What if the CFL playoffs crossover had existed before 1997?

Tuesday, May 31, 2016 3:17 AM

I’m still stuck on how interesting the CFL standings have been over the years, but for once, I came up with an idea that didn’t involve hours of research and a lot of math.

For this week’s deep dive into CFL history, let’s look at the crossover – or more specifically, the lack thereof – at points in history. I’m looking for times when the crossover would have come into effect before it was written into the rules. 

For this work, I will go back as far as 1981, the first year that CFL teams played a fully interlocking schedule. Before that, the record of a given team was mostly based on how they did in the division, with just a few games against teams from the other side. Once the teams started playing across divisions more often, things got very interesting. Matter of fact, the first year of interlocking play may be the most interesting at all.

•  1981

West Division
Edmonton 14-1-1
Winnipeg 11-5
BC 10-6
Saskatchewan 9-7
Calgary 6-10

East Division
Hamilton 11-4-1
Ottawa 5-11
Montreal 3-13
Toronto 2-14

This season is the poster child as far as the crossover is concerned. Every team in the West, right down to the fifth-place Calgary Stampeders, were better than the second-place team in the East. This hasn’t happened since. 

The playoffs that year may have been even more interesting, with BC topping Winnipeg and falling to Edmonton out West, no surprise, considering this was in the middle of the five-peat Edmonton dynasty, but the East was shocking, as Ottawa not only handled a 3-13 Montreal team, but went on the road to Hamilton and won, sending a 5-11 team to the Grey Cup against the Edmonton dynasty. Those that know their CFL history know that the Rough Riders were very close to pulling the ultimate upset, ultimately falling 26-23 after building a 20-1 lead. 

Let’s play the what if game for a moment. First, let’s talk about what the playoffs may have looked like in the East under the current format. Saskatchewan would have crossed over, facing Ottawa in the East semifinal. Is it really outside the realm of possibility that Saskatchewan wins on the road in this one? And given that Ottawa shocked the Ti-Cats the week after, could you imagine JJ Barnagel and troops from Saskatchewan, a year off of back to back 2-14 seasons, facing off against the mighty Edmonton empire? 

(By the way, if you want to see this alternate playoff scenario played out, check out the results at CFL Football for Windows game from CFLapedia.com, or try the tabletop game Cold Snap via plaay.com with the free 1981 season. I may have to do this, now that I’m thinking about it…)

Given that this is such an anomaly in CFL history, I won’t spend a lot of brainpower trying to fix the “issue” the current system has, which does not account for a fifth-place team out West being better than a second-place team out East, but I’m sure it would drive a lot of discussion if this ever came close to happening again.

•  1982

West Division
Edmonton 11-5
Winnipeg 11-5
Calgary 9-6-1
BC 9-7
Saskatchewan 6-9-1

East Division
Toronto 9-6-1
Hamilton 8-7-1
Ottawa 5-11
Montreal 2-14

It happened again the very next year, although not to the same extreme. 

Besides Ottawa having Hamilton’s number in the playoffs again, for some reason, the rest of the playoffs went according to plan, with both division winners meeting in the Grey Cup, and Edmonton winning, because it was the early 80s and that’s just what the Eskimos did then. 

In the current scenario, BC would have crossed over and travelled to Hamilton. My brain loves what ifs, and this is another scenario where different playoff rules may have produced a very different outcome!

BC would have traveled to Hamilton, and while that is a tough place to play, Hamilton wasn’t exactly setting the world on fire in the playoffs in this time period. That means there was a decent chance that we’d have BC and Toronto meet in the playoffs the year before they would in the Grey Cup in reality. 

•  1983

West Division
BC 11-5
Winnipeg 9-7
Edmonton 8-8
Calgary 8-8
Saskatchewan 5-11

East Division
Toronto 12-4
Ottawa 8-8
Hamilton 5-10-1
Montreal 5-10-1

Noticing a pattern here?

In real life, Hamilton avenged back-to-back losses at home to Ottawa in the playoffs by going on the road and beating the Rough Riders this time around. Aside from this, though, everything went according to plan once again, with Toronto and BC meeting in the Grey Cup, and Toronto pulling it out after falling behind early on. 

Alternate reality in this case would have Calgary crossing over and facing Ottawa on the road, leaving Hamilton out of the picture. Given how strong Toronto was that season, I can’t see a huge change to history happening here, but you never can know for certain. 

