How about a little pigskin, ‘ay?
Like many fans south of the U.S.-Canada border, my early (and present) exposure to the Canadian Football League was/is filled with rules misunderstandings and head-scratching questions. Why do the receivers look like a squadron of Zero fighters taking off? Why are there only 3 downs? Why are the American TV broadcasts so broken-up and filled with commercials late at night?
If such questions rankle your entire household to this day, never fear. This preview has it all covered.
But due to time constraints, we are moving you ahead in our CFL futures betting coverage.
Your Primer on the Canadian Football League
A plethora of players have used the CFL to leapfrog into the NFL after dazzling fans above the border. Conversely, the league is a common platform for former American college standouts who have fizzled out in the NFL ranks. But the athletes of Canadian Football take a back seat as far as the casual viewer is concerned. In almost every way, the rules and the layout of the league are “tweaked” compared to what FBS and NFL fans are used to, and a lot of the differences are pure fun.
The 21-week CFL regular season is adjusted to suit Canadian weather and runs from mid-June to early November. There are only 2, count ‘em, 2 preseason games. (Feeling refreshed yet?)
9 teams are currently separated into a 4-team East Division and a 5-team West Division. No one need be confused, or surprised, by seeing a hockey-like points system used in the CFL standings. Teams receive 2 points for a win, a single point for a tie, and none for a loss. (At least they don’t call it a “table.”)
There is a larger playing surface in the CFL. The end zone is 10 yards deeper, a center stripe runs down the communal “55-yard line” and 12 men are allowed 3 downs to move or punt. The play clock is 20 seconds, and receivers and backs can run toward the line of scrimmage before the snap. (In the NFL only the Seattle Seahawks are allowed to do that.)
Adding to the charm is that the goal posts right about on the goal line, not 10 yards back as in all 3 major levels of the American game. It reminds me of the old stories surrounding goal-post collisions before the NFL moved the hardware back in 1974. (“I warned you,” said the linebacker to the RB who had put his head down and whanged-into the goal post. “Next time you come my way, you’re dead.”)
6 teams qualify for the CFL playoffs with only the 2 division champs clinching automatic bids. Three rounds of single elimination determine a Grey Cup champion.
The 106th Grey Cup featured a slug-fest victory for current league powerhouse Calgary over Ottawa, 27-16. The contest was a rematch from 2 years earlier when the Redblacks claimed the Grey Cup.
A 97-yard punt return touchdown for Calgary and 6 Ottawa turnovers determined the outcome in 2018. Check out former Super Bowl star Chris Matthews on the first highlight.
CFL Handicapping: Don’t Sink Between a Pair-o’-Docks
Why has Johnny Manziel failed so spectacularly in Canada? The youngster was clean of hard drugs and alcohol (we think) and well-conditioned when he took the field for the Hamilton Tiger-Cats on August 3rd of 2018. 4 interceptions later, and “Johnny Football” again became a worldwide laughingstock.
But those who used the footage of the terrible debut to knock Johnny Football were missing the point. On the surface it would appear that any QB with Manziel’s speed and on-the-run passing ability would flourish on the big Canadian fields. As Doug Flutie once put it after a long stint in the CFL, “when I ran to the sidelines, it felt like I was cheating.”
Not that CFL defenses haven’t found ways to improve since Flutie’s day. But it’s also not as if Johnny Football was up against competition greater than that which he had dominated during a celebrated NCAA career. Could the Calgary Stampeders beat the eventual Alliance of American Football champions? Maybe, but it would be a really good game. Would they punish Alabama, Clemson, or Oklahoma with Kyler Murray at the helm? Absolutely not.
I believe it was the funky down-and-distance scenario that plagued Manziel. Johnny is by nature a scrambler who loves to convert on 3rd down. In the CFL, he didn’t have 3rd downs.
The math of how 3-downs-and-go changes things plays an important role in handicapping Canadian football successfully. Jake Plummer could have been the best CFL quarterback ever largely through circumstances; he retired from the NFL at an early age but chose to play handball instead of taking his brutal contract situation with the Denver Broncos northward. Jake is a good test-case for how a single yard-per-play improvement can change everything for a QB. He struggled with the Cardinals during seasons of 3+ yards-per-carry rushing, and was terrific for Denver with a 4+ ypc average protecting his backside. Now imagine what an extra down, or taking a down away, would have done to him.
It’s too bad for Johnny Football. But when the 3rd time is so often your charm, a 2nd chance in the CFL is not likely to work out well from a game-management point of view.
Quick Feet and a Big Imagination
Big, physical CBs and linebackers can struggle in Canadian football because the receivers are always meeting them at full speed. Because the disadvantage is so great for a defense, the 3-down rule is there to govern the rate at which offenses can score.
Not every WR is a natural fit in the league’s pre-snap “route” running, but getting it right is the key to making bubble screens and other 1st down plays work. If nothing works on 1st down the team is quickly faced with a convert-or-punt passing scenario.
The result is feast or famine, and a breed of professional football player which has adapted itself to a more wide-open game of pigskin. Much the same as in “regular” Yankee football the handicapper’s trick is not to gauge which futures pick has the most aggregate talent, but rather which squad and coaching staff have the most sure-fire formula for success.
Here’s a look at Bovada’s 9 futures lines for Grey Cup winner in 2019.
Calgary Stampeders ((+400) Odds-to-Win 2019 Grey Cup at Bovada Sportsbook
The defending Grey Cup champs produced the franchise’s 8th league title last season. The Stampeders have made the playoffs in 14 consecutive seasons and are becoming a perennial fixture in the final, almost like a Maple Leaf version of the New England Patriots.
