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Hits to the head trend down in CFL as defenders gradually learn to change their ways

national post 2018-09-12 16:38:22

EDMONTON — You shouldn’t have to hit them over the head to change the way Canadian Football League players tackle one another.

But it does take time to change habitual behaviour on the field. The league’s continuing strategy of education, enforcement and punishment, when meshed with similar efforts in youth, junior, college and university sport, is a consistent step in that direction.

After a two-year spike in hits to the head, the number appears to be on its way back down this season. The CFL issued 24 fines in 2016 for helmet-to-helmet hits and 21 last year, well up from 10 in both 2013 and 2014, and 12 in 2015.

Through Week 12, there had been just eight fines for head hits this season. Last weekend, however, both Edmonton QB Mike Reilly and his B.C. counterpart and close friend Travis Lulay took shots up high.

“I do think the number of times it has happened to me each year has gone down progressively,” said Reilly, who recalled taking “quite a few” head hits in 2013. “And I think it’s because our league fines or flags or both, and the guys understand that and they’re trying to change.

I know that he’s a good dude and a great football player, so I don’t think that was an intentional hit

“Those types of hits and tackles weren’t an issue when we were young, learning how to play ball. So the biggest thing is changing it up at the youth level. I know that’s a big emphasis in the States and Canada, trying to get guys to learn how to tackle properly. As time goes on it’s going to become less and less of an issue because the younger guys are going to become pros and their habits will show up. Until that time, it’s vets trying to break habits in lightning-speed decision time.”

He didn’t fault Calgary’s Brandon Smith for the hit that drew a roughing the passer penalty in Edmonton’s 48-42 win last Saturday.

“I didn’t think the hit on me was malicious at all. I’ve played a lot of football against him and I know that he’s a good dude and a great football player, so I don’t think that was an intentional hit,” Reilly said. “There are bodies flying around in tight windows and it all happens so fast that sometimes the target moves, you think you’re making a clean hit, and it turns out not to be. The ref saw it, flagged it as it should have been. But I don’t fault him for the hit. I would not like to see him get fined for that hit.”

Edmonton Eskimos quarterback Mike Reilly runs the ball against the Calgary Stampeders on Sept. 8.

The hit from Ottawa linebacker J.R. Tavai that put Lulay on the turf and into concussion protocol was not penalized, but CFL director of officiating Darren Hackwood said the crew missed the call.

Despite the mistake, CFL Commissioner Randy Ambrosie said he has been pleased with the league’s focus on that particular offence.

“I think the crackdown, if you want to call it that, is helping to send the right message to players, because here’s what I hear from the fans: the fans want our best players playing. They want our best players on the field entertaining them,” Ambrosie said. “The game is going to result in injuries, but you shouldn’t lose a player to doing something that was silly and unnecessary.”

The hit on Lulay came on the heels of a two-game suspension to Tavai’s Ottawa teammate Kyries Hebert, who was punished for a helmet-to-helmet hit on Montreal receiver B.J. Cunningham. Hebert was earlier suspended for a hit on Calgary’s DaVaris Daniels. Hebert, who said he wants to “clean it up,” is more the exception rather than the rule now.

I know they fine guys, they flag you, they do the best they can and to be honest with you, I think the players do too

“I’ve definitely seen the behaviours change, but I’ve also seen us increase our penalties and lack of tolerance for those types of hits,” said Kevin McDonald, CFL vice-president of player safety. “There might have been a greater tolerance for incidental helmet contact 10 years ago than there is today. So you might see a lower number back then. It doesn’t mean there were less of them, just that they were not registered the same way.

“I would just say notionally we’re seeing less of them.”

Eskimos head coach Jason Maas said it’s impossible to remove all of them.

“It’s a violent, physical sport. It probably will never change. But obviously, the rules are set in place to make it safer,” Maas said. “But at the end of the day, you can’t stop all of it from happening. You’ve just got to deal with the consequences when they do.”

And Reilly is convinced the league and players are on the same page.

“I’ve seen guys get suspensions. I know they fine guys, they flag you, they do the best they can and to be honest with you, I think the players do too,” he said.

“Every once in awhile you do see a hit that was, you know what, kind of a dirty hit. When that happens, there is a suspension or fine that is necessary, and I think our league does a good job of differentiating between the two.”