•  1986

West Division
Edmonton 13-4-1
BC 12-6
Winnipeg 11-7
Calgary 11-7
Saskatchewan 6-11-1

East Division
Toronto 10-8
Hamilton 9-8-1
Montreal 4-14
Ottawa 3-14-1

This one’s a weird one. The “right” teams made the playoffs, but the format was a bit odd. 

The league decided to allow a fourth-place team to make the playoffs if they were better than the other division’s third-place team (which had happened three years in a row earlier in the decade); however, the fourth-place team would stay in their own division, creating two semi-finals in that division, and a two-game home-and-home, total-points series to decide the Grey Cup participant in the other division.

In reality, the West went pretty cleanly, with all the home teams winning, and Edmonton representing the West. Hamilton overcame a 14-point deficit in the series at the start of the second game, winning the second game by 17 points and going to the Grey Cup. 

If the format was the same as today, Hamilton would have had to host Calgary for the right to play one game in Toronto, and keep in mind that their game in Toronto during the real 1986 playoffs didn’t go so well. 

This would be the only time this format came into play, as Montreal was on its way out, never playing another game until resurrected with the relocation of the Baltimore Stallions to Montreal in 1996. 

•  1993

West Division
Calgary 15-3
Edmonton 12-6
Saskatchewan 11-7
BC 10-8
Sacramento 6-12

East Division
Winnipeg 14-4
Hamilton 6-12
Ottawa 4-14
Toronto 3-15

When Sacramento came into CFL, the league once again had five teams out West, but for some reason, decided that four teams would make the playoffs instead of three, as was always the case previously (and ever since, in this same format). 

In reality, Edmonton rose up and knocked off a Doug Flutie-led Stampeders team in the West final and Winnipeg in the Grey Cup. All the other games went to the team with the better record. 

If they were using today’s format, 6-12 Hamilton would have hosted 10-8 BC, instead of BC travelling to Calgary for a West semi-final matchup. Ottawa would have missed the playoffs.

The what if part of my mind is wondering if we’d have seen a BC-Winnipeg matchup in the East final, and what ramifications that may have had on the whole idea of an East and West division in the CFL, given the American teams were coming and two Western teams (historically and geographically speaking) were contending to represent the East in the Grey Cup. Things got wacky enough as it is, but can you imagine what chaos may have ensued?

•  1994

West Division
Calgary 15-3
Edmonton 13-5
BC 11-6-1
Saskatchewan 11-7
Sacramento 9-8-1
Las Vegas 5-13

East Division
Winnipeg 13-5
Baltimore 12-6
Toronto 7-11
Ottawa 4-14
Hamilton 4-14
Shreveport 3-15

Even with the American expansion, the East still gets the short end of the stick.

This format had four teams from each division making the playoffs. Of course, here, the fifth-place team in the West was better than the fourth-placer in the East. While I’m bending the current rules a little bit, the same general concept applies. 

This playoff was chaos, as far as teams doing what was expected of them. The East went rather normally, with Baltimore overcoming Winnipeg being the only team with a worse record beating a team with a better one, but out West, BC beat Edmonton and Calgary back-to-back, and then beat Baltimore in the Grey Cup, overcoming three straight teams with better records. 

Slotting in Sacramento instead of Ottawa probably doesn’t change history all that much, unless a California-based team set up originally to play American football would have been able to brave November in Winnipeg and come away with a win. 

•  1995

Just kidding. I’m not touching this one with a 10-foot pole. The divisional setup and playoff format in 1995 was so unlike previous CFL seasons that there’s not much I can say that would draw parallels with the situation today.

The current crossover rule came into play in 1997, and that’s where I’ll stop. After this point, what would have been historical wrongs were made right (or at least a bit more equitable) by the current crossover rule. 

The two historical lessons I’m taking away from this are as follows:

The East was a very bad division in the 1980s, with Montreal and Ottawa being awful most of the time, and Toronto and Hamilton taking turns near or at the bottom of the league as well. When two of the four teams in a division are very bad, it can lead to some interesting playoff pairings, especially when there are no fail-safes like a crossover rule. 

The other is that American expansion caused a lot of chaos both on and off the field. I already knew that, but this just reinforces the notion…

– written by Joe Pritchard