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Suitor: Digging deeper into last week's CFL penalties

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Glen Suitor
7/16/2014 1:59:28 PM
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Last week in the CFL the penalty flags were flying. In total between the four games played there were 110 penalties for 958 yards, which is the third-highest total in the last 20 years. Obviously, that is way too many penalties. It disrupts the flow of the game, extends the length of the game, and is flat out hard to watch.

However, it is one thing to simply complain about the flag-filled week. It's another to examine the calls, look at the reasons why they were made, and work towards finding solutions so it doesn't happen again. In conjunction with the league's head coaches, that is exactly what Glen Johnson, the league's Vice-President of Officiating, is currently working on. It is a process that will take some time for a couple reasons, the most important being that we are all learning a new culture in football where player safety is the focus. However, all the league stake holders are all in to work towards limiting the amount of penalties called, and the time it takes to call them.

Johnson has accumulated the numbers from last week and some from the first three weeks of the season, and they may surprise football fans. First, all of the penalties from last week have been reviewed and, of the 110 called, 93 of them were the correct call while only seven of them were debatable or questionable calls. Essentially, 94 per cent of the calls made last week were correct which according to Johnson is, "very close to the overall standards from the last few years."

These numbers are significant, because it is important to understand that fixing the problem of too many penalties does not just fall on the shoulders of the officials. The players and coaches are ultimately responsible, and are working with Johnson on a weekly basis to improve the situation. Johnson explained by pointing out that there are currently teams that have asked the league to make officials available for practices. "I talk to the coaches and we are working together to improve the situation on a weekly basis, in fact some teams have asked that we supply them refs at practice, which I think is an excellent idea, and can help the teams and our officials."

After three weeks this season penalties are up by 31 per cent overall, which is a huge jump. However, when you dig a little deeper into the numbers, we shouldn't be surprised. Of the 31 per cent increase this year, "player safety fouls," are leading the way. Penalties like unnecessary roughness, roughing the passer, face masking, and sportsmanship-related fouls like taunting are driving the increase. When you consider what is happening in North America when it comes to player safety in contact sports, we shouldn't be surprised that calls that are designed to protect the players, sometimes from themselves, are up dramatically. It is going to take time for players to understand what is a legal hit, and what is not, when they have trained their whole lives to hit a certain way, especially when we are talking about the hits on the quarterbacks.

So before we start chanting, "ref you suck," from the stands, remember that the Players' Association have negotiated player safety items into their new collective bargaining agreements and have made it a priority. It is the players who must change their behaviour, and better understand what is - and isn't - a legal hit, and play with more discipline. They voted it into their own agreements. For now, if the officials err, they will err on the side of protecting the players because that has been mandated by the league and the CFLPA.

Penalty-filled games make for long football games, and fans should know that the league is very aware of games extending too long and are working on improving that area as well. One concern is with regards to video review, and whether or not it is taking too long. No, this has nothing to do with the new rule to make pass interference a reviewable penalty - more on that in a minute. This is about being more efficient with the review process. Glen Johnson is even looking at possibly changing the mechanics to speed things up. "One thing that I am looking at is to possibly drop the part of the process where the official explains to the Referee what he saw which then gets relayed to the replay official." He went on to say, "that information is rarely helpful as the play is getting reviewed, we could save about 20 seconds per review." Twenty seconds would be significant when you consider that currently the average review is taking two minutes and 15 seconds. This however, according to Johnson, is skewed because of a few really long reviews this year that took five minutes. He said that reviews generally take about one minute and 30 seconds, which is close to the target. "The objective is to get them under two minutes and five minutes is not acceptable!"

It should also be noted that according to data from south of the border, NFL reviews on average take about three minutes, so shaving over a minute off that time will add up quickly. Johnson has reminded his refs that when replay was first introduced to the game there was a 90-second limit placed on the referee, and that decision didn't come from a replay office - it was made from under the hood at the park.

Now on the new rule involving the review of pass interference. After three weeks there have been five challenges of pass interference, and all five were on plays where there was no flag thrown. In other words coaches challenged that the call was missed. On two of those challenges the play was reviewed and it was determined by the command center that there was PI on the play and the no call on the field was overturned. It is a small sample size but Johnson, and the majority of the coaches in the league, feel the new rule change is, "going well," so far.

As for the timing of this particular challenge on average it takes about 20 seconds longer than other challengeable plays. So if it takes about one minute and 30 seconds for most challenges, then a PI call would take one minute and 50 seconds which is still under the target of two minutes. By the way both overturned PI challenges occurred in the end zone which is the area on the field that changes the outcome of games, and the calls ended up being correct. The purpose of this change was not to make PI more difficult, but to assist the officials who may have missed something blatant during live action, and in that regard the league and the coaches believe it is working so far.

When you break it all down, there is a fairly simple explanation as to why player safety type penalties are up, and that should correct itself over time. It is also important to understand that 94 per cent of the penalties called in the game are the correct call, so it is the coaches and players' responsibility to make the necessary corrections. And finally, all the stakeholders in the game are very aware that last week there were way too many penalties and are working together to make changes to make sure 110 flags in four games doesn't happen again.

Now let's get back to talking about football.

CFL Referee (Photo: Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images)

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(Photo: Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images)
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