  • Randy Ambrosie shares CFL's plan to make a mark all over the world
Commissioner Randy Ambrosie announces that Calgary has been chosen as the host city for the 2019 Grey Cup during at event at the Shaw Building in downtown Calgary on Wednesday April 25, 2018.

CFL needs to internationalize to boost attendance in major cities: Ambrosie

CommissionerRandy Ambrosie’s vision of a Canadian Football League 2.0 includes players from all over the world and fans all over every stadium, including those in Toronto, Vancouver and Montreal, where attendance is lagging.

“We have made a concerted effort to be very focused on those three major markets and, quite honestly, with the full and absolute support of the other six teams who want us to make sure we’re leaning in,” Ambrosie said last weekend in Edmonton.

He believes the league and its nine member teams are doing a far better job of sharing information on best practices in marketing, ticket-sales and the evolution of a world-class in-stadium experience.

But there is still a gulf between teams that put bums in seats — Edmonton had the league’s largest crowd at 38,611, while Saskatchewan leads with an average of 32,749 — and those that struggle. The league average hit a high point of 25,090 after Week 3, its lowest point of 23,556 after Week 6 and is currently 24,489. But Toronto averages just 14,192, Montreal 17,585 and B.C. 19,514.

Ambrosie thinks his global vision for the league will help address one of the core attendance issues in those three cities.

I think these brands, Edmonton’s brand, Saskatchewan’s brand, Winnipeg, B.C., all of them should be global brands playing this great game

“We’re recognizing as much now as we ever have before that those major markets have one absolute unique characteristic, and that is they’re international cities,” Ambrosie said. “They’re definitely Canadian and proudly so, but those are big international cities. It’s a culture or internationalism that exists in our three biggest markets. Not that it’s void in our other markets, but it’s definitely present (in those three). We need to meet their internationalism with internationalism of our own.”

To him, that means building the CFL brand far outside Canada and North America, to at least the 30 countries that play a version of the game. It means attracting players from those countries. It means getting bigger and bigger, and cashing in on Canada’s sterling worldwide reputation.

“I think these brands, Edmonton’s brand, Saskatchewan’s brand, Winnipeg, B.C., all of them should be global brands playing this great game,” Ambrosie said. “And then further, if you look at the reputation index, which is a study that’s done annually, Canada has the No. 1 reputation in the world. We are considered the best practices country in the world as it relates to how we operate as Canadians.

“We’re not perfect, but I’ll tell you we do it pretty well, and I think the world should want to come and be part of what we’ve got.”

It’s never as simple as opening up the doors, and it will be complicated soon by the launch of the Alliance of American Football, set to debut in February 2019.

“We always have to be mindful of the competition around us, but we have to be more consumed by our own opportunity to grow our game,” Ambrosie said. “We should decide our own future. Part of it is by paying attention to what the Alliance will do, but more importantly, let’s pay attention to our own business, let’s run a good league, let’s think big, let’s be big. If we do all those things we can happily co-exist with whatever other football is played.”

The rankings

1. Calgary (1)

The Stamps’ season-long hold on the top spot here has never been more tenuous. They racked up almost 600 yards of offence in their loss to the Eskimos, but gave the ball away seven times and surrendered 48 points, almost three times their season average going into the Labour Day rematch. This week they head into Hamilton, where the Tabbies are heating up. There might be a new No. 1 next week.

2. Edmonton (3)

There has to be a rankings prize for beating the Stamps, so the Eskimos climb a spot as they head into their bye week, before taking on Ottawa and Winnipeg, two teams headed in the wrong direction.

3. Saskatchewan (2)

The Riders are fresh off a win over Winnipeg, which means much less now than it would have when the Bombers were firing on all cylinders. The Riders did it without an offensive TD, which speaks to the continuing strength of this team, its defence. They drop a spot here because the Eskimos knocked off the reigning No. 1.

4. Hamilton (4)

Let’s hold off on moving the Tabbies back into the upper third of the rankings until we see them in action against Calgary. Hamilton’s three-game winning streak comes mostly at the expense of Toronto, which should temper expectations a tad. But the Tabbies’ offence is on fire and its defence is holding, so there is reason to believe they will find themselves back on top of the East Division sooner than later.

5. B.C. (6)

QB Travis Lulay didn’t finish the win over Ottawa last week, but there is a chance he’ll start against Montreal, and that may be crucial to the Lions’ chances of escaping the West Division basement. Their defence was dominant in a win over the Redblacks, but the offence has to step it up.

