Published on June 21, 2008 3:57 PM by dbo.
The CFL pre-season has been suffered by CFL fans who just want the season to start probably since the inception of the league, but recently matters seem to have gotten worse, catching the attention of the media and probably many fans sitting in stadiums across the country. The CFL needs to act to fix the issues in a way that provides a balance of preparedness for players and interest to fans.
The current two game pre-season schedule was introduced in 1986 when the regular season schedule was expanded from 16 games to 18. The change was made to provide two additional meaningful regular season games that would attract single game ticket buyers. Pre-season games were primarily attended by season ticket holders, whose tickets were automatically included in their packages. Due to the nature of football, the mistake-prone, sloppy pre-season as teams try out young players with no familiarity with each other does not attract ticket buyers. Larger crowds for the 2008 pre-season, aside, the CFL still needs to address the pre-season preparation so the quality of the regular season does not go into decline.
Initially, if there was any change by the reduced schedule, it was an improvement. Coaches used their two preparation games to get their veterans work and get a game look at rookies and had their teams prepared for the regular season while fans did not have to suffer a pre-season a quarter of the length of the regular season. Roster sizes were smaller then, and more talent was evaluated and eliminated in training camps. Adjustments to the rules, mostly to provide an even-playing field between clubs, set limits on the number of players the home and visiting teams could dress in each of the pre-season games. Slowly through the 1990’s, the games, especially the first, become more of a rookie showcase. The only veterans who received much playing time were those in unchallenged positions, like linemen and kickers. Veteran quarterbacks may only have seen one quarter or less of playing time. This pattern continued in the last ten years, and as roster sizes have increased, teams have more players to evaluate for those positions. Now we are at the point where teams are not playing their veteran quarterback in one game at all and not dressing many veterans from receivers to linemen for the final game as well. This is in large part due to the restrictions teams have on the roster size they can field for their road pre-season game. This limit may also need to increase considering the increased CFL rosters sizes for the regular season now stands at 46, but teams are only allowed to take 50 players to their exhibition road game.
More time to evaluate the rookies should provide better talent to the CFL, but at the expense of the veteran players having any playing time together. Instead they have to get game familiar with each other during the regular season. This leads to sloppier play when fans are paying to watch the games that count in the standings. This lack of cohesiveness may have contributed to slow offensive starts across the league in the past few years. Offensive numbers have been down for some years, and the league has not had the explosive high scoring games in June and July like they experienced fifteen years ago.
To balance the needs of teams to evaluate players while ensuring players have had enough game action, it appears that another pre-season game is needed. Unlike the past game shuffles, this should be an additional game, not stolen from the regular season. Adding an additional game might be difficult to negotiate with the CFL Players Association without due compensation, but this additional game does not need to be for all players. I think an evaluation exhibition contest with rookie and young players is what the league needs.
With this evaluation, coaches could make some cuts and take fewer rookies into future games for evaluation, leading to more playing time for the veteran players. In the late ‘80’s and early ‘90’s Saskatchewan and Winnipeg participated in a couple of these scrimmages with mostly rookie squads sprinkled with a few veterans. It is time to re-adopt this policy league wide.
A third game for young players has the added advantage of providing an opportunity for the CFL to do something with the stars of the league. During this week, stars from each team could meet in a CFL city for an All-star challenge. Not an all-star game, but a skill competition. The CFL has never successfully established a post season all-star game, and due to the contact nature of the game of football, an all-star game is perhaps to difficult to pull off well while protecting players from injury. The Damon Allen Quarterback Challenge held in Hamilton each May is a good model for an All-star competition, with a few tweaks to expand the challenge to other positions and move the event around the country. A challenge competition that rotates between CFL cities and involves all types of players could showcase the talent the league has and put the players in front of the young fans. The timing of the the third pre-season game and an all-star gathering could occur as the first or second pre-season week. This time in June is perfect to start building buzz about the upcoming season, and what better way but to put CFL stars in front of the media and fans. Any improvement in play at the start of the season due to increased playing time of the veterans will also help play at the start of the regular season.
The increasing popularity of the CFL marks a perfect time to start these initiatives and they will only help the leagues exposure and level of play. The CFL must address the pre-season issue some how and these simple changes could provide the extra evaluation time coaches need and a great marketing showcase for the league. Otherwise, coaches may reduce veteran playing time more and more, using the regular season as their final tune-up, even if it is to their detriment.