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Dave Naylor

TSN Football Insider

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The saying has long gone that the greatest difference between Canadian and American professional football is the higher percentage of passing plays in the CFL.

But the NFL has evolved to the point that throwing the ball is a bigger part of its game today than it’s ever been, shrinking that difference considerably.

Meanwhile, as the NFL is trying to minimize the impact of kick returns on its game, the CFL is bursting wide open with return-game mania.

Yes, these days it’s not the passing game that’s the biggest difference between the football of summer and the league that begins in a few weeks.

It’s the return game.

“I think you’re seeing a higher calibre of returner,” said Saskatchewan head coach Craig Dickenson, who coached special teams with the Oakland Raiders in 2010.

“I think with the NFL with what they’ve done to try and eliminate returns, I don’t think you’re seeing a lot of great returners kept in the NFL – that guy who is only a returner but is still dynamic. There’s so little opportunity for him in the NFL … I think there are a lot of returners here who might have in previous years been playing in the NFL, but they just don’t have the same value down there that they used to have. The actual idea of a return specialist in the NFL doesn’t exist anymore.”

The Year of the Return in the CFL has featured 18 touchdowns – nine via kickoffs, six off of punts and three via missed field goals. In the NFL last season, there were just 12 – seven off of punts and five off of kickoffs.

It’s not only made for great highlight material, it’s helped turn the momentum of games and made for some outstanding drama.

So while it’s not exactly a problem the CFL is trying to solve, people around the league are starting to wonder why this is happening now, not unlike they do in baseball whenever there’s a surge in home runs.

While we can be sure the CFL ball is not juiced, pinning down exactly what is happening is no easy task. Theories exist, but for each there seems a counter argument or two. We could also ask the question a different way: What’s made coverage teams so ineffective this season?

The bottom line is that when the return game gets the upper hand, the game gets more exciting.

Here are a few of the possible reasons for the CFL’s return-game explosion – and some counter arguments.

- The NFL’s move away from the return game has made better returners available in the CFL.

As Dickenson suggests, is absolutely true that kick returns have never meant less in the NFL. Moving the kickoff to the 35-yard line in 2011 meant a high percentage of kickoffs sailed through the end zone without a return. Moving the touchback to the 25-yard line from the 20 for the 2016 season diminished the incentive to bring the ball out on those occasions it didn’t sail out of the end zone. As a result, there were just 256 kickoffs returned from the end zone during the entire NFL season in 2018, which translates into eight per team, or one per team every two weeks. Overall, 60.2 per cent of kickoffs went for touchback last season. That’s why pure returners in the NFL are rare these days, with most teams looking for a fourth or fifth receiver to return kicks. The NFL’s rules on punt returns have always limited the effectiveness of returners, but with so many prolific offences in the game today, some teams are prioritizing securing the ball over a big return. That’s why players like New England’s sure-handed Julian Edelman are being employed in the role. It all points to the CFL getting access to a higher quality of returner, the likes of which virtually every team seems to have this season. It’s not as simple as saying that players like Frankie Williams, Christion Jones, DeVonte Dedmon or Janarion Grant would be in the NFL if that league hadn’t changed its rules on returns. But the fact that it did makes their odds that much tougher, and makes it more likely that they end up in the CFL.

- The no-contact practices have resulted in players with poor tackling skills.

It’s been almost two years since the CFL and its players’ association agreed to get rid of padded practices, which means no full-contact drills. Teams can no longer replicate full-speed tackling in practice, which some insist is important for young players – especially those stepping up in class from the Canadian university level. And, of course, its young players from the U Sports level who play a lot on coverage teams. Some dismiss the theory, insisting that most of the contact in padded practices occurred along the line of scrimmage, not in open-field tackling. But it’s a theory that many say has credence.

-Teams have copied the schemes of successful return teams like Saskatchewan and Calgary.

The past few seasons the Stampeders and Roughriders have made hay out of their return games and some believe other teams around the league have gone to school on how they’ve been so successful.

- The league has decided to raise the standard for calling penalties on returns.

CFL senior director of officiating Darren Hackwood says this is not the case. While the league want officials to avoid throwing flags for minor infractions away from the ball that would pull a return off the board, the emphasis this season has been no different than in past years. The number of penalties on returns this season has been flat.

