Blame Canada! A Q & A with Yahoo! CFL blogger Andrew Bucholtz

You know what, sports fans? Yahoo! has invaded Canada once again. It was bad enough when we took on the NHL with the proto-awesome Puck Daddy blog; now we've got the Canadian Football League in a headlock with 55-Yard Line, our new blog about those three-down guys playing on that too-big field. I asked Andrew Bucholtz, the guy responsible for this latest development, to explain himself and tell you why you'll want to be checking out 55-Yard Line on a regular basis.

Q: First of all, welcome to the football side of Yahoo! Sports. Tell us a little about yourself - where have you been, what have you been doing, and why will we want to bookmark the new CFL blog as you get going?

A: Thanks! I'm very excited to be on board. I've got a background in both the traditional mainstream media and the blogosphere. I spent three years at the Queen's Journal, the student paper of Queen's University, and served as both the assistant sports editor and the sports editor during my time there. For the last 15 months or so, I've been working as a roving reporter for the Black Press chain of community newspapers in B.C., covering news, business, sports and arts. I've also been running a general sports blog over at Sporting Madness for five years, and that's led to various other blogging opportunities, including covering professional soccer in Canada for The 24th Minute and World Soccer Reader and helping to lead the team that covers Canadian Interuniversity Sport (our equivalent of the NCAA) over at The CIS Blog.

With the new blog, I'd like to use some of that range of experience to bring different angles to the traditional CFL coverage; I don't want to just talk about who won each week, but rather some of the different personalities and issues involved. A key focus for me is going to be connections to both Canadian and American university football, as well as the NFL; I'm hoping people will want to read about how NCAA stars of the past are adapting to the Canadian game, as well as which CFL players might wind up on NFL rosters in the near future.

Q: Let's talk about the strategic differences between the NFL and the CFL - your league's field is longer and wider, and the receivers are running before the snap. What other differences are there?

A: Probably the biggest difference is that Canadian football features three downs instead of four. That leads to a huge emphasis on the pass, as you have to pick up 10 yards for a first down in just two plays instead of three. Just about every play is run from a shotgun formation. There are also 12 men on each side of the ball, which alters formations and tactics significantly.

There's a neutral zone of a full yard between the offensive and defensive lines prior to the snap, which can make it easier to pick up short yardage. You can pick up a single point (or rouge) by kicking the ball through the end zone on either a punt or a missed field goal, or having the defensive team decline to return either out of their end zone (they can receive more advantageous field position if they don't). The clock also stops more in Canadian football, which often combines with the focus on big passing plays to lead to late comebacks. There are very few CFL leads that are safe, which makes a lot of the games fun to watch from start to finish.

Q: In the article you recently helped me with (and thank you, good sir), we discussed the slotback position, and I got the impression that it's a combination between a flex tight end (think Dallas Clark(notes) in the slot) and a slot receiver like Wes Welker(notes). Is that pretty accurate?

A: It is in terms of some of the routes that they run; slotbacks often focus on short curls or crossing routes over the middle the way Welker and Clark do, but they also often go deep. However, CFL teams don't usually carry a tight end, and they don't usually put anyone on the end of the line, so you won't see slotbacks blocking the way TEs do. In fact, there usually aren't significant physical differences between slotbacks and wide receiver; the distinction's just where they line up, so you can have slotbacks running go routes and wide receivers running short crossing patterns.

Another difference between slotbacks and Welker/Clark types is that the latter usually tend to be complementary receivers to a Randy Moss(notes) or a Reggie Wayne(notes), while several CFL teams have slotbacks as their leading receivers. CFL teams usually go four or five receivers wide on each play, with two wide receivers lining up near the sidelines and two or three slotbacks moving around the middle of the field. Here's a good photo illustrating a typical pre-snap alignment of receivers and slotbacks from a 2006 CIS game between the University of Alberta Golden Bears and the University of Calgary Dinos.

