Sunday, July 10, 2011

Inside the CFL?s rule changes with Tom Higgins

CFL games are going to be a little bit different this year, as the Board of Governors voted to give final approval to four significant rule changes in April. Last week, I spoke to CFL director of officiating Tom Higgins about the changes, what they mean for the game and how they were implemented. Higgins said one of the most notable changes is the expansion of some video review powers, which will allow the CFL's command centre to award possession on a play originally ruled an incomplete pass and changed to a fumble. A pass originally ruled incomplete can also be challenged by the defence on the belief that the ball was caught and then fumbled, and the command centre can award them possession if they recovered immediately.�Previously, the command centre could declare an incomplete pass a fumble after the fact, but couldn't award a change of possession, even if it was obvious the other team came up with the ball .

"We had a couple of bang-bang plays last year where it was ruled an on-field incompletion," Higgins said. "With replay and the command centre, the only reason it's there is to get something wrong right."

Higgins said he's happy to see replay powers expand, despite never being a fan of the system during his coaching days with Calgary and Edmonton.
"I never really wanted replay," he said. "Since then, I've changed my personal opinion. Technology's not necessarily a bad thing."

It helps when that technology improves, too. In the early days of the replay system, it wasn't always possible to get a clear angle demonstrating the crucial point at stake. Higgins said that's changed thanks to improving camera and display technology.

"We've gone to high-definition," Higgins said. "We can go stop-motion, we can go frame by frame."

Higgins said a huge part of the replay system's improvement is thanks to TSN's ongoing investment in ensuring their CFL broadcasts are top-quality.

"We're absolutely blessed to have TSN as a partner," Higgins said. "TSN will have 10 cameras at a game on average. That's as much as the NFL has."

Higgins said another element of replay that's proven attractive is, in the majority of cases, it's shown the original call was correct. That shows that his officials are doing their job, and the calls that are eventually overturned provide them with specific things to work on. Still, he said of 110 official challenges last year, only 40 were overturned.

Higgins said his officials don't mind the replay system, either, and their acceptance of it has grown over the years.

"Officials have embraced it more," he said. "There's no question they're a bit more comfortable with it. ? They're not scared of replay. A call they make could be overturned, and that's okay."

He's careful to maintain that officials need to focus on getting the original call right, though.
"We cannot officiate to replay," Higgins said. "We have to call it like our life is on the line."

Another intriguing rule change is the modified rules on cut-blocking (or blocking below the waist), which will no longer be allowed on pass plays across the line of scrimmage. Cut-blocking had previously been taken out on kick returns, interception returns, and fumble returns, but will still be allowed on run plays or passes behind the line of scrimmage. Concerns around that type of blocking were raised in the wake of Jason Jimenez's hit on Brent Johnson last year (which actually already was illegal, as it came on an interception return), but Higgins said this rule wasn't a reaction to any particular incident. Instead, he said the rationale was to reduce the chances of dangerous plays.

"It's a safety issue," Higgins said. "I just think the timing was right."

Higgins said the impetus to change the cut-blocking rules came from the coaches.
"My hat's off to the coaches for bringing this forward and accepting it," he said. "If we save one or two careers, it's worth it."

Other changes include adding a 10-yard penalty to punts that go out of bounds between the 20-yard lines and tightening up the illegal participation rule so that players bumped out of bounds by teammates cannot return to the play.

Getting these changes made was no simple process. Higgins said suggestions on what rules to change can come forward from coaches, general managers, team executives or others; the league has even taken fan suggestions in the past. Those suggestions, which usually number around 50 or 60 each year, come into the league office. After consulting with others, Higgins' department cuts those suggestions down to a more reasonable number to discuss at greater length.

"We start to pare them down into a manageable group," he said.

The remaining proposed changes (usually about 15-25) are discussed with the league's rules committee, comprised of a representative from each team (generally a general manager, coach or team president), Higgins himself, a representative from the CFL Players' Association and a representative of the officials. Not every change is fully discussed, though.

"We don't want to deal with all of them, we want to see which ones gain momentum," Higgins said.

Eight to 10 rule changes are usually fully discussed with the rules committee, which then votes on each one. A simple majority vote is needed to pass a change on to the board of governors, where it also needs a simple majority to pass. Higgins said a lot of rule changes receive more support than that, though.

"It's a simple majority, but a lot of the time it's unanimous," he said.

Higgins has been the CFL's director of officiating since 2008, and he said it's been a fascinating change from the coaching side.

"It's a world I never really considered," he said. "It's a great opportunity to experience another side of professional football."

Higgins said his work on the officiating side has allowed him to get a different perspective on the game.

"What an eye-opening experience," he said. "It's really a treat."

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