CANADIAN FOOTBALL BEATS THE AMERICAN GAME
If the Americans weren’t so proud, says the American coach of Hamilton’s Tiger-Cats, they’d play our kicking game. And that’s not all . . .
WHEN THE NATIONAL football coaches’ convention was held in Cincinnati late in 1957 I went down from Hamilton to find out what was new in the game, or at least different, and maybe steal a play or two. I was in high spirits. My Tiger-Cats had beaten the Winnipeg Blue Bombers 32 to 7 a few weeks earlier in the Grey Cup final to put the frosting on my second season of deep thinking in Canada. Before that, for four years. I'd been head coach ol the Philadelphia Eagles in the National Football League — where I'd done all right until the season I was fired — so I was looking forward to seeing a lot of familiar faces.
One of the first I spotted belonged to Walter Wollner, the owner of the Chicago Cardinals. The Cards had been winged by just about everybody in the NFL that season and Walter, apparently, was looking for a new coach.
“Jim, I’ve got a proposition,” Walter said, alter we’d exchanged the good-to-see-you-agains. “Why don't you come back to this league and show these people what a mistake they CONTINUED ON PAGE 47
CONTINUED ON PAGE 47
Canadian football beats the American game
Continued from page 18
made?” “Walter,” *1 said, “thanks, but I know what a mistake they made. And, listen. 1 like the game up there.”
That conversation with Wolfner comes to mind whenever I read that the new American Football League may expand into Canada. The AFL gets off the ground in the States this fall, and may include Toronto and Montreal next year. The stories contain an implied threat that if the American game ever comes to Canada it will run the Big Four right out of business as a major football league. And that, of course, would mean the end of the Grey Cup game as we know it, the woolly exhilarating climax to Canada's annual autumn madness.
I wish a good many Canadians — far too many, it seems to me — would shake the notion that the game in the U. S. is superior to ours. Why, even a Calgary newspaperman wrote congratulations in his paper to Frank (Pop) Ivy "on his promotion" when Pop took the coaching job with the Chicago Cardinals in 1958 after four tremendously successful years with the Edmonton Eskimos. I was glad to see Pop move, if he wanted to move, but the writer's attitude bothered me. To my mind, Ivy was not accepting a promotion; he was simply changing jobs, the way scores of football coaches do every year, either by choice or because they've been fired. Moving is as much a part of our occupation as being booed.
As an American from the fertile football pits of Pennsylvania I have great admiration for the way they play the game down there. But, as 1 indicated when 1 declined Walter Wolfner's offer, I happen to think the way we play the game up here is better. 1 think the whole atmosphere of the game is better and I think the rules, though less tnan perfect, make for better spectator appeal. I'm not talking about a comparison between Canadian and American players. There’s no arguing that the American boy gets a much earlier grounding in the fundamentals and a higher degree of competition than the Canadian kid and therefore, generally speaking, is four or five years ahead in his development.
No, I’m speaking only of the game the customer sees when he puts down his three or four dollars and plants his pants on a plank in the park. American football is fascinating and it’s marketable (every now and then they interrupt those TV commercials and show us some football), but I say it’s not as good a game.
My brother Pat came up here from Pittsburgh one time to see his first game of Canadian ball. After we'd won a cliffhanger from the Alouettes he was really excited. "Boy, if you dash off to grab a hotdog in this game,” he told me, “you're apt to miss three touchdowns.”
I think he's got it.
In the States, when a team is deep in trouble, it calls for a time-out so the players can regroup. The offense is rolling, excitement is stirring. In this high moment, as one team bids for a score
and the other digs in to stop it, what happens to the fan in the emotional letdown of a time-out? He sits. Or, if he’s at home watching his tiny screen, he’s hit over the eyeballs with a message from you-know-who. Another message. Either way, the time-out is an irritating interruption.
There are no time-outs in the Canadian game. Once that whistle blows the action is sustained. When a team drives toward the goal-line and gets a first down inside the fifteen, say, there are no interruptions to break the climbing tension.
The ball changes hands frequently in Canada, the fortunes swinging on the three downs of our game, and this is another emotional plus for the paying guest. The four downs allowed in the States dictate a possession game. Accordingly, the offensive team can move in deliberate spurts, yielding the ball only after the final short thrust across the goal-line. Often the whole prolonged advance is interrupted by nothing more palatable than a time-out. It grows monotonous.
If the Americans weren’t so proud, they'd adopt the Canadian kicking game. For one thing, our more frequent kicking. resulting from the three-down system, provides a scoring device unknown to the Americans, and spectators love to see scoring. The single point eliminates most tie games, too. It doesn't matter whether it comes from a punt to the deadline or a rouge in which the receiver is tackled behind his goal-line. There's even a thrill when the receiver is successful in running the ball out after he’s made his catch deep in the end zone. It’s true no scoring has developed, but there is really nothing that electrifies a crowd like a back running for his life while the horde closes in on him.
