1. The CFL is professional football. It’s a serious business, with incredible tradition and a countrywide love of the game. Popp and I worked together daily to put the best product on the field that we could. It’s the same with our GM in Chicago now, Phil Emery. Phil is a tremendous leader, evaluator of talent, a great sounding board, highly intelligent and a tremendous support system. He works tirelessly to improve our personnel on a daily basis.
2. It’s a numbers game. Just working through the maintenance of your football team every day was a great learning experience for me in Montreal. For instance, because of the ratio I discussed earlier and the 42-man roster, where seven Canadians have to start, an injury to a Canadian player is significant. He must be replaced by a Canadian. If the Canadian is not replaceable at the same position an “import” (or “American”) player must be benched. So the dynamic of preparation every week is different, and a little more difficult, than it is in the NFL. You’ve got to have development players in the pipeline. Many teams in Canada will have five starting offensive linemen from Canada as we did in Montreal so skill positions could be occupied by U.S. players,
3. Money matters. The minimum salary for a CFL player is $45,000, about 12 percent of the NFL minimum … but the average team in the CFL might take in about 15 percent of what an NFL team will earn in a year.
4. The West Coast is effective in the Great White North. The biggest X-and-O lesson I learned in the CFL was “customizing” the West Coast Offense for the shotgun offense that’s used in Canada. In 1995, as the offensive coordinator in San Francisco, I got to know Bill Walsh, and I learned the West Coast Offense as Bill, Mike Holmgren and Mike Shanahan had taught it. But it was all done with the quarterback under center. In Canada, with all the motion and how fast everything is at the start of every play, it was better to start from the shotgun; we were 100 percent shotgun in Montreal. When I went to Canada, we decided that even though we had a wider field, we were going to design our passing game as if it was an NFL field. I never thought I was smart enough to figure out the CFL passing philosophy and use of the field, so honestly, I never tried. With Anthony Calvillo, an extremely smart and accurate passer—the Drew Brees of Canada—we were able to get this done during a very short two-week training camp.
We were fortunate to play in the Grey Cup my first year, and lost. Then we won it the next two. We had highly competitive teams all five years. We had an outstanding coaching staff, a high character team with good players who truly loved the game and the great Calvillo, who retired last season after setting most of the passing records in league history.
The rules in Canada were brilliantly conceived. It’s more of a mental challenge on game day. For example, on a missed field goal, the kicking team gets a point. But if the opponent runs it out of the end zone, the point is taken off the board. There are many tedious rules like this that make it challenging to manage a game. But the rules make sense and are tied to making the game extremely challenging from a game management point of view.
Because you have three downs to make a first down instead of four like U.S. football, most people would say, “You’ve got to make a first down in two downs, or punt on third down.” But because the defense is a yard off the ball, if you are third-and-one or less, most teams go for it. So if you make nine yards on two downs your chances of moving the chains are very good. The kicking game is extremely exciting. Because there are no fair catches, the covering team has to leave a five-yard halo around the returner so he can catch the ball. The return game therefore has more chances for explosive plays. With the wider field, the quicker players can make more things happen.
Finally, you are never out of a game in the CFL. In the final three minutes of each half the clock stops after every play. With three-down football, you can have five or six exchanges of possession in the final three minutes. There is no protecting the lead in the CFL, believe me. I can give you a great example of that.
In the 2009 Grey Cup, against Saskatchewan, the game was played in Calgary. We got off to an awful start, and we were down 17-3 at the half, then down 27-11 with 10 minutes to go. Then everything came together for us on offense, defense, and special teams. Our players made big plays at exactly the right time. We got to within 27-25 with five seconds left, and our kicker, Damon Duval, lined up for the last play of the game, a field goal. He kicked … and missed. Right away, flags began to fly, and Saskatchewan picked up the missed field goal and started running downfield. But the call was against Saskatchewan—13 men on the field. That’s a 10-yard penalty. So with no time left on the clock, we got to try a 33-yard field goal, and Damon made it. We won, 28-27. The stars were aligned. It was really an act of God, and a great illustration of what happens when the ball changes hands so often in three-down football.
The Grey Cup parades we had in Montreal a few days after the 2009 and 2010 titles were incredible. Around 500,000 people filled the streets of Montreal for those celebrations. Seeing men, women and children with smiles on their faces was awesome. The best part of winning those two Grey Cups was having the privilege during exit meetings to remind the players to “tell our story.” The story, they knew, was about the journey we had taken like all championship teams do—overcoming adversity and success, the respect and humility in our locker room, and the friendships we had made over our time together. Finally how we gave up part of ourselves to be part of something bigger and that doing so was well worth it. These ideals had resonated throughout the organization.