6. Ottawa (5)

The roller coaster ride that head coach Rick Campbell didn’t want to acknowledge has come to an end. Their offence isn’t generating any upward momentum at all.

7. Montreal (8)

The bye-week bump makes its way to Montreal this week. The Als were still celebrating back-to-back wins last week, and move up a notch here thanks to the plummeting Winnipeggers. They get B.C. at home and have a decent shot at a three-game winning streak. Not bad for a team that won three games all of last season.

8. Winnipeg (7)

The Winnipeg gunslingers continue to blast away at their own feet. Beleaguered QB Matt Nichols appears to want to do too much and is only capable of doing exactly enough to help the other team win. Head coach Mike O’Shea wants to stand by his man, but that’s a dangerous place to be these days. That said, backup Chris Streveler didn’t light it up in relief against Saskatchewan. This is a team in free-fall.

9. Toronto (9)

Maybe Duron Carter can play QB. Seriously though, the Argos are in a heap of trouble on offence.

The numbers

37.8 Length in yards of Edmonton kicker Sean Whyte’s average field-goal attempt, longest in the CFL by more than two yards. He’s been good on 22 of 25.

Martese Jackson punt returns of 30 yards or more while he was an Argo. He was traded Monday to the Esks, who had zero punt returns over 30 yards.

106 Saskatchewan’s league-leading points scored off 31 forced turnovers. The Als are last at 14 points from 18 turnovers.

26 Turnovers in four games last week, raising the 2018 average to 4.36 per game, an increase of 21 per cent over 2017, when it was 3.59.

The quote

“Overall, I didn’t play good enough. I felt like I let this team down. The team deserved better than that today. I don’t know, I’ve just got to find a way to be better.” — Winnipeg QB Matt Nichols after throwing three interceptions and no TDs in a home loss to Saskatchewan.

The picks

B.C. (4-6) at Montreal (3-8)
Friday at 7:30 p.m. ET

The Lions have been total homers this year, with all four wins generated in the cozy confines of B.C. Place Stadium. The inclination, then, is to figure in an L whenever the Leos hit the road. But the Als have two of their three wins on the road and have been basic pushovers at Molson Stadium, outscored 178-62 in their four home losses. So which geographical posit will hold sway this week? Since the Als are coming off back-to-back wins and have found themselves a mobile, confident QB in Johnny, er, Antonio Pipkin, they sound like a team with momentum. Then again, the Als most recently beat the lowly Argonauts and a slumping Ottawa squad that also just lost to the Lions. So it’s not as obvious as one would hope. In fact, the early line favoured the Lions by 3.5. When in this much doubt, go with the home team, regardless of trends. Montreal by two.

Calgary (9-2) at Hamilton (6-5)
Saturday at 4 p.m. ET

Here’s the game of the week: best in the West versus the (finally) emerging beast in the East. The teams appear to be moving in slightly opposite directions, which makes for an even more interesting scenario. Calgary has lost two of its past four games and showed signs of mortality on both sides of the ball in the shootout loss at Edmonton. They turned the ball over seven times and gave up 48 points and 462 yards of offence to the Eskimos. The Tabbies are on something of an upswing, winners of their past three, though two of those came at the expense of the troubled Argonauts. QB Jeremiah Masoli did, however, make it through an entire afternoon against Toronto without throwing a pick, and managed a ninth game with 300-plus yards passing. The early line favoured Calgary by 1.5, but the Ticats are more or less rolling. Hamilton by three.

Ottawa (6-5) at Saskatchewan (7-4)
Saturday at 9:30 p.m. ET

The Redblacks’ offence was folded, spindled and mutilated by the B.C. defence last week, and will now face an even tougher, deeper, more aggressive unit in Riderville. If the Ottawa offensive line doesn’t suddenly find a way to withstand pressure, QB Trevor Harris will look even worse than he did in B.C., which is to say really bad, and the sack totals for Riders Willie Jefferson and Charleston Hughes are going to get a serious boost. That said, the Riders’ offence didn’t score a TD in the Banjo Bowl win over the Bombers. QB Zach Collaros was injured late in that game, but cleared concussion protocol and might start against Ottawa. That development would favour Saskatchewan as the Riders were ineffective earlier in the year with backups Brandon Bridge and David Watford at the helm. Riders by seven.

• Email: dbarnes@postmedia.com | Twitter: @sportsdanbarnes