Q: Who are the five best players in the CFL right now?

A: That's a tough question, given the difficulty of comparing players across positions. I chose to go with a top player from each of five different positions. You can make an argument for quite a number of players, but here's the five I came up with:

Anthony Calvillo, QB, Montreal: Utah State product Calvillo, who started his CFL career with the Las Vegas Posse in 1994 during the league's brief foray into American markets, has been the most consistent and most dominant quarterback in the CFL for much of the last decade. He's led the Alouettes to seven Grey Cup games, and they've claimed the silverware in two (2002 and last year). The team's considerably less impressive without him, though; with Calvillo injured this week, former Florida quarterback Chris Leak and the Alouettes got blown out 38-17 by the basement-dwelling B.C. Lions.

Cory Boyd(notes), RB, Toronto: Boyd, a former South Carolina Gamecock, is the main reason for the Argonauts' turnaround this season. They were 3-15 in 2009, but go into today's Labour Day Classic against Hamilton (which we'll be live-blogging at The 55-Yard Line at 2:30 p.m. Eastern) with a 5-3 record. Boyd leads his team and the league with 792 rushing yards on 133 carries (a 6.0 yards-per-carry average), more than 100 yards ahead of his nearest rival. He also has 14 receptions for 102 yards.

Arland Bruce III, WR, Hamilton: Former Minnesota Golden Gopher Bruce, long one of the CFL's most talented and colourful receivers (see his 2007 Spiderman celebration), has toned down his talk and cranked up his play this year, and is back to the form . He's already made 53 catches for a league-leading 812 yards, including 16 for 272 yards in one game, the sixth-highest total in league history. When he's on his game, he's almost impossible to cover.

James Patrick, CB, Saskatchewan: The hockey player of the same name is probably more famous in Canada, but Patrick's quietly making his own mark this year. From Tuscaloosa's Division II Stillman Tigers, he leads the CFL with seven interceptions. He also has one defensive touchdown off an interception return, 37 tackles and a fumble recovery.

Phillip Hunt, DE, Winnipeg: The Houston Cougars are more known for churning out high-octane passing offences than sack leaders these days, but one of their former players is making them proud. Hunt is tearing up the CFL in his second year with a league-leading eight sacks. He also has 25 tackles and a fumble recovery.

Q: Please finish this sentence, and feel free to elaborate: The current Grey Cup champions (the best CFL team) would be competitive with:

a. The worst NFL team;
b. The best UFL team
c. A leading major college team like Alabama or Oklahoma.

A: A lot depends on the rules you're playing by. Any of those teams would have difficulty adapting to the Canadian game, as has been frequently shown by the number of NCAA stars who have had a tough time trying to adjust to the CFL, and I'd venture that the top CFL team could beat any of them under Canadian rules (if you just played a game without extensive practices to adapt). On the other hand, any CFL team would likely fall to any of those teams under American rules.

If you take the rule considerations out of it and evaluate on a strictly talent standpoint, the top CFL team would probably lose to the worst NFL team. The game against the best UFL team could go either way, as their rosters look reasonably similar in talent to those found in the CFL. I think a top CFL team could come away with a victory against a major college team given the professional players' greater maturity and experience; from a pure talent standpoint, it's probably a draw (the college team would likely have more top-end players, but the CFL team would have better depth).

Q: Are there any schematic things about the league we'd be surprised by? Anything about the way the CFL does things that makes the game more exciting and fun?

A: I've mentioned a bunch of them already, including the emphasis on passing, but something I personally find very surprising is that formations don't tend to change drastically from team to team, unlike in the NCAA and NFL. For example, every CFL team tends to use four defensive linemen in base sets, unlike the NFL's mix of 3-4 and 4-3 fronts. Most offensive sets look pretty similar too with one or two backs and four or five receivers. That doesn't make the game boring, though; there's a lot of room for innovation within those basic parameters, and the high-scoring nature of the game combine with the differing rules on when the clock stops to often cause dramatic finishes.