Whatever the cause, you won’t hear complaints from the league, the teams, the fans or the television highlight shows.

 

New weather protocol needs tune-up

The CFL’s new weather protocol dropped the curtain last Friday in Montreal, with the Saskatchewan Roughriders leading the Alouettes 17-10 and 2:41 left to play in the third quarter.

To say that many around the league were surprised that the game was considered complete after a 60-minute delay would be an understatement.

There’s a significant desire to revisit the policy after this season, if not before then, with the prevailing feeling being that a 60-minute delay is not enough time to call a game complete.

The CFLPA also had an issue with how things went down, having not been informed of the decision as it was being made.

The new policy was developed to avoid lengthy delays where the team leading on the scoreboard would have a different incentive to call the game and book the result than the team that’s trailing.

Under the current black-and-white protocol, if a delay past the midpoint of the third quarter lasts more than one hour, the game is called and the result counts. There’s no room for interpreting what’s on the way weather-wise or deciding how long to wait.

That could have left the league looking bad if the lighting had stopped just after the one-hour mark and the skies cleared. What if the Alouettes were driving for the tying score deep in Saskatchewan territory when the lightning delay hit, and then were prevented from resuming the game 61 minutes later even if the skies were clear? Does anyone think that’s a good idea?

The weather protocol is part of the new collective agreement and includes a few other elements people may be surprised to learn about, including:

- If the game is stopped and the combined length of stoppage is greater than three hours in length prior to the halfway point of the third quarter, the game will be cancelled.

- The game will be considered final and two points will be awarded to the leading club if they are ahead by any of the following amounts when the game is called: 21 or more points in the first quarter, 17 or more points at halftime, 13 or more points in the third quarter.

- If the teams do not play each other again in the regular season and the point differential wasn’t great enough to give the leading team two points, the delayed game will be considered a tie and both teams will receive one point.

- If the teams do play again in the current season and the point differential isn’t great enough to give one team the victory, the teams will participate in a two-possession shootout prior to their next game.

- If a playoff game is halted for greater than three hours, it will be postponed and will conclude the next day. It will commence where it left off the previous day.

As sometimes happens in collective bargaining, less-pressing issues get approved without a full consideration of their implications. The CFL’s new weather protocol appears to be one of those.

 

What about Bo?

It’s been nearly eight weeks since Bo Levi Mitchell left a game against the BC Lions with an injured pectoral muscle that remains an issue for the Calgary quarterback.

Mitchell shared first-team reps with Nick Arbuckle during Tuesday’s practice, but he woke up sore on Wednesday and was limited to handoffs with the second team.

Should the Stamps be worried? Of course they should, given the length of time it’s been and the fact that there was once a sense Mitchell might not need the full six-games on the injured list.

The good news for Calgary is that Arbuckle has filled the void nicely, with a 4-2 record as a starter and a come-from-behind win in relief. He’s completed more than 70 per cent of his passes and, while he’s no Mitchell, he’s been good enough to keep Calgary near the top of the West Division at 5-3.

This is not intended as a slight to Mitchell (who has been hurt) or Mike Reilly (who has been surrounded by poor play) but the CFL’s two $700,000 quarterbacks have one victory between them so far this season.

Should the Canadian Football Hall of Fame honour players who bolt for the NFL?

The 2019 Canadian Football Hall of Fame class inducted Saturday included two of the best receivers ever to play in the CFL. It raises the question of why Terry Greer and Mervyn Fernandez each had to wait more than 30 years before getting the call.

The suspicion here is that it has a lot to do with the fact that Greer and Fernandez spent just six and five years, respectively, in the CFL – far less than most players in the Hall. There are surely those who would say that’s not enough; that the Hall of Fame is for players who have long and illustrious careers in Canada.

Good on the selection committee for righting this wrong. It makes sense to honour greatness over longevity. It’s also impossible to ignore that the reason Greer and Fernandez didn’t play longer in Canada was that they went on to make more money playing the NFL.

Honouring players who’ve had short CFL careers because of moves to the NFL opens up questions about players like Jeff Garcia and Cameron Wake. Both were dominant in Canada and the very best at what they did for a short time. Both also managed to carry that over to the NFL and excel against the best players on the planet.

Let’s hope the Hall of Fame considers it worthy to honour players like Garcia and Wake, who were truly great even if it wasn’t for long.