QB Bo Levi Mitchell torched defenses for a league-best 35 touchdowns and over 5,000 passing yards. 6’3” slotback Kamar Jorden was Mitchell’s top target and remains with the team, though the Stampeders will be without CFL-leading tackler Alex Singleton, who was picked up as a free agent by the Philadelphia Eagles in January.
That’s not the only bad news on defense. Standout DL Micah Johnson left for the Saskatchewan (no, really, he left to play with Saskatchewan) and LB Jameer Thurman is also pursuing the NFL. What’s a dynasty to do when players outgrow the nest?
Ottawa Redblacks (+450)
While the Grey Cup didn’t go as planned, Ottawa can feel blessed to have been in the championship game given a steady-but-unspectacular 11-7 mark in ’18. As an entity the Redblacks have only been in the league for 5 seasons but have played for the Grey Cup in 3 of the previous 4 campaigns. The young franchise defeated the Stampeders for league title in 2016.
The Redblacks suffered setbacks (see what I did there?) in the offseason, highlighted by the loss of starting quarterback Trevor Harris. The gunslinger eclipsed 5,000 passing yards in 2018 but signed with Edmonton in the offseason. In total, Ottawa lost 4 offensive starters during the free agency period.
Defensive back Jonathan Rose returns after tying for league-best with 5 interceptions.
Saskatchewan Roughriders (+450)
The Roughriders finished a game behind the Stampeders at 12-6 to post the 2nd-best record in the league a season ago. Despite defeating the Stampeders in the regular season, an upset loss to Winnipeg in the division semi-finals prevented the unit from having a chance to knock off Calgary in the playoffs. Saskatchewan has won 4 Grey Cups, with the most recent coming in 2013.
Former Auburn Tiger and 3rd-round NFL Draft pick Tre Mason led the Roughriders with 809 rushing yards last season. Veteran defensive lineman Charleston Hughes is a force to be reckoned with on the edge, having led the league with 15 sacks.
Hughes lost his right-hand man in DE Willie Jefferson who took his 10 sacks to Winnipeg. Which is too bad since “Saskatchewan Sack Exchange” has a hell of a ring to it.
Winnipeg Blue Bombers (+450)
The Blue Bombers overcame a rough start to finish 10-8 and in 3rd place in the West Division. The squad pulled off a surprise victory over the Roughriders in the division semi-finals before falling to the Stampeders. The franchise has 10 Grey Cup championships in franchise history, but has not claimed the league title since 1990.
The pieces may be in place to change that soon. Quarterback Matt Nichols is an Eastern Washington product who knows how to put the pedal down in a wide-open contest. Running back Andrew Harris is the team’s workhorse and the top runner in the league last year with 1,390 rushing yards. Wide-receiver Darvin Adams is a threat on the outside.
A stud LB named Adam Bighill leads the defense. In the offseason, Bighill signed a 3-year contract extension to become the highest paid defensive player in CFL history.
British Columbia Lions (+800)
The Lions improved to a 9-9 finish in 2018 to finish 4th place in the West Division. Normally, that would mean being absent from the playoffs, but the Lions snuck in thanks to a qualification rule and played in the East Division’s side of the bracket. Hamilton destroyed BC 48-8 to advance to the division title game.
There is not enough consistency in the passing game, and QB Mike Reilly could be a boon of an acquisition through free agency. British Columbia has a real lion on the inside with DE Odell Willis.
Hamilton Tiger-Cats (+900)
Despite finishing the regular season below .500, the Tiger-Cats finished in 2nd place in the East Division and were a game away from playing in the Grey Cup. A 46-27 loss to the Redblacks ended the Tiger-Cats season. Hamilton hasn’t won a Grey Cup in 20 years to date as of this autumn.
Former Oregon and Ole Miss quarterback Jeremiah Masoli had a dynamic year, finishing 2nd in the league in passing yards and 3rd in touchdowns. Top targets Brandon Banks and Luke Tasker provide the most dangerous outside duo in the league. Both receivers finished the year with 1,000 receiving yards and tied for tops in the CFL with 11 touchdown catches.
Edmonton Eskimos (+1000)
The Eskimos have won 14 Grey Cup titles with the last one coming in 2015, but failed to make the playoffs altogether in 2018. The Eskimos capped the 2018 season at 9-9.
QB Trevor Harris arrives from Ottawa to fill the void left by Reilly, who was excellent for Edmonton. CFL-leading WR D’haquille Williams has made the jump to the NFL, signing with the Buffalo Bills after tallying 1,579 receiving yards catching passes from Reilly. Good luck finding another partner-in-crime that can do that for the newbie behind center.
Defensive lineman Kwaku Boateng led the team with 9 sacks last season.
Montreal Alouettes (+1100)
The Alouettes struggled to a 5-13 finish and finished in 3rd place in the East Division in ’18. It was a far cry from the team’s consecutive titles in 2009 and 2010.
Manziel has split time at quarterback with Antonio Pipkin. Neither shined, though Pipkin surprisingly looks like the more dynamic scrambler of the pair.
LB Henoc Muamba is everywhere on the field for the Alouette defense.
Toronto Argonauts (+1200)
The Argonauts are coming off an abysmal season, finishing a CFL worst 4-14 on the year. The proud franchise has fallen from a high pedestal after earning 17 total Grey Cup championships, with the most recent coming in 2017 with a victory over Calgary.
Toronto played musical QBs throughout last year, finding little production. Former Florida State running back James Wilder Jr. led the team in rushing yards and looks to surpass 1000 over the next 18 games.
The defense suffered a badly-timed blow in the offseason, lamenting the departure of leading sacker Shawn Lemon, who signed with British Columbia.