In a league notorious for run-and-gun offense, the Baltimore CFL Colts yesterday reached for the antidote.
On the day the Canadian Football League expansion team showed off its royal blue and silver uniforms, it signed free-agent linebacker O. J. Brigance, who rolled up 20 sacks last season as a pass-rushing specialist for the British Columbia Lions.
Moments after Brigance was introduced in a formal ceremony at the Light Street Pavilion, his new coach described him as the Lawrence Taylor of the pass-happy CFL.
"The style of player O. J. is, he's patterned after Taylor of the [New York] Giants," said Colts coach Don Matthews. "He gives us the ability to have a tremendous rush guy."
Brigance grinned at the thought, then stepped carefully around the landmine.
"Those are big shoes," he said. "I'm not going to say I'm LT. I'll just say I'm the best O. J. Brigance anyone has ever seen."
In the 6-foot, 220-pound Brigance, the Colts get an undersized linebacker -- by NFL standards -- who plays sideline to sideline, whose best asset is sheer speed. Switched from inside linebacker to the outside last year, he blossomed as one of the CFL's dominating defensive players. His 20 sacks ranked second in the league and earned a spot on the Western Conference All-Star team.
Colts owner Jim Speros was ecstatic over his newest catch. "I feel we've got a marquee guy on defense," he said. "He'll have a major impact on defense. It is one of the most important moves we've made."
If defense wins championships in the CFL, it's been a good week for the Colts. They also reached an agreement in principle with free-agent nose tackle Jearld Baylis, who played under Matthews with the Saskatchewan Roughriders the last two years. Baylis probably won't sign his contract until next week.
Lucy Baylis, Jearld's wife and agent, said the contract will make him the highest-paid defensive player in the league, ahead of linebacker Willie Pless of the Edmonton Eskimos.
Brigance, 24, and Baylis, 32, join middle linebacker Ken Benson (free agent from the Toronto Argonauts) and tackle Robert Presbury of Edgewood High in a defense that suddenly has some teeth. "We're not done yet," Matthews said.
Matthews said the Colts are also talking with a trio of free-agents defensive backs -- Charles Anthony of Saskatchewan, and Carl Anthony and Ken Watson of Calgary. Matthews said another prospect, former Washington Redskin Barry Wilburn, is expected sign with the Kansas City Chiefs.
Brigance, who signed a one-year contract with an option, was sold on Baltimore during a recruiting visit here last month. The prospect of escaping Canada's high tax bracket was equally convincing.
"What it came down to was the opportunity to come state-side, with a more favorable tax situation," he said. "When I came to Baltimore a month ago, the fans were so excited, you could feel the anticipation. I think it's genuine excitement. Vancouver is a hockey town; Canada's first love is hockey. In Baltimore, I saw football being first class. This will be a CFL team in an NFL city."
Brigance grew up in Missouri City, Texas, and later was an All-Southwest Conference linebacker at Rice. Yesterday, caught up in the moment, Brigance guaranteed the fans at the Inner Harbor a winner.
"That's my attitude," he said later. "I expect us to be a winner . . . We have experienced CFL coaches, so we'll have a leg up. I expect us to be a lot stronger than Sacramento was."
NOTES: The team will raffle off a season-ticket package and a trip to the season opener in Toronto on July 7 at ColtFest today, a fan appreciation affair from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. at Memorial Stadium. . . . Maryland products Marcus Badgett and Andre Vaughn (Oakland Mills) wore the Colts' home and away uniforms yesterday. . . . Speros announced that former Colt Joe Washington will participate on an advisory board, comprised of local businessmen who'll assist the CFL effort.