Give him an A for effort

NFL defector Terry Metcalf has hardly dazzled them in Toronto the way he did in St. Louis, but it's not all his fault
November 06, 1978

In his personal tale of two cities, it should be the worst of times for Terry Metcalf, the 27-year-old American expatriate whose pro football career in Toronto has not reminded anyone of his years in St. Louis. Stateside fans will remember Metcalf as one of the most versatile athletes in the NFL during his five seasons with the Cardinals. A gifted running back, a superb receiver and a game breaker on special teams, Metcalf set an NFL record in 1975 when he rushed, received, returned and recovered the ball for 2,462 yards and 13 touchdowns. In two of his NFL seasons, Metcalf led the Cardinals to the playoffs as champions of the NFC East. For better (36 touchdowns) or worse (56 fumbles), the 5'10", 190-pound Metcalf was undeniably spectacular, and the NFL this season is less exciting without him. Particularly St. Louis.

Metcalf left 'em cheering. His last NFL touchdown helped the NFC to a 14-13 win over the AFC in January's Pro Bowl. That game marked the end of his option year with the Cardinals, who had seemed playoff bound again until they lost their last four games to finish with a 7-7 record in a season marred by open hostility among the players, the coaches and the owner, penurious Bill Bidwill. Two months later, after free agent Metcalf turned down several curiously similar NFL offers that he considered to be too low, he signed a seven-year, $1.4 million contract with the Canadian Football League's Toronto Argonauts, thereby becoming the first established NFL star to take his act north of the border.

For a player of Metcalf's speed and multiple skills, the CFL seemed made to order. The fields are 10 yards longer and 11⅖ yards wider than those in the U.S., and there are three downs—not four. Canadian football demands a wide-open offense in which passing is the rule, not the exception: receivers can be in motion, in any direction—including forward—before the ball is snapped. CFL defensive players are also generally smaller than their American counterparts. So the prospects were good that Metcalf would tear up the CFL and collect on all the performance clauses written into his contract, especially after his debut on July 12.

In Toronto's league opener against the Hamilton Tiger-Cats, Metcalf was nothing short of brilliant. He rushed for 163 yards, returned three punts for 46 yards, two kickoffs for 82 yards, and scored two touchdowns as the Argos won 34-22. Moreover, Metcalf quieted the Toronto fans who feared he might be another Anthony Davis, the former USC running back—now an injured Houston Oiler—whose moodiness baffled Canadians when he played for Toronto in 1976.

Toronto owner William R. Hodgson, a hotel magnate with a history of bad returns on his football investments, spent $1 million to sign Davis to a five-year contract, and he promptly became the biggest bust, if not the most hated player, in the history of the franchise. Argo fans, already aggrieved by the amount of money Hodgson was paying a foreigner, were outraged by Davis' sulking and his listless efforts on the field. Davis finally bought up his contract after 13 games, and then signed on with his former USC Coach John McKay at Tampa Bay.

Metcalf, in contrast, has been a pleasant surprise, and the fans have stuck by him even though his performances have tailed off greatly since the opener.

"The best thing about Terry," says Joe Scannella, coach of the Montreal Alouettes, "is that he's really trying. He's been busting himself for the club even though everyone on the defense is zeroing in on him. The wider field, which everyone thought would help him, hasn't, because Toronto can't get him outside. He also has to play the whole game—punt returns, kickoffs and the like—and when a guy with a big name comes up here for big money, everybody's fired up to stop him and they go at it extra hard. I really admire the kid, because he hasn't quit, and if he didn't cost $250,000 or whatever, I'd love to have him."

Unhappily, Metcalfs thrilling performance against the Tiger-Cats has so far proved to be his only outstanding effort. He has suffered from a painful and lingering case of "turf toe," as well as a knee injury that sidelined him for most of one game, and an inept offensive line that so far this season has included 14 different guards.

As a result, Metcalfs stats are anemic. Through Toronto's first 15 games, he has rushed for 574 yards on 155 carries and ranks only third in the Eastern Conference. His yardage total is also topped by five Western Conference backs, including Saskatchewan's Mike Strickland, the CFL leader with 1,306 yards.

