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CFL X-Factors: 3 Down Football, Why The Model Works

In the last several years, the competition to establish a sustainable non-NFL style of professional football has exploded. The XFL, AAF, USFL, and The Spring League have all been different versions of the same concept, and each attempt at establishing these leagues has made them all become a blur. Each league had roughly many of the same names involved, and the same structure, with each league having some gimmick-type rule variation or variations to attempt to make them appear to be unique.

During this time the CFL has been a constant and is the model that these other leagues should be aspiring to be rather than the other way around. In the off-season of 2021, there was an idea that the CFL would merge or partner with a re-packaged XFL, and during this time the concept of 3 down football was brought up as being a weakness of the CFL.

As an observer of all football leagues, it is easy to see that not is 3 down football, not a weakness, but it is the primary reason that the CFL has not simply faded away like these other leagues. Let’s take a look at how 3-down football affects the teams of the CFL.

When referencing 3-down football it seems necessary to explain that most football leagues use 4-down football. 4-down football means that a team has 4 attempts to gain 10 yards to maintain their offensive possession. 3 down football means that a team only has 3 attempts to gain 10 yards to maintain their offensive possession. The difference between these two formats of football comes down to how an offence manages their plays to give themselves a chance to get a 1st down.

In the CFL, each team has 2 plays to pick up 1st down otherwise in most situations they will punt. The ideal way to manage these downs is to pick up yards on 1st down and then an offence has multiple options to pick up a 1st down on their 2nd play. The critics of 3 down football mention that it makes play-calling predictable and makes CFL games boring.

And if an offensive play-caller does not have an effective strategy for picking up 1st down yards, then it does become predictable that the team will have to pass the ball every 2nd down. But the same thing happens in 4-down football, teams that do not have an effective offensive plan fail to gain yards on 1st and 2nd down, and then have to become predictable and pass often on 3rd down. So, if an offensive play-caller understands that picking up 1st down yards is the most effective way to pick up first downs then 2nd down does not become nearly as predictable.

The positive aspect of 3 down football, and why it makes the CFL one of the most interesting professional football leagues to observe, is that it keeps the game moving. If a team cannot effectively manage its downs then it will be constantly giving the ball back to its opponent. In a game where both teams keep punting the ball can be boring, but in a game where one team jumps out to a big lead early then, the CFL suddenly becomes a very exciting league. When a team gets a big lead, it may instinctually try to run the clock and try to hold the ball to get the win.

But in the CFL, a team has to get 1st downs to have a chance to run the clock. otherwise, their opponent will be getting the ball back 2 plays later. Throughout a game, each team gets several more offensive possessions than if they were playing 4 down football. More possessions translate into more chances to score, and that means that only big leads that a team can sustain are safe leads.

This creates an environment in which a lead is never safe unless a team can keep scoring, or if the other time is just not capable of sustaining offensive success. This separates the CFL from all other professional football leagues, including the NFL, and creates an exciting atmosphere for fans of the CFL.

Stay with CFL News Hub for the 2022 season.


Follow me on Twitter: @AaronSauter7

1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. David Tress

    June 27, 2022 at 10:51 am

    The thing is, there is too much punting in CFL games and it makes people turn the TV channel. I say keep 12 men, the bigger field and the rouge, but go to four downs. It would still be a Canadian game.

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