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Aerial assaults ramping up scoring

Andrew Bucholtz
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With each CFL team having played nine of their 18-regular season games so far, it's worth taking a look at how the league is stacking up statistically compared to last year. The league office sent out an interesting press release today (posted in its entirety over at Rider Rumblings) with many of the key statistical comparisons. One of particular note is that the balance in the never-ending struggle between offences and defences appears to have tilted to the side with the ball; scoring is up five percent over 2009 to an average of 53.9 points per game. For some perspective on where the game's been in recent years, that's 15 per cent ahead of 2006.

What's contributing to that increase? For one thing, teams are airing the ball out the way the Texas Tech Red Raiders used to under Mike Leach, throwing early and often and completing most of their pass attempts. CFL quarterbacks have completed 62.9 per cent of their pass attempts so far this year, which is on par to break the 62.7 per cent record set in 2008. Montreal quarterback Anthony Calvillo (pictured above) leads all regular starters in that category with an astonishing 70.1 per cent completion rate. Oddly enough, Saskatchewan's Darian Durant is the second-worst starter in that category with a 59.4 per cent completion mark, but he leads the league with 2759 passing yards. The worst regular starter is whoever you designate as B.C.'s starting quarterback; current Lions' starter Casey Printers has a 52.1 completion percentage, Jarious Jackson is only slightly better at 54.2 per cent and Travis Lulay is still behind Durant at 59.2 per cent.

Perhaps as a result of the success of the passing game, teams are running less often. They're more effective when they do choose to run, though, and that could mean that defences are thinking pass-first and getting caught off guard by rushing plays. There are only an average of 38.3 rushing plays being called per game, the second-lowest number in CFL history, but the average gain per carry is 6.1 yards, the highest in CFL history. Clearly, the league still has plenty of talented running backs, even if many of them are seeing less carries than in previous years. Some of those passing stats also reflect short passes to RBs, which have played a critical role in many games this season.

Another element contributing to high-scoring games is the league-wide improvement on kick returns. At the moment, there's one kick-return touchdown every three games, also on pace to set a CFL record. All that offence has also contributed to close games; 44.4 per cent of the games played this year have been decided in the final three minutes of play, either by the trailing team coming from behind or the winning team leading by less than seven points and stopping their opponent's final drive.

Off the field, the league appears to be doing well on the television front. As Chris Zelkovich of The Toronto Star wrote today, Sunday's game between Saskatchewan and Winnipeg set a TSN regular-season ratings record with an average of 1.34 million viewers. It wasn't a particular outlier, either; the other three Labour Day weekend games were the second, third and fourth most-watched events of the weekend, with Calgary's blowout of Edmonton somehow averaging over a million viewers (maybe to see the carnage?) and the Lions-Alouettes and Ticats-Argos clashes drawing around 900,000 viewers each. The season average is 910,000 viewers per broadcast, a nine per cent increase over last year's numbers. If you look back through Zelkovich's posts, you'll find that CFL games have drawn the strongest television ratings of any sport most weekends this summer, which is very impressive.

Ticket sales aren't doing too badly either. Buoyed by strong Labour Day crowds, the average attendance is 28,322, on pace with last year. Ticket sales for the league's special events are also going well; tickets for this year's Grey Cup in Edmonton sold out last June, one week after they went on sale to the general public, and tickets for Sept. 26's Scotiabank Touchdown Atlantic game in Moncton-the first regular-season game ever in Atlantic Canada-sold out in just 32 hours.

Probably the most concerning thing around the league at the moment is the ongoing Hamilton stadium mess. There are some indications that the city and the Tiger-Cats may be able to come to a compromise, but it's been very quiet on that front.

Commissioner Mark Cohon seems to still be optimistic about the Hamilton situation, though. "I'm hopeful a solution can be found that is in the best interests of the team and our fans in that region," he said in the league's release. CFL fans will be hoping he's right. Otherwise, what's turning out to be a terrific season on the field could be overshadowed by an off-field debacle.

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