Flag-Happy CFL Referees: Touching the Passer


The CFL season is off to a good, not great, start. The only sellout so far was unsurprisingly the inaugural home opener for the Ottawa Redblacks. Fans were treated to a day of festivities and a performance by The Trews, along with reportedly excellent food, though long lines.

There are many early positive signs in this young CFL season. In only four games, the Winnipeg Blue Bombers have already surpassed last year’s win total. The Edmonton Eskimos are looking great with a 4-0 record courtesy of their suffocating defence – they look like they will be tough to beat. And the new TV deals with TSN as well as ESPN are great news for the league as the viewership for games continues to grow.

However, there is a big rise in the number of penalty flags thrown by CFL referees this season compared to last, especially some very questionable roughing the passer calls. I understand the balance in wanting to protect a team’s starting quarterback and while also trying to the change the behavior of a pass rusher.

For many teams, there is a huge drop in quality between a first string quarterback and his understudy, so injured quarterbacks are not going to win over any new fans to the CFL. And of course it is very important for the long term health of any player to avoid head injuries–another important factor.

But when a defensive lineman or blitzing linebacker beats his man and gets to the QB just as the passer lets the ball go, what is he supposed to do? He has committed to the tackle and has done everything right. He hasn’t gone after the pivot’s knees and is not leading with his helmet. Contact is made. Not vicious, just contact, and the QB goes down. Seeing it in real time it looks like a fraction of a second after the ball is gone, yet everyone sees the orange flag tossed in the air.

Is this the league’s response to recent reports about the effect of concussions? Or is the league trying to make sure the CFL continues to have quality starters while putting the best product on the field for the fans, whether they’re old viewers or new?

Head injuries are a major concern, but when the flow of the game is slowed down, and the personal foul results in a first down, the officials are also changing the outcome of that particular drive or even the game. Defenders are not going to be as aggressive en route to their target, which also changes the game. With respect the PI review in the CFL, I think the league should take a look at also reviewing a roughing the passer call. It may be too much to ask while slowing this game down even more, but when it comes to getting the call on the field right, we can all agree that’s what matters most.


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