When you think of the Canadian Football League, think of basketball on a football field.
A huge football field. And frenetic, full-court-press basketball.
That's how Jim Popp thinks, anyway. He's the director of player personnel for the CFL Baltimore team, the man charged with stocking the roster of Baltimore's first pro football team in a decade.
"That's the way I look at it," Popp said. "It's such a fast-paced game. There isn't much time between plays. And there's such a big area to cover. It's like a full-court-press basketball game on a football field. It's nonstop. That's why it's so important the shape we're in."
If you have never seen a CFL game, one of the first things you will notice is the pace. It may be the biggest difference in the American and Canadian games.
It is the product of three-down football, a 20-second clock between plays, unlimited motion in the backfield and a 37-man roster. It is also the result of a field that's 11 1/2 yards wider and 30 yards longer than the NFL.
It's even reflected in the league's vocabulary. The CFL rush end is just what it sounds like: a player who comes off the end of the defensive line and rushes the quarterback. They are called defensive ends in the NFL, and there can be a difference of 70 pounds between the two dissimilar positions.
Take O. J. Brigance, for example. At 6 feet, 218 pounds, he's too small to play linebacker in the NFL. Yet, with the British Columbia Lions in the CFL a year ago, he was quick enough to record 20 sacks as an outside linebacker. He was a pass rusher supreme.
With Baltimore this year, in coach Don Matthews' speed-oriented defensive scheme, Brigance is a designated rush end. His job is still pass rusher. He's just lining up in a slightly different position.
Brigance is symbolic of the difference between the American and Canadian games. He is one of the CFL's brightest stars. His quickness is what makes it so. And that's what will sell the Canadian game, if, indeed, Baltimoreans buy into it.
"I really think it will sell here because it's such a fast-paced game," said Brigance, a third-year CFL veteran. "All I've heard is complaints about the American game, as far as the slowness and it being a defensive game.
"In the NFL, defenses have gotten so good it's to the point where they are just shutting offenses down to where you'll have lower scores. This game lends itself to more of a wide-open game with a wider field, with more men [12 to a side].
"Special teams are more of a factor, too. It allows for certain situations to have big runbacks on kickoffs or punt teams. It gives all kinds of scenarios where the game can be more exciting, to where anything can happen at any point."
The NFL was hampered by too many 6-3 games last season. The CFL was blessed with scoring orgies. Twenty-six times in the CFL, the winning team scored 40 or more. Ten times, the winning team scored 50 or more. Twice, including the Sacramento Gold Miners' 64-27 rout of Brigance's Lions in Week 18, the winners went over 60.
Maybe the best game of the season was the Saskatchewan Roughriders' 48-45 victory over the Calgary Stampeders. It was 35-10 at halftime, Saskatchewan. Then the Roughriders lost their starting free safety. Then the roof caved in.
Calgary, led by quarterback Doug Flutie, came back for a 45-45 tie in regulation. Saskatchewan pulled out the game in overtime - that's two five-minute periods in the CFL, not sudden death - with a field goal. Final, 48-45. Matthews and Popp, employed by the Roughriders a year ago, survived that one.
There were other epic finishes last year. In Week 14, Brigance and the Lions led Sacramento 23-12 late in the fourth quarter. But a rally of 15 unanswered points, inspired by a successful onside kick caught in midair, propelled the Gold Miners to an improbable, 27-23 victory.
"I don't think you can call that bad football," Brigance said, "although some people did. It's just the way the game is. It's so fast-paced and so many things happen, you can't leave your seat."
Jearld Baylis, a nose tackle for Baltimore and the CFL's outstanding defensive player a year ago, remembers winning a game with the Toronto Argonauts in 1986 when the Argos were 21 down with three minutes left. "We ended up winning in regulation by a point," he said.
Baylis said he expects the unpredictable CFL style to win over American fans.
"We don't have to mirror the NFL," he said. "The game has its own different image to lay the foundation here. The game will take its own identity. It's a more exciting game because it's very unpredictable. It probably gives bookies nightmares. There are so many ways to score, and so many things can happen."
Offense is the name of the game in the CFL. Rules dictate the style of play. The defense must line up a yard off the ball. Receivers need to get only one foot in bounds for a catch, and punt returners must be given five yards to catch the ball.
Baltimore figures to add to the mayhem with the no-huddle offense. It's been a staple of Matthews' offenses through 10 years as a head coach in the CFL. Veteran quarterback Tracy Ham has the experience and the arm to make it work.
"We're going to do as much no-huddle as Tracy is comfortable with," Matthews said. "More than one-half [of the offensive plays] would be our goal. It's extraordinary, but not extraordinary from the team we had in Toronto in 1990. We ran no-huddle more than half the time that year and averaged 39 points."
Ham said he expects to pick his spots, depending on circumstances.
"I like to do it at the line. I like the defense to make the call as I make the call," he said. "In the East Coast, it's hot in the summer. Did the other team physically prepare itself for 60 minutes of fast football?
"It also takes out the [pass] rush. I think I'll run it in situations. I don't want to hurt my team. We'll go no-huddle when we're struggling. It depends on how our guys are picking it up."
The question is, will Americans - and especially Baltimoreans - pick it up? Will they endorse a game that only a year ago spilled across the Canadian border? Can the CFL find a place in a country weaned on the NFL?
"I don't know," said Brigance. "But if we had two TVs sitting there and no commentary, no 'Monday Night Football,' no music and flashing lights, I think the CFL would really catch your eye. A lot of the game is in the production and how it comes across. I'd be the first one to admit when 'Monday Night Football' comes on, I'm all into it in the first two or three minutes. Hank Williams singing, helmets clash and blow up . . . It's great to see, it's more of a show. And I think fans want to see a show.
