Two days before the team's rookies reported to training camp, coach Don Matthews spelled out his expectations for the Baltimore Football Club.
"This is the greatest bunch of talent that we coaches have ever had. Anything short of a Grey Cup this year will be a total disappointment," Matthews said. "That's because of the talent of these players. We think we're that good."
And as Baltimore prepares for its season opener tonight against the British Columbia Lions, its players couldn't be happier with the opponent and the site.
Seven months ago, Baltimore made history by reaching the Grey Cup game, becoming the first expansion team in sports history to reach a championship contest. But that celebration was doused by the B.C. Lions, who erased a 10-point, second-half deficit, then sent the crowd at B.C. Place into delirium by winning the Canadian Football League's most coveted prize on a field goal with no time remaining.
Seven months later, Baltimore is back under different circumstances, but knocking on the same door in Vancouver. Boasting a roster loaded with speed, returning starters and proven and potential All-CFL performers, Baltimore is the
overwhelming pick to win the league's Southern Division and return to the Grey Cup.
Baltimore's first order of business, however, involves sending a message to the team that made the BFC's off-season restless.
Anyone up for a little revenge?
"It's not just a matter of us beating them [Lions]. It's how bad we're going to beat them. I want to humiliate them. I want to destroy their confidence," said rush end Elfrid Payton. "I want them going to the sidelines saying they can't move the ball against us. It's personal to me."
Said linebacker O. J. Brigance: "Each game is a big game, and it only makes it sweeter that we're going back to the last place we played in and the last place we lost in. There's no doubt that we have some unfinished business, and it's going to be a little personal and not all business when we go out there. I plan for there to be trouble for them [Lions].
"We are 200 or 300 percent better than we were. At the beginning of the season last year, everyone was getting a feel for everyone. This time around, [the coaches] knew what they had, and they knew what they needed to go out and get."
What Baltimore did was get better, at least on paper. Start with the defense, which returns 10 starters from a unit that probably was the league's best by November last year. Led by such veterans as cornerbacks Irv Smith and Karl Anthony, nose tackle Jearld Baylis, Payton and Brigance, the defense has been fine-tuned.
Brigance moved from rush end to linebacker -- where he #F established himself as a CFL star four years ago in British Columbia -- and seems rejuvenated as a pass rusher. His replacement, rookie and former NFL player Jock Jones, brings more pressure from Brigance's old spot. Rookie linebacker Jason Bryant has been terrific on special teams.
In the secondary, former backup free safety Lester Smith unseated incumbent Michael Brooks and is expected to solidify the run defense. Halfbacks Ken Watson and Charles Anthony are established, as are outside linebackers Matt Goodwin and Tracey Gravely.
Dress rehearsal went exceptionally well for the defense. In Baltimore's lopsided exhibition victories over Ottawa and Birmingham, the defense surrendered a total of four points.
"Our opponent this week will be of a higher caliber, but there's no question the defense has looked dominant," Matthews said.
The offense, third best in the league last year and returning 10 starters, hasn't looked too shabby, either.
Baltimore scored 82 points in the two exhibition games, largely with some familiar faces. Quarterback Tracy Ham, who rested against Ottawa, burned Birmingham for 222 yards and three touchdowns on 13-for-16 passing.
Slot back Chris Armstrong scored three touchdowns and averaged 24.3 yards on seven catches. Running back Mike Pringle, who led the league with 3,228 all-purpose yards last year, rushed for 78 yards against Birmingham.
The offensive line was huge by CFL standards last year. $H Baltimore added 300-pound rookie Mike Withycombe, a veteran of four NFL seasons, and he won the starting left guard job. Then there's All-East center Nick Subis (280), left tackle and reigning CFL Most Outstanding Lineman Shar Pourdanesh (280) and returning right guard John Earle (315) and right tackle Neal Fort (330).
Fullback Peter Tuipulotu, a fine blocker and pass catcher, is back, although he will miss the opener with a hamstring pull. His replacement, Robert Drummond, is one of the best athletes on the team and a proven runner.
Veterans Reggie Perry (slot), Robert Clark (wide receiver) and rookie wide-out Shannon Culver round out the receiving corps. Culver, who beat out Walter Wilson for the job, caught six passes for 69 yards and a touchdown against Birmingham.
The kicking game might be the team's most improved area. Carlos Huerta, obtained in the Las Vegas dispersal draft, has kicked six field goals, including five over 40 yards. Josh Miller, the best punter in the league last year, routinely has hit 50-yarders with great hang time.
"On paper, we're better, but paper doesn't win you anything. Now, we have to go out and play," said Matthews, who said he has urged his players not to use revenge as a motivating factor tonight. "I don't believe in those kinds of edges. We should be playing just as hard against Ottawa or B.C. We still have to play them all. But do I have high expectations? Absolutely. We feel like we're good, and we have to go out and play good."
Pringle shares that sentiment.
"I'm not worried about the Grey Cup. I'm worried about B.C. [tonight]," he said. "I think we're going to come out and move the ball on them, march on them down field. The defense is something else. If they continue to play like they've been playing, B.C. and a lot of other teams are in for some long afternoons."
Site: B.C. Place, Vancouver, British Columbia
TV/Radio: Ch. 54/WJFK (1300 AM), WGRX (100.7 FM)
Records: Season opener for both teams
Last meeting: Baltimore lost the 1994 Grey Cup game here to British Columbia, 26-23.
On the sidelines: Baltimore coach Don Matthews has a record of 110-66-1 in 10 CFL seasons. British Columbia's Dave Ritchie begins his third season with the Lions, and has a career record of 24-16-1.
What Baltimore has to do to win: Exploit the unproven left side of B.C.'s offensive line with the excellent pass rush it showed in both of its lopsided exhibition victories. Also, Baltimore must avoid the turnovers that proved costly in last year's Grey Cup. QB Tracy Ham cannot repeat his poor Grey Cup performance.
What B.C has to do to win: Contain RB Mike Pringle, and get a big game from a secondary that may be vulnerable with the loss of Barry Wilburn to the NFL. Offensively, RB Cory Philpot must keep Baltimore's pass rushers honest, giving QB Danny McManus enough time to throw downfield.
Injury report: Baltimore -- WR Joe Washington (hamstring) and FB Peter Tuipulotu (hamstring) are out.
Outlook: Baltimore is in good position to exact some revenge for last year's loss to the Lions. They return 20 of 24 starters, and by moving O.J. Brigance to middle linebacker and adding rookie Jock Jones at Brigance's old defensive end spot, their defense -- which did not give up a touchdown during the preseason -- looks intimidating. Offensively, they have added promising rookies Mike Withycombe and Shannon Culver to a fine offensive line and receiving corps, not to mention Carlos Huerta, one of the league's best place-kickers last year, and kick returner Chris Wright, who had 355 all-purpose yards in the preseason. Against a Lions team that has replaced nine players from last year's championship team, Baltimore should win.