In this dry season of NFL news, I'm desperate for any trickle of football-related entertainment. That thirst for hard hits and beautiful passes has led me to the oasis that is the Canadian Football League. The CFL season started up just a few short weeks ago, and in order quench my thirst until the Browns get under way again I decided to start paying attention to the version of gridiron football played up north. Every so often I'll check in with DBN to describe my experience as an American football fan new to the CFL, and you are all invited to join me in this diversion.
Before I got started, I decided I should pick a team to support. Sports are just more fun when you care who wins and who loses. I did an enormous amount of in-depth research (I asked reddit) and decided that the Winnipeg Blue Bombers are the closest thing the CFL has to my beloved Browns. They have a long and storied history, but haven't won a championship in 25 years. That's a long time for a league that has bounced between nine and ten teams. The city of Winnipeg is also somewhat similar to Cleveland, in that it's a mid-sized ex-manufacturing city that is on the upswing after going through some rough years. They also have a hated rival, the Saskatchewan Roughriders. As one reddit user put it, "They've often been referred to as banjo-picking inbreds, but we all know they lack the capacity to play banjo." So they're just like the Steelers! Perfect.
I sat down last night to watch my Bombers take on the CFL equivalent of the Patriots, the Montreal Alouettes. This season, the Alouettes lost their starting quarterback Jonathan Crompton to injury very early on, but rookie and Marshall graduate Rakeem Cato has been lighting it up for them in his stead. Under center for the Bombers was former Buffalo grad Drew Willy. The 28 year-old Willy bounced around various NFL teams as a UDFA before finding a home in Canada a few years ago, and took over the starting role for Winnipeg last year. As I finished cooking dinner I heard the game kick off from the other room, so I rushed to finish and take my seat for what was sure to be a thrilling contest.
Having never really watched Canadian football before, a few things jumped out at me immediately. The field is huge. It's enormous. This is hard to overstate. It's both longer and wider, and end zones are 20 yards deep instead of 10. There's a ton of space out there. So much space, in fact, that each team fields 12 players at a time. This means the formations and plays look a lot different, even if they might be operating on the same principles. There also are no rules about illegal motion, players can move wherever they want as long as they're behind the line when the ball is snapped. This was a lot to adjust to right off the bat, but I could handle it. After receiving the opening kickoff, the Bombers promptly lived up to their "Browns North" reputation, with a two yard run followed by a ten yard sack. Ok, third and long, let's see what happens. Oh, they're lining up to punt. Apparently in Canada you only get three chances to gain a first down. That's new.
These changes seem like oddities, and to an American they are, but I think this is all incredibly interesting. I had kind of thought of the CFL like a strange off-shoot of the NFL, but that's not really the case. It's more accurate to think of Canadian football as a game that grew up alongside the American version, rather than as an evolution of it. The CFL was officially created in 1958, but many of the teams it now includes have been around much longer than that. If not for the vast differences in TV contracts, the CFL and NFL might be viewed as pretty equal leagues. It's not an inferior product, it's just a different product.
As the game continues, not a whole lot happens. The Alouettes have a drive thwarted when Chris Randle picks off Cato in the red zone, but other than that it's just some crappy offense punctuated by the occasional field goal. That all changed though five minutes into the second quarter, when Winnipeg DB Johnny Adams jumped an out route and returned an interception for six points. Keeping up with their inner Brownsiness, the Bombers missed the extra point. Montreal got a touchdown back later in the quarter, and had a late drive stopped with 17 seconds left. It looked like the half was going to come to a quiet end, but the ensuing punt was blocked and recovered in the end zone for a Winnipeg TD. Hey, this is pretty fun! Much like the Browns, the Bombers have counted on defense and special teams to pick up an anemic offense. This has me believing they're going to blow it any minute, but for now things are looking up.
The second half is a field goal fest, and after a late Montreal TD the score sits at 25-20 with the Bombers still clinging to the lead. The Alouettes get the ball back with just over a minute left, and I can feel that familiar nervousness inside. Here it comes, they're going to blow it. The Winnipeg defense makes a stop on first down, and then again on second. But what's this? There's a coaches challenge. What could they possibly be challenging? It turns out, in the CFL, you can challenge a play if you think there was pass interference. After watching the play half a dozen times, it kind of looks like the DB might have had a handful of jersey. However, in a very un-Brownsy turn of events, the call stands, it's a clean play. I'm generally in favor of more replay, but after seeing this play out, I don't think we should be in a hurry to review penalties. Winnipeg runs out the clock to collect their second victory of the season.
All in all, a fun experience. Not only was the product on the field different, but it was cool to see commercials for the world series of corn hole and Wendy's poutine. I don't think I'm in any danger of starting an SBNation site for my Blue Bombers, but this seems like it will make for a fun diversion. Hopefully some of you will follow along too!