Something else that might surprise American readers is that CFL players are, on the whole, smaller than their positional counterparts in the NFL: for example, 6'3'', 250-pound Cameron Wake(notes) tore up the CFL as a defensive end, but played linebacker in college and returned to that position in the NFL. Many CFL quarterbacks are quite short (Kevin Glenn of the Ti-Cats is 5'10), and running backs as small as Stefan Logan(notes) (5'6'', 177) have frequently made significant impacts up north. The CFL's more a league of athleticism than brute force, but there are still plenty of bone-crunching hits to be seen too.

Q: When you think about players like Anthony Calvillo and Milt Stegall, guys who spent years and years in the CFL and played at a very high level, is it more that they just found their ceilings in the CFL, or is it that they found a comfort level and didn't want to take the risk? Who are some other CFL all-timers?

A: A lot of it depends on the specific circumstances involved in each case, but I think many of the top CFL players like Calvillo, Stegall and Damon Allen (brother of NFL hall-of-famer Marcus Allen and professional football's all-time leading passer) could have made it in the NFL if they had received the chance. That doesn't mean they made the wrong move by staying in Canada, though, as they might not have had much of an opportunity even if they jumped at an NFL offer. Ricky Ray tore up the CFL early in his career and chose to give the NFL a try after receiving tons of offers, but wound up buried on the Jets' depth chart behind Chad Pennington(notes) and Quincy Carter.

The NFL spends a lot of time and money on talent evaluation, but it's still a very imperfect science, and players' true skills are often only shown when they're given an opportunity to show what they can do in games. Coaches and GMs also have more of their reputation at stake with draft picks than they do with free agents brought in from the CFL, so CFL players who have plenty of talent can still struggle to make 53-man rosters. We'll never know how some of the CFL greats might have done if they tried to catch on in the NFL, but the odds can be pretty tough to overcome, and they had very memorable careers up here.

Q: Speaking of Milt Stegall, he once said: "There's only six guarantees in this world. Death, taxes, trouble, Milt Stegall being on time, Milt Stegall being pretty, Milt Stegall being in tip-top shape. There are only six guarantees." Is Milt Stegall the coolest person in CFL history? Of course he is.

A: Stegall's certainly up there (and he's maintaining that reputation as an analyst for CFL games on TSN these days), but the league has had some tremendous characters over the years. What I'd probably choose as the all-time peak of CFL coolness would be the 1991 Toronto Argonauts, owned by Wayne Gretzky, John Candy and Bruce McNall and featuring Rocket Ismail, who they actually outbid the NFL for.

Q: The league has gone through some rough transitions in the last two decades - there was an expansion into an America, and financial problems around that - and the NFL stepped in and loaned the league money in the mid-1990s so that it could stay solvent. But it seems that things have turned around, with new stadiums and an expansion team on board. Where is the league now, and does it have a solid future?

A: I think the league's on solid ground at the moment. TV ratings are great (often with 800,000 to a million viewers per game, which is pretty significant in a country of 34 million people), gate revenues and merchandise sales are strong in most markets, and there are committed and passionate owners for every team. There's a lot of interest in the CFL from fans and media outlets across the country, and that's great to see. Ottawa's set to join the league in a couple of years, and there are discussions around expanding to the Maritimes and Quebec City.

The league seems to be taking its time to get each situation right, though, rather than handing out franchises to whoever throws money at them the way they did during the U.S. expansion days. The league also signed a new four-year CBA with the players earlier this year, which should ensure labour peace for a while. The one key area of concern at the moment is the situation around a new stadium in Hamilton, which has led to threats to move the Tiger-Cats, but both sides are discussing compromises and it seems possible we could still see a settlement reached. Despite that turmoil, the league as a whole looks to be in very good shape for the upcoming future.

