How Baltimore has come this far in its first season as an upstart expansion franchise in the Canadian Football League -- from the mere seed of an idea -- continues to be an astonishing development. It's being talked about with envy and a degree of wonderment in two countries.
The scenario had its beginning when owner Jim Speros brought the CFL and Baltimore together. Then he had the wisdom to hire the two most essential figures, coach Don Matthews and personnel director Jim Popp, to establish the kind of competitive team that has achieved unprecedented success.
Even in the National Football League, questions are being asked about how all this transpired so quickly. There are no magic wands being waved by Matthews or Popp. They are well-versed professionally in what they're doing and are capable enough to make it happen.
Expansion clubs are operating in Sacramento, Las Vegas and Shreveport, but in no other site have they approached Baltimore's progress. Even some of the CFL's charter clubs, extending back for more than a century, haven't scored with such dramatic swiftness.
Popp approaches the task of finding personnel with simplicity, nothing complex or sophisticated. He rarely sees a college game, as other scouts insist on doing, but prefers to watch on television or via film. His approach to locating the right players is so basic it puts the method of finding prospects in an entirely different perspective.
It's an elementary philosophy, one that's almost laughable. "The first question I ask is, 'Can he play football?' " Popp explains. Simplistic? Yes, but let him elaborate. "I don't want to know starting out how big he is or how fast he can run. But can he play football?"
Other teams in the CFL and NFL are guided by what the scale and stopwatch tell them. Not Popp and Matthews. "The NFL and in our league, too, they go for numbers," Popp said. "Sometimes you'll see a kid do a 4.4 sprint but in a game he runs a 5-flat. You see some phenomenal times but maybe the same player can't run a route or catch the ball."
Matthews knows what he wants in talent and Popp reads him well. They are the ideal combination. "Remember this: Great players don't always fit a system," Popp says. "There are hundreds of examples. Tony Mandarich was supposed to be the greatest lineman to ever come to the NFL. But he was projected to be something he wasn't. A great run blocker, but he lacked ability as a pass protector."
From Popp's perspective, three things have made the Baltimore effort possible. Again, it's a fundamental concept. "You need a coach, the kind of players who fit the scheme of the coach and they must blend together," he said. "Don can relate to players. He's honest with them. Players know if he says practice is to run 90 minutes it'll be that. There's a trust factor and he establishes it.
"He wants the team on time for meetings, the players to stay out of trouble and to break their butts in practice. He's straight up. Jim Speros, from a football background, knows what it takes. He leaves us alone. He understands the game and why decisions are made."
The fact American franchises in the CFL have not been restricted, as the Canadian clubs are, in signing imports is a fact of football life but not as important as it's made out to be. "Don't underestimate the Canadians and the system they grew up with," adds Popp. "They are excellent athletes. You have to remember in Canada, as in Europe, sports aren't No. 1. Education is."
Popp, only 29, was born into a football-oriented family. His father Joe, who now lives in Mooresville, N.C., coached and scouted at the college level and also in the NFL. Young Jim was a player at Michigan State.
He joined Matthews as a personnel director in 1992 with the Saskatchewan Roughriders and made the move to Baltimore with him last February. On game days, he's on the sidelines helping with special teams. He believes there are more talented athletes in the CFL, especially among interior linemen and linebackers, than in the NFL, where bulk is over-emphasized.
The CFL offers speed and agility, even if its players lack the size to be seriously considered by teams in the other league. Actually, the preponderance of the Baltimore roster is comprised of CFL and NFL veterans with few inexperienced recruits. However, Matt Goodwin of Iowa State has a strong chance to win Rookie of the Year in the CFL.
As a testimonial to Matthews' judgment, Popp talks about Tracy Ham: "Don knew he was a leader. He'll hand off the ball and run to open things up. He's not selfish and doesn't worry about statistics. Why do we have him? Because he was available and Don felt he was the best of all free agents.
"Toronto traded for him before it had a coach, who turned out to be Mouse Davis, who was a run-and-shoot innovator. Great players don't always fit a system and Ham represents exactly what we're talking about. Another thing about Matthews is when the NFL makes final cuts he picks up only a few. He just knows what he's doing."
It was only eight months ago when the CFL and Baltimore came together. Tomorrow, presto, they're in a pivotal game against Winnipeg that could decide the division. For an expansion team to come this far in its first season is without precedent in any sport.