Basketball-like pace sets Canadian games apart from its NFL counterpart FAST-BREAK FOOTBALL CFL 1994 BALTIMORE

July 05, 1994|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,Sun Staff Writer

When you think of the Canadian Football League, think of basketball on a football field.

A huge football field. And frenetic, full-court-press basketball.

That's how Jim Popp thinks, anyway. He's the director of player personnel for the CFL Baltimore team, the man charged with stocking the roster of Baltimore's first pro football team in a decade.

"That's the way I look at it," Popp said. "It's such a fast-paced game. There isn't much time between plays. And there's such a big area to cover. It's like a full-court-press basketball game on a football field. It's nonstop. That's why it's so important the shape we're in."

If you have never seen a CFL game, one of the first things you will notice is the pace. It may be the biggest difference in the American and Canadian games.

It is the product of three-down football, a 20-second clock between plays, unlimited motion in the backfield and a 37-man roster. It is also the result of a field that's 11 1/2 yards wider and 30 yards longer than the NFL.

It's even reflected in the league's vocabulary. The CFL rush end is just what it sounds like: a player who comes off the end of the defensive line and rushes the quarterback. They are called defensive ends in the NFL, and there can be a difference of 70 pounds between the two dissimilar positions.

Take O. J. Brigance, for example. At 6 feet, 218 pounds, he's too small to play linebacker in the NFL. Yet, with the British Columbia Lions in the CFL a year ago, he was quick enough to record 20 sacks as an outside linebacker. He was a pass rusher supreme.

With Baltimore this year, in coach Don Matthews' speed-oriented defensive scheme, Brigance is a designated rush end. His job is still pass rusher. He's just lining up in a slightly different position.

Brigance is symbolic of the difference between the American and Canadian games. He is one of the CFL's brightest stars. His quickness is what makes it so. And that's what will sell the Canadian game, if, indeed, Baltimoreans buy into it.

"I really think it will sell here because it's such a fast-paced game," said Brigance, a third-year CFL veteran. "All I've heard is complaints about the American game, as far as the slowness and it being a defensive game.

"In the NFL, defenses have gotten so good it's to the point where they are just shutting offenses down to where you'll have lower scores. This game lends itself to more of a wide-open game with a wider field, with more men [12 to a side].

"Special teams are more of a factor, too. It allows for certain situations to have big runbacks on kickoffs or punt teams. It gives all kinds of scenarios where the game can be more exciting, to where anything can happen at any point."

The NFL was hampered by too many 6-3 games last season. The CFL was blessed with scoring orgies. Twenty-six times in the CFL, the winning team scored 40 or more. Ten times, the winning team scored 50 or more. Twice, including the Sacramento Gold Miners' 64-27 rout of Brigance's Lions in Week 18, the winners went over 60.

Maybe the best game of the season was the Saskatchewan Roughriders' 48-45 victory over the Calgary Stampeders. It was 35-10 at halftime, Saskatchewan. Then the Roughriders lost their starting free safety. Then the roof caved in.

Calgary, led by quarterback Doug Flutie, came back for a 45-45 tie in regulation. Saskatchewan pulled out the game in overtime - that's two five-minute periods in the CFL, not sudden death - with a field goal. Final, 48-45. Matthews and Popp, employed by the Roughriders a year ago, survived that one.

There were other epic finishes last year. In Week 14, Brigance and the Lions led Sacramento 23-12 late in the fourth quarter. But a rally of 15 unanswered points, inspired by a successful onside kick caught in midair, propelled the Gold Miners to an improbable, 27-23 victory.

"I don't think you can call that bad football," Brigance said, "although some people did. It's just the way the game is. It's so fast-paced and so many things happen, you can't leave your seat."

Jearld Baylis, a nose tackle for Baltimore and the CFL's outstanding defensive player a year ago, remembers winning a game with the Toronto Argonauts in 1986 when the Argos were 21 down with three minutes left. "We ended up winning in regulation by a point," he said.

Baylis said he expects the unpredictable CFL style to win over American fans.

"We don't have to mirror the NFL," he said. "The game has its own different image to lay the foundation here. The game will take its own identity. It's a more exciting game because it's very unpredictable. It probably gives bookies nightmares. There are so many ways to score, and so many things can happen."

Offense is the name of the game in the CFL. Rules dictate the style of play. The defense must line up a yard off the ball. Receivers need to get only one foot in bounds for a catch, and punt returners must be given five yards to catch the ball.

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