February 15, 2007

Proposed rule changes aim to liven up kick returns

Buono, others call for more protection for quarterbacks

By Vicki Hall,
Edmonton Journal

MONTREAL – The fine art of the kickoff and punt return remains on the endangered species list in the Canadian Football League.

But the CFL rules committee recommended changes Wednesday to the blocking rules in hopes of reviving the play that brings fans out of their seats more than any other.

The relaxation of the rules must still be approved by the CFL board of governors in April at the annual meeting.

“We want to bring more excitement to the game,” said Edmonton Eskimos head coach Danny Maciocia, who sits on the rules committee. “But we want to protect the health and safety of our players. So it’s a fine balance.”

In the eyes of some CFL players and fans, the game sank to new lows of boredom last season thanks to a misguided change to the blocking rules.

The switch came into effect in the 2006 season, forbidding players to block from the back or side on special teams. Only blocks from the front remained legal.

The result? A penalty-flag festival and just two touchdowns on returns last season after 14 the year before.

“The health and welfare of our players and the input of our fans was really taken to heart,” said Michael Copeland, the league’s chief operating officer.

“The focus was really on showcasing the excitement of our game and protecting our most valuable assets, our players.”

Wally Buono, head coach of the B.C. Lions, voted against the rule change last year, and he still feels the league made a mistake by going through with it.

“When you make changes, it confuses a lot of people,” Buono said. “Maybe what happened this year opened eyes for everybody. I understand the importance of player safety. But football, unfortunately, is a game of risk. When you step on the field, there’s a risk.”

Buono would like to see that risk diminished for quarterbacks, and the league is looking at clamping down on hits to the head or below the waist on the men who throw the football.

In Vancouver, the issue is paramount with quarterback Dave Dickenson missing more than a month last season due to post-concussion syndrome.

Dickenson is arguably the best quarterback in the game, but he’s as fragile as the roof at B.C. Place Stadium.

“It’s not just about Dave Dickenson,” Buono said. “It’s about all the quarterbacks. We are a quarterback-driven league. You win a lot of times due to that one individual. That’s why, proportionally, that one guy is paid more than anyone else. I believe we protect kickers a lot more than we protect the quarterback. Hit the quarterback as hard as you can, but make sure you’re not endangering him.”

That being said, Maciocia doesn’t want to see the referees throw a flag any time a defender breathes on a quarterback.

“The last time I checked, this is football,” Maciocia said. “It’s not flag football or touch football. They do tackle out there.

“You want to protect the quarterback. Below the knees, you clearly want to protect him. We want to discourage any head shots where defenders are leaving their feet and leading with their helmet. That’s something we clearly want to discourage. But quarterbacks are still football players out there.”

And this is coming from the man who employs Ricky Ray, the highest-paid pivot in the league.