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CFL Kickoff Debate: A Call for Transparency with Insight from RB Jeshrun Antwi

The CFL has reportedly been discussing potentially changing the rules surrounding kickoffs. According to TSN’s Dave Naylor, the rules committee is taking some time currently to discuss considerations to have the kickoffs changed or the frequency reduced. This discussion is brought on by the belief that kickoffs cause injuries at a rate significantly higher than other plays.

The CFL’s Considerations Involving the Kickoffs

The CFL has been considering the XFL style of kickoff as an option. The NFL has now recently adopted a very similar style of kickoff earlier this week. In the XFL system, cover teams and return teams are lined up close together to reduce high-speed collisions. Reportedly the CFL is also considering this model.

Another possible rule change the CFL is considering is to potentially allow teams to choose to start with the ball at their own 40-yard line after a touchdown to reduce the frequency of kickoffs.

Per Dave Naylor, they may also vote to further study the kickoffs throughout the season and discuss the situation further next offseason.

Jeshrun Antwi, Runningback of the Montreal Alouettes Weighs In

With there being pushback from many fans, I wanted to gain further insight from the player’s perspective on this issue. This past week I asked Jeshrun Antwi his thoughts on the conversation surrounding the CFL changing the kickoff rule. I also explained my opinion that without the injury data, it just feels like change for the sake of change without the data being released.

“While I understand the importance of safety in the CFL and Football in general, the move to change KOs in the Canadian Football League does not make sense to me.” Jeshrun Antwi explained. “Special teams in the CFL are a huge part of the game, it produces electrifying plays that fans look forward to. Kickoffs in particular gives teams an opportunity to gain momentum after a score and as such looking to eliminate or change the format would be detrimental to the league and its fan base in my humble opinion.”

Antwi also highlighted how special teams play serves as a potential entry point for new talent.

“Special teams also allows newcomers and rookies to earn their stripes as they wait for their opportunity to play on offence or defence, taking away kickoffs would limit the chances these players get to showcase their talents.” Antwi stated. “The league has not released the data as it relates to injuries during kickoffs, if the data supports a rule change then I would understand the decision to move ahead as it would be supported by facts and data.”

I asked Antwi what he thought of the NFL’s recent kickoff rule change strictly pertaining to their situation.

“With the NFL, they almost have to try something out because their kickoff returns are nonexistent. Every kick goes through the end zone, gone are the days where great returners would take the ball out.” Antwi answered.

Why is the CFL rethinking kickoffs? And Where is the Injury Data?

The CFL has stated that its injury data conclusively shows that kickoffs have a significantly higher rate of injuries compared to other plays. This has been an ongoing topic throughout the offseason. Back in January, Dave Naylor communicated that the CFL would not be releasing injury data until after their March medical meetings.

Without being able to take into account the injury data conversations surrounding changing the kickoff feel very premature. The first step of problem-finding is identifying the problem according to the league they have identified a problem with the kickoffs which is a higher risk of injury. However, they have not shared the data surrounding said problem. Further, the solution to the problem is to have something removed from the game that many CFL fans passionately love.

Initiating changes to the kickoff rules without publicly sharing the injury data feels like taking your car to a mechanic for an oil change, and they take the initiative to also remove your radio. When questioned about the purpose of such an initiative, the mechanic vaguely mentions that the radio was contributing to safety problems without providing any evidence or explanation.

If the CFL changes the kickoff rule before the injury data is released they risk creating a sense of disconnect with passionate CFL fans who love the current impact special teams has on the Canadian game. There needs to be more transparency surrounding this conversation.

The impact of Special Teams in the CFL

Special teams are closely tied to the identity of Canadian football. In Canadian football, every special team’s play is exciting because the rules are optimized for every play to matter. Teams are incentivized to return the ball out of the endzone and every punt has a return thanks to the 5-yards rule.

The special teams’ excitement in the Canadian ruleset is far more entertaining than the ruleset that has been demonstrated in the NFL. The last Super Bowl saw all 13 kickoffs sail through the endzone. Roughly 25% of punts in the NFL result in a fair catch. Many are not caught at all.

