The Canadian Football League is a bit eccentric: It has one too few downs and one too many teams named Rough Riders. It loses a ton of money each year and has somehow gained 10 extra yards on its field of play. But give the CFL some credit—the Grey Cup, its championship game, was a smash on Sunday.
Amid fierce winds in Ottawa, the Winnipeg Blue Bombers survived two late surges by the favored British Columbia Lions to win the 76th cup 22-21. Even hardened NFL fans would have savored the fourth-quarter thrills to which Canadians were treated Sunday.
Winnipeg's victory came with a particularly Canadian twist. Among the team's 22 points were three "singles." A single is awarded for attempted field goals or punts that go out-of-bounds in the end zone—a consolation, perhaps, to CFL teams for having only three downs to work with.
"It's the strangest thing I've ever heard of—getting a point for missing a field goal," said Bomber quarterback Sean Salisbury, a former USC Trojan who arrived in Canada four months ago after being cut by the Indianapolis Colts, "but thank God for the single today."
Despite Winnipeg's lame 9-9 record in the regular season (it is the first .500 team to win the CFL championship), the matchup was promising. The league's top battery, B.C.'s quarterback Matt Dunigan and wideout David Williams, would face the league's toughest secondary. The CFL's cleanest player, Salisbury, a polite-as-pie Mormon, would peer across the line at its dirtiest, B.C. linebacker Jeff (the Nutcracker) Braswell. Indeed, Braswell was suspended for a game last month after kicking two of his own teammates in practice.
Sure enough, there was Braswell, in the first half of Sunday's game, flinging himself into Tim Jessie's knees from behind, after the whistle. Jessie, a Winnipeg running back, was unhurt, and the subsequent penalty kept alive a Bomber drive that ended, on the next play, with Winnipeg's second touchdown.
Salisbury delivered some thrills of his own for the Bombers, connecting with wideout James Murphy on a 71-yard completion in the first quarter and on a 35-yard touchdown in the second. B.C.'s Dunigan and Williams were less spectacular, although they combined for a 26-yard TD strike in the second quarter. At the half the Lions held a 15-14 lead.
Besides their formidable offensive weapons, the Lions brought to Ottawa something that had CFL image makers cringing: the franchise's shaky financial history. The league lost at least $5 million this season, and the Lions accounted for $2.5 million of that red ink. Not that losing money in the CFL is anything to be ashamed of—six of the league's eight teams did that in '88.
Reversing those losses has been the job of Doug Mitchell, the CFL's castor-oil commissioner, whose unpleasant medicine may have saved the league. In 1986 he imposed an "expense cap" of $3 million on each team, which meant that players on some clubs—most notably, the Lions—took pay cuts.
The Lions were philosophical about the fiscal distractions. Says Kevin Konar, a linebacker who had two of B.C.'s four sacks on Sunday, "At some point, you have to say, Well, if I quit, what else am I going to do?"
The Lions had a harder time coping with their frustrations in the second half against Winnipeg. Dunigan, Canada's best quarterback, is now 1-2 in three consecutive Grey Cup appearances. On Sunday he failed to mount much of anything in the second half, allowing Winnipeg kicker Trevor Kennerd to dominate the scoring with two of his four field goals. Dunigan was intercepted at the Bombers' seven-yard line with six minutes to play. Then, in the waning moments—and with his club needing a mere "single" to tie the game—he saw two of his passes knocked away and a third fall incomplete.
Lots of critical plays. A one-point game. No one left Lansdowne Park early. The organizers of that annual January rout known as the Super Bowl would trade their halftime for what the CFL had on Sunday: a big finish.