Ground game gives CFLs leg up

October 23, 1994|By JOHN EISENBERG

It was unlikely enough that the Baltimore CFLs would emerge as a championship contender as an expansion franchise. That they would do so on the strong legs of their running game was pretty much off the probability charts.

To say that the Canadian game is a passing game is putting it mildly. The CFL is all shotguns and no-huddles and spreads and shoots and six men going long. Roughly three of every four yards of CFL offense is gained by a pass. The running game is as irrelevant as it is essential in the American game.

"You hardly ever see this in our league," CFLs offensive tackle Shar Pourdanesh said after yesterday's 48-31 win over the B.C. Lions at Memorial Stadium. "Teams usually use the rushing game to set up the pass. But it's become a priority for us."

A priority? Shoot, Mike Pringle's darting runs have practically carried the team since quarterback Tracy Ham suffered a leg injury in mid-August. Ham has continued to play reasonably well, but the passing game hasn't been as potent. (Until yesterday, when Ham threw four touchdown passes.) Pringle's huge season has done much to keep the CFLs among the league's elite.

His 216-yard performance yesterday was his sixth 100-plus game in the past eight, and moved him within 186 yards of the CFL's all-time single-season rushing record with two games remaining. It will be a surprise if he doesn't break the record, which has stood for 19 years.

And don't think that the CFLs aren't as pinball-game wild as the rest of the league because of their reliance on the "boring" run. They don't use a standard Vince Lombardi end sweep/off-tackle running game. Most of Pringle's runs are on draws and counters that place him in an open field just beyond the line of scrimmage.

And Pringle with the ball in any setting is boffo theater. He has quick feet, a low center of gravity and a punishing nature. The first tackler usually needs help.

"It's never boring when he runs with the ball," Pourdanesh said. "You can truly say that you never know what might happen."

In the third quarter yesterday, for instance, he was wrapped up by a tackler near the line, but kept chugging, broke free and ran 26 yards to a touchdown.

"I love the contact aspect of the game," Pringle said. "Taking on the linebackers and defensive backs one-on-one, and trying to run over them, is a lot of fun."

What's amazing, in hindsight, is that Pringle didn't even start the CFLs' first game in Toronto, in which he rushed for 4 yards. And even though he was in the lineup the next week, he didn't start crunching big rushing numbers until the eighth game. What went right all of a sudden?

"I just started touching the ball more," he said. "I think the coaches just got more comfortable with the idea of me getting a bigger share of the load."

Two months later, Pringle and his linemen are working together so well that you'd think they'd been at it for years.

"It's a thing of beauty," Pourdanesh said. "The holes are there, and he's one of the best players in the league. As a lineman, it's the kind of success you dream about."

Pringle, 27, was the leading rusher for the champion Sacramento Surge of the World League of American Football in 1992, then gained all of 366 yards as a fullback with the CFL's Sacramento Gold Miners last year. The Gold Miners dumped him on Baltimore before this season. They regret the decision, no doubt. Pringle not only leads the CFL in rushing with 1,692 yards, but also leads in kickoff returns, yards from scrimmage and all-purpose yards.

"Thank you Sacramento," he said. "I feel like I'm pretty much the same runner I've always been, other than being smarter by being more experienced. But I'm not running much differently. It's just a perfect situation for a running back. A good team, a good offensive line, an experienced quarterback. There's nothing missing."

His season wouldn't seem quite as beautiful, of course, if the CFLs hadn't won five of their past six games as they angle for a division title.

Their 11-5 record leaves them one game behind Winnipeg going into next week's Big Game against Winnipeg at Memorial Stadium. The playoffs loom after that. For the CFLs, who have won only two games against opponents with winning records, it is time to walk the walk.

"We still have a lot to prove, for sure," Pourdanesh said.

But Ham's performance yesterday indicated that the passing game might be coming back big. If so, and if Pringle continues to produce, the CFLs will be a handful for any opponent.

No other team has such balance on offense. It may well turn out that no team in CFL history has had such a running game. With two big performances in the next two games, Pringle could become the first CFL back to rush for 2,000 yards in a season.

"Are you thinking about the record?" a reporter asked him in the locker room yesterday.

He smiled. "I'm thinking about winning games," he said.

"But it would be cool?" someone asked.

Pringle smiled again. "It would be cool," he said.

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