Colts kick off new era, attitude here

May 27, 1994|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,Sun Staff Writer

Anticipation gives birth to reality when professional football -- in the form of the Canadian Football League -- returns to Baltimore this morning after a 10-year hiatus.

Christened the CFL Colts after the NFL team they're replacing, the expansion team leaps off the drawing board with a 9 a.m. practice at Towson State.

The five-week training camp begins with high expectations and lofty goals. The team's personality -- and its reputation -- will come later.

"We're going to have an attitude, we're going to play with an attitude," said Don Matthews, the coach. "We're going to expect to win. And I'm going to surround myself with people who believe in that and work toward that end."

Approximately 90 players, minus a dozen CFL veterans due to report June 10, will participate in Baltimore's first pro football training camp since 1983. It is the first pro football camp at Towson since 1973, when Howard Schnellenberger was a rookie coach and Bert Jones a rookie quarterback.

To help mark the occasion, these Colts have invited Hall of Famer John Unitas for "ribbon-cutting" ceremonies.

Then, finally, Baltimore will get a glimpse of this work in progress. Ninety-nine days after Jim Speros formally was

granted an expansion franchise, Matthews' blueprint for success will hit the field.

The Colts wanted a mobile quarterback who could create big plays out of sheer chaos. They got the man Matthews wanted most: Tracy Ham, 30, a seven-year CFL veteran and the team's marquee player.

They wanted some dominating defensive players who can rush the passer. They got two of the best in nose tackle Jearld Baylis, the CFL's defensive player of the year in 1993, and pass rusher O. J. Brigance, who had 20 sacks a year ago for the British Columbia Lions.

They wanted running backs who were as skilled catching the ball as lugging it into the line. They got some intriguing possibilities in Sheldon Canley, who spent a year on the San Francisco 49ers' active roster, and Peter Tuipulotu, who spent two seasons with the San Diego Chargers. They'll even attempt to recycle former Super Bowl hero Tim Smith.

They wanted experience in the secondary, where defenders must cope with unlimited motion and scrambling quarterbacks. They signed two free agents from the Calgary Stampeders, Karl Anthony and Ken Watson, and traded for Enis Jackson of the Toronto Argonauts. Those three combine for 14 years of CFL experience.

It's even better than Matthews thought it would be.

"I said in the beginning the key to our success was to get experienced [CFL] players in the free-agent market," he said. "We have been even more successful than I had hoped.

"I anticipate being competitive the very first regular-season game. I do not want, or expect, to have any growing pains. . . . We've got enough veterans to demand success immediately."

If experience holds up through two-a-days, the Colts could have as many as 15 players with extensive CFL resumes. For that reason, they should have no trouble exceeding the expansion record of 6-12 by the Sacramento Gold Miners in 1993.

"When you look realistically, I don't look at us as an expansion team at all," said Jim Popp, Colts director of player personnel. "That shouldn't be an excuse if we're not winning. It's a question of how long before the guys are playing together. I think it will happen here a lot faster than most places because of Don."

Matthews' track record says he will win early and often. He is the sixth-winningest coach in CFL history, with a 96-59-1 record. He never has had a losing record when he's been with a team the full season. In 17 CFL seasons, he's been to the Grey Cup eight times -- six straight as defensive coordinator with the Edmonton Eskimos and twice as head coach of the B.C. Lions.

His track record also suggests how Matthews' teams will win: with defense -- in a league known for explosive offense.

"I'm going to build a successful team with defense first," said Matthews, 54. "When we decided where to spend our money . . . the focus was on defense.

"Don't misunderstand that this will be a defensive team and there will be 10-8 ballgames. It's not. It's a CFL game where you try to get the ball back for the offense as much as possible, so we have more opportunities to score. That's going to be the name of the game."

On offense, the burden of scoring will fall to Ham, who was the CFL's most outstanding quarterback in 1989 for Edmonton and twice has rushed for more than 1,000 yards.

"The No. 1 choice on my hit parade was Tracy Ham," Matthews said. "The reason was that when all the structured offense falls down -- because of great defense or guys missing a block -- Tracy has the ability to make a successful play on his own with his athletic ability. My philosophy is get the ball back for the offense. That's what we've done in assembling this football team."

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