Football, Canadian style
Story by Chris Graham
Jack Bedell is, by day, a poet and college professor in Louisiana.
On nights and weekends, though, Bedell is a football fanatic – and his football of choice is Canadian.
“Everything that we like in the modern era about the NFL, and then with the rise in popularity of the Arena League and Arena2, those are the things that the Canadian league has been based on – the wide-open passing game, the multiple-receiver sets, the use of running backs as much more diverse players than just someone to be just a three-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust-type player. I think all of that stuff is the 100 percent backbone of the CFL – and makes for an exciting audience game,” said Bedell, an English professor at Southeastern Louisiana University and regular contributor to CFLInsider.com.
“The pace of the game is great. With a 20-second time clock instead of a 40-second clock, with only one timeout per half – the pace of the game is incredible. All of the things that we kind of complain about as American NFL fans are taken care of in the rules system and have been for 30 years in the CFL,” Bedell told The Augusta Free Press.
The Canadian Football League is indeed alluring to fans in the United States – and to U.S.-based college and professional players, who have long viewed the close cousin of American football as an outlet for jumpstarting or extending their football careers.
Because of the differences in the two games – the CFL field is 10 yards longer and 12 yards wider than the field used in the National Football League, and CFL games are played with 12 players on the field for each team, one more than the number of players per team on the field in the NFL – players overlooked by the NFL as being supposedly undersized are valued in Canada, where the emphasis is not as much on size as it is on speed and quickness.
“The players whose skillsets are not necessarily what are prestenciled-in to the NFL scouts’ clipboards definitely benefit from the more wide-open game,” Bedell said.
“You’ve got rush ends who are 6-1, 225, 230 – your Dwight Freeney types – who are playing on every team up there. It’s the rare occasion when a Dwight Freeney gets drafted high in the NFL. Most of the time, players that size with that skillset are overlooked and have to really fight and claw to get on an NFL roster as unsigned free agents. In Canada, it’s the lifeblood of defense – with the size of the field and defensive schemes that are played by every team,” Bedell said.
Offensive players who are considered undersized also benefit from the more wide-open game played in the CFL. Wide receiver Kerry Watkins was written off as too small (5-10, 183 pounds) coming out of Georgia Tech – but he has flourished in Canada, catching 97 passes for 1,364 yards for Montreal in 2005 to emerge as a breakout star in his second season up north.
“The way the game is played up here, we’re throwing it pretty much 90 percent of the time. It’s a receivers’ league, and that’s what we love about it,” Watkins told the “ACC Nation” radio show in an interview last month.
“It’s extremely fun. You enjoy it. It’s almost like a track meet. You’re running constantly, so you pay the price. But it all pays off,” Watkins said.
Former North Carolina quarterback Darian Durant – a 5-11, 214-pounder who spent part of the 2005 season on the practice roster of the NFL’s Baltimore Ravens – differs with Watkins in his assessment of the CFL as a “receiver’s league.”
“It’s a quarterback’s league,” Durant told “ACC Nation” earlier this month.
“The main thing is just getting adjusted to having an extra guy on the field,” Durant said of the key difference in the style of play. “They play with 12 guys up here – and most of the time it’s an extra defensive back. So that’s the main thing. The field is a little wider, so of course you have to be careful with some of the throws that you make.
“It kind of takes me back to my high-school days – when I played with four or five wide receivers every down. It’s definitely something that a quarterback would love to do,” Durant said.
Fans in the States have long had the opportunity to follow former college stars like Durant and Watkins in the CFL – CFL games were broadcast for years on ESPN and ESPN2 before moving to America One and several regional sports channels in the current decade.
The league famously tried to capitalize on the Stateside fan interest by expanding into the U.S. in the 1990s – though to say that the move didn’t exactly work out would be an understatement.
“I wasn’t surprised that it didn’t work,” said Steve O’Brien, the author of The Canadian Football League: The Phoenix of Professional Sports Leagues, which traces Canadian football back to its origins in the 19th century.
“They’ve always tried to have a U.S. presence – but that’s not why they did this expansion,” O’Brien told the AFP. “The CFL was essentially bankrupt in ’92 – so they were trying to find new revenues. And they didn’t have the luxury of time, and they didn’t have the luxury of properly checking out owners. Basically, they didn’t do their homework.”
O’Brien and Bedell agree that the expansion could have been a success had it not been for the fact that the league tried to place teams in markets that didn’t seem to be a logical fit.
“It could’ve worked in some markets – but going into the Deep South like they did with Shreveport, Memphis and Birmingham, and then in ’95, Las Vegas, that was a disaster waiting to happen,” O’Brien said.
“I thought it was a curious move to come down to the South. It was a curious choice not to try Michigan or Maine or Portland – places where at least people could put their rabbit ears up and catch Canadian games. It looks like that would have been the cities that they picked – but they chose to come down South in markets that are college markets to us. I think that had as much to do with the failure of those franchises as anything – that they came down to a place where Alabama and Auburn rules, or Shreveport, which is just not a city capable of maintaining a professional team,” Bedell said.
There is talk yet again, O’Brien said, of adding perhaps two U.S.-based teams to the league – to augment the noticeably skinny lineup of eight franchises that are competing for the Grey Cup in 2006.
“If you listen to the league propaganda, the league has never been healthier – the sponsorship revenues are up, the TV ratings are at an all-time high, they’re drawing younger fans to the stands and to the TV. Everything on that front looks good,” O’Brien said.
“It’s been a steady buildup almost from the last decade – from the time they got the loan from the NFL. They were on death’s door by the time of the ’96 Grey Cup – and then little by little, they clawed their way back,” O’Brien said.
“Canadian football has been around since the time the country was founded – back in the 1860s,” O’Brien said. “One point that I tried to get across in the book was that no matter what the CFL does to itself, or what anybody tries to do to it, it has this uncanny knack for survival – and it’s proven that more than once.”
That, among many things, is what is appealing about Canadian football to the American poet-professor Bedell.
“I think it can only grow in terms of its fan base in the States – especially with the television exposure that it’s getting right now,” Bedell said.
“More and more fans who have DirecTV or Comcast or Fox can pick these games up – and even though it’s not really well marketed down here, once they see that every roster is full of big-time NCAA talent or players that might have had a cup of coffee in the NFL, I think they would get hooked,” Bedell said.
“If you watch 10 minutes of a CFL game, I think that’s enough to sell any football fan,” Bedell said.