"If the fans allow the CFL game a chance, and actually look at it, I think they will really enjoy it and like what they see."
Date .. .. .. ... .. ..Opponent .. .. .. .. ..TV . .. .. .. .. ..Time
Thursday, July 7 .. ...at Toronto .. .. .. ..ESPN2 .. .. .. .. .. .7
Saturday, July 16 .. ..Calgary .. .. .. .. ..ESPN2 .. .. .. .. .7:30
Saturday, July 23 .. ..Shreveport .. .. .. ..Ch. 2 .. .. .. .. .7:30
Thursday, July 28 .. ..at Winnipeg .. .. .. .None .. .. .. .. ..8:30
Saturday, Aug. 6 .. ...at Las Vegas .. .. ...HTS .. .. .. .. ..10:30
Wednesday, Aug. 10 .. .Hamilton .. .. .. .. .None .. .. .. .. ..7:30
Saturday, Aug. 20 .. ..Toronto .. .. .. .. ..Ch. 2 .. .. .. .. .7:30
Saturday, Aug. 27 .. ..at Hamilton .. .. .. .Ch. 2 .. .. .. .. .. .7
Saturday, Sept. 3 .. ..at Shreveport .. .. ..Ch. 2 .. .. .. .. .8:30
Saturday, Sept. 10 .. .Sacramento .. .. .. ..Ch. 2 .. .. .. .. .7:30
Sunday, Sept. 18 .. ...at Saskatchewan .. ...HTS .. .. .. .. .. ...4
Sunday, Sept. 25 .. ...at Ottawa .. .. .. ...None .. .. .. .. ..1:30
Saturday, Oct. 1 .. ...Ottawa .. .. .. .. ...HTS .. .. .. .. ...7:30
Friday, Oct. 7 .. .. ..Las Vegas .. .. .. ...ESPN2 .. .. .. . ..7:30
Sunday, Oct. 16 .. .. .at Edmonton .. .. .. .None .. .. .. .. ..3:30
Saturday, Oct. 22 .. ..British Columbia .. ..HTS .. .. .. .. .. ...2
Saturday, Oct. 29 .. ..Winnipeg .. .. .. .. .HTS .. .. .. .. .. ...2
Saturday, Nov. 5 .. ...at Sacramento .. .. ..HTS .. .. .. .. .. ...9
Notes: All games broadcast on WJFK (1300 AM). All times p.m.
CHRONOLOGY OF BALTIMORE ARRIVAL
Aug. 5, 1993: James L. Speros made a $100,000 nonrefundable deposit for CFL franchise in Baltimore.
Aug. 27, 1993: Speros met with Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke to discuss proposed franchise.
Oct. 26, 1993: NFL granted Charlotte an expansion franchise and deferred a decision on the second expansion site for a month.
Oct. 28, 1993: Speros submitted a five-year lease proposal for Memorial Stadium to Schmoke.
Nov. 30, 1993: NFL awarded Jacksonville its second expansion team of the year.
Dec. 3, 1993: CFL owners approved Speros' application for a franchise in Baltimore, contingent on his getting a stadium lease.
Dec. 15, 1993: Schmoke told Speros he would grant a stadium lease to the CFL if no NFL team made a commitment within 30 days to relocate in Baltimore.
Dec. 30, 1993: Don Matthews resigned as Saskatchewan
Roughriders coach and reached an agreement with Speros to coach Baltimore's prospective expansion team.
Jan. 11, 1994: Memorial Stadium Task Force committee voted 8-0 to recommend the city give Speros a lease.
Jan. 15, 1994: At the request of Gov. William Donald Schaefer, Schmoke postponed the signing of a CFL lease until Feb. 15 pending further talks with the NFL.
vTC Jan. 27, 1994: Speros filed for trademark rights to Baltimore Colts.
Feb. 3, 1994: Speros, Tom Matte and Irv Cross met with Schaefer to discuss renovation plans for Memorial Stadium.
Feb. 6, 1994: Matthews signed a three-year contract with options for three additional years to coach the team. His contract is contingent on Baltimore being awarded a team.
Feb. 15, 1994: Schmoke and Speros signed a five-year lease for the CFL team in a ceremony at City Hall. CFL governors approved the franchise by a unanimous vote that night.
Feb. 17, 1994: Baltimore formally awarded the franchise in a news conference.
Feb. 18, 1994: Quarterback Tracy Ham agreed to a three-year contract to become the team's marquee player.
March 1, 1994: Speros announced he will name the team the CFL Colts. His lawyers filed for declaratory judgment over trademark rights, seeking use of the Baltimore CFL Colts and the Baltimore Colts.
March 20, 1994: Baltimore held an open tryout at Johns Hopkins.
March 25, 1994: Baltimore announced the signing of linebacker O.J. Brigance.
April 8, 1994: Baltimore announced the signing of nose tackle Jearld Baylis to a three-year contract.
April 28, 1994: Speros made bid for the 1996 Grey Cup at league meetings in Las Vegas.
April 29, 1994: NFL filed a civil suit in U.S. District Court in Indianapolis seeking to collect unspecified damages and to stop Speros' use of the Colts' name.
May 11, 1994: Speros announced he will hold his first training camp at Towson State.
May 27, 1994: John Unitas participated in ribbon-cutting ceremonies as training camp began.
June 27, 1994: U.S. District Judge Larry J. McKinney sided with the NFL and ordered Baltimore's CFL team to stop using the name Colts. Speros vowed to keep fighting for the name and said for now the team will be called the CFLs.
June 29, 1994: The CFL team made its Baltimore debut in an exhibition game before a crowd of 28,798 at Memorial Stadium. Baltimore defeated the Winnipeg Blue Bombers, 45-43, on Donald Igwebuike's 47-yard field goal on the last play of overtime.