The Canadian Football League needs a spark in Canada’s major cities, and Vince Young would be just what the doctor ordered.
CFL Would Benefit from Star Power of Vince Young
The Saskatchewan Roughriders recently caused a stir by dumping/trading their franchise quarterback Darian Durant and putting the 2005 U.S. college champion star quarterback on their negotiation list. It appears to be an odd strategy on the surface but there is method to the madness, if not for the Riders, but for the entire league.
A full generation of sports fans have grown up since Doug Flutie wowed fans on Canadian soil, but the CFL still hasn’t replaced the buzz he brought in his 3-down years.
Gone are the days of eccentric owners ponying up cash they didn’t have to lure big-name NFL stars north.
High-talking hustlers Nelson Skalbania, Murray Pezim, Larry Ryckman, Bruce McNall and…(gulp) Nelson Skalbania again have been replaced with quiet, stable owners like David Braley, Robert Wetenhall and Bob Young, who have real money and don’t spend what they don’t have.
The first group nearly sank the league. The latter has made it viable and credible for sponsors again.
Lack of Marketable Stars
But the league’s refusal to engage bidding wars for household names it can’t afford has come with its own price: a lack of marketable stars for its three biggest and most important TV markets. It’s no coincidence the CFL is in great shape in six of its nine locales, while struggling to keep Joe and Jane Public interested in Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver.
Skalbania tried breaking through with the Montreal Alouettes in the early 80s by signing a Los Angeles Rams star quarterback with Hollywood good looks by the name of Vince Feragamo along with a handful of other NFL stars. The team had no chemistry, was dreadful, and was stuck in the world’s largest toilet, better known as Montreal’s Olympic Stadium. The experiment failed miserably and the Alouettes were in bankruptcy by season’s end.
Vancouver Tries Some Big Names
Fast forward to 1990. Vancouver Stock Exchange promoter and new BC Lions owner Murray Pezim lures washed up New York Jets sack master Marc Gastineau and undersized American curiosity Doug Flutie from the NFL. It created a circus that launched the greatest career in CFL history. The buzz it created on the west coast was undeniable.
After a disastrous two wins, eight losses, and one tie to start the experiment, hall of famer Bob O’Billovich was brought in to make Flutie fit. And it worked. The team played better and won 4 of its final 7 games to narrowly miss the playoffs on the final day of the season which set the stage for the greatest year of any quarterback in pro football history.
“Doug wasn’t playing in the proper type of offence that would let him excel for his abilities.” O’Billivich now says. “When you work your individual quarterbacks, you determine what you think are the best kinds of things that he can do and then you put that into your offence to allow him to be the best player that he can be.
“Prior to me getting to BC, they were trying to use Doug as a drop back passer and that wasn’t Doug Flutie’s strength as quarterback. His ability to get outside the pocket and sprint out where he could make himself dangerous and if things broke down, he could be the athlete that he was… The next year we implemented an offence that was better suited for him and he took it and ran. He had an outstanding year!”
Did he ever! 1991 was a breakthrough. Flutie threw for an eye-popping 6,619 yards (a pro football record that still stands to this day) and the Leos became the hottest ticket in town. The team wasn’t great but it didn’t have to be. The sizzle made up for any lack of steak on that roster. More than 53,000 fans even jammed into BC Place for an early season clash with Toronto. But just when the whole thing seemed too good to be true, it was. Predictably “The Pez” and his stock sunk him into bankruptcy and nearly brought the Lions down with him.
Toronto Gets a Rocket
That was the same year new Toronto Argonauts owner Bruce McNall, along with John Candy and Wayne Gretzky, promised Rocket Ismail a four-year, 18-million dollar contract to ditch out on being the number one overall pick in the NFL draft to play for the Argos instead. The move made the boatmen relevant in Toronto again, but of course once it came time to pay the bills, the money dried up and the rocket never stuck around. Neither did the fans or McNall’s ownership group. His bankruptcy and jail time for fraud would come a few years later.
Flutie shuffled over to Calgary where Larry Ryckman made him the Stampeders million-dollar arm. They did get a Grey Cup championship out of the deal, but Ryckman too (do you see a pattern here?) would later take his turn in front of a bankruptcy judge.
It was a spiral of insanity. The big market teams were going broke because they were spending too much and the small market teams were going broke because they couldn’t afford to compete any more.
Today’s owners fixed all that. In 2007, the league finally implemented a hard salary cap and has properly managed it ever since. Everyone is on a budget and if anyone breaks it (Saskatchewan, I’m looking at you), they pay a fine. It has stabilized the oldest pro sports league in North America, but don’t think that all this fiscal responsibility hasn’t caused damage of its own.
Still No Stars
Aside from Ricky Williams’ short-lived season-long stint to avoid a marijuana suspension a decade ago, the league hasn’t showcased a star with a big enough name to catch the attention of big city Canada. Conservative payrolls (and in Johnny Football’s case other things like twitter and substance abuse of course) have prevented NFL castaways Tim Tebow, Johnny Manziel, and, so far, Vince Young too from trying their hands at northern exposure.
The lack of star power has made it increasingly hard for the Argos, Alouettes, Lions and their partners at TSN to cut through the glamour and branding of the NFL, NHL, Toronto Blue Jays and Toronto Raptors to stay relevant in their own cities.
The late Rob Ford wearing his Argonaut jersey on the day he made his most disgusting comments ever (If you don’t remember them, you’ll have to look elsewhere because we’re not repeating them here) drew the team into the international spotlight in a way they would rather forget.
The Power of Vince
And that’s where the power of Vince comes in. He’s a household name whose proven he can do it at the highest level (30 wins and 17 losses as an NFL starting quarterback). He’s even been on the video game cover of Madden NFL, for crying out loud!
So what if he hasn’t played in five years? O’Billovich sees a parallel to his own reclamation project of Doug Flutie from a quarter century ago. “At quarterback you always look for guys that were more than a passer because in three down football you like the guy that’s a little more athletic. When things break down throwing the football, add the ability to pick up a first down all on his own because of his athleticism so I think over the years the CFL has been a good place for a guy to play that had those kind of attributes as well as being a good passer.”
And Obie isn’t one bit fazed by the fact Vince is now 34. “Now a-days 34 isn’t a real old age. Depending on how well the guy takes care of his body. Today’s athletes have programs where they watch their diets. They train. They have personal trainers and all that kind of stuff. I think that today they play longer than they ever have in the past and you know a quarterback might be able to play a little longer because you’re not hitting people all the time. You may be getting hit, but you’re not the one delivering the blows so your body might stay a little healthier than someone playing another position.”
His advice to Roughrider head coach Chris Jones if he does in fact get Vince Young into training camp this spring? “First of all, I would say to him ‘does the guy have the ability to play the position?’ And if you find that that’s the case then I think it’s easy to integrate him into playing in the CFL.
“I can remember when I first met Doug (Flutie) when I went out to BC and he had just come in there and I took over as the head coach, once he got the hang of what the league was all about and how to play the game and all of that kind of stuff, he enjoyed it immensely.
“It’s a fun place to play if you’re a quarterback because you’re throwing the ball a lot. The big field really appeals to people. They have to learn how to play on it when you’re throwing a hitch pass on the wide side. That’s a long pass because of our field and the dimensions of it. It takes a bit of getting used to and the extra man on defense and that kind of thing but once guys get the hang of it, it’s a fun league for a quarterback to play in.”
The league would be a whole lot more fun for all of us this year if it included Vince Young.