Friday, August 19, 2011


In the dark days of mid-summer 2011, all seemed lost: would the NFL's owners and players ever reach an accord? A year without Sunday afternoon and Monday night football seemed imminent, and despair strove some--myself included--to take desperate steps to appease the gnawing pigskin hunger within their souls: watching the Canadian Football League!

I watched the CFL's two weeks of preseason exhibition games and then the first six weeks of the regular season, giving up on the experiment once the first NFL preseason games debuted (it'd be foolish to try and watch all 64 NFL preseason games this year, but with the NFL Network and a DVR, I'm willing to try!). Here are some random thoughts on things I noticed during my experiment:

Twelve Men on the Field Per Team: Didn't seem particularly impactful. Yes, there's one more receiver, but then there's one more defender. Call it a wash.

A Wider Field Proved interesting--it was easier for quarterbacks to throw fade patterns and for running backs to turn the corner as they could use the extra room to take advantage of their speed advantage over defensive ends and linebackers.

Three Downs: More Passing, Less Running Probably the most well-known and significant difference between CFL and NFL football is that the former only allows three downs to get a first down, and it does make for a major difference in gameplay. As you might expect, the passing game is emphasized in the CFL to a much higher degree than in the NFL. It's not quite at Arena football levels, but I didn't see any teams rely on defense and a power running game to win games like some teams in the NFL. No CFL team regularly had more than one RB in the backfield, and much of the running came from a team with a sizable lead trying to run down the clock. There are some quality backs, however, and 1,000 rushing yard seasons aren't uncommon.

Three Downs: More Punting My perception watching the game, which some hasty & uncredible research online confirmed, is that there's a lot more punting in the CFL than in the NFL. It makes sense: the fewer chances a team has to get a first down, the more likely it is to have to punt. Overall scoring didn't seem noticeably different, but I definitely remember some CFL punt-fest snoozers. On the other hand, see the next entry.

More Exciting Punts! A punt in the NFL is sometimes returned, but just as often is fair caught or downed in the field of play by the punting team. These last two results aren't particularly exciting, and one of the interesting wrinkles of the CFL is that there are no fair catches and that the punter is eligible to recover his own punt and keep possession. This means that every punt must be returned by the defense, leading to a higher likelihood of something interesting happening on the return.

Points for Punts & Missed Field Goals? As weird as it seems, any time a kicked ball travels out the back of the end zone or is not returned out of the end zone, the kicking team gets a point. So, punters have to decide whether they want to try to get the ball to drop within the field of play and pin the returning team back, or get a point for their team. Field goal kickers often get some small consolation when they miss. I really don't know what to think of this rule difference.

Two Preseason Games, Eighteen Regular Season Games The CFL has been doing for years what the NFL has recently been considering doing. I understand why the players worry about additional injury and that some unknown players won't be able to prove themselves and make the roster, but, from a fan's perspective, there's nothing better than games that count.

Offensive Players Can Be in Motion at the Same Time and Be in Motion Toward the Line of Scrimmage Definitely makes the pre-snap more interesting, and one can imagine clever offensive coordinators coming up with some cool patterns. Of course, this would make it much harder for cornerbacks, as the wideout they're trying to cover is already running at full speed at the snap . . .

A Yard Wide Neutral Zone The defensive line can't line up within a yard of the ball. This seems like a little thing, but I think it hurts the game because nothing interesting ever happens on Third and 1 or First and Goal from the One. Each team just puts its back-up QB behind center (for safety reasons) and then runs a quarterback sneak. Barring a bobbled snap, it's guaranteed to get the first down or to get the ball into the endzone. Makes for less suspenseful short yardage situations.

75% of Teams Make the Play-Offs The CFL has two divisions of four teams each, and only the worst team in each division fails to make the playoffs. Teams that win their division get advantages like a first-round bye and home field advantage, but I still imagine (not having seen an entire season through) that this results in less exciting endings to many seasons.

Cumulative Penalties Something that makes perfect sense: there is no such thing as off-setting penalties when the offense and defense each commit an infraction, nor can only one penalty be accepted per side. If the Argos commit a 15 yard penalty, and the Lions commit a 5 yard penalty on the same play, then the net is a 10 yard penalty on the Argos. Similarly, if the Argos commit a 15 yard and a 10 yard penalty on the same play, they'll be going back 25 yards. Elegant in its simplicity.

Seeing Each Game One of the advantages of there only being eight teams, and thus only four games each weekend, is that the networks can show them all at different times. In other words, a fan with a lot of time to kill can watch all the games and not miss out on anything, which is kinda cool. Often on NFL Sundays, it's agonizing trying to pick which two Sunday afternoon games I'm going to watch, knowing that twelve or more others are happening at the same time.

Although I tease, the CFL showcased some quality professional football. Games were exciting and often came down to the wire, and there's never a sense that the players take it less seriously just because it's not the NFL. The CFL has actually existed far longer than the NFL, and some of its teams have storied histories. I didn't grow up with it and so don't feel the same connection to its teams or players, but if the NFL ever had a strike/lockout cancelled year, I could imagine watching some more CFL games.

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