Wednesday 17 February 2010

Brain Drain: CFL Players Heading South

With free agency opening up this week I