Thursday, June 19, 2008

The midnight ride of Paul Masotti: The NFL is coming

The Toronto Bills won't kill the Canadian Football League.

Only the CFL can kill the CFL. Appealing to patriotism won't save it when the NFL team in New England which bears that name produces much more watchable football and is on TV almost every week.

It's taken the better part of two years to find some middle ground about the NFL coming to Toronto. There's no appeal to joining the smarmy pro-NFL pundits who bathe in the moisture of Ted Rogers' and Phil Lind's soiled and blood-soaked officially licensed NFL team boxer shorts, since they're openly gleeful about ripping the heart out of Western New York by taking away the Bills. You know what, though? It's somehow less appealing to remain one of the Captain Canuck Chicken Littles who act like a NFL team north of the border is some great affront to that national identity, which we're still working on defining, 141 years out from Confederation. (It will be ready in time for Canada Day, really, honest.)

The nationalism arguments -- "Come on, it's Canadian! Come on!" -- go over like some of the CBC's latest prime-time series. The CFL doesn't need shallow nationalism. What it needs is to come up with a style of offensive play that doesn't look like NFL Lite, more scoring and more identifiably Canadian stars.

Those are the three biggest turnoffs about the CFL. Canadian football is crying out for a creative breakthrough, especially on offence. Many people under age 35 or so fell in love with the league in the 1980s and '90s when by all rights they should have become fans of the better promoted, more organized NFL. Why? In part, it was because the CFL had a kind of stylistic high ground.

In the '80s and '90s, the CFL was much higher-scoring than it is today. It was a great league for the kind of performer who was frozen out of the NFL, scrambling quarterbacks such as Doug Flutie, Tracy Ham or Damon Allen, or broken-field runners such as Henry (Gizmo) Williams or Michael (Pinball) Clemons. Canadians -- think Dave Sapunjis with the Calgary Stampeders, or current TSN analyst Jock Climie with the Argos and Montreal Alouettes, were visible part of the scoring explosion. Teams pushed the envelope on offence. Throw two incompletions and punt? Throw an interception? Don't worry about it, because you could get get the ball back 45 seconds later.

That seems absent from the current CFL -- although to be fair, this because the once-stodgy NFL and NCAA have co-opted some of the Canadian game's flashiness and have become much more innovative. Football goes in cycles, but in the CFL, it seems like the defence now has too much of an advantage. Teams have become enamoured of bringing in undersized, speedy defenders to help stop the pass, which is easier to do in a three-down game.

The reaction by offensive co-ordinators have countered this by going to a (shudder) ball-control game, going to a methodical, move-the-chains passing attack. In three-down football, this is like eating soup with a fork, since you can have a 10-play drive and still have to punt if there's a penalty or a dropped pass. It's no wonder the paradigm CFL contest seems to have become a 19-17 game decided by turnovers and which team's kicker is having a better day. In other words, it looks like a NFL game from 15 years ago -- NFL Lite.

There's no one reason for this, but at least one team, the Hamilton Tiger-Cats, are taking a step in the right direction by trying to offer more entry-level coaching and front-office jobs to Canadians, meaning teams might not have to be so reliant on Americans with, in Dave Naylor's words, "a strong football background but minimal experience in the Canadian game."

Those arguments about nationalism will hold a lot more water once the league has more coaches and player-personnel people who cut their teeth on the CFL and appreciate how to use the larger field to their advantage. The "come on! It's Canadian" arguments fall flat when the coaches and GMs are Americans and so are most of the key offensive players, the quarterbacks and featured running backs.

Gradually reducing the import ratio down from about 18 Americans to 12-14 per team could also help make the game look distinct from the NFL. Cynics would suggest that it in the short run, it would reduce the talent level, which might make it easier to score more touchdowns. Actually, that's precisely the goal. Besides, the growth of minor football in Canada, the way it's taken off in Quebec and the increased number of players going to NCAA Division 1 schools suggests the raw talent will be there to support having more Canadian players. One consequence might be that teams, as they did in the '90s, will reserve the import slots more for playmakers on offence than shutdown defenders.

It might (stress, might) also force teams, at long last, to invest in Canadian quarterbacks who grew up aspiring to play in the CFL. It often seems like teams have to be vanilla on offence since they're dealing with American QBs who have trouble adjusting to the unique angles and geometry of the Canadian game. Someone who grew up playing Canadian football, even if they went to the NCAA, could have less of a learning curve than the NFL wannabes who will jump at the chance to go hold a clipboard for the Kansas City Chiefs.

Meantime, as greater minds have already said, the league and its partners in the media have to at least try to create more awareness about its Canadian players. There's a perception that the league doesn't have Canadian stars, but Jesse Lumsden is in Hamilton's backfield and Ben Cahoon is still going strong with the Alouettes, although they're barely known outside their own cities.

The point is, the CFL can't just expect people to continue caring just because it's a self-proclaimed Canadian institution. It's been competing quite well, given its means, against the NFL for about 40 years, since pro football became the dominant TV sport in the United States. The arrival of the Bills should inspire a shake-up and a push to define the league.

A branch-plant mentality is not going to save the CFL.

(Now, about the Bills: Anyone in Ontario who's a fan of the Buffalo Bills, like friend of the blog Darryl G. Smart, will be perfectly justified in disowning the Toronto Bills. A Kissing Suzy Kolber commenter had a helpful suggestion: "Bills fans should throw their united support behind the Browns. That way, you can the largest group of some of the most horribly tortured sports fans all together in one place."

How about that Bills Toronto Series corporate logo? The effort put into it really shows, really.)

Feeling deflated after the Grey Cup (Nov. 27, 2007)


Robert C. said...

Plus it seems like the CFL keeps recycling the same coaches over and over. Get some new blood in there.

My sister likes NFL football but she did go to an Argos game last year, the final score was 16-8..... needless to say she wasn't impressed.

Duane Rollins said...

I made a similar comment in a post earlier this month:

Step 1) increase the amount of non-imports by one each of the next three years (at minimum).

Step 2) After giving teams a three year warning require each team to carry one non-import QB

Step 3) Get into Halifax or Moncton

Step 4) Embrace the NFL in Canada. Look at it as an opportunity to grow the sport, not as a death to the Canadian game.

Anonymous said...

--and refurbish the stadiums both in Ottawa and hamiltom.

Tyler King said...

Hahaha. Canadian quarterbacks. Neate, you so crazy.

Dennis Prouse said...

The CFL, of course, actively discriminates against Canadian QBs via their roster rules. The rules state you are allowed to carry 20 Canadians, 18 imports, two designated imports, and "three quarterbacks of any nationality". Gee, I wonder which nationality they will pick? With other positions, CFL eams can benefit from "ratio busters", Canadians who can play a position typically reserved for imports. Davis Sanchez was a ratio buster, for example, as a Canadian who could play corner. With QBs, teams get zero roster benefit from having a Canadian backup or third stringer, so why bother? It is the most idiotic rule the CFL has, or has ever had.

I confronted Bobby Ackles about it one night on a call in show in Vancouver, but Bobby made like a politician and answered a totally different question from the one I actually posed. The host, for his part, was too dumb to actually understand my question.

sager said...

A dumb radio host in Vancouver? Why I never.