A quick look in the rearview mirror at the 2013 CFL season and we see a year that the league head offices can use as a springboard to an even bigger and better future, with the exception of one pressing question that just doesn't seem to ever go away: How will the league improve the officiating?
After a very successful expansion draft in December, the Ottawa Redblacks will kick it off for real in a brand new facility this season. Hamilton will also be playing in a new stadium this year, and the Bombers Investors Group Field still has that new stadium smell.
Jon Cornish, who won the Lou Marsh Award as Canada's top male athlete of the year, headlines a group of Canadian football players in the CFL that continue to get better and are proving that Canadians are, not only capable of playing the skilled positions, but can be impact players.
Young quarterbacks excelled in 2013 and showed football fans across the country that the future is bright at the most important position on the field.
And, discussions regarding a tenth franchise in the Maritimes has moved from the "dream stage" to the "serious talks" stage with the signing of a new, game-changing television agreement with TSN.
There is no question the future looks bright for the CFL, with one issue yet to be tackled. Ask the average football fan in our country what is the one area that the league must improve on moving forward and they will say officiating ninety-nine per cent of the time.
Now, inconsistencies with the refs is not a problem unique to the CFL, as evidence by some of the recent games in the NFL, and it is not unique to the sport of football. However, in a world where perception is reality, the perception for most of the fans is that officiating is lagging behind in the Canadian Football League and it needs to improve.
Interestingly enough, the league office has a plan. It is in its infancy and has not been talked about very much but the blueprint to improving this area of the game is being drafted right now.
Prior to the end of the 2013 calendar year, the league quietly made a change at the top with regards to officials. Head of officiating, Tom Higgins, was not offered a contract extension and just a few days later the league announced the hiring of veteran head referee, Glen Johnson. Higgins should be proud of his time in the big chair, despite the perception that officiating is the CFL's weak link. The highlights of his tenure included streamlining the command centre, improving the use of technology as a learning tool and maybe most importantly, opening a line of communication between the league's head office and its coaches, players and partners.
However, in this performance-based business, where if you're not moving forward and improving you are moving backwards, it seemed that when it came to officiating, the CFL was in a holding pattern.
Enter Glen Johnson, a veteran of twenty four years as a head ref, who has been in the trenches in 416 games and 11 Grey Cups. Johnson has also been on the leagues rules committee for more than ten years, so he is very familiar with the strengths and weaknesses of that process.
Obviously, Johnson is not new to the CFL. However, he does have a new role and if it is true about the value of first impressions, then the league is in very good hands as they move forward in the area of officiating. In a recent phone conversation, Johnson wanted to emphasis that he is still moving into his new office and his game plan is in the first draft stage, but immediately stated that, "there are three areas that I would like to work on." He also wanted to make it clear off the top that all discussions would of course include the CFL Officials Association, the CFL Players Association, and the board of governors, because changes cannot be made without their input and cooperation.
First on Johnson's, to do list was improving consistency. He stated, "despite the perception, the leagues officials do a very good job but it is very important to improve the consistency from one game to another and one crew to another." He admitted that is not exactly a news flash, but went on to explain just how he would want to attack the issue of inconsistency.
First, once the standards are agreed upon, it is incumbent on the league office to make sure everyone is, as he put it, "speaking the same language." In other words, to be consistent there has to be consistency in the message. Johnson stated, "the language used to instruct our officials has to be the same language we use when explaining those rules to coaches, players and the fans of the game."
Johnson, who has spent the last twenty-seven years as a technology executive, also thinks that the league can continue to use technology not only as a teaching tool but also as a way of communicating with fans, and would like to see greater transparency in the process. Johnson explained, "if we are all speaking the same language, then there will be an overall better understanding as to how rules are assessed and applied."
The second item on the agenda for Johnson is to look at ways to expand replay. As he put it, "we need to continue to protect the integrity of the game, but maybe it is time to become innovators and further examine all aspects of the command centre."
Johnson will meet with the heads of officiating in the NHL, NFL and MLB in early February to go over ways to improve upon the use of instant replay. He also mentioned that he would like to initiate the discussions on all things replay, including how and when coaches can challenge a call on the field and to even examine, and possibly expand, the plays that can be challenged. That could include, again in a very preliminary way, talks on pass interference and whether or not that penalty could be a play that could be reviewed. Johnson understands the frustration when it comes to this penalty and isn't making any guarantees that drastic changes are on their way, but said that on the agenda is, "how we get better at that rule." He wanted to be clear that the goal is not to take what is a judgment call out of the hands of one individual and put it in the hands of another, but that maybe there are other ways to look at this penalty. He suggested that he would like to explore the possibilities of using technology within the stadium to assist the refs on the field when it comes to the game changing PI call.
Finally, he referenced again the fact that professional football is a performance based business for everyone involved including the officials, and wants to make his third priority making sure that week in and week out the best refs available are on the field.
He explained by saying, "that means evaluating how the league recruits its officials, develops them, and how they evaluate them." Johnson feels that it may be time for a shift in thinking in the area of officiating that moves closer to how a team GMs or coach evaluates a player, saying, "We need to start thinking more like the clubs, when it comes to recognizing and evaluating talent." He went on to say that he is looking for new and innovative ways to create opportunities for the refs to actually practice. "It's hard for a ref to practice, we train them and prepare them, but we can't actually evaluate their talent level until they are actually in games." An interesting point when you consider a coach evaluates a player from the moment, he hits the first practice at training camp to game one of the regular season, which is a lot of plays at close to game speed to see if the athlete has what it takes. In comparison, new officials get a couple of preseason games at best.
If you read between the lines, it sounds like the new head of officiating wants to see refs working in practice with the teams on a regular basis, which is again an excellent idea. As an example, the Argos' run and passing skeleton 8-on-8 drill in practice with real officials on the field looking for and calling offensive and defensive pass interference. The players work on their game and so do the refs. It would also allow players to better understand where the boundaries are long before they cost their team by taking a bad penalty in a real game.
The call was made to Glen Johnson before 2013 was officially in the books, and his three point priority list was already being formulated. He couldn't give a lot of details before meeting with all the groups involved in the process but didn't hesitate to outline his three points of focus.
Put together a game plan so that the league can find more consistency from game to game and crew to crew. Take a good hard look and become innovators when it comes to instant replay and the command centre. And make sure that the best talent available is always on the field.
The officials, like the players, coaches and the colour analysts in the game, will never be perfect. As long as human beings are involved, there is going to be human error which fans understand. However, as the CFL sling shots into the future with improved play on the field and a much better business model off the field, fans have to also see that there is a plan in place to improve the area of the game that is the number one topic of discussion every year - officiating.
It's early in the process and a lot of work has got to be done but after a conversation in late December with Glen Johnson, it sounds like there is a new and "innovative" game plan being formulated as we speak.