Sunday, June 28, 2015

League Hits Home Run with Rule Changes

Argos' pivot Trevor Harris put on an offensive clinic Saturday against the Eskimos, proving the potential of the league's new rule changes. Via
We're only one week into the 2015 CFL season, but it's already starting to appear as though the league hit a home run with the new rule changes that were announced in April.

The new rules were designed to further help offences move the ball and put up points. Many skeptics, myself included, were worried that offences in the league were already at an advantage and that these new rules would penalize good defence and lead to ridiculously high scoring games. That was not the case, however, and it was reassuring to see that the rules- particularly the updated 'illegal contact' infraction- didn't play out as drastically as many thought they would.

While offences are still gelling as the season is young, the average game in week one saw an average of 44 points scored per game (although of course, some points came from defences and special teams). That number is actually down from last season, where the average game saw 45.5 points per game. But it's week one, each team had some rust to shake off and adjustments to make.

Most notable was the smooth flow that the games followed, particularly in the Hamilton-Calgary and Winnipeg-Saskatchewan contests. Offences moved the ball consistently with very few two-and-out possessions that left fans yawning and changing the channel. Friday night's game saw much of that, but with even more good defensive plays by the defences of both Hamilton and Calgary. As expected, we saw far more zone coverage than normal with defences doing their best to contain receivers without having the option to slow their route down past the five yard contact zone. And as a result, we saw more interceptions from defensive backs being able to read the quarterback and jump the route in zone coverage rather than solely focusing on locking down their receiver in man-on-man. Interceptions are exciting plays, and excitement is exactly what the league was looking for when they announced these changes. Even in the lower scoring games, offences didn't struggle to move the ball, they simply failed to execute after gaining positive momentum or self-destructed via penalties.

Two quarterbacks in particular really showed the possibilities of the new rule changes. Both Winnipeg's Drew Willy and Toronto's Trevor Harris put on offensive clinics, dissecting their opposing defences while only throwing three incompletions each. Willy's Blue Bombers had 470 yards of total offence with three touchdowns through the air, and Harris' Argonauts matched that, reaching 484 yards of total offence with their own trio of passing touchdowns. And as I had predicted, the success of these young gun-slingers came at the expense of two veteran secondary's in Edmonton and Saskatchewan who were previously built to play a physical game on receivers and struggled to make the adjustment. These two quarterbacks displayed the exciting potential of the updated 'illegal contact' rule while not completely going over-board, if you will, as the two offences scored 30 and 26 points, respectively.

Another highly anticipated rule change- or highly controversial for some- was that of which prohibited the interior five lineman on each team's punt coverage unit from crossing the line of scrimmage prior to the football being kicked away. This was implemented to decrease the amount of no-yards penalties while bringing more open-field in the return game. I can't tell you if there was a decrease in flags on punt returns, but I can confirm that the league got a taste of what it had desired with this change. Tiger-Cats' ace Brandon Banks took a punt back for six points against Calgary, as expected, while a couple of other return touchdowns in other games were inevitably called back due to blocking infractions.

We saw true CFL-calibre games in week one. They were up-tempo (another factor caused by the rule changes), flowed well and featured offences putting up tons of yardage. Penalties weren't all too bad- Edmonton and Saskatchewan had many self-inflicted wounds- despite the players being new to the rules, while defensive coordinators quickly started to figure out what works and what doesn't when trying to slow down these offences. A plethora of zone coverage and a heavy pass-rush identified themselves as formulas for success, while genuinely skilled defensive backs with increased athleticism are necessary needs as well. The two secondary's that did the best in man coverage were those of Toronto and Ottawa, and they feature mostly young defensive backs that are relatively new to the league and don't rely on impeding a receivers' route to cover them. Those of Hamilton and Calgary, meanwhile, especially excelled in zone coverage, where their veteran defensive backs understand the coverage and angles of the wide field used in Canadian football. The new rules exposed some veterans' inability to cleanly cover, while some youngsters like A.J. Jefferson in Toronto and Brandyn Thompson in Ottawa proved their skill and athleticism in both types of coverage.

The sample-size still might be too small to say that these rule changes were a complete grand slam, but week one was a huge step in the right direction for the entertainment value of the game in two-down football. As defences continue to adjust and offences continue to improve, the games will only get more and more exciting. It's a positive sign for both the fans who love offence and for those who envy great defence, as both sides of the ball had their share of exciting moments. We didn't see any 100 point affairs, we didn't see a touchdown on every play there wasn't an illegal contact penalty, it all balanced out and made for some good week one football games.

The league can likely chalk up these rule changes as a success, and while there are still improvements to make elsewhere, they may want to start taking a look at a new problem, and that is the epic epidemic that is the health of the league's quarterbacks. Although, the CFL instilled confidence in myself that most of their rule changes are most likely for the better of the game, so I'll give them the benefit of the doubt early on next time around they try to further better the game.

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