Quarterback Dane Evans of the Hamilton Tiger-Cats can't wait to see how CFL defensive co-ordinators adjust this season to the league's attempt to improve game flow and boost scoring.
In April, the league unveiled nine rule changes with the aim of speeding up the flow of games and increasing offence. The most significant were moving hashmarks closer to the centre of the field and allowing teams to take the ball at the 40-yard line following a successful field goal or single instead of the 35.
Teams kicking off for any reason will now do so from their 30-yard line instead of the 35. After a safety, kickoffs will be from the 20-yard line instead of the 25.
"It's advantageous for the offence so I obviously like it," Evans said. "I don't think there's going to be anybody after field goals (or singles) taking the kickoff anymore because you get it at the 40.
"I think the field position is probably going to be the biggest thing but the hashes, to me, do affect the defences."
The hashmarks will move 28 yards from the nearest sideline rather than 24, meaning they'll be nine yards apart rather than 17. Since all plays start with the ball between the hashmarks, the change will make more of the field available for offences with the hope they'll be able to use more of their playbook.
Under the old format, the thought was the receiver on the far side of the field was essentially out of the play. The hope now is teams will be better able to maximize the entire field.
"This field is already huge, there's a lot of ground to cover so it will be very interesting to see what teams do," said Evans. "I kind of think it's not going to be like all teams doing the same thing . . . it's going to be team by team.
"They're going to choose to cover this part of the field this way while someone else might choose to cover it that way. It's going to be really dependent upon their personnel."
For that reason, Evans watched CFL exhibition games that were televised to get an idea of how different defensive co-ordinators tackled the hashmarks issue.
"I know it was training camp and everybody kind of ran base stuff," he said. "But I got to see some good tells on what I think some teams are going to do."
But don't expect the Ticats to revamp their offence to take advantage of the new hashmarks.
"We were already one of the teams that threw it to the wide side so it hasn't necessarily changed our offence," Evans said. "Right now we're kind of figuring out some things we can do.
"It's just a little changeup and I think it will bring some good things."
Mike O'Shea, the head coach of the two-time defending Grey Cup champion Winnipeg Blue Bombers, was in agreement.
“Offensively it should open up the playbook a little more and allow you to use the entire field," he said during a conference call. "It's a very wide field, so the short-side game and plays to the wide side outside the wide-side numbers were maybe a little more limited.
"So now that should open up the entire field."
And also impact the kicking game.
"The angle from which the field goal kickers have to work against is less steep so we should have a higher field-goal percentage," said O'Shea, who served as Toronto's special-teams coach before getting the Bombers' head job Dec. 4, 2013. "And in the punting game, directional punting is a huge part of our game because of the field and now those footballs kicked to the sideline, there should be more room for the return game.
"So, overall, it should add more excitement to the game.”
Other changes include:
- All no-yard penalties will be 15 yards. Previously, teams were penalized five yards if a punt hit the ground first and 15 yards if they infringed upon the five-yard area around a returner while the ball was still in the air. Also, punts going out of bounds before reaching an opponent's 15-yard line will result in a penalty rather than only those that go out before the 20-yard line.
- Two quarterbacks will be allowed on the field simultaneously so long as all other ratio rules are satisfied.
- A communications co-ordinator from the officiating department connected to the on-field crew via headset will be on each team's bench. That will allow for information to be shared with coaches without the referee coming to the sidelines, again improving game flow.
- Any penalty occurring at the end of the first and third quarters will be assigned at the start of next quarter rather than triggering an extension of the existing quarter.
- The command centre's ability to help on-field officials — without a coach's challenge or officials' huddle — will now include possession and boundary rulings as well as administrative rulings like formations without an end or ineligible receivers downfield.
- Quarterbacks who fake giving themselves up on running plays will be flagged for objectionable conduct.
- Any player receiving two unnecessary roughness calls or two objectionable conduct penalties (or combination of the two) in a game will be ejected.
These recent changes were made after CFL scoring dropped from 49.5 points per game in 2019 to 43.1 points per game in 2021. That's a decrease of 12.9 per cent.
The CFL didn't play in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. But last year's average attendance dropped to 19,164 compared to 22,917 in 2019 when Hamilton led the league in scoring (26.1 points per game) and offence (393.7 yards per game).
Last year, Winnipeg was tops in offensive points (23 per game) while Montreal led in net offence (371.8 yards per game).
This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 9, 2022.
Dan Ralph, The Canadian Press