Day 241: A Brief History Of The CFL

originally published August 28, 2012

Despite my geographical position in one of the most tundra-ish of Canadian cities, I have found that the majority of my readers are located in the United States. I have also found that I possess a dependable disinterest for Canadian football, opting each and every Sunday (Grey Cup Sunday included) to watch NFL games instead. For me, the players are better, the game is more strategic and interesting, and the rules make more sense.

Nevertheless, Ms. Wiki decided to send me on a post route deep into the secondary of the CFL this morning, so it is for my home and native land that I pen this kilograph. Apologies to my fellow countrymen and countrywomen if I come off sounding a little bit cynical.

The history of football can appear deceiving. We are six months removed from the 46th Super Bowl, yet the 100th Grey Cup (the CFL championship) is right around the corner. Yet the game of football as we know it – at least in these two countries – was invented in America, right? So how could this be?

No, it’s rugby.

Rugby-inspired football was actually first played by a British Army garrison in Montreal in the 1860s, and soon spread all over Canada. Okay, ‘all over’ Canada refers mainly to Ontario and Quebec; I think the rest of the country was busy trading beaver pelts and trying not to die of exposure to cold to put together a competitive rugby team. But the Canadian Rugby Union called the shots for every league and every team that mattered in the late 1800s.

The reason the CFL plays with 110 yards is because that’s actually correct. When the game was brought over the border to Harvard, they didn’t have a field large enough to host a proper game of rugby football, so they set their size at 100 yards, with less width and tinier end zones. The field size also explains the American reduction to 11 players per side, as opposed to 15 for Canadian (which dropped to 12 as the rules changed) – there just wasn’t room. The Americans also upped the number of downs to four from three because they wanted to see more offense.

This blows my mind a little. I grew up thinking that Canadian football was a bastardized form of the American game, when in fact the opposite is true.

In 1909, the Governor-General of Canada, Lord Earl Grey (not the tea guy, his grandson) donated the Grey Cup to be awarded to the team that won the Senior Amateur Football Championship of Canada. At this point, the game had deviated from its rugby roots and found a closer resemblance to the American version of the sport, which was also at the time only an amateur game.

By the 1920’s, American football had turned pro. Canadian football rules were changed to allow the forward pass in 1929, but it took until 1956 for them to change the value of a touchdown from five points to six. Over the 30’s and 40’s more and more Canadian teams were finding the money to pay their players, and by 1954, the only teams competing for the Grey Cup were pro teams.

In 1958 the CFL was born, featuring the exact same lineup of teams as are found in the league today, with the exception of the now-defunct Ottawa Rough Riders. Since the league had been formed by merging together two smaller leagues, no one seemed to mind that Ottawa’s Rough Riders had essentially the same name as the Saskatchewan Roughriders. No one was forced to change their name; it was just accepted that two out of nine teams in the league would have the same moniker.

By the 1980s the Montreal Alouettes had dissolved, and the CFL was looking for a way to bring in some more revenue. The league decided to pull the same trick as the USFL had done before and the XFL would do afterward: they went cherry-picking US cities who were somehow surviving without an NFL franchise.

In 1993 the Sacramento Gold Miners were the first American team to join the CFL. The following year, the Las Vegas Posse, Shreveport Pirates and Baltimore Stallions joined the party. Baltimore joined with a vengeance, making it as far as the Grey Cup in their first year. In 1995, Sacramento relocated to become the San Antonio Texans, and the Birmingham Barracudas and Memphis Mad Dogs joined the league. There were almost as many American teams as Canadian.

Canadian football fans watched in horror as Baltimore won the 1995 Grey Cup, and our prized trophy found a home in another country for the first time. I personally felt no horror; I’d always been a Baltimore Colts fan, and besides, the Stallions beat the Calgary Stampeders. I can live with that.

The American experiment collapsed quickly. Birmingham and Memphis couldn’t compete with local college football, and along with Shreveport they folded after the 1995 season. Memphis was about a year removed from acquiring the NFL’s Houston Oilers anyhow. Art Modell announced he was heisting the Cleveland Browns over to Baltimore, so the Stallions booked it up to Montreal and became the new Alouettes. Mere months after Baltimore won the Grey Cup, the league was once again all-Canadian.

After Ottawa’s team folded in 1996, the league has soldiered on with eight teams. Six teams make the playoffs each year, which means you really have to stink in order to not have a chance at the championship. My hometown Edmonton Eskimos set a record among all professional sports leagues by reaching the playoffs 34 years in a row, ending in 2006 when we sat in the league’s sewer for a couple years.

The CFL is the only sports league on the continent in which every team has won a championship in the city where they currently reside. The all-time pro football leader in passing yards is not Brett Favre, it’s Montreal quarterback Anthony Calvillo. Peyton Manning needs to launch the ball another 22,000 yards to beat him from his spot at #7 on the list. Oh, Tom Brady is #25. Brady has also thrown 99 fewer TD passes than Manning because he’s not as good a quarterback. I’m getting off-topic here.

CFL players don’t often make it in the NFL, where the subtle variants in the rules often favor a bigger build, but there have been exceptions. Joe Theisman quarterbacked three years as a Toronto Argonaut before joining the Washington Redskins. Warren Moon, who led the Eskimos to five straight championships, is in the Canadian and American Pro Football Halls of Fame.

What really hurts the CFL is the money. The NFL has the TV contracts, so they’ve got the bucks to pay the best players. That, in my humble beer-swilling opinion, is what makes American football better to watch, whatever your take on the rules may be. Only a handful of CFL players make more than the NFL minimum salary. Moon left Edmonton for Houston because he knew he could retire on Houston Oilers money.

So my loyalty remains with the NFL. On Grey Cup Sunday this year, I’ll probably spend my time watching all the games on NFL Sunday Ticket.

And I’ll continue to curse the Patriots far more vehemently than any Calgary team.

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