Published on October 19, 2008 3:50 PM by dbo.
The CFL has consistently had an issue with the perception of competitiveness in the past 25 plus years. The argument is often made that two four-team divisions should not lend itself to one division dominating the other like the West division has in the CFL. The crossover rule being enacted for only West division teams is evidence of this. While there is a some truth to this, it is not the complete story.
The seeds of today’s modern crossover rule were sowed in 1981. In that year the Ottawa Rough Riders went 5-11 to finish in the second in the East and a 3-13 Montreal squad finished third. In the West, the Saskatchewan Roughriders finished with a 9-7 record, but finished fourth in their division, missing the playoffs. Ottawa, despite their record, made it to the Grey Cup, taking the Edmonton Eskimos to the limit in a 26-23 loss. This started the talk about the inequality of the playoff system, which granted positions to the top three teams in each division in a league with unbalanced divisions; four teams in the East and five teams in the West.
The first attempt to solve the imbalance issue was introduced in 1986. The rule introduced for that season allowed a fourth place team in one division to qualify for the playoffs if their record was greater than the third place team in the other division. If this occurred, the playoff format changed from a second vs third semi-final to a first vs fourth and second vs third in the four qualifying team division and a two-game, total point final series in the two team division. The rule came into effect that season with the Western fourth place Calgary Stampeders finishing at 11-7 over the Eastern third place club Montreal Alouettes at 4-14. Toronto and Hamilton played the first two-game total point series since 1972, with Hamilton prevailing. This rule was repealed in 1987 when the league contracted to eight teams and the playoff format reverted to the top three teams in each division making the playoffs that was in effect prior to 1986.
The current crossover rule was introduced in 1996 and modified in 1997 to the present model. The crossover rule is now in its thirteenth year; five years under a nine team league and imbalanced divisions and eight years in an eight team league and balanced divisions. During that span, the crossover has occurred five times (counting this year, with the Edmonton Eskimos confirming at least a crossover position October 10th). Twice the crossover occurred in an eight team league (1997, 2008) and three times in a nine team league (2002, 2003 and 2005). In hindsight, it may have been better to suspend the crossover rule for a period when the Ottawa Renegades joined the league. This would have allowed the expansion Ottawa team to make the playoffs as the third place team in the East with a 7-11 record twice. This would have certainly helped the fan support of the club by making the playoffs in their second year. Instead, they were beat out by an 8-10 Saskatchewan squad in 2003 and a 9-9 Saskatchewan record in 2005 and missed the playoffs in all four years of their existence.
The crossover rule is constructed to be as fair as possible, allowing only one team to crossover and only to a third place position, forcing the crossover team on the road for the playoffs. This tilts the process slightly in favour of maintaining regional rivalries and an East-West Grey Cup (although when Winnipeg is in the East that still does not always happen). The crossover has been a tool to maintain competitiveness in the league and extend playoff battles to the end of the season. It has served that role well.
Excluding the expansion years, the crossover has only occurred twice in an eight team league over thirteen years. While the East does have a losing record versus the West division since full interlocking play was introduced in 1981, there may be many factors for this. One may be that during the nine-team imbalanced division periods, that each East division team has a disadvantage playing 10 games a year against West opponents, while the West division teams would only play a total of 8 games a year against Eastern opponents. It is possible that climate and time zone changes also affect the East teams greater in a full interlocking schedule.
The thinking is that in an eight team league, having three “awful” teams in one division is a statistical anomaly and the resulting possibility of a 5-13 team making the playoffs is an embarrassment to the teams and league. There is a feeling that this reflects on the CFL, on a lack of talent or management because this shouldn’t happen in an eight team league. I am no statistical expert, but the size of the league actually causes the distribution to be more skewed. In leagues where there is more opposition, there is more opportunity for the middle of the pack to solidify and produce more of a bell curve. In two four-team divisions it is impossible to say each division should be balanced with a top team, two middle teams and a poor team each year. The small size of the league makes it more likely that the top teams in a season may appear in one division and vice versa. This is no different than other leagues, where certain divisions can be weak in any given year.
Taking a sample from the last 11 years (1997 - 2007, 91 team results) and graphing the distribution shows somewhat of a normal distribution, although it is shifted towards the left and steep on the front side of the curve. It may smooth out a little with additional data, which shows that with just eight teams it is hard for the season results to adopt a normal bell curve (since most distributions are not normal). There are many factors that affect the results, such as a long season makes it more difficult to go undefeated, while player injuries and coaching changes can affect a team’s fortunes. A graph of the team point occurrences over the past eleven years is found above. In the sample I rounded odd number of points (due to ties) up to achieve 2 point increment groupings.
There is no reason to believe 2008 is more than an anomaly. The East’s struggles versus the West have been in large part due to the pressures of the market, and the moves made by management because of those pressures (see Toronto and Kerry Joseph this year). There are other factors in play affecting the head-to-head records, and climate, time zone changes and non-balanced divisions may continue to cause the East-vs-West records to slightly favour the West like it has in the past.
The crossover rule is a valuable tool for maintaining a competitive league and rewarding teams that are the best performers. However, it may be necessary to suspend the rule or adjust it for a period after an expansion team is added. Providing a greater chance for an expansion team to make the playoffs if they achieve a certain amount of wins will be valuable in allowing the team to establish itself with its fans. As the league grows to nine, ten and hopefully twelve teams someday, the year like 2008 where the divisions appear completely imbalanced should occur very rarely if at all.