CFL

Suitor: On the Redblacks, Bombers, and the Willis hit

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Glen Suitor
7/7/2014 11:37:09 AM
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History and Controversy in Week 2

The Ottawa Redblacks will go through a lot of firsts this year. On Thursday we witnessed the first game played by the new franchise, the first touchdown scored, (Chevon Walker, who will one day be the answer to a trivia question), and almost the first win. The Henry Burris-led expansion franchise got out to a 14-point first quarter lead, but couldn't hold on against a Blue Bomber team that is for real. More on the Bombers shortly, but it was fantastic to see and call a game involving Ottawa again.

Football teams in our nation's capital never had bad fans, just bad owners, and that is not the case this time around. The business model is sound, the league is strong, and football fans in Ottawa can trust that this team will be around for decades to come, and get emotionally invested. The players on this team are certainly "all in". They played hard, on the road, in a hostile environment, and almost got it done. It won't be long until we see some more firsts. Like the first game at home which is already sold out on July 18, and based on Thursday's game it won't be long until we see their first win.


The Real Deal

Now to the Bombers, and yes they are for real! On paper there still may be some who are suggesting other teams in the league are more talented, or maybe more experienced. However, this is a "what have you done for me lately?" business so experience only helps you if you are executing. Also, at the pro level every player is talented, and the difference between winning and losing is smaller than third and inches, so the culture you create for those talented players is what gives you the edge.

The difference in Winnipeg this year is that head coach Michael O'Shea is a team first guy to the core. It oozes out of him when he talks and it is the main reason the Bombers are off to a 2-0 start. Yes, Drew Willy has looked excellent and they have found a tailback in Nic Grigsby but lots of teams have good QB's and tailbacks. O'Shea is teaching that the team is the priority and that all decisions must be made with the team considered before any personal agendas. It sounds simple but there are many examples of coaches that couldn't get the message across to their players. O'Shea has not been perfect. He kicked around the handling of veteran Korey Banks for longer than he had to, but his team's record is perfect so far, and that is what matters more than anything. Oh, and in the end the Bombers' new head coach did eventually make the right decision when it came to Banks when he cut him loose. Banks wasn't happy with his role and that may have affected the culture in the locker room. By cutting Banks and letting him continue his career somewhere else, O'Shea made a team-first decision.


Reaction to Willis hit on Collaros

There are lots of differing opinions on the hit from Odell Willis of the Edmonton Eskimos on Zach Collaros of the Ticats. On one side there are those that argue the game is fast, physical and played by tough men who know what they signed up for, which is all true. It is an old school mentality and it's not wrong.

However, we live in a new world where player safety has become a priority in contact sports. Finding ways to make hockey and football safer for those who participate is not just dominating league meetings, but is also very important to the players' associations.

So what about the hit from Willis?

First, it looked like the Esks defensive end did try and turn his head and avoid helmet-to-helmet contact. Second, it also looked like he tried to lead with his shoulder, therefore you can assume that there was no intent to target Collaros' head. It is also true that if there is a penalty flag thrown every time helmets collide than there would be a penalty called on every play.

Having said all of that, if in fact Willis did contact the head of Collaros - whether it was an accident or not - a penalty had to be called. Many times a defensive player gets pushed or trips into the quarterback's legs accidentally, and that has to be called as well. The league will also review the hit and there could be supplementary discipline handed down in the form of a fine. It is no longer acceptable to say that it is a tough game and things happen at light speed so you have to let the guys play.

Improving player safety is priority number one, and has become a legal issue. In fact you could take the discussion even further. The Players' Associations in hockey and football are negotiating the player safety agenda into new CBA agreements, and yet don't self-govern when it comes to questionable hits in a game. How many times have we heard the CFLPA announce that they are appealing a fine by the league on a player who has made a questionable hit? It happens virtually every time a player is fined or suspended. Meanwhile the player that took the hit, in this case Zach Collaros, missed the rest of the game and could possibly miss more due to concussion issues. How many times has the Players' Association announced a fine within their own organization to a player/member for a questionable hit? That to my knowledge has never happened. The players' associations in contact sports have got to start imposing their own fines to players that cross the line, and show the league that improving player safety is not just the responsibility of the league's head office, but the associations as well.

It looks like the hit by Willis was an accident with no intent, but it was to the head of a quarterback, and that is a penalty and should also result in a fine. There is no provision in the rule book that says, "if the player hits a quarterback in the head by accident, or if he didn't mean to do it, then the hit becomes legal." The only way that Willis could avoid a fine here is if the league determines that Collaros didn't actually get hit in the head but it was the whiplash effect that caused his concussion symptoms, and of the TV angles shown so far that doesn't seem feasible.

The tougher rules in contact sports these days are designed to change the behaviour of players to protect them from themselves. Those rules are not going away anytime soon, in fact they are getting tougher. We might as well all get used to it and drop the tough guy talk. If the league lets the Willis hit go without supplementary discipline, it will set a precedent for every other time a defensive player hits the head of a quarterback accidentally.

There can't be any more grey area. If a defensive player hits the head of a QB, it is a penalty and a fine or suspension - that's the new reality of football. So much so, it is hard to see why there was even a debate on this hit in the first place.

Almondo Sewell and Odell Willis (Photo: The Canadian Press)

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(Photo: The Canadian Press)
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