CFLs owe major debt to their minor league

November 25, 1994|By JOHN EISENBERG

VANCOUVER, British Columbia -- The CFLs are the first expansion team in pro sports history to play for a league championship. But as much as it is an accomplishment of which the franchise should be immensely proud, it is owed to no factor more than the inherent weakness of the Canadian Football League.

That isn't to say that Jim Speros, Jim Popp, Don Matthews and the players don't deserve credit in abundance for avoiding the traditional pitfalls of expansion, such as personnel mistakes and a lack of teamwork. "They have put on a clinic for how to operate an expansion team," said Dan Ferrone, a former CFL player, now the president of the CFL Players' Association. "They have done everything perfectly."

But let's face it: Even if the Carolina Whomevers or Jacksonville Whatchama- callits do everything just as perfectly in their first NFL season next year, they're still going to get paddled. There are just too many credible teams in the NFL, too many talented players and solid systems in place for an expansion team to make up much ground.

First-year teams in the major leagues, NHL and NBA face the same predicament. They might be able to surprise a few teams now and then, but they're way too far behind to expect to win with any consistency. And to think about leaping from nothingness to the league's elite in a matter of months, as the CFLs have done, is strictly dreamland stuff.

Could the Florida Marlins have won the 1993 World Series with 45-year-old Charlie Hough as their ace? Is it realistic to think that the NBA's Toronto Raptors could beat out the New York Knicks and Orlando Magic next season? Of course not. The suggestions are ludicrous.

But no scenario is too far-fetched in the CFL, where teams with .500 records won back-to-back Grey Cups in the late '80s and a 6-12 team came within two points of making the game just last year. It was perfectly realistic to think that Baltimore could win big in its first season.

Remember, the league had only nine teams in 1993, just five teams with winning records, so the CFLs weren't looking up at nearly as much quality competition as their expansion brothers in the bigger leagues.

Furthermore, their division was at a horrifyingly low ebb. Only one Eastern Division team, Winnipeg, had a winning record in 1993. The rest of the division was a combined 13-41. And Winnipeg was an aging team on the way down. In other words, the division door was wide-open, particularly considering that the CFLs, like the three other U.S. expansion teams, didn't have to adhere to the Canadian-player quota that limits the talent on the Canadian teams.

"When my starter gets injured, I have to get someone from the Regina Rams Junior Team," said Ray Jauch, coach of the Saskatchewan Roughriders, "but when a starter [on the CFLs] gets injured, they can get someone from the New York Giants. It's a sizable advantage."

The other U.S. teams didn't make the most of it, primarily because they hired American coaches who had to adjust to the Canadian game. When Speros hired a successful CFL coach in Matthews ("the most important move," Ferrone said) and signed such top free agents as Tracy Ham and Jearld Baylis, a winning team was not just possible, but probable.

"There were seven or eight big-name free agents on the market last year, and Baltimore signed them all," Ferrone said. "At that point, it would have been a surprise if they hadn't had a winning team."

Then, perhaps most importantly, the CFLs did business in a major-league manner from the first day of training camp. There is no overestimating the value of that in a money-losing league in which it is routine for teams to cut corners.

When Winnipeg came to Baltimore for a big game late last month, for instance, the players didn't get to the hotel until after midnight on the night before kickoff because ownership wanted to save money on the cost of the charter flight. We're talking amateur hour.

It is a league in which half the teams are considering relocating, a league in which inconstancy is the norm, a league in which one team (Shreveport) cut its top two quarterbacks to save money and no one blinked. The CFLs became one of the class outfits simply by being top-to-bottom professional.

"Edmonton has always been the players' team, a great place to (( go to work," Ferrone said, "and everyone else complains. But when I made my trip to Baltimore this year, life was grand. The players were very happy with the way they were being treated. And that showed up on the field."

Ferrone is opposed to the notion that the CFLs' success is more of a reflection on the state of the league than the quality of the team. "That's not fair to Speros and Matthews and the players," he said, "because the fact is that they've come in here and operated in a manner from which a number of the more established teams could learn. They've done a fantastic job."

True. But there is just no getting around the fact that the standard set by those established teams was low. Painfully low. It took a lot of smarts and hard work for the CFLs to surpass them, and the organization should take a bow, but let's go easy on the "making sports history" angle. It couldn't happen in a truly major league.

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