Although you don’t hear much about it, punting itself has great crowd appeal. Sometimes, if a kick is almost blocked, you can see the fans actually jumping in the air in a vicarious attempt to help block it. You’ll often hear a great sigh of relief from a crowd when the home team’s punter just manages to get one off. Conversely, as I know only too well, one of the most ecstatic crowd reactions you’ll hear comes when the sentimental favorites do block a kick.
Take the 1958 Grey Cup game in Vancouver, for example. That’s the one in which the Blue Bombers nicked us 35 to 28. Even in a game as high-scoring as that one, a seemingly innocuous item like a blocked kick proved to be the turning point. Near the end of the first half we had the Bombers down 19 to 13 and had our butts deep in our own territory. on about the ten. The minute flag was up, and it was third down with maybe three yards to go. Cam Fraser, our kicker, went back to boot one. But Norm Rauhaus, a defensive back for the Bombers, had inched up from his deep spot and now he came streaking across on Fraser with nobody laying a glove on him. He blocked the punt, followed the ball into the end zone and fell on it for the touchdown on the last play of the half. It sent Winnipeg to the dressing room with a 20-to-19 edge and, more important, a tremendous psychological advantage from the bang-bang play that ended the period.
Later, I was fried in the papers for permitting that punt. Critics insisted we should have run out the clock, retaining both the psychological and scoreboard advantages.
1 have a word for the critics: Nuts. I'd call that play again ten times out of ten. In the first place, although the minute flag was up, no one knew exactly how much time remained. If there was
time for even two plays and we failed to make a first down, Winnipeg would take the ball on our ten with time for at least a field goal and possibly the goahead touchdown. Besides, who says the punt is not a safe play? In this case it wasn't, and I was left with egg on my face, but Fraser kicked sixteen times that afternoon, and had one blocked At Woodbine, or in Vancouver, I like those odds. It took a superior effort by the Winnipeg back, Rauhaus, to turn the trick, so give the kid credit.
It’s true that this specific play — a blocked kick on the last play — could be made in the United States. My point in insisting that the Canadian kicking game is more thrilling is that we punt at least three times as often in any given game because of the three downs. Thus, plays with this one's spectator appeal can occur three times as often.
Spectators are bloodthirsty
Punting is a dull drab operation in the U. S. for the simple reason that the rules don’t give them a point on a punt When a kick crosses the goal-line in the States, the ball is brought out to the twentyyard line on a ruling called a touchback. So, to avoid the touchback, American punters angle their kicks for the sidelines to try to get inside the twenty Everything about their punting process is mechanical. Maybe you've noticed on television that the kicker stands much deeper behind the line of scrimmage than our punters do. That’s because in the NFL, for example, they've actually timed the blockers' charge on a kicker. Then they’ve moved the kicker far enough back to make it virtually impossible for even the fastest man to cover the required ground in time. In that Vancouver game, then, the great effort by Rauhaus likely would have failed under the American method.
The fair catch, an American device, is contrary to the whole concept of football. Football is pound, pound, pound, and it releases the animal instincts in every spectator. Most of ’em are bloodthirsty. They don’t go out to see the more nimble matrons of the IODE play squattag. It’s not that they want to see somebody get hurt, mind you; it's just that if anybody gets hurt they want to be there.
So what happens in the fair catch?
A backfielder about to catch a punt holds up his hand to signal the catch and everything stops, Onrushing tacklers are not permitted to smack him if he signals. So he suddenly becomes, in this violent game, more precious than a basketball player yet.
Contrast the rule with ours, by which the back has got to go for the ball, protected only by a ruling thyt says no tackier can be closer than five yards when he catches it. Some of our backs can do wonders with those five yards of momentary freedom. In a game in Toronto last fall, even the Argonaut partisans felt compelled to give a standing ovation to our Ron Howell afte¿ he’d lied seventynine yards like a thief in the night on a twisting, searing run for a touchdown on a kfck return — his second of the afternoon.
