They saw it in the motion, the way the running backs moved before the football was snapped. They saw it in the formations, the multiple sets with receivers spread from sideline to sideline. Mostly, they saw it in the way the quarterbacks were used, how they were allowed to run. The way San Francisco 49ers' quarterback Colin Kaepernick ran the Green Bay Packers right out of the NFC playoffs.
For those who coach and manage in the CFL, that playoff game – in fact, the entire 2012 NFL season – produced a common refrain: the four-down game is looking more and more like the three-down version when it comes to offensive scheming and quarterbacking. It's been that way the past few years, but this past season was a full-on convergence, a melding of philosophies. And it wasn't just the Super Bowl-bound Kaepernick who highlighted that point. It was Robert Griffin, RGIII, doing a Warren Moon for the Washington Redskins. It was Russell Wilson resembling Doug Flutie for the Seattle Seahawks. They threw the ball with precision and they ran defences ragged with their head coach's blessing.
It spoke to what the CFL learned a long time ago: if you want more excitement, more points scored, find an athlete who plays quarterback and work to his strengths.
"You have to look at where the NFL game is now: the things that have made our game exciting have now moved into their world," said B.C. Lions' general manager Wally Buono, who had Flutie, Jeff Garcia and Dave Dickenson as his CFL quarterbacks along with Mike McCoy, the new head coach of the San Diego Chargers. "What's changed in the NFL is they don't just want a quarterback standing behind a wall of humanity trying to throw it downfield; they want someone who can run. The description no longer is, 'He's a running quarterback.' It's, 'He's a quarterback who can run.'
"If it wasn't Colin Kaepernick in the Super Bowl," Buono said, "it would be Russell Wilson."
Remember when the NFL used to be hailed – praised, even – as "three yards and a cloud of dust?" That was from an era when teams played on grass and dirt and ran the ball because the prevailing sentiment was, "Three things happen when you throw the ball and two of them are bad."
That attitude has gone the way of single-bar facemasks and coaches wearing suits on the sidelines. While it's still important to have a useful running game, teams can win without a dominant one if they have the right quarterback operating the right offensive system. As Dickenson, the Calgary Stampeders' offensive co-ordinator and a former San Diego Charger, remarked: "When I was down there, it was just manage the game and don't turn the ball over. Now they're asking quarterbacks to win games and be more dynamic, what we've been doing for a while."
In terms of offence, here's how the NFL has been trending in CFL-like fashion:
-The NFL points-per-game average for 2012 was 45.5, the highest total in 43 years. The next highest average was 44.4 set in 2011, just ahead of the previous record of 44.0 set in 2010;
-NFL teams averaged an all-time high of 34.79 passes a game in 1995, the first year quarterbacks were allowed to have a radio communication device in their helmet. That average has risen and fallen since but this past season it was up to 34.74. (Compare that to the Toronto Argonauts who averaged 35.3 passes a game in 2012 in a three-down offence.);
-In 2001, two quarterbacks (Kurt Warner, Peyton Manning) threw for more than 4,000 yards. Five years later, there were five passers who did it. This past season, that number climbed to 11 and included Indianapolis Colts rookie Andrew Luck. (Note: eight of the NFL's top-10 single season passing yardage leaders have come from the last five seasons.)
-Five quarterbacks threw for more than 30 touchdowns this past season. Only two did it in 1990.
"It's been there before with the West Coast offence, from Joe Montana to Steve Young, but it's been taken to another level now," said Montreal Alouettes' GM Jim Popp, who last month lost his head coach, Marc Trestman, to the Chicago Bears. "Look at the Pistol [offence], where the back lines up behind the quarterback and you can put [the ball] in [to the back's hands] or pull it out. You can throw from there. There are a lot of choices. It's the evolution of the game."
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."