Sunday, July 19, 2015

Short-Term Pain Leads to Long-Term Gain (Just Ask the NHL)

Cory Chamblin's Saskatchewan Roughriders have had one of the roughest times adjusting to the CFL's new rules.

After seeing scoring and offensive production take a hit in recent years, the Canadian Football League's Board of Governors knew it was no coincidence that both TV ratings and attendance were down as well. 

In an attempt to enhance the on-field product and, ultimately, the appeal of the game to fans, the league announced several new rule changes in April that were designed to spark scoring and, as a result, the entertainment level of CFL games as well. 

Through four games of the 2015 CFL season, scoring numbers have indeed increased. Teams are averaging a combined 47.6 points per game compared to last year’s average of 45.5. In fact, the average after week three was actually 53.5 points per game, however a couple rainy affairs this week in Ottawa and Regina brought the overall number down. 

There's also a whopping 12 receivers on pace for 1,000 yard seasons, an incredibly high amount considering last season only saw 3 pass-catchers eclipse the millennium plateau. 

But despite all this, the fans are still upset with the rule changes. Rather, they're terribly upset with what the on-field product has become. Some can't handle the increase in penalties, while others feel like the league is taking away the integrity of the game by penalizing any sort of defence. 

It sounds all too familiar, doesn't it? 

Remember when the NHL introduced a plethora of rule changes skewed toward offence following the 2004-2005 lockout season? It was their own attempt to enhance the appeal of the game to fans by emphasizing entertainment, skill and competition on the ice. 

Similarly to the 2015 CFL season, the 2005-2006 NHL season featured significant increases in the amount of goals scored and penalties called per contest. Their increases were much more dramatic, however, as the average amount of goals scored per game jumped 19.84% from 5.14 to 6.16, while penalties sky-rocketed from 9.9 minor penalties per game in 2003-2004 to 12.76 in 2005-2006, a 28.75% increase. 

I can recall so many hockey fans being disgusted with the so-called "New NHL".

They felt the rule changes diminished what once was a terrific game, mostly a result of the changes supposedly encouraging offence, flashy-plays and individual-efforts over defensive hockey and team play. And to some degree, they were right. The rule changes absolutely favoured offence, much like those of the CFL's do. 

The NHL introduced a zero tolerance policy to "obstruction", which includes hooking, holding, slashing and any other infraction that a defensive player might use to slow down an opponent. It was believed during the 2005-2006 season that there was nothing a defender could do to defend anymore without being penalized. Players on the attack seemed to often embellish, knowing that diving will likely result in a penalty for the opponent more times than not with how hard officials were pressing to enforce the new rule changes. 

Hockey was supposedly ruined. The integrity of the game was lost.

Now that has to sound a little familiar, no? 

The CFL's new interpretation of illegal contact is very much relatable to the NHL's enforcement of obstruction infractions. Gone are the days of defensive backs clutching and grabbing to impede a receivers' route. There's a zero tolerance policy to this rule too, as it seems an official will throw an orange flag should a defender even breathe on a potential pass-catcher past the five-yard contact zone. 

The NHL implemented several other rules in favour of offence, such as prohibiting goaltenders from playing the puck outside the new trapezoid, permitting two-line passes and decreasing the maximum size of goaltenders' equipment. Many thought every game would be played like an All-Star game, becoming a contact-free, wide open, high-scoring and overall boring game. 

But that was not the case, and after a season of adjustments in 2005-2006, the NHL's rule changes began to really pay off. The average amount of penalties per game has steadily decreased to this day, while as of the 2013-2014 season, the average amount of goals scored per game nearly came back down to what it originally was 10 years prior. However as the NHL had originally hoped, the game is still more open than before and the product is much more entertaining. The upset fans came back long ago and since that, the NHL's reaped from the financial success that ensued. 

It's the perfect example how short-term pain will lead to long-term gain, something the CFL has stressed since announcing the new rule changes a few months back.

That's been their moniker, and with penalties drastically increasing since last season, the short-term pain is definitely there. 

But as the NHL has shown us, we have to trust that it'll all sort itself out in the future and penalties will then return to the norm. The NHL hardly has a "zero tolerance policy" towards obstruction infractions anymore, as officials now give the players a longer leash and, sometimes, the benefit-of-the-doubt when deciding on whether to call a penalty or not. 

NHL players adjusted to the new rules and we should trust that those of the CFL will do the same. As coaches move farther away from the physical defensive backs that formerly excelled in impeding a receivers' route to the now-desired speedy cover-guys, we'll see more good defence and the return of man-coverage. 

The officials will improve too, and they'll give defenders more rights once they finish drilling the new rules into their heads first.

Also to be noted, a very large majority of the penalties called such as offside, illegal procedure and holding have nothing to do with the rule-changes, but rather the players themselves making bad mistakes and paying the price. Penalties are typically higher at the start of the season anyway, so you can certainly expect to see a decrease in the amount of preventable penalties as the weeks go on.

So keep the faith, football fans. The CFL is simply in an adjustment period, and it's a period the NHL experienced in 2005-2006 following their own rule changes. 

Soon enough, the steady decline in the amount of orange nylon flung per game will noticeably become a drastic decrease, while it at the same time, defensive coordinators will return to calling games closer to the way they did before. They'll no longer be limited to almost exclusively running zone coverage in fear of the poor results that ensue in calling man-coverage.

A new wave of defensive backs will arrive and the officials will grant them a little more freedom. Offences will still have more space and open-field like the league desires, but the mentality of "defence wins championships" will return as well. 

The CFL expected penalties to increase when they decided to alter the rule book. They knew it would frustrate fans and possibly drive some away from the game. But they also knew that in the end, it would be worth it.

Ask the NHL and they'll reiterate the same thing: short-term pain leads to long-term gain. 

The future's bright, people.

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