Opinion | Save the rouge? It was a Grey Cup game-changer, but CFL tradition might get the boot

You’ve had your Fog Bowl and your Snow Bowl. Now, the Canadian Football League has what just might go down in three-down football history as the Rouge Bowl.

In Sunday’s 108th Grey Cup, it’s fair to say the rouge — a one-point scoring play that results when a team receives a kick in its own end zone and is either tackled there or concedes — played a decisive role. A controversial one at that.

The Hamilton Tiger-Cats, who ended up losing, gave up not one but two single points off kickoffs to the Winnipeg Blue Bombers in the final six minutes of the game. Without those freebie points, the Bombers might not have been able to force it to overtime, and then win in the extra session.

The first of those two single points happened with 5:33 left and Winnipeg trailing 22-20. With a strong wind behind him, Winnipeg kicker Sergio Castillo booted the ball over the head of Hamilton returner Tim White. The ball rolled beyond the end line for a rouge, cutting Hamilton’s lead to 22-21.

Castillo then kicked a field goal with 2:05 remaining to put the Bombers ahead 24-22, theoretically giving Hamilton a chance to win the game with a field goal of its own. Instead, White caught Castillo’s ensuing kickoff just inside the Hamilton goal line, then shocked many by kneeling and conceding the point.

“An interesting decision,” said veteran TSN play-by-play announcer Rod Smith.

White should have been able to at least run the ball out to the 20-yard line. Conceding the rouge meant the Tabbies, playing into the stiff wind, got the ball at their own 35. But it also meant a Hamilton field goal could now only tie.

The Ticats marched all the way to the Winnipeg five, and eventually Michael Domagala’s chip shot field goal did indeed tie the game 25-25 with only six seconds left. Without White’s earlier decision to concede the rouge, Domagala’s kick would have won the game for the hometown Tiger-Cats, just like Ian Sunter’s last-second boot beat Saskatchewan in Steeltown back in 1972.

“We gave (White) the option that he could bring it out or not,” said Hamilton head coach Orlondo Steinauer. “I’m OK with the decision.”

Many disappointed Hamilton fans were not, putting that decision right up there with twice settling for field goals from inside the 10-yard line and turning the ball over on downs on their own 44 in the third quarter as poor coaching choices that ruined their chances of upsetting the Blue Bombers.

Winnipeg head coach Mike O’Shea, whose team repeated as Grey Cup champs, didn’t see White’s decision as a bad one.

“The field position they gained from that was very important,” said O’Shea. “I thought it was really smart.”

This discussion will go on for some time. Some CFL observers are already equating it to Saskatchewan getting caught with 13 men on the field in the dying seconds of the 2009 Grey Cup, allowing Montreal a second opportunity to kick the game-winning field goal.

With CFL commissioner Randy Ambrosie vowing last week in his state-of-the-league address to leave no stone unturned in an effort to make the CFL game more entertaining, the rouge may come up in the larger discussion, along with other quirky CFL rules and traditions.

Ambrosie said CFL owners are in a mood for radical change, and that will only be fuelled further by disappointing TV ratings for Sunday’s Grey Cup contest. Despite the exciting finish, ratings were down 22 per cent from the previous Grey Cup game in 2019. COVID-19 forced the cancellation of the 2020 game.

An average of about 2.87 million Canadians watched Sunday’s game, continuing a steady decline in Grey Cup viewership. More than four million watched in 2015, while the 2013 Grey Cup drew an average 5.5 million, almost double this year’s figure.

Layered on top of worrying attendance figures this year in Toronto, Vancouver and even Edmonton, the loss of both butts in seats and eyeballs for what has long been viewed as a Canadian sporting tradition has to be extremely disconcerting to CFL owners. Reports last week suggested the league may even be willing to look at radical changes such as moving to four downs from three in an effort to boost scoring and make the game more entertaining to younger fans.

The rouge, love it or hate it, is part of CFL history, and now it’s part of Grey Cup lore. In the coming months, given the troubling trends of the 2021 season, the league may have some tough choices to make between tradition and bold, meaningful change.