Offside: Illusion or Confusion?

Published on August 8, 2018 9:49 PM by dbo.

Offside. The bane of old and new CFL fans alike. Why are players offside on every play? Is the title “The league where a receiver is offside on every play” deserved or just made up by those who never took the time to understand? Let’s find out.

CFL Operations covered offside in an early video post this season, explaining the criteria for offside nicely. The key point this year is an addition to the rulebook in 2018 to allow a receiver’s head, arms and hands to be in advance of the line of scrimmage at the snap of the ball. The forward foot can be in the air provided it is not in advance of the line of scrimmage. This relaxes the rule which previously required all of the the receiver (all players except the centre’s head, arms and hands) to be behind the line of scrimmage.

Appropriately, they don’t get into why offside can’t be objectively called by most fans in the stands or watching on TV, but it is important for fans to understand why their eyes are failing them. Simply put, the viewing angle and distance does not allow them to see the exact moment the ball moves in the snap from centre to quarterback, nor judge the position of the receivers legs against the line of scrimmage to correctly determine onside or offside. This explanation will not deter some, who will still claim they can see the (opposition) receiver is offside every play, the physics of their viewing angle to be disregarded.

This is not to say calling offside is easy and 100% correct. Officials are required to make the call upwards of 160 times per game. Sometimes there are factors that can affect the call, like other distractions to steal focus of the eye. In making split second decisions, they get the call or non-call correct the vast majority of the time; I would suggest 1% or less error rate. I would stack CFL officials against NHL linesmen making offside calls anytime, and would suspect the error rates would be similar, and the maximum one could expect out of a human being.

Without knowledge of how offside is determined, nor acceptance that viewing angles affect their perception of offside and a lack of trust of officials has lead to the creation of urban legends to explain the world they see. In regards to offside, the legend of the “Elgaard Rule” persists. As recently as 2016, a Jock Climie GMC Precision Playbook TSN halftime segment entitled “The Illusion of Offside” mentioned the “Elgaard Rule”. (The link to the TSN segment is offline, and the Wayback Machine also does not have a viewable version. However, my recollection is Climie made this assertion about offside receivers and the Elgaard rule late in the segment, and I immediately said “That’s wrong!” I believe he said the “Elgaard Rule” was still in effect and did not refer to it as a fan gripe. I did review the segment online once shortly after, and confirmed his use of the “Elgaard Rule” term which I don’t believe was mentioned to debunk and I started a draft of this post. (I am apologizing to Mr. Climie since my memory cannot be trusted. See update below). Since I cannot now find a copy to view, I have not conducted the necessary review I normally perform. If anyone has a copy or other evidence to refute the usage or context, contact me and I will retract this claim as appropriate). This rule, as legend has it, was implemented to allow receivers in motion (waggling towards the line of scrimmage) to be in the 1-yard neutral zone zone when the ball was snapped and not be penalized. The rule was supposedly implemented to improve the flow of the game, as receivers in motion were too often offside (on every play, some said). Because Saskatchewan receiver Ray Elgaard was the worst offender of this practice, the legend said, the rule was dubbed the “Elgaard Rule”. (This is my understanding of what people call the “Elgaard Rule”. If you have a different explanation of the rule, let me know). The early uses of this rule, in my recollection, were not serious, but in the vein, “Elgaard is special in the eyes of officials, and is allowed to be offside by a yard on every play”. Within years, people were telling me it was an official rule applicable to all receivers, not just Saskatchewan #81, and not just fan griping and sarcasm.

There never was such a rule, nor, do I believe, an interpretation by officials to call the game this way. Rule 4, Section 2, Article 3 — Offside – At the Snap read in 1986 (Elgaard’s 4th year) as:

Team A players must be completely behind the line of scrimmage, except that the head, arms and hands of the centre may be in advance of the line of scrimmage.

Penalty: L5

If a Team B player is offside on his own one yard line.

Penalty: Team A shall be awarded a first down or score made.

