Grounded: What's happened to the CFL's running game?

The CFL has a great history of running backs: Normie Kwong, George Reed, Mike Pringle and Jon Corish to name a few. But times have certainly changed. The rushing carries per game in 2017 are at an historic low, and there seems to be no turning back.

'The rushing carries per game is the lowest it has ever been in our history,' says league statistician

At no time in the CFL’s rich history has the rushing carries per game been so low. (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press)

Never before in the Canadian Football League have teams abandoned the running game more than they are this season.

The list of great CFL running backs over the years is a lengthy one but the game is changing quickly from a heavily focused ground attack to an aerial assault.

Normie Kwong. George Reed. Mike Pringle. Jon Cornish. All great runners of the past, but times have changed.

Steve Daniel has been the head CFL statistician since 2007. He tracks general numbers to the most obscure ones through every 60 minutes of football during the season. And Daniel is fascinated by the trends he's seeing in the game this year, especially when it comes to the changing offence.

"The rushing carries per game is the lowest it has ever been in our history and by quite a large margin," he said.

"In the last four years it's absolutely plummeted and I don't think that trend is going to stop."

There's only been one other time in CFL history where offences have been this heavily tilted toward the passing attack. That came during the early 90s when quarterbacks Kent Austin and Doug Flutie were whipping the football around the gridiron. It's back to the same pace in the 2017 season.

"The raw number of pass attempts right now is around 75 per cent per game," Daniel said. "That is the highest since what used to be referred to as basketball on grass with Flutie and Austin. Basically all of our passing records date back to that time for yardage."

But those numbers are being rivaled this year in a big way. Daniel attributes the shifting CFL game to the high quality quarterbacks in the league right now. He says coaches are realizing they can be much more effective throwing short, high-percentage passes to gain yards rather than rushing.

"This is the CFL model based in the era that we're in. Right now we have a selection of quarterbacks, Trevor Harris, Ricky Ray, Bo Levi Mitchell, Kevin Glenn, there are so many of them in the top 40 of all-time and they're all playing right now."

Daniel says CFL teams had to find a way to be more productive on offence following the 2014 season, during what he calls the year of the defence. Scoring that year was at its lowest in more than 30 years, with teams averaging a combined score of 45.48 points per game. The combined score average has climbed every season since then. The 2014 season forced coaching staffs to adapt and change quickly. That meant abandoning the run and using running backs in a completely different way.

"Our coaches are enormously resilient and resourceful and have reacted to that by changing their strategy."

Bombers haven't abandoned run

While the rushing attacks have been thwarted overall, one team is seeing great success on the ground.

Winnipeg Blue Bombers running back Andrew Harris is on pace to become the first player in CFL history to have 1,000 yards rushing and 1,000 yards receiving in one season.

Blue Bombers Andrew Harris is one running back who is having a great year. (John Woods/The Canadian Press)

Daniel said the way the Bombers have incorporated him into their offence is what has allowed the team to be successful this season with and plays a big role in the 7-2 record.

"Basically they prefer to throw the ball in a bit of open space to him," Daniel said. "If you look at Andrew Harris, we're reverting to Robert Drummond. He's the guy that came closest to 1,000 yards rushing and 1,000 receiving in the same year."

Through nine games this season Harris has 570 yards rushing and 490 yards receiving.

"They're averaging 109 yards per game," Daniel said. "They led the league in that category. "

Numbers don't lie

While the rushing numbers are the lowest they've ever been in league history, scoring is approaching the highest it's ever been. Daniel said since that low-scoring 2014 season, coaches have found ways to change the offence to be more effective and now that work is paying dividends and fans like it.

"In my opinion, I believe they're happy with the quality of the game right now," he said. "There's parity. Offence is up. Points are up. It's a really good thing for us. Hopefully those trends continue."

Daniel said historically, as the weather starts to drop and the elements play more of a factor in games, teams have implemented the run game into their offences a little more. However, he believes that might not be the case this year.

"I think teams have found a strategy that works. And climate change works its way into this too. It's easier to make a first down when it's a nice day than when it's snowing."

If there are two stats Daniel says fans should keep their eyes on to predict winners and losers for the rest of the season, it's the turnover ratio and second down conversion.

"Those are really two of the most important numbers," he said. "Numbers aren't everything but they do tell a story. I've confronted coaches who have confronted me. If you provide them with those numbers, it's surprising how much they use them."


Devin Heroux

CBC reporter

Devin Heroux reports for CBC News and Sports. He is now based in Toronto, after working first for the CBC in Calgary and Saskatoon.


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