And then there’s the wider field, sixtyfive yards in Canada to fifty yards in the States. Obviously, ours presents greater possibilities for end sweeps. The narrower U. S field makes it more difficult for the ball carrier to turn the corner because the defenders have less distance to travel to cut him off. 1 think the wider Canadian field means that we have a tougher-fibred ballplayer A lot of boys in the States who can move well enough on the fifty-yard field simply haven't the mobility or stamina to keep up the pace here. The prize bull at the county fair down there just runs out of gas on our field, after he’s dazzled the customers a couple of times. When he’s barreled his bulk across our field three or four times, with no time-outs, he’s gasping. Hell, I'm gasping, and I'm only watching. That’s why, generally speaking, we have no place for the 290-pound freaks who dominate American line play
Canadian football is pro ball in a college atmosphere, which is something you won’t find in the NFL or the new AFL. The emotional compensation is greater in this country because in most cities the football club is a civic undertaking, a community project. Why, I remember last November, after we'd lost the first game of the eastern final to Ottawa, that fully ten thousand people jammed into the square in front of the Royal Connaught Hotel for a rally on the eve of the second game. The Ottawa team was quartered there and some of them watched the rally out of curiosity. I'll never
forget coming down off the platform and .seeing big Tom Jones. Ottawa's great tackle. He was astonished by the turnout. His jaw. 1 swear, was hanging slack in disbelief. That square was simply teeming with people and the temperature couldn't have been higher than ten degrees. I'm sure w'e got halfway to the Grey Cup final that night, a full fourteen hours before we made it official the next afternoon at the ball park.
1 said earlier our Canadian rules were less than perfect. I have a revolutionary idea for improving our game but before 1 mention it I’d like to clear up a point that bothers most American coaches in this country. Football is our business twelve months a year, so it seems reasonable to me to assume that every once in awhile we should come up with a suggestion for a rule change. Usually, though, we're accused of trying to Americanize the Canadian game. In the States, if a coach recommends a rule change, it’s assumed he's trying to improve his game. In this country, there's no such assumption—he's trying to Americanize it. Coaches from south of the border are here for a variety of reasons. In my own case. I like the community attitude, the pace of living, the warmer relationship between the fans and the players and. of course, the money. But. don't forget. I've had opportunities to return to coaching in the States, and so have other coaches oi Canada's nine pro clubs. Surely our very presence here proves we prefer the Canadian game. Just as surely, then, at least some of our recommended rules changes are based on a desire to improve our business.
How many experts are there?
All right, here's my suggestion for Canadian ball: Let's play eleven-man
football. With eleven men. instead of twelve, you'd see the true advantage of our wide field. With one defensive back removed, those end sweeps would lift the customer right out of his oxfords. You'd see pass patterns on our wide field that would make the ladies forget to powder their noses when the ball's on the sixyard line. Experts may appreciate a tough defensive struggle such as w'e had with Winnipeg last Grey Cup day. but how many experts are there?
For three quarters of that game the Bombers and the Tiger-C'ats played the kind of football that could drive the average fan away from the stadium and convince him he ought to watch the new' Al l.. Bud Grant and 1 had too much respect for each other's offense before we went into that game, our third Grey Cup final in a row. Each of us concentrated on defense. I know the I igerCats. who ordinarily devote maybe forty percent of practice time to refining the offense, spent seventy percent of Grey Cup week working on defense. With Winnipeg's first-string quarterback. Jim Van Pelt, sidelined by a shoulder separation. my pre-game theory was to stop their outside runners. Lewis and Shannon. and force Van Pelt's replacement. Kenny Pioen, to throw the ball. W^e felt that with pressure on him he'd throw the interception ball. We didn't try to hold up their receivers; we invited Pioen to pass. But Bud Grant, whom I’d coached at Philadelphia in 1954. wasn't very cooperative toward his old coach. He had Pioen well enough disciplined that Kenny didn't panic and throw that over-anxious pass. He played intelligently when we took away their outside running, sat back and waited for the breaks.
The game didn't become the kind of spectacle that makes it superior to
American football until the fourth quarter. When our fullback. Gerry McDougall. fumbled near midfield while we were leading 7 to 3 and had the Bombers scrambling. Grant lathered me with one of my own favorite bits of football philosophy. When 1 had Bud with the Eagles we played on human emotions. The instant we got a gift, such as a recovered fumble or an intercepted forward pass, we used to go for broke. We figured the time to strike was when the opposition was momentarily depressed by the sud-
den shift of fortune. Grant hadn't forgot-
ten. On the first play after McDougall's fumble. Kenny Pioen fired a long pass while my guys were still recovering from the fumble. It went for the touchdown.
Once they'd gone ahead. Grant had his punter. Charlie Shepard, murder us with quick kicks on second down, some of them rolling seventy yards, and here was the Canadian kicking game at its finest. You just don't see the quick kick used for offensive purposes in the States any more, and I think the millions of fans who watched the Grey Cup game on television must have been exhilarated
by it. 1 know the thirty thousand in the stadium in Toronto were. Shepard kicked four singles that day. and 1 could feel the crowd's electric response, the hum of enthusiasm hanging in the air as he kept putting his foot to the ball in that long last quarter. I couldn't share their excitement then but now', in retrospect, I can appreciate the crowd-lifting clement of this purely Canadian tactic.
It makes me wonder about this fear of an American football invasion. I'll tell you the truth: I'll take Canadian football any time. ★