It has taken a confluence of factors for the NFL to move in the CFL’s direction. Rule changes have restricted pass coverage and allowed for more pass-interference calls, a reason why NFL quarterbacks are launching long-range missiles with greater regularity. “The ability to throw deep [has] become even more important,” Moon said of the current NFL game.
U.S. colleges are employing all kinds of offensive groupings and utilizing quarterbacks who don’t fit the stay-in-the-pocket norm – and those athletes, and even some coaches (Pete Carroll, Jim Harbaugh, Chip Kelly), are finding their way into the NFL.
The league’s open-mindedness is best demonstrated by the ever-efficient New England Patriots. With a no-huddle offence that features fleet receivers, a versatile 6-foot-6 tight end and the mentally adept Tom Brady at quarterback, the Patriots ran a league-best 1,191 offensive plays in 2012 and passed 40.8 times a game. (In 2003, Brady’s third season in the NFL, the Patriots averaged 36.8 passes a game.) In the eyes of one observer, New England looked like the Argos or Stampeders.
“I’m starting to think I was ahead of my time in two categories – one, a mobile quarterback who can throw the ball or be used as a runner; two, using no-huddle and calling things out over the ball,” said Canadian Football Hall of Famer Doug Flutie. “[In the CFL] I remember saying, ‘Let’s go no-huddle from the start of the game,’ and we tried it once and got out to a huge lead. ... When you get a first down or two going rapid fire, the defensive line gets a lot more tired than the offensive line does.”
Flutie began his CFL career after being shunted by the NFL because he stood 5 foot 10, a height that earned him the nickname America’s Midget from Chicago quarterback Jim McMahon. Flutie was exactly what NFL coaches didn’t want then, someone who could think the game on his feet and improvise outside the playbook.
With the B.C. Lions in 1991, he averaged 40.6 passes an outing (again, in a three-down game) and threw for a record 6,619 yards. The Lions also set a record 9,117 yards of net offence over 18 games. It wasn’t until he accomplished everything he could in Canada that Flutie earned his best opportunities in the NFL. Given the league’s current appetite for athletic quarterbacks, he’s convinced he would have been better received now.
“I talk to [New Orleans Saints’ quarterback] Drew Brees all the time,” said Flutie, who was in San Diego with Brees through four seasons. “He said I told him, ‘running the ball is a waste of time. We should spread them out and throw it on every play and just mix in a run once in a while.’ That was my theory in Toronto [when the Argos won back-to-back Grey Cups with Flutie at the helm]. Our running game was swing passes, shovel passes and wide-receiver screens.”
Getting the most out of their No. 1 quarterback was the reason why the Bears turned to Montreal and hired Trestman as head coach. They saw the work he did in the NFL as an assistant coach, how he took average-to-good quarterbacks such as Jake Plummer and Rich Gannon and made them better. They were equally aware of what Trestman did for Montreal veteran Anthony Calvillo, helping him win the league’s most-outstanding-player award two years in a row late in his career.
Popp, who also lost offensive assistant coach Pat Meyer to Chicago, is comfortable in saying Trestman and the Bears are “a good fit.”
“Marc has been with good quarterbacks and when he’s had them they’ve been unbelievable,” Popp explained. “The Bears are looking for that with Jay Cutler. They believe they can get more out of him and Marc is capable of doing that. ... It’s what our league can offer.”
No one will ever mistake the CFL for the NFL – the economics are way too tilted in the U.S. league’s favour for that to happen. But as the four-down game changes, as it becomes less rigid, more adventurous, it moves into the CFL’s world, and that’s not a bad thing for either side.
“I think you can make a case the CFL has affected the advancement of the African-American quarterback and the athlete quarterback and maybe that’s because of the three downs,” said Winnipeg Blue Bombers’ GM Joe Mack, who worked 13 years in the NFL. “When you’re in second down, you don’t care how you gain yards; you just want someone who has the skills to do it.
“We do a lot of great things in the CFL by necessity.”