Quarterbacks are valuable, but not untouchable, and it became clear late last season that the Canadian Football League had to do a much better job of protecting theirs, without encasing them in bubble wrap.
The call, and non-call to action, came most poignantly out of Regina. There was the head shot from B.C. lineman Odell Willis on starter Zach Collaros that kept him out of the West semifinal; and the missed head shot from Winnipeg’s Willie Jefferson on Rider backup Brandon Bridge that knocked him out of the semifinal.
The latter hit drew the immediate attention of CFL Commissioner Randy Ambrosie, who foreshadowed a significant rule change.
“The high hit on Brandon Bridge late in the Western semifinal (play 137) was clearly a missed call,” Ambrosie said. “Watching this occur, and seeing via the ‘ref cam’ that the on-field referee’s view was blocked, my reaction is we need to look this off-season at allowing the Command Centre to make the call on plays such as this one, clear matters of player health and safety.
“We need to do more than admit an error. We need to search for a solution.”
Seven months later, with the 2019 season about to kick off, the league believes it has found that fix. A replay official in the Command Centre will assist referees with called and non-called roughing-the-passer and roughing-the-kicker penalties. Defenders will now be penalized for contacting the kicker’s plant leg before or after they get their hands on the ball.
CFL senior director of officiating Darren Hackwood explained the new Command Centre procedure to cfl.ca writer Chris O’Leary.
“The replay official is on the headset with the referee on the field. The way we see this working is the referee not being 100 per cent certain when something happens and turning on his radio and asking for help. ‘Hey guys, was that to the head?’ Those sorts of questions and the replay official then being able to assist the referee with those two specific kinds of penalties.”
The replay official can also upgrade a 15-yard penalty to a 25-yard penalty for a direct blow to the quarterback’s head or neck in cases where the defensive player had a clear view to the quarterback and there were no mitigating circumstances, like the QB ducking his head prior to contact.
In addition, the play will be blown dead whenever a rushing quarterback slides with any part of his body. Previously, a quarterback could only give himself up by sliding feet first.
The changes specific to quarterbacks and kickers are part of a much bigger package of tweaks. They seem to be a rational blend of common sense, deterrence and heightened vigilance and have so far received the approval of the league’s premier pivots.
B.C.’s Mike Reilly even approves of a change that will take away his ability to gain uncontested yards at the end of a rush by diving head first.
“I know that’s really irritated the defence so I think that’s a good rule change. It doesn’t help me, I can’t get away with it anymore, but that’s a good rule change,” said Reilly.
“As a defender, I get it. ‘Man, I can’t hit this guy but he’s going to dive head-first and get yardage? What am I supposed to do?’ I think that’s a great rule change.”
Calgary’s Bo Levi Mitchell and Edmonton’s Trevor Harris were happy to see the league address roughing-the-passer penalties caused in part by quarterbacks ducking their heads prior to contact.
“I can think of one quarterback who is notorious for that,” said Harris, who didn’t identify the culprit. “I’m glad they got rid of that because it penalizes defenders for doing the right thing. That’s a good rule, definitely.”
Mitchell also thought “some quarterbacks were really taking advantage of it” and was glad to see the CFL take aim at them.
“When a guy came to tackle you in the chest, they kept ducking their head, and they’d call it a hit to the head. I think that (change) helps the defenders. We’ve got to make rules to help both sides. I would definitely say the rules are stacked against the defence at times, but I think the CFL in the last couple of years has been trying to do a good job of evening it out.”
Reilly was also happy to see the on-field officials receive more help from the eye in the sky.
“It’s a lot we’re asking our refs to see. This game happens so fast. And just as we are evaluated with everything, when you have HD TV and you’ve got slo-mo on your TV at home and TSN does a great job of getting all these different angles, you’ve got to understand that’s a human being back there trying to see all this different stuff. So the way we can help them out is to use those video reviews.”
Players have a role to play in their own safety, and that of their opponents. To that end, roughing-the-passer penalties have dropped from 73 in 2016 to 65 in 2017 and just 44 last season. It’s trending in the right direction.
“I think players in this league have done a really good job understanding they can’t do certain things,” said Reilly. “This isn’t 1970 anymore. We know the problems you can have long-term from some of these headshots.”
The league is tasked with drawing the line between dangerous and physical hits.
“Aside from making it touch football, we’re doing what we can,” said Harris. “We don’t want to take the physicality out of the game. Nobody does. Not even the quarterbacks.”
Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2019