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Canadian game puts fun back in football


TORONTO -- So, we go from Unitas-to-Berry to third-and-inches at the 55-yard-line . . .

From 23-17 in overtime at Yankee Stadium to 3-1 in the first quarter at SkyDome (then 4-3, then 10-4, then 11-4) . . .

From Artie to Jearld . . .

From the Colts to (name withheld due to pending litigation) . . .

From the greatest game ever played to a game in which a 91-yard kick return can put the ball on the 35-yard-line (we'll explain in a minute) . . .

OK, it's not exactly what we had in mind when we talked about pro football returning to our grand old football town.

You won't hear me complaining.

Not when every receiver goes in motion on every play, at the same time.

Not when every other punt return goes long, or so it seems.

Not when the defense is in the "prevent" formation on every play, and you can go for two after a touchdown, and guys named Gizmo and Pinball can ruin your day.

We're in the CFL now, hon, and you can count me in. I'm buying a sweater and booking my flights for the Saskatchewan trip this morning.

No, the CFL is not Madden and his telestrator, Deion covering Rice, Emmitt Smith up the middle. No, it's not the football you grew up with; not the football that made the sport an American cultural icon. But anyone who doesn't buy the CFL variety is either a) a boring NFL button-down geek, b) a close, personal friend of Paul Tagliabue, or c) xenophobic.

This is fun. Period.

Here are some of the things that happened in Baltimore's 28-20 victory over the Toronto Argonauts last night in the franchise's first regular-season game:

A 91-yard field-goal return. Two punt returns for touchdowns (one called back). Five plays from scrimmage of 20 or more yards in the first half alone. A failed two-point conversion. A blocked field goal.

In other words, more jolts than any three NFL games combined.

The teams combined for 692 yards of offense and 489 yards of returns, or approximately 20 yards of ball movement per minute. Of the 121 plays from scrimmage, 86 were passes.

Woody Hayes simply would have had to leave the building.

"Any time you have a game in which offense is such an important part, it's going to be breathtaking," said Baltimore quarterback Tracy Ham, who passed for 260 yards. "That's the best part of the Canadian game. We don't keep you long, but we keep you busy."

Admittedly, part of the appeal at this point, for a longtime NFL follower, is the sheer newness of the Canadian game, the dramatic difference. Watching it, after years of watching the NFL, is a startling experience.

You're startled when a team punts on third down, when second-and-long is a must conversion.

You're startled when a team scores a point, one, if the opponent fails to run a kick out of the end zone. (It's called a "rouge," and don't make fun of it. It's my all-time favorite scoring play in any sport, including jai alai. Just once I want to be able to write, "They fought hard, but in the end they were victimized by too many rouges.")

You're startled when the kick returner gives up the point in return for moving the ball back out to the spot of the kick.

Last night's game turned on such a kick. Late in the first quarter, the Argos attempted a 47-yard field goal that flew wide. Baltimore's Shannon Culver caught it standing 16 yards deep in the 20-yard end zone. Electing not to give the Argos the rouge, he started running. Crossed the goal line. Found running room. And ran. And ran. And ran some more.

By the time he was tackled at the Argos' 35-yard-line, he had returned the ball 91 yards. The Baltimore (name withheld due to pending litigation) scored a touchdown in two plays to take a 10-4 lead. The Argos never led again.

At the end of the night, coach Don Matthews gave the game ball to owner Jim Speros, and the locker room was a loud, happy place. A win in the first game is sweet in any league. Who needs a name when you're undefeated?

From two exhibitions and one regular-season game it is clear what the new team in town has going for it. You've never heard of Matthews, but he's a solid, respected professional who knows the CFL game and tends to win. Most CFL-watchers expect his team to contend for a division title. The team also has a couple of exceptional players in defensive tackle Jearld Baylis and kicker Donald Igwebuike. The latter is so good he's a ringer.

Of course, the team needed some luck to escape with a win last night. The Argos' squirmy Pinball Clemons returned a punt for a touchdown early in the third quarter, but a penalty nullified the score. What did Pinball do? He just returned the next punt for a score.

Then, when the Argos drove to the goal line at the end and threatened to score, they inexplicably threw short of the end zone on their final play. Brilliant play-calling.

"Typical CFL game," Ham said. "Lots of momentum swings. Right down to the end."

So, here we go, gang. For better or for worse. If the NFL never comes to town, this is our football future.

Rouges and Pinball and 3-1.

Suits me fine.

The Canadian writers were telling me last night about this guy on Edmonton named Henry "Gizmo" Williams, who has returned 21 punts for touchdowns in his CFL career.

You gotta see him to believe him, they said.

& Looking forward to it.

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