Am I the only sports columnist in the United States who gets publicly chided for not talking about the Grey Cup?
I can hear the hard drives whirring in your heads, American sports fans, as you flip through your mental files trying to remember which of those cups the rest of the world is always battling over the Grey Cup is. Is that rugby? Soccer? Cricket? Golf? Or are we just talking about protective equipment for Vinny Testaverde?
I'm going to talk about the Canadian Football League championship game now, three days late, not because it was such an amazing game -- the Edmonton Eskimos beat the Montreal Alouettes 38-35 in double overtime, meaning two possessions for each team in the college-style format -- or because the halftime show by the Black Eyed Peas was more entertaining than anything we can hope for at the next Super Bowl from the Rolling Stones, who are more like the Strained Peas.
I want to talk about the best thing I saw: The officiating.
Stay with me on this, my fellow Americans, I'm going to be talking about the NFL.
Maybe it's because I write about the CFL from time to time and have even confessed to having a favorite -- 'scuse me: favourite -- team, the British Columbia Lions, who got bounced in the Western final this year by the Esks, darn it. But one letter writer gave me grief for ignoring Sunday's Grey Cup game.
I'd meant to watch it Sunday, but I got caught up in family holiday stuff and the NFL and didn't get the chance. I finally watched a tape of the second half and overtime Wednesday -- pilot error on the DVR scotched the first half for me -- and it was no less exciting because I knew the final score.
An unscientific poll on the CFL's Web site asked if this was the most exciting Grey Cup game ever, and the answer, by 79-21 percent, was yes.
Take that with a grain of salt. This was the 94th Grey Cup. Keeping in mind the demographics of the Internet, how many of the people voting do you suppose have been alive for even a third of them? I mean, come on, no love for Edmonton beating Montreal 26-25 in 1954, the teams combining for over 1,000 yards and Red O'Quinn catching 13 passes for 316?
Red O'Quinn, people!
It's easy to find a summary of the rules differences between Canadian and American football, but the obvious ones on first glance are that the field's bigger, there's a 12th player on the field for each team, all of the offensive backs can be moving toward the line of scrimmage at the snap, and there are only three downs, not four.
I haven't watched a lot of the CFL in recent years, but I'm familiar enough with the game -- which, other than the vastly inferior athletes, is a more entertaining one than the NFL version -- that after about two plays I felt comfortable. Just another CFL game. There go all six receivers, racing toward the line of scrimmage at the snap.
What really struck me, though, coming back to live CFL action for the first time in a few years, was the officiating. The CFL doesn't have instant replay, and the zebras, therefore, actually officiate.
It was jarring to see the game run in the way the NFL was run in my youth. A play would happen and the nearest official would immediately make a call. The whistle would actually get blown within a minute of the ballcarrier hitting the ground.
The officials were decisive and confident. It was even more refreshing than seeing a touchback called a rouge and being worth one point.
Instant replay has turned NFL officials into timid middle managers, constantly looking over their shoulders at the replay booth.
Ever notice the length of time between the end of a play in the NFL and the whistle? The official story of NFL officials is that they have to see the ball in the possession of the tackled runner before they can blow the whistle, because they don't want to blow dead a fumble.
That's fine, but how many times have you seen a ballcarrier tackled in the open field, the ball clearly visible in his clutches, and there's enough time before the whistle for you to think, "Where's the whistle?" This happens about five times a quarter for me.
And then there's the now-near-universal gambit of not making any call on a close play, such as whether a ballcarrier has made it into the end zone or a receiver has caught a pass with both feet inbounds. More than once this year alone, after an apparent touchdown, I've seen players already trotting off the field and heard the TV announcer say something like, "We still don't have a signal from the refs."
Nothing like that in the CFL. Play, whistle. Bang, like that. I love it. Do CFL officials blow calls? Of course they do. More than NFL officials? No idea, but I bet they do. It's a good trade.
The NFL is the best football in the world simply because the athletes are so mind-bogglingly good. That's the trump card. The greatest players in the CFL are at best role players in the NFL.
Doug Flutie is a Hall of Fame legend in Canada. In the NFL he's mostly been a highly intriguing backup and spot starter. He's had some nice games and a couple of nice years south of the border. North of it he's Johnny Unitas, Joe Montana and Dan Marino rolled into one. And his brother -- remember him? -- is Jerry Rice.
I've long said I'd love to see NFL players playing with CFL rules, with the bigger field, and especially the bigger end zones, and the fewer downs, which mean a more wide-open game. Now I've got a new item on my hopeless wish list: I'd love to see NFL players playing with CFL officials.
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