My time in Montreal made for a very smooth transition to the Bears. I hope you get a chance to see some Canadian football this summer, while you’re waiting for the NFL to begin. I know I’ll be watching when I get the chance.
Travel Note of the Week
In the CFL, you don’t travel on charter planes the way you do in the NFL. We traveled on regular commercial flights or trains in my five years up north, and once, we had a pretty interesting experience flying out of the Montreal airport for a game in Calgary. We were weather-delayed for almost nine hours on a stop in Toronto. We wound up having two walk-through practices in a closed section of one of the terminals. There was one person in the space when we arrived—a man playing a cello. He had as much right to the space as we did. So we held our walk-thru there, while the guy played his cello. I give our guys credit: They were not distracted by the guy playing the cello. We just focused in on getting our work done.
Five Things I Think I Think
The Things I Think are being done by The MMQB’s editor-in-chief and normal author of the column, Peter King, to explain our Canada coverage over the next week.
1. I think I’d like to thank Marc Trestman for kicking off our CFL coverage—seeing he’s the NFL guy most well-versed on the Canadian landscape. I’d also tell you this: Over the years we’ve probably had 30 or so people guest-write this column, and I don’t recall one who wanted every word just so the way Trestman did. He and I went back and forth four or five times with corrections and additions. I can see why his players all say he’s a great detail guy. He certainly was with me on this column.
2. I think you’ll enjoy the rest of the week’s guest-column CFL stuff. Tuesday we’ll give you Doug Flutie reflecting on the great time he had in his eight-year CFL career, about how he went up there almost out of necessity and got to love it more than the NFL game … and also about how he thinks with the advent of the spread and hurry-up offenses and the lack of prejudice toward short quarterbacks he’d have a better chance of winning a long-term NFL starting job today. Wednesday: Noted and respected Canadian sportswriter Bruce Arthur—formerly of the National Post, now with the Toronto Star—writes about the CFL and its small-town charm.
3. I think this is the rest of our coverage plan for the week, with some flexibility built in based on what we find in our reporting:
a. Emily Kaplan on the heavy community involvement of players, with even the great ones (many of them) working jobs in their team’s cities in the off-season.
b. Jenny Vrentas at Toronto-Winnipeg, filing overnight Thursday after the evening game that opens the CFL season, with the color of the game and the crowd.
c. I’ll be at two games: Montreal at Calgary on Saturday afternoon, and Hamilton at Saskatchewan on Sunday evening. I’ll be writing a CFL-apolooza for my Monday Morning Quarterback next week, live from Regina.
d. I’ll be driving from Calgary to Regina, and if all goes well Saturday night, I may just have a beer in Medicine Hat. Now, how many people outside of those on the great prairie can say they’ve had a beer in Medicine Hat? Suggestions appreciated, by the way.
e. A week from tomorrow, my Tuesday column will be almost all from you. I want to hear about our coverage—whether you care, whether you don’t, whether you just want a break from football, whatever. So please send your comments in next Monday, either by email or in the comments section below my column, and we’ll print as many of them as we can.
4. I think my big boss at Sports Illustrated, Paul Fichtenbaum, had an interesting comment when I told him about our “Canada Week” plans. “Peter,’’ he said, “how many people are going to read this?’’ I told him I didn’t know, but part of what I want to do at The MMQB is to troll the waters with different ideas. If our numbers are very low, we get the message; we won’t cover the CFL anymore. If they’re high, well, we’ll probably cover the Grey Cup this year. So it’s up to you, the readers and video viewers (yes, we will have a videographer with me on the weekend in Alberta and Saskatchewan) to determine whether we do more CFL coverage. I will say that I have a good feeling about it. When I said on Twitter we planned some CFL stories and I wanted to know where to go, I got a landslide of responses—so many of you say we’ve got to go to Saskatchewan because of the fervor of the ‘Rider fans—and I’m hopeful that all of you will come back to the site often this week and read what we’ve got.
5. I think, finally, I’d love to hear your suggestions for Vrentas in Winnipeg and me in Calgary and Regina. What’s fun to do? Who should we write about? What good fan stories are there? Got good local places for us to try? How about the best tailgating spots in the three venues? Tweet us @JennyVrentas and @SI_PeterKing with your ideas. Thanks. Really looking forward to what should be a fun week.