Since his debut, Metcalf has scored only one other touchdown and caught just 30 passes for 263 yards. His longest gain on any play from scrimmage has been just 34 yards on a pass play. His longest run has been 26 yards. Moreover, he has not been as effective as he expected on the special teams: a CFL rule limits downfield blocking on punt returns, and opponents wisely keep the ball away from Metcalf on kickoffs.

In addition, after winning three of its first four games, Toronto, which has not won the Grey Cup since 1952, has become one of the worst teams in the league. Including last Sunday's 31-15 loss to the British Columbia Lions, Toronto has lost ten of its last 11 games.

The crux of the Argos' offensive problems is the line, with its almost weekly turnover in personnel. In contrast to the NFL, whose rosters barely change after the final cut, Canadian teams replace players in gang-load lots throughout the season by way of an evaluation procedure called the five-day trial. Toronto may lead the league in five-day-trial players, some of whom have gone through the process several times. The season's leader among the Argos' trial players is Phil Rogers, a running back who filled in for Metcalf against Winnipeg when he was idled by his knee injury. In that game Rogers gained seven yards on four carries, caught three passes for nine yards and lost a fumble on the Winnipeg eight-yard line as Toronto lost 19-14. Rogers was cut shortly thereafter, for the third time this season.

"I couldn't tell you how many teammates I've had this year," Metcalf says. "That's made it harder, too, because you just get to know a guy and suddenly he's cut or released, or whatever, and they bring in another guy and you have to learn all about him."

Along with many of his new teammates, Metcalf is now playing for his second Argo coach. Leo Cahill, the last coach to take Toronto to the Grey Cup—in 1971, when the Argos' quarterback was Joe Theismann—was fired in 1972, rehired last year and then fired again on Sept. 10 and replaced by Bud Riley, the club's offensive backfield coach.

"It was the first time that ever happened to me," Metcalf says, "and it wasn't so much the shock—everyone had kind of sensed it two or three games before it happened—but the entire change everyone had to go through right away. We had to change systems and we had a game coming up in five days."

Metcalf doesn't mention one other problem—the occasionally ridiculous, sometimes baffling, use of his talents in the Argonauts' game plan. In a recent loss to Ottawa, for example, Metcalf ran the ball several times into the middle of the line, where the congestion understandably stymied his moves, speed and acceleration. On many passing plays, Metcalf—never noted for his blocking skills—stayed in the backfield as a blocker for Quarterback Chuck Ealey. On a couple of plays, though, Metcalf showed a flash of his NFL brilliance. Once he hit up inside right tackle on a quick burst for nine yards, and later he cut back over right guard, vaulted a tackier and got nine more yards.

Metcalf and his wife Celeste, whom he married on May 7, live in a beautiful high-rise apartment building on the Lake Ontario waterfront, which is within biking distance of Exhibition Stadium where the Argos practice and play their home games.

One night recently, he talked about the move to Canada and his first CFL season. "Yeah, it's been disappointing," he said. "I wanted to do well up here and I haven't. We haven't been winning, either. All these things have made it tough. This is the worst season I've had since I've become a pro, but if it wasn't for our record, everything would be all right. The people up here have treated me very well. Living up here is all right. The cost of living is a little higher, but Toronto is a nice, clean city and I like it very much.

"The fans have been good, too. Even now that we are losing, they don't jump on me. They get on management [to the point of even booing attendance announcements]. They realize that I could be the best runner in the world but I need an offensive line."

Would Metcalf do it all over again? "Under the circumstances I left the NFL—yeah, I think so," he said. "My lawyer and I thought the owners there were trying to set a pay scale, and I think they were using me. I was supposedly the No. 1 athlete playing out his option, and I guess they figured if they didn't pay me, anyone who came after me couldn't get any real big money.

"I'm doing all right. I'm happy. I did what I wanted to do to St. Louis. I wanted to get away from them and not give them any compensation, and right now they're doing as badly as we are, so I can't complain." Actually, the Cardinals are doing worse. Toronto has won four games, St. Louis has won only one.

PHOTOMetcalf needs new linemen and new plays.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)