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Andrew Bucholtz

Rule changes: CFL takes the right stance on expanding replay

Andrew Bucholtz
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The CFL announced today that the rule changes proposed by the league's rules committee have been officially approved by the league's board of governors. There are some interesting new twists in there, including a ten-yard penalty for punts out of bounds between the 20-yard lines, clarification on the illegal participation rule and eliminating cut blocks on downfield passes. However, the most significant change of all may be alterations to the instant replay rules, and these particular adjustments suggest that the CFL is firmly on the side of increasing the role of replays. That's an extremely positive decision in my books.

There are two specific changes to the replay rules, and both seem valuable from this perspective. The first involves quarterbacks dropping back to pass and getting hit. Previously, if the ball came out and was ruled an incomplete pass on the field and then either challenged or submitted to booth review (depending on the point of the game; plays before the three-minute-warning of the fourth quarter have to be challenged, while the league decides whether or not to review plays after that mark), the command centre could rule it an incomplete pass or a fumble after consulting the replay, but could not award the other team possession on a recovered fumble (as the incomplete pass call on the field made the ball considered dead). That's changed so officials now have the ability to award a change in possession after consulting replay, but only if the ball was immediately recovered. Return yards after a recovery are also nullified.

This makes a lot of sense, as many of football's most controversial plays come on these incomplete pass versus fumble calls (see the NFL's Tuck Rule Game for a particularly famous example). The CFL's previous definition of the rule made sense from a strictly technical point of view (how could anyone recover a ball that was ruled an incomplete pass?), but this change brings the rule much closer to what common sense would suggest. In essence, this passes a bit of authority from the on-field officials to the replay booth (although it's worth noting that inconclusive evidence results in the initial call being upheld and there are a limited number of challenges, so on-field calls still play a significant role in the final outcome).

Players are going to have to adapt to this, though. Both offensive and defensive players will have to learn to quickly jump on any loose ball, even if it looks to all the world like an incomplete pass and is quickly ruled that. Officials will have to adapt as well, and that's where this could get a bit sticky, as "recovered immediately" isn't all that specific. If I was instructing the CFL's referees how to call this rule, I'd tell them to wait until the ball is picked up before blowing their whistle, even if they're going to rule the play an incomplete pass. That makes it clear which team recovered the ball, and it gives the command centre easy options. If referees blow the whistle as soon as the ball hits the ground, though, it would be much more difficult to award a turnover (as players tend to stop when they hear a whistle, and a loose ball at a whistle probably doesn't equal "recovered immediately"). This looks like a positive rule change, but in order for it to work, both officials and players are going to have to keep their minds open for the possibility of a fumble ruling, even if the play looks like an incomplete pass from the field.

The second specific replay change is similar, but it focuses on awarding possession on a completed pass and fumble. In previous seasons, the command centre had the ability to reverse a ruling of complete or incomplete, but they could not award a change of possession (for similar reasons; if a pass was caught, fumbled and recovered, but ruled incomplete on the field, the play was assumed to have stopped with the incomplete ruling). Now, teams on defence can challenge a ruling of an incomplete pass in those circumstances and potentially gain possession. They'll want to be careful here, though, as it would seem that there's also a possibility of replay finding a completed pass without a change in possession. Say a receiver catches the ball near the sideline, is hit, fumbles, and the ball's recovered by the defence. It's called an incomplete pass at first, but is reversed on a challenge; however, the replay finds that the receiver made the catch, but his fumble crossed the sideline before the defence recovered, making it a complete pass and still the offence's ball. In the vast majority of situations, though, this could be a very significant change that helps out defences.

Like the preceding change, this will require some adaptations on the parts of both players and referees if it's going to work properly. Officials are going to have to resist their inclination to immediately whistle dead a play that looks like an incomplete pass, and players are going to have to put extra focus on picking up loose balls as quickly as possible, even if they believed the pass was incomplete. Those changes aren't all that hard, though, and this could work out very well for the league.

One of the growing issues in all of professional sports is the line between total accuracy and officials' judgement. It used to be that on-field officials had the final say on everything, and in the early days of professional sports, that worked just fine; few games were broadcast on television, and the ones that were didn't have great picture quality. The officials were closer to the play than anyone, and they generally had a better view of it. In an era of HDTV and other fancy technology, though, and one where TSN has 35 different camera angles on the Grey Cup game (some of which are pictured above on a monitor in their production truck), viewers at home frequently have a better view of what happens than the on-field officials do (particularly when a particular aspect is replayed in slow motion several times). Since its first use in the 1963 Army-Navy college football game, televised instant replay has become a larger and larger part of sports, and it's become a crucial tool to get calls right in everything from hockey to basketball to football.

Not all leagues have embraced this concept, with baseball and soccer as particular holdouts, but even they're starting to change; baseball's considering bringing in more (though still vastly limited) replay next year, and soccer's talked about bringing in goal-line technology (although they're still being pretty slow about it). Football in particular is an ideal sport for replay, considering the regular stoppages and delays between plays, and the combination of challenges and a booth review system has particularly helped to ensure that as many calls as possible are right. There are still people who don't like it, and replay isn't always perfect, but by and large, it's proven to be a valuable tool. By expanding the role of replay, the CFL is taking a stand on the right side of the technological divide and embracing accuracy over human error.

The other rule changes aren't as dramatic, but they're still worthy of note. Here are a few thoughts on them in bullet form:

— Removing cut blocks downfield after a completed pass seems like a logical move in the interests of player safety, which has become a critical issue recently. It's these cut blocks (where you purposefully hit a defender below the knees to bring him down) that have been some of the most controversial plays in the CFL, and they've led to some bad injuries. The most notable one last season might have been Jason Jimenez on Brent Johnson, a late hit that led to a fine, calls for suspensions, an e-mail war and even a Tiananmen Square reference. That cut block came on a passing play to Chris Bauman, and thus was only illegal because the hit came after the whistle. Under the new rule, that wouldn't be allowed regardless of if the whistle had been blown, which seems like a good step towards making the game safer. Cut blocks would still be allowed on run plays and passes behind the line of scrimmage, and they play an important part in zone-blocking schemes, so eliminating them entirely doesn't appear feasible, but this would get rid of some of the worst ones.

— The increased penalties for out-of-bounds punts are probably intended to make it more difficult to avoid impact return men like Chad Owens (interestingly enough, the NFL's recent rule changes are going in the opposite direction there), and it's tough to quibble with that philosophy. Punt and kickoff returns are a terrific part of the game, and they're always fun to watch. I don't think this one will significantly impact the game, as most punts out of bounds between the 20s at the moment have generally been thanks to miskicks rather than strategy, but this does further reduce the incentive to punt out of bounds.

— The change to the illegal participation rule is really just a small clarification. Basically, if players go out of bounds on their own or thanks to a bump from a teammate, they can't return to the play; if they're pushed out by an opponent, they can. This clarification just specifies that physical contact from an opponent is needed (as opposed to an opponent being in their way). This is basically how the rule was called anyway, but clarifying the on-paper version to reflect that seems logical.

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