The Saskatchewan Roughriders have taken plenty of heat for their too-many-men-on-the-field blunder that cost them a win in Sunday’s Grey Cup game.
But Toronto Argonauts GM Adam Rita says it’s an easy mistake to make amid the chaos on a CFL sideline, especially during the dying seconds of a championship game. Rita knows that first-hand, serving as the Argos head coach when they beat Calgary 36-21 in the ’91 Grey Cup.
“The average person can’t comprehend it,” Rita said with a chuckle Tuesday. “It’s chaos because everyone is scrambling around and the clock is running down.
“Field goals are a lot tougher too because there are players running on and off the field at the same time.”
It certainly was a scattered scene at McMahon Stadium in the final seconds of the 97th Grey Cup.
The Roughriders were clinging to a 27-25 lead but Montreal quarterback Anthony Calvillo completed a 17-yard pass to Kerry Watkins at the Riders’ 36-yard line with five seconds remaining.
So in came kicker Damon Duval and Montreal’s field-goal unit while the Roughriders countered with their field-goal block team. But when the ball was snapped, three flags where thrown from the end zone as Duval’s 43-yard attempt sailed wide.
To the stunned amazement of the Riders and their diehard fans, the West Division champions were penalized for having too many men on the field, giving Montreal a second shot at the game-winning kick from 10 yards closer.
Duval split the uprights on the game’s final play to hand Saskatchewan its most bitter Grey Cup defeat.
“Occasionally you see it happen in the league where there’s a 13th defender in a goal-line situation,” Riders coach Ken Miller said Tuesday.
“Every so often you see it on defence or special teams where there are large numbers of players exchanged for a given play.
“Really, that’s what this situation was. Doesn’t excuse it in any way but they’re more likely to occur in those types of situations.”
Special teams coach Kavis Reed accepted responsibility for the miscue but neither he nor the Riders have said who the guilty player was.
Originally, with the Riders employing a field-goal block team the thought was returner Jason Armstead shouldn’t have been on the field.
But Armstead’s presence was required because had Saskatchewan rushed all 12 of its players, then the Alouettes could’ve had either Duval or holder Ben Cahoon race downfield to recover the ball for a touchdown on a missed attempt.
Television replays showed linebacker Sean Lucas lining up as a rush end on Duval’s errant first attempt but not being on the field for the Montreal kicker’s winning boot.
Before Duval’s first try, holder Cahoon could actually be seen counting to make sure Montreal had enough players before kneeling to accept the snap from centre.
Amazingly, Miller said he, Reed, Armstead and another sideline official all were responsible for counting how many Riders were on the field as Duval lined up his first attempt.
“It just worked out that everybody missed it,” Miller said.
“Even our fail-safe (four people counting) didn’t prove to be a fail-safe in that situation.
“We had a group go on the field and the group wasn’t communicating clearly so one player did not come off and it’s a breakdown in communication. That’s exactly what it was.”
Something Rita says he can fully understand.
“The trouble is everyone is focused in on the field on what they’re supposed to do,” Rita said. “But this isn’t the first time something like this has happened in a football game.
“It happens more than you know. It just happened this time at a critical time.”
Two weeks ago in the East Division semifinal, the Hamilton Tiger-Cats had only 11 players on the field for the first play in overtime against the B.C. Lions. Ticats linebacker Markeith Knowlton was on the sideline with an injury and didn’t return in time.
Lions tailback Martell Mallett took advantage, running 27 yards to set up Casey Printers’ eight-yard TD pass that earned B.C. a 34-27 victory.
In kicking situations, CFL teams substitute freely, depending on the situation. On punts, for example, offensive linemen are replaced by smaller, quicker players who can get downfield fast and make the tackle.
In field-goal situations, receivers are replaced on offence by bigger, stronger players to offer protection for the kicker.
Often the only change made defensively is having the returner replace a defensive back.
But the Riders had their field-goal block team on the field, meaning they had substituted some offensive players on to their regular field-goal return squad.
In the heat of the battle with so much riding on Duval’s kick, it seems no one on the Saskatchewan sideline remembered the time-tested rule in football: whatever number of players go on to the field, the same number has to come off to ensure only 12 line up for the snap of the ball.
However, Rita says it doesn’t take much to compound that situation.
“If there was an injury on special teams, sometimes the guy replacing the injured player doesn’t realize he’s supposed to come off the field,” Rita said.
“I know when you get an injury you’re scrambling around.
“On special teams you want to make sure you know there’s a guy hurt so you can put another player in and have that on your list so if he (special-teams replacement) is on offence or defence that you know you can’t communicate with him till the last second.”
Rita says Duval could’ve done the Riders a huge favour by making the first field goal, which would’ve made the too many men penalty moot.
But Rita added the real reason why the Riders lost was their inability to make a 16-point lead with seven minutes remaining in the game stand up.
“That’s always a tough way to lose,” Rita said. “But really you have to understand why was Montreal in a position to kick anyways with the lead Saskatchewan had?”