What to know for the new CFL season

CBC Sports' daily newsletter delivers a quick primer on the 2022 CFL season, which features Winnipeg going for a rare three-peat and some rules tweaks designed to boost scoring.

League hopes to boost scoring for its first full campaign since 2019

Reigning CFL Most Outstanding Player Zach Collaros and the Winnipeg Blue Bombers are gunning for their third consecutive Grey Cup title. (John Woods/The Canadian Press)

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After losing its entire 2020 season to the pandemic and surviving a brush with financial ruin, the Canadian Football League came back last year to play a full(ish) season and crown a Grey Cup champion. But things were a little off. Due to the lingering COVID crisis, the regular season didn't kick off until early August (two months later than usual), the schedule was cut to 14 games per team (four fewer than the standard) and the Grey Cup game didn't happen until Dec. 12 (a few weeks later than normal).

A general choppiness was evident between the lines too. In a league that prides itself on a wide-open style of play, the top-scoring teams (Winnipeg and Montreal) averaged only 22 offensive points per game — four fewer than what Hamilton topped the league with in 2019. Attendance went in the same direction as scoring, falling from an average of close to 23,000 fans per game pre-pandemic to a little over 19,000.

With a new labour deal in place and its first full 18-game season in three years set to kick off on Thursday night, the CFL is hoping for a return to better days on and off the field. Here are some things to know for the new season:

Some tweaks were made to boost scoring. Most noticeably, the hashmarks have been squeezed four yards closer to the middle of the field on both sides. They're now nine yards apart (it's about six in the NFL), giving offences more canvas to work with. Also, teams will get the ball five yards further downfield (at their own 40 instead of the 35) following an opponent's field goal or single, while kickoffs have been moved back five yards, to the kicking team's 30. Other notable changes are that two quarterbacks will be allowed on the field at the same time, and all no-yards penalties (called when the kicking team doesn't give the player receiving the ball the required five yards of space) will be 15 yards instead of some being five. Read about the full suite of rules changes here. 

Winnipeg is going for a rare Grey Cup three-peat. It hasn't been done since Warren Moon's Edmonton team won a record five in a row from 1978-1982, but the betting markets are optimistic about the Blue Bombers' chances. Their odds of winning the title are about 1-in-4, putting them significantly (though not massively) ahead of West Division rivals Saskatchewan and Calgary and East favourite Hamilton, who Winnipeg beat in the last two Grey Cup games. Bombers quarterback Zach Collaros is favoured to win his second straight Most Outstanding Player award after leading the CFL in passing efficiency and touchdown throws last year and adding Grey Cup MVP honours. Star linebacker Adam Bighill, who won his third Most Outstanding Defensive Player award last year, is back anchoring a fierce defence that allowed the fewest points in the league in a half century. The Bombers will miss defensive back DeAundre Alford, who's trying to make it in the NFL after snagging a CFL-high four interceptions as a rookie last season; 2021 CFL receiving yards leader Kenny Lawler, who's now with Edmonton; and Canadian running back Andrew Harris, the three-time CFL rushing champion who signed with Toronto. But they're still the team to beat.

Other contenders to watch: Saskatchewan nearly knocked off Winnipeg in last year's West final, but fell just short despite forcing six turnovers. To take the next step, the Roughriders need their shaky offence to catch up with their strong D. Calgary is looking for a bounce-back season from quarterback Bo Levi Mitchell. The two-time Most Outstanding Player says his throwing shoulder is feeling much better after an awful season in which he threw more interceptions than touchdowns. Hamilton should have another good shot to end the CFL's longest active title drought at 23 years. The Tiger-Cats lost a couple of important players to rival Toronto in pass rusher Ja'Gared Davis and speedy receiver/returner Brandon Banks, but the hope is that Dane Evans can step up now that the No. 1 QB job is all his.

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