Playing it safe

Bison football head coach weighs in on CFL move eliminating pads from practice

Bison head coach Brian Dobie on the sidelines during a game against the Calgary Dinos on Sept.16.Bison head coach Brian Dobie on the sidelines during a game against the Calgary Dinos on Sept.16.

Recently, the Canadian Football League (CFL) eliminated full-contact padded practices, and added another bye week, in an effort to decrease player injuries.

Bison football head coach Brian Dobie said this decision will see itself filter down the ranks of the Canadian football system.

“Almost every rule change, safety change, or safety consideration, cultural effects, they come from the top down,” he said. “They come from the CFL down, they come from the NFL down, they work their way through the NCAA or U SPORTS, down through the high schools, down to the young kids – not the other way around.”

The idea of padless practices has been batted around at U SPORTS national coaches meetings, but it will be a bigger talking point this year.

“We look upwards, and the CFL are the leaders in our country – if they make a rule change or do something to institute more safety mechanisms or whatever it is, we take a look at those things, for sure we do,” Dobie said. “It will be a major topic of conversation at our national meetings in November.”

Having no contact practice might be easier to implement at the professional level, with all the experience the players already have, but Dobie said it gets tougher as the players get younger.

“I think people have to be very thoughtful and considerate when they look at it because, speaking from an amateur level, we’re the next step to pro, but many of our guys are not close to pro, not everybody is a Geoff Gray or David Onyemata or whoever,” he said. “We would be almost negligent if we threw them into a game with the bullets flying full speed and they never practiced as close as possible to that tempo with pads on.”

There can be a balance as to how often teams can practice in pads, but it is tough to give one blanket answer, according to Dobie.

“There is no perfect answer, but there is some sort of a line or grey area,” he said.

“I think at our level we need to have some kind of contact at the positional areas so that they can protect themselves and be cognizant of everything and everyone around them as well.”

At the high school level, where a lot of players can get their start in playing football, Dobie said the pads are a necessary tool to learn the fundamentals.

“If you took a high school football team and they were never in pads, and now they got to play full speed in a game, that’s worse than having contact in practice, because now, there’s the unexpected, the shock element, [and] everything that goes with it,” he said. “I think that would literally be negligence in another framework.”

Dobie pointed to the 2006 Bisons team, though they were dominant, they fell in the Canada West championship to the University of Saskatchewan. For the majority of that season, Manitoba practiced with pads on. In 2007, the Bisons didn’t practice with pads on for the final six weeks, and won the Vanier Cup.

“Relative to our level, we had an extremely high-end team, we had a very experienced team and they knew how to practice without the pads and they had enough experience with pads on prior to that in the season,” Dobie said. “So we weighed it out and we won the Vanier Cup, and we were healthier and we weren’t as tired, we believe to this day that part of that was for that reason.”

University football players have to learn those fundamentals at some point, and at the grassroots level if players aren’t in pads it leaves a massive part of the game out.

“They need to learn the skills and part of it is they have to learn with pads on, they have to feel safe in those pads and they have to learn proper technique, applied with pads on,” Dobie said.

“I think that holds very true for high school, too. I think if you’re coaching high school you can take the pads off, and probably should. But I think it would be a guarded, thoughtful decision, because, again, everyone is thinking pads off is the answer, but not if you don’t have the fundamentals and that experience.

“Now you’re setting somebody up to literally be hurt. People forget that side of it.”

“Knowledge is power” is an adage especially prevalent in relation to concussions, which have long been an injury not taken seriously in sports.

“I think the more aware you are of anything, and the more knowledgeable you are the more that you can adjust, and adapt to make things better,” Dobie said. “Regardless of what it is, wherever. I think in this case, yeah there’s that scary aspect of football and I get that.”

Contact sports are always going to come with injuries, whether it comes in practice or in a game. With the CFL eliminating padded practices, Dobie said it’s a real sign of leadership.

“There’s no avoiding injuries in sports, a hamstring tear, an ACL in your knee, concussion, a broken wrist. We’re fragile human beings,” he said.

“I think what they’re trying to do is number one create awareness to try create the most optimal culture, rules, safety mechanisms now that there’s transparency. So I applaud the CFL in terms of thinking in that direction and taking leadership, because without that, change doesn’t occur.”