October 31, 2011

Higgins: An in-depth look at flag stats

Tom Higgins

Happy Halloween!

This is a time when things are seldom what they appear to be. That scary goblin on your front porch is actually that nice kid from the down the street, while that menacing shadow is simply what happens when a headlight shines on a jack o lantern.

So in the interests of separating myth from reality, I’m devoting this Ask the Ref to numbers because numbers never lie – or say they say!

Occasionally, a fan suggests to me that our officials are flag happy this year. The truth is the total number of penalties is down from last year – by five per cent. We’re averaging 18.7 flags per game over the first 17 weeks of the season.

But there are even bigger changes when it comes to what we’re calling.

Objectionable conduct is up 57 per cent. We’ve flagged it 13 more times this year than in 2010. That doesn’t necessarily mean our players’ behaviour has declined, but it does mean we are following a directive from the Commissioner to crack down on taunting and trash talk because they aren’t what the CFL is all about.

Roughing the passer penalties are up 22 per cent. Although we’ve flagged it seven more times in 2011, we’ve been consistently focused on this in recent years, calling it 39 times in 2011, 32 times in 2010, 35 times in 2009, and 38 times in 2008.

The reason is simple: our teams and our fans have told us to, within the rules of the game, protect our quarterbacks because they are our league’s greatest assets.

No yards is up 15 per cent, or 17 more flags, this season. That’s due to a change in our rules that punishes teams for punting out of bounds to avoid a kick return, which has meant more punts landing in the field of play.

Under the old rule, if a team punted out of bounds between the 20-yard-lines, the receiving team could take the ball where it went out or force the kicking team to re-kick, after a penalty of ten yards from the original line of scrimmage.

Under the new rule, the receiving team has the additional option of taking the ball where it went out of bounds, plus a ten-yard penalty.

So what penalties have decreased?

Flags for punting out of bounds are down 24 per cent, because of the said rule change. Illegal contact on a receiver is down 41 per cent, and has been called 19 fewer times this year, because when we sat down with our teams’ coaches in the off-season, they agreed to a new standard.

In a nutshell, it allows a defender who has previously established his position to use his hands to ward off a receiver that runs towards him.
Similarly, offside penalties are down 10 per cent. Teams now appear to be on board with the league standard coaches agreed to a few years ago: a receiver in motion hitting the line of scrimmage is only called offside if his feet (not his head, shoulders or arms) have crossed the line before the centre has initiated the ball’s movement (as opposed to having completed the snap to the quarterback).   

Procedure penalties are down 17 per cent – it has been called 23 fewer times. And unnecessary roughness is down ten per cent – it has been called 14 fewer times. I chalk up these two to good coaching and disciplined play.

Here’s another truth:  Officials may be neutral and dispassionate, but we do appreciate our league’s athletes and admire the men who lead and instruct them.

There’s one last myth I’d like to dispel, and that’s the notion that refs aren’t any fun. We take our work very seriously because we love the game. But we also like to have a good time, and we especially love Halloween: it’s the only day we get to shout “Boo!” 

So we wish everyone in your family – especially the little ones – a safe and happy one.