Q: That loan from the NFL led to an agreement between the two leagues that allowed an option window in which CFL players could take an advantage of pipeline to the NFL. The new CFL CBA, ratified just this year, has shut that off. Do you think this will affect the level of talent the league is able to acquire?

A: It certainly could. This isn't going to completely prevent CFL players from jumping to the NFL, but it will make it more difficult, and getting back on the NFL radar has always been a key motivation for many CFL players. I don't think the impact is necessarily going to be too drastic, though, as there's a lot of untapped talent still out there; I talked about how making an NFL roster can be a function of opportunity rather than talent earlier, and the same holds true in the CFL.

There are plenty of very skilled players who never quite find regular roles with one team or another, and some of them may step up if other players elect to stay away from the CFL. A lot of the impact of this change also depends on the alternatives available to players: if the UFL is able to stay financially healthy and continues to allow easy exits back to the NFL, it may draw off more talent from the CFL; if it fails down the road, many of those players may come to the CFL despite the lack of the option year. I don't think this change is going to cause a CFL talent crisis, but it will be a situation to watch.

Q: I'm assuming that hockey is still Canada's primary sport - where does the CFL stand in the heart of the country? Is it a major thing like football/baseball/basketball in the U.S., or more a secondary sport from a popularity standpoint?

A: A lot of the CFL's popularity depends on what area of Canada you're in. In Saskatchewan, where there's no NHL team, the CFL is the dominant sport; in Toronto, where it has to compete with the NHL, the NBA and MLB, it's much further off the radar. Overall, TV ratings and other metrics would suggest that it's the most popular sport in the summer, and it still does pretty well in the fall. On a national scale, it's probably the second-biggest sport behind the NHL, but that's with the caveat that it's incredibly popular in some regions and very tertiary in others.

Q: Is the NFL a big deal in Canada, or do people generally stick to their own brand of football?

A: The NFL is a big deal here, and don't let some lackluster attendance numbers for the Bills in Toronto fool you; Canadians are smart enough to realize that the Bills are lousy, NFL preseason games aren't worth hefty admission prices and there's a better NFL game-day experience available just hours down the road in Orchard Park, NY. NFL games consistently pull in solid TV ratings in Canada, and the Bills, Lions and Seahawks among others all draw plenty of cross-border fans on game days. That doesn't mean the NFL trumps the CFL in Canada, though. For a while, fans of the two leagues were deeply divided, but these days, we're seeing more and more people who appreciate what both leagues have to offer.

Q: I have three more general Canadian questions:

1. Do you guys really say, "Eh" at the end of every sentence, or is that one of those goofy stereotypes that has ballooned out of control?

That depends on the person. I tend to use "eh" quite a bit, but I know lots of Canadians who don't. It's a useful interjection, though, and it can make anything into a question, eh?

2. What's the deal with bacon up there?

That's actually a bit more of a misconception than "Eh". Yes, we do have back bacon (often called Canadian bacon) up here, but if you see just "Bacon" on a menu, it's probably the stuff you're used to in the States. I'm a fan of both varieties, personally.

3. Please explain why the Tea Party (the awesome Canadian band, not the controversial American political movement) never made it down here. I thought they might be the next Rush, and they wound up about as popular as Coney Hatch in America.

I quite liked The Tea Party (the band, not the movement) during their heyday, but I'm not sure why they never caught on stateside. Canadian bands finding success in the U.S. has always been a bit of a hit-and-miss proposition; some great artists like Neil Young, Tom Cochrane and Randy Bachman became huge south of the border, but others like the Tea Party and Moxy Fruvous never really seemed to fiind an audience in the U.S. Still, things seem to be turning around, as tons of talented Canadian bands are finding huge success in the U.S. these days (Arcade Fire, Broken Social Scene, Metric and more). Meanwhile, we blame America for the popularity of Celine Dion. Nickelback and Justin Bieber; you can keep them!

Oh, well -- at least you like Rush.

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