Throughout covering the Montreal Alouettes over the past years their commitment to special teams was extremely apparent. A common theme was hearing Alouettes personnel speak on the importance of winning all 3 phases, offense, defense, and special teams.

I spoke to Jeshrun Antwi, running back of the Montreal Alouettes before they faced the Toronto Argonauts in the East Division Finals. The Alouettes were visibly obvious in their level of effort and quality of play that special teams were held very high under the leadership of Special Teams Coach Byron Archambault. Jeshrun explained at that time the importance in special teams through his preparation.

“I watch special teams like I’m studying the opponent’s defense,” Antwi explained in our conversation in November. “So when we’re playing, whichever team we’re playing, I’m watching special teams. I’m putting the same time in as I am watching the defense and I think that’s the case for every guy that plays it. And that’s why we take pride in that.”

The day before the Grey Cup I spoke to Alouettes linebacker Tyrice Beverette who had the third highest special teams grade by Pro Football Focus. I asked him to elaborate on Montreal’s commitment to special teams.

“I mean, the approach to special teams is just basically where my career has started out for me,” Beverette explained in November. “Coming into football, talking to other guys, I know that’s something that you have to do to gain your trust in this game. And just to be able to play the game of football. I just play every play like it’s my last one. That includes special teams. I know that some people look at that like the dirty work position, but I love it actually. So coming here even though I’m a starter. I told him I wanna continue to be out there on special teams and contribute that way.”

When you read comments made by fans under posts discussing possible changes to the CFL kickoff it is obvious that the majority are opposed to having the rule changed. Many players are in opposition to changing the kickoff as well. Many players have found opportunities to find their foothold in professional football through special teams play. As of right now, any changes to the kickoff would feel premature with the injury data not yet being shared with the public.

Final Thoughts

The discussion surrounding kickoff rules in the CFL is deeper than mere mechanics of the game, rather it strikes at the heart of the identity of Canadian football. It is very important to find a balance between tradition, player safety, and entertainment. If the reported injury data does reveal significant risk to player health, then there is no denying a need to reform the rule. However, it is important the path to changes surrounding the kickoff are paved through transparency and collaboration.

Canadian football is celebrated for its dynamic plays. Decisions surrounding this topic should be open and engaging with the game itself. The CFL has an opportunity to not only address a safety concern but to also model to other sports organizations how to adapt and evolve while honoring the voices of players and fans.

At this crossroads, the need for transparency surrounding the injury data is not simply a demand for information, but rather a request for respect for the players who do risk injury, for the fans who invest their passion and their money, and for the legacy of Canadian football. The CFL’s handling of the discussion of the kickoff is reflective of its commitment to stewarding the game as it evolves.

The journey ahead for the CFL in this discussion will be a balance of preserving the essence of Canadian football while fighting for what is right regarding the safety of our players. It will require thoughtful consideration, transparency, and a deep respect for the heritage of our game and its future. We look now to the leadership of the CFL to lead with integrity, vision, and unwavering commitment to the identity of Canadian football.

@JonathanClink on Twitter

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Jonathan Clink Reporter
Jonathan Clink joined CFL News Hub in early April of 2023. His primary responsibilities are covering the BC Lions and Montreal Alouettes. He self awarded himself the CFL Rookie Journalist of the Year in 2023 following the 2023 CFL season. He also proclaims himself to be a "really cool guy". He was born in Winnipeg, Manitoba and lived a large portion of his childhood in Northwest Ontario. He currently lives in Grand Rapids, Michigan and misses being being able to have 4 months of skating every winter. Clink has written over 240 articles for CFL News Hub. He was the publication's boots on the ground at the 2023 Grey Cup in Hamilton. Clink has always had an obsession for sport and has a background in other sports as well having played hockey all his life and soccer, basketball, and lacrosse in high school. As a young child he used to log his hockey statistics after every game which is either an indication that he was destined for the role or perhaps and indication that he is rather strange.
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