CFL implements new rules meant to boost offence following low-scoring 2021 campaign

The CFL will move its harshmarks closer to the centre of the field and allow teams to take the ball at the 40-yard line following a successful field goal or single in 2022. The moves highlight rules changes recently approved by the league's board of governors.

Commissioner optimistic about striking new labour deal, preventing missed games

A football player in white and blue with a gold helmet and pants celebrates while another player in black and yellow stands by.
Winnipeg Blue Bombers wide receiver Nic Demski a touchdown during the 2021 Grey Cup. The CFL introduced new rules for the 2022 season on Wednesday intended to increase scoring across the league. (Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press)

CFL defensive co-ordinators will have much more to contend with this season.

The CFL will move its hashmarks closer to the centre of the field and allow teams to take the ball at the 40-yard line following a successful field goal or single in 2022. The moves highlight rules changes recently approved by the league's board of governors.

"It's about improving game flow," CFL commissioner Randy Ambrosie said Wednesday. "It's about limiting the number of two-and-outs.

"Fans don't want to see our players running on and off the field in exchanging punts. They want to see our offences on the field, they want to see great running and passing plays. I think we're going to see that this will definitely help in that area."

The league returned to the field last season after skipping the 2020 campaign due to the COVID-19 pandemic. But many cited a drop-off in the level of play as the Winnipeg Blue Bombers (23 offensive points per game) were the league's top-scoring team and Montreal Alouettes (371.8 yards per game) boasted the top-gaining offence.

Last year's average attendance dropped to 19,164 compared to 22,917 in 2019 when the Hamilton Tiger-Cats led the CFL in scoring (26.1 points per game) and offence (393.7 yards per game).

This year, the CFL will move its hashmarks closer to the centre of the field (28 yards from the nearest sideline rather than 24). That means 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.

"For me, it goes back months listening to some of our GMs and coaches explain this," Ambrosie said. "Here's what they say: When you're on the left hash, there is no coach that wants that ball thrown to the right sideline because it's just too far and that ball is going to be in the air a long time.

"What this does now is make the entire field part of an offence's canvas. When one of the features of your game is a large field, then you learn through conversations with football guys that you're not really using that field the way it was designed to be used and you have an elegant solution to bringing the entire field back into play, I think you have to consider that a success."

Montreal Alouettes wide receiver Eugene Lewis catches a touchdown during a September game. The Alouettes led the league in yards per game in 2021. (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press)

Advantage to offence

Following a field goal or single, offences will now start from the 40-yard line rather than the 35. And teams kicking off to start a game or following a TD will do so from the 30-yard line rather than the 35.

Kickoffs following a safety will now be from the 20-yard line rather than the 25.

"The closer you are to your end zone the more cautious you are," Ambrosie said. "This just takes that one step closer to an offence being able to go out there and play football and activate its entire offensive playbook because you've taken away some of the risk from a field position point of view.

"I think we're going to see offensive co-ordinators send their guys out with the intention of every new drive being a scoring opportunity. That to me is exciting."

Head coach Mike O'Shea of the Grey Cup-champion Winnipeg Blue Bombers said the narrowing of the hashmarks and improving where offences start drives following field goals and singles should boost excitement.

"Offensively it [narrowing of hashmarks] should open up the playbook a little ore and allow you to use the entire field," O'Shea told reporters during a CFL conference call. "The hope is it [changing rules] generates more excitement.

"That's the hope and I'm sure it will have some of the desired affect. It should be more exciting also in a variety of different aspects of the game."

Defensive co-ordinators, however, likely won't share Ambrosie's enthusiasm.

"I think our defensive co-ordinators will have their work cut out for them but they're a very talented bunch," Ambrosie said. "Don't think for a moment they won't come up with some solutions."

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 that go 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, thus 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.

Training camps open soon

CFL training camps are scheduled to open May 15. Teams will play two exhibition games — for the first time since 2019 — and a full 18-game regular campaign opens June 9 with the Montreal Alouettes visiting the Calgary Stampeders.

The Grey Cup will be held Nov. 20 in Regina.

"I've said for a while now, take me to a game that's 49-49 with a minute remaining," Ambrosie said. "I know regardless of the final outcome, fans will go home happy.

"I think these changes are going to give us a chance to play real, wide-open CFL football and it's going to have a very positive affect on fan enjoyment."

Ambrosie confident about new CBA

Meanwhile, Ambrosie remains confident the two sides can come together on a new collective bargaining agreement.

The present deal is set to expire May 14, the day before CFL training camps are scheduled to open. The league and players union have been meeting behind closed doors for weeks now.

Past CBA talks have often been contentious and adversarial. But this time around, at least so far, the two sides have met quietly and without much fanfare.

Last week, a number of CFLPA player reps, as well as executive members Henoc Muamba and Adam Bighill, publicly emphasized on social media the union's message that it be treated as a partner by the league and part of a fair contract.

But there's been no strike vote or talk of potential job action. In 2019, players gave the union a resounding 97 per cent strike mandate during those negotiations.

"I'm not going to say anything more than our goal hasn't changed one bit," Ambrosie said Wednesday. "We want to build a long-term, mutually beneficial partnership with the players.

"There's been a lot of positive conversations, I think there's been a lot of learning, a lot of idea sharing. I remain incredibly positive, I remain optimistic . . . I am confident that we'll get to that outcome."

The CFL and CFL Players' Association have been meeting pretty much since after the '18 season when they achieved the current collective agreement. In 2020, they met to amend the CBA for a shortened season that didn't happen due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

But they were able to do so last year to help facilitate a return to the field for a 14-game campaign.

Early on in this process, that familiarity seemed to help the league and players agree on some secondary issues. Now comes the heavy lifting on the most serious matters — monetary ones and the Canadian ratio, for example — with May 14 looming.

"I think I must commend and give a nod to the professionalism of both groups that the intent is to talk with each other, to be collaborative and to keep things positive," Ambrosie said. "Bargaining is tough but I think they've done a really good job and I'm just thrilled at the effort that's being made.

"And I think its going to lead us to a much better place."

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