Matthews, CFLs master plan for first-year success VISION QUEST

October 07, 1994|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,Sun Staff Writer

In their infancy, the Baltimore CFLs were more dream than football team, more fantasy than fact.

They were a wisp of Don Matthews' fertile imagination as recently as Feb. 17, the day pro football returned to Baltimore under a Canadian Football League banner.

Within hours of the formal awarding of the franchise, Matthews ++ and his transplanted coaching staff began implementing the master plan:

Take 37 American players, mix in some defensive seasoning, add a quarterback who can operate in tight spots, and put an emphasis on speed at the flanks.

Some eight months and 13 games later, it reads like the recipe for success.

The CFLs (9-4) can clinch a home-field playoff game tonight when they meet the Las Vegas Posse (5-8) at Memorial Stadium.

By virtue of last week's playoff-clinching victory over Ottawa, Baltimore already has achieved more than all but a handful of expansion teams have ever accomplished.

The last time an expansion team reached the playoffs in one of the four major pro sports was the 1967-68 hockey season. That year, the NHL bunched its six new expansion teams into one division, then sent four teams -- Minnesota, Los Angeles, Philadelphia and St. Louis -- to the postseason. None of them, however, had a winning record.

And when the Chicago Bulls reached the NBA playoffs in their inaugural season of 1966-67, it was with a modest record of 33-48.

The best an NFL expansion team has done in modern times is 3-11 -- a record reached by five teams. Last year in its first CFL season, Sacramento went 6-12.

If you're talking about a slice of history, the CFLs are hot on the trail. A victory tonight assures them of an unprecedented winning season for a first-year team. But that's just a pit stop on the journey they want to take.

"All our goals are to get to the Grey Cup," running back Mike Pringle said.

The Grey Cup was the goal right from the beginning -- realistic or not -- when team owner Jim Speros first hired Matthews as director of football operations and head coach last February.

In Matthews' blueprint, a team achieves greatness by planning for it.

"Before you can do great things, you've got to expect great things," he said. "We expect great things and the players have delivered."

It was Matthews, 55, who supplied the vision. His first move was to bring most of his staff with him from the Saskatchewan Roughriders last winter. That included player personnel director Jim Popp.

Matthews was so eager to embrace the expansion challenge he resigned his job in Regina on Dec. 31 -- and went a month without a paycheck because of the political infighting that delayed the awarding of the Baltimore franchise.

The anticipation of creating something from scratch overrode the risk factor, Popp said.

"The bottom line was, here's a chance to go build a new franchise in the States and start something new," he said. "I think we all were interested in something like that."

Matthews established the player profile by position, then Popp hand-picked the bodies. Stripped of the import rule that limits Canada teams to 17 Americans per roster, they found a huge pool of talent to choose from.

"Players win for you," Matthews said. "After you get 37 Americans, your talent level is higher. But it's these 37 Americans, not just any 37."

The evidence rests in Shreveport, Las Vegas and Sacramento, where 37-man American rosters are bringing up the rear of their respective divisions.

Joe Barnes, quarterbacks coach and a veteran of 11 CFL seasons, said he thought the all-American rosters would make a huge difference.

"But bodies are bodies," he said. "This says something about knowing the Canadian game and playing together."

Nowhere was that experience more important than at quarterback. When Speros mentioned Florida State's Charlie Ward to Matthews as a possible marquee player, the coach had a short reply.

"I said he'd be a great quarterback, but if you want to win right away, we need Tracy Ham," Matthews said. "I've watched a lot of [American] quarterbacks come into the league. Guys like [Doug] Flutie, [Vince] Ferragamo, [Warren] Moon. And those guys were not great right away until they learned the game."

Some -- like Ferragamo -- never achieved greatness.

Already this year, Ham, in his

eighth CFL season, has shown the value of experience and leadership.

Playing hurt much of the season, Ham has thrown for 3,183 yards, 21 touchdowns and a league-low nine interceptions. What helps, he said, is the knowledge that Matthews encourages players to try to make plays, even if they don't all work out.

"I find myself taking chances knowing the coach won't get on me for taking that chance," Ham said. "He's a gambler, anyway. When he was defensive coordinator at Edmonton, he'd have 11, sometimes 12 guys across the line of scrimmage.

"Sometimes you get beat doing that, but that didn't pull him back."

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