Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

New challenge rule is reshaping CFL

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If the ability to challenge the lack of a pass-interference call has not already reshaped the CFL, it won't be much longer before a strategy to exploit this new rule is commonplace.

In fact, going forward, if two -- and possibly three -- challenges aren't used by a coaching staff to identify pass interference, each and every game, I would dare say the coaches aren't taking advantage of the bounty the CFL has laid out before them.

What we have seen here in only three weeks of football this season is what many of us knew all along. Just like there is holding on every snap of the ball on the line of scrimmage -- if you look for it -- there is also pass interference happening somewhere on the field almost every time the ball is put into the air. All you have to do is challenge a catchable, incomplete pass and you can go over the video with a fine-toothed comb until you find what you're looking for. It's becoming that automatic.

Definitions and variations of pass interference rules are complicated and endless. There is face-guarding, jamming parameters, incidental contact, illegal contact, rerouting and inside position, to name but a few. Yet the one definition that will change offensive strategies, taken from the CFL rule book, is the simplest one of all: "It is pass interference by either team when a player physically restricts or impedes an opponent in a manner that is visually evident and materially affects the opponent's opportunity to play the ball." When you apply this definition to the end zone, the rule book states: "If the infraction occurs in the Team B goal area -- automatic first down to team A at team B's one-yard line." Bingo.

There is a saying in pro football that good things tend to happen when you throw the ball deep or into the end zone. There is a high probability of either your receiver catching a touchdown, or interference being called against him, and the ball being placed on the one-yard line. Defensive co-ordinators might counter there is also a good chance of being sacked, intercepted, or having the pass knocked down, but if you've watched the game enough, you'd probably agree with the former. Now, with the reality of reviewable pass interference in the CFL, the odds something advantageous will happen for your offence are even better.

There are few things harder in the game than covering a receiver one on one. The offensive player knows where he and the ball are going and the defender does not. To level this playing field, defensive backs have come up with 100 different ways to interfere with a receiver and get away with it, because all they had to do was convince an official, possibly watching from an obstructed angle, they didn't do anything too obvious or blatant. It is incredibly hard to see a tug of the jersey here, or a grab of a hand there, at full speed, so unless it was impossible to ignore, they used to be able to get away with it. Those days are long over.

Slow motion and instant replay are now showing officials what they missed, and couldn't possibly have seen at game speed. Plays can now be challenged and looked at from every possible angle, and what we are almost always seeing is defenders interfering with receivers in one way or another. It's sometimes not a lot, it's sometimes not a big deal, but it's pass interference by definition. That one-on-one between a receiver and defender in the end zone can now be replayed frame by frame and scrutinized until the penalizing requirements are found.

The consequences of this reality? Look for teams to start throwing more long passes and balls into the end zone as soon as they are anywhere in range. If football franchises in the CFL don't already have someone assigned to monitor every throw for the slightest indication of pass interference -- so they can radio their coach to throw the challenge flag -- they soon will. The benefits and odds are simply too good to be ignored.

If you look hard enough for something in this sport, you are going to find it, and the ability to challenge whether pass interference occurred or not is turning into a huge advantage and weapon for the teams that have so far been smart enough to utilize it.

 

Doug Brown, once a hard-hitting defensive lineman and frequently a hard-hitting columnist, usually appears Tuesdays in the Free Press.

Twitter: @DougBrown97

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 15, 2014 D4

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