If a Team B player goes offside and breaks the plane of the line of scrimmage before the ball is snapped, the officials shall stop the play immediately and award a penalty, subject to the right of Team A to decline the yardage penalty and order the same down be repeated as though a foul had not occurred.

If players of both teams are offside on the same play, the same down shall be repeated without penalty from the point of last scrimmage.

A player of either team who is offside and contacts an opponent, even though he recovers his onside position prior to the snap, shall be penalized for being offside.

Team A may put the ball into play without waiting for Team B players to be onside, but an offside penalty cannot be claimed against Team B. Such an offside player shall not interfere with the play in any manner.

Penalty: L5

In 1996, Elgaard’s final year, the rule read:

Team A players must be completely behind the line of scrimmage, except that the head, arms and hands of the centre may be in advance of the line of scrimmage.

Penalty: L5

If a Team B player is offside on his own one yard line.

Penalty: Team A shall be awarded a first down or score made.

If a Team B player goes offside and breaks the plane of the line of scrimmage before the ball is snapped, the officials shall stop the play immediately and award a penalty, subject to the right of Team A to decline the yardage penalty and order the same down be repeated as though a foul had not occurred.

If players of both teams are offside on the same play, the same down shall be repeated without penalty from the point of last scrimmage.

A player of either team who is offside and contacts an opponent, even though he recovers his onside position prior to the snap, shall be penalized for being offside.

Team A may put the ball into play without waiting for Team B players to be onside, but an offside penalty cannot be claimed against Team B. Such an offside player shall not interfere with the play in any manner.

Penalty: L5

The rule read the same in the years between as well. Clearly, there had been no changes to allow receivers in the waggle to be in the neutral zone at the snap. The reading of the above rule is strict and clear about what is offside, with the only differences from today’s rule is a receiver a yard or more downfield before the snap will automatically cause the play to be blown dead (2010) and receivers are now allowed to have head, arms and hands across the line of scrimmage (2018). Both of these changes came well after Elgaard’s retirement, and could not be called the “Elgaard Rule”. While it is possible that an officiating interpretation of the rule was made to allow a receiver in the waggle to enter the neutral zone, I do not believe this is the case. When someone invoked the “Elgaard Rule” as the reason why offside was not called, it was apparent to me that the viewing angle was more of a factor than a rule allowing entry of the neutral zone. An offside rule that allows a player to be offside is contradictory. I first heard of the “Elgaard Rule” legend in the early ‘90’s (perhaps late 1980’s), so an official from this period would be able to confirm how offside was called during this time. I don’t believe you will find one that will confirm that receivers were allowed to be offside in the neutral zone in the past 35 years. If you can, let me know and I will update this post, retract my statements and offer apologies to all involved.

(Some will side with a player of the time, who knew what he could and couldn’t do, over my assertions from the sidelines. I am willing to learn and change my opinion with evidence. I am stating that there was no change to the rulebook, nor any written interpretation that allowed offside to be called the way people describe the “Elgaard Rule”. I patiently wait for official and trustworthy evidence to surface to prove me wrong).

In 2010, the rule was amended with the following:

If a Team A player clearly crosses the line of scrimmage by more than one yard, prior to the snap of the ball, the officials shall stop the play immediately and apply a penalty.

This certainly does not allow a receiver to be in the neutral zone, either, as some have interpreted to me. What it does state is that if the receiver is more than a yard offside (past the neutral zone), the play will immediately be called dead and penalty applied. This does not mean if the receiver is in the neutral zone, no penalty is applicable. Offside (across the line of scrimmage, therefore, in the neutral zone) is covered by the other paragraphs of the rule, like it always has. In those circumstances, it means the play will be allowed to continue, and the penalty or option will be given to the defence (or application of dual penalties) after the conclusion of the play. This modification was made to streamline play, stopping the play immediately (technically before the snap) speeds up play when the majority of offside plays are found to be called back.

