders, actually outscoring itself at one point, a true CFL oddity." -- Globe & Mail

"The first offence-free Grey Cup in recent memory..." -- Toronto Star
The CFL used to let us indulge our need to feel superior to the Americans. Our game, with our wider field and one less down, enabled Doug Flutie to explore the full range of his talents. It was a place for smaller players such as Gizmo Williams and Pinball Clemons. In the '70s, the CFL gave African-Americans -- Chuck Ealey, Condredge Holloway, Warren Moon -- a genuine chance to start at quarterback -- long before the NFL was so enlightened.


Now it has a healthy bottom line, a better TV contract and the game sucks. C'est la vie. The way to sell a lot of cultural prodcuts to Canadians seems to be to make it look like a watered-down imitation of something American.

People who are the top of the CFL hierarchy read so many reports for so many years about teams losing money and failing to draw in a wide audience, that it started to believe that was all that mattered. Like the NFL, it's become more about the people who have no real interest in the game, getting casual fans to watch and bring up the TV ratings. The rush to cater to those folks, to quote Chuck Klosterman, "creates a nonspecific product that isn't appealing to anyone."

Meantime, the game has steadily evolved into one of field position and managing the ball (yawn). The CFL has lost the plot.

Defence dominates, which is fine, but the league is crying out for a creative breakthrough on the offensive side of the ball. It's almost like since Flutie went back to the NFL 10 years ago, the league collectively forgot how to put together an exciting offence that balanced running with passing. That's led to two Grey Cups in a row that were almost devoid of any big-yardage plays on offence; on Sunday, aside from a 50-yard Winnipeg touchdown, the next two longest gains on the day both came on pass interference penalties.

If you wanted to see someone fake out an entire kicking team à la The Giz on Sunday, you would have had to flip over to the Chicago-Denver NFL game to see Devin Hester torch the Broncos for two touchdowns. If you wanted to see an offence spread receivers sideline-to-sideline and light up the scoreboard, you could have seen that in almost any NCAA and NFL game during the U.S. Thanksgiving weekend. You could have seen that on Friday during a game between Colorado and Nebraska, two programs which won national titles in the 1990s while running a variation of the power option -- all running, almost no passing.

Canadians should be proud the Americans have co-opted the CFL's style and embraced the more open style of offence. We should understand that a lot of players who are the seventh or eighth wide receiver on a NFL depth chart might have come to Canada and been stars in another era. Twenty years ago, a starting wideout such as Antwaan Randle El probably would have come north to play for a chance to play quarterback. The same goes for another converted QB, the New York Jets' Brad Smith, who's now a special teamer.

It could be, that being Canadians, we always have to invent a crisis for ourselves, but it's clear that the league, like the running backs in Sunday's game, has hit a wall tactically. The game has become predictable, and thus boring.

Here's a couple ideas that worth throwing against the wall to see if it might spark some creativity:
  1. No "I" in team. American coaches' overuse of the I formation with its "stretch" and "search" plays has led to predictable running games. The CFL could effectively outlaw the I (and the single back set where the QB is in the shotgun and the running back often starts the play eight or nine yards deep) by making a rule that prohibits any back from lining up more than five yards deep between the tackles.

    In the long run, it would make teams use more motion and misdirection in the running game. They would have to find lighter, more agile offensive linemen who can pull and trap-block. The two-back offence -- remember Neil Lumsden and Jim Germany? -- might return, and quarterbacks would have to develop better ball-handling and faking skills. An exciting running game is just as much fun as an exciting passing game.
  2. Wider hashmarks. This is touched upon in the Todd column linked below. To be honest, I wasn't aware the hashes in the CFL were once only 15 yards from the sideline (it's now 24). It's clear it was changed since coaches probably hated it. The league could slowly phase it in, moving the hashmarks out by three yards every two years.

    The coaches would have no argument about having less room on the short side to run the ball. As it stands, they would have nothing to be worried about since nearly every play is up the middle or off tackle. They need to rediscover the wide field.
  3. Get fan opinion. Seriously, when the league sits down to discuss rule changes in the off-season, each team should have one hardcore CFL nut at the meeting to discuss what they liked and didn't like about the style of play.
  4. More Canadian players. The homegrown talent in the league has probably caught up to the import ratio. Some teams now start Canadians and have American backups playing special teams. Over time -- phase it in so no one's career is ruined in one fell swoop -- the league should go from about 18 Americans per team to 12 or 14. Sure, maybe the game would be a bit more ragged and imprecise for a few years, but that's the CFL.

Who knows if any of that would bring back the CFL we once knew and loved. It would be a hell of a lot better for what passed for the league's showcase on Sunday, though.

Recommended reading:
A once wild, woolly CFL goes to hash (Jack Todd, Montreal Gazette)
Four Ways to Save Sports Media (Chuck Klosterman, Esquire)

That's all for now. Send your thoughts to neatesager@yahoo.ca.


Anonymous said...

Red Storey made the same point about the hash marks in his autobiography. Not only would it alter the running game, it would also make for more runbacks on missed field goals. With an entire side of the field wide open, a speedy returner could really gain nice field position.

Personally, I didn't think it was as boring a game as a lot of pundits are claiming. It wasn't 76, 87, 89, 94 or 05, but I was never bored. The defences played well. Sure, there were some dropped passes and overthrows, but that's going to happen. The Bombers had a shot at it in the last minute of play. Johnson's three interceptions were nice plays on his part, not Dinwiddie putting the ball in his numbers.

The game has tightened up in the last two years for sure. As you mentioned, we're not getting the quality of QB coming up here anymore simply because the NFL now covets that type of player, too. I agree, let's give more CDNs a shot at it. Cohon has talked a fair bit about nurturing the game at its grassroots. The more kids we get playing, the larger the CDN talent pool available. Hopefully, this isn't lip service.

Dennis Prouse said...

The most outrageous rule in the CFL is the one that gets the least amount of attention. The fact that the league openly discriminates against Canadian QBs is, in my view, an outrage. Oh, they don't officially do it, of course, but by saying that teams can have three QBs, "of any nationality" on the roster, the CFL has eliminated any "ratio busting" benefit teams may get from having a Canadian QB as a backup or third stringer.

I would support adjusting the ratio by a few players towards the Canadian side, and I would also support moving the hashmarks back out somewhat, although not radically. I have never been in favour, though, of rule changes that prohibit or force certain formations. You will inevitably enter the Land of Unintended Consequences, one of which would be to stifle innovation. Football goes through swings, and right now the pendulum has swung to the defence in the CFL. Wait a while, and the pendulum will swing back. What you will see next on offense, I believe, is a bit more of a power running game, as offenses bulk up to take advantage of the fact that defences are utilizing smaller, faster players to shut down the passing game.