Payton makes self at home, sacking out with the CFLs

October 21, 1994|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,Sun Staff Writer

In Shreveport, Elfrid Payton was a distraction not to be tolerated.

In Baltimore, he's a catalyst not to be missed.

Welcome to the Canadian Football League, where the leading sacker of 1993 can get released one month into the 1994 season, then rebound with the best team in American expansion.

By now, you've heard how Payton arrived in Baltimore last August. Fresh from the 1993 Grey Cup with Winnipeg, the free-agent linebacker signed with the expansion Shreveport Pirates.

The Pirates cut Payton five games into their ill-fated season, dismissing him as a luxury they could not afford. He talked to Las Vegas, but signed with Baltimore.

The impact on Baltimore's defense can be felt all the way to Winnipeg, as his old team and his new team battle for Eastern Division supremacy. The impact on Payton's psyche was just as dramatic.

"The losing, the management . . . it was pure hell," Payton said of his brief career in Louisiana. "This is like being rejuvenated. It's like having a 10,000-pound slab of brick on you and having it lifted off."

It's a load off coach Don Matthews' back, too. He designed Baltimore's defense for speed on the corners to get to the quarterback. It didn't happen early for a number of reasons, one being that O. J. Brigance -- a converted linebacker -- was playing out of position at strong-side rush end.

When Matthews signed Payton for that spot, it freed Brigance to play a more natural position on the quick side. Defensive production turned around almost overnight.

"Since Payton came, the defense has given up fewer points and been more productive," Matthews said.

In the seven games before he came, it gave up 201 points. In the eight games since, it's given up 168.

Passing yards allowed is down to 264 from 310, and total offense allowed is down to 289 from 423.

That's seven points, 46 passing yards and 134 total yards a game improvement since Payton arrived.

Certainly not all of it is attributable to Payton. But he is unquestionably the catalyst. Matthews had no reservations about signing him even though he had been branded with an unfavorable iron in Shreveport.

"He wasn't getting sacks and he was released because he was perceived as a problem," Matthews said.

"If he was a distraction for some other team, that's because they let it be a distraction."

Payton, 27, acknowledged the rap against him.

"I could have been a distraction to the young guys," he said. "I like to talk, that's what I do. If you're not saying something wrong, you should be able to be vocal. The only way they could get me to shut up was get me out of town. And they did. But now I'm in a better situation."

A native of New Orleans and a product of Grambling, Payton enlivens Baltimore's practices with his sharp wit and one-liners.

"Things are never dull around Elfrid Payton," said defensive line coach Marty Long, whose job it is to oversee the freewheeling rush end. "He's always got something to say, he's always got something stirred up. But I think it's good for the team.

"He brings joy to the team. He keeps me on my toes. But if I say to him, 'Elfrid, it's business,' everything else stops. He's locked in and concentrating."

Payton wears a gold chain around his neck at practice and his sweat pants low on his hips in the fashion of Michael Jordan. He does not distract on a team of free spirits.

Said Matthews: "I enjoy his personality. I laugh at the things he does like everybody else. That's why players enjoy playing here. They can have a personality and play at the same time."

The bottom line on Payton's eight games with Baltimore is impressive: four sacks, 19 delivery sacks (hitting the quarterback as he releases the ball), 10 pressures. He also has forced three fumbles by hitting quarterbacks in the pocket.

It's what he does best.

"In this league, you've got to get to the passer," Payton said. "We have some good quarterbacks. My biggest asset is my ability to pass rush."

Consider it a sign of the times that the league's top two defensive players of 1993 -- Jearld Baylis and Payton -- are not only on the same team this season, but living under the same roof.

When Payton arrived in August, Jearld and Lucy Baylis invited him to stay at their house. "I couldn't be more thankful to them," said Payton, whose wife and three children remain in Louisiana. "I feel like one of the family."

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