Update Aug. 27, 2018

When this article was in its infancy, I failed to make note of all my thoughts deserving research. When I finally picked this up years later, I forgot another aspect I wished to explore. Readers may have noted I did not cover the aspect of receivers in motion encroaching within a yard of the line of scrimmage to become a line player.

Rule 6, Section 4, Article 4 of the rulebook reads:

The following players are eligible receivers:

  1. any Team A player who is identified by number as an eligible receiver (see Rule 4, Section 5, Article 3, Note 1 & Rule 6, Section 4, Article 4, Note 2) and who, at the snap of the ball, is occupying a position either at the end of the line of scrimmage or in the backfield at least one yard back of the line of scrimmage.

This would mean that backfield players in the waggle would need to be 1-yard behind the line of scrimmage at the snap of the ball or be ineligible, except that later the waggle is accounted for:

NOTE: Notwithstanding paragraph (a) of Article 4, a Team A player wearing an eligible receiver number, who is in forward motion from a backfield position and within one yard of the line of scrimmage when the ball is snapped shall remain eligible as a pass receiver.

This rule was changed in 2015 to allow the procedure anywhere; previously it restricted the player to be five yards outside the tackle:

NOTE: Notwithstanding paragraph (a) of Article 4, a Team A player wearing an eligible receiver number, who is in forward motion from a backfield position and within one yard of the line of scrimmage when the ball is snapped and who crosses the line of scrimmage at a point at least five yards beyond the offensive tackle position, shall remain eligible as a pass receiver.

This exception was added sometime between 1997 and 2004. I do not have rulebooks for those years, but the rule does not appear in the 1996 edition, Elgaard’s last season.

Examining the possibilities, without this rule, all slotbacks in the waggle would have been technically ineligible if they were on the line of scrimmage at the snap. Not offside, but illegal procedure if the player caught the ball would likely be the call (and I seem to remember receivers being called for illegal procedure in the 1980’s). Now it is possible that due to multiple occurrences of these infractions (by more players than Elgaard), that officiating was relaxed to not call this infraction (likely if the player was five yards from a offensive tackle) before it was finally codified in the rulebook. This note could then be called the “Elgaard Rule”, though it does not have anything to do with offside, it was adopted (unofficially at first, and only officially after Elgaard retired) to speed up the game.

That seems likely to me, if there is some truth to the “Elgaard Rule”, this is it, but as usual, the truth is twisted. More confirmation is still needed, so if you have information on these rule changes or the year it was adopted, please drop me a note. I will still maintain that offside was never allowed, and the “Elgaard Rule” was spread with misinformation and misunderstanding. I will retract my statements and apologize to Jock Climie as this may have been what he was referring to in his playbook, with two 1-yard zones on the line of scrimmage it is easy for them to be confused and not clear which one is being referred to. What is clear is my memory is not to be trusted, and is failing me. This will be a factor for future articles, so without evidence, I will stay silent.

Be wary of claims that sound too unlikely to be true. What starts as a joke can become urban legend, and passed off as truth. If Jock Climie, a player who started his career in 1990, believed receivers in motion could be in the neutral zone at the snap for his whole career and used that myth in a 2016 education segment, it shows the power of this legend. To truly understand the intent and nuances of the rules, one must read the rulebook cover-to-cover; coaches, players and fans alike. When faced with an explanation that doesn’t sound right, it never hurts to check the rulebook, and it is easier than ever to do so. Increasing their understanding of Canadian football rules is not desired by some, as they would rather create their own stories to back their misconceptions and disparage the game. Only vigilant fans can serve to correct those misconceptions and protect the integrity of the Canadian game. An educated fan base will follow and enjoy the game more and develop a stronger loyalty over fans fed misinformation and made up explanations that don’t meet reality. The end result will be growth in the game.

When it comes to offside, relax, enjoy the athleticism on the field, and remember the appearance of offside can just be an illusion. Are receivers offside on every play? No, but the rules have changed as the boundaries of the rules met new innovations in play.

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Offside: Illusion or Confusion? was published on August 8, 2018 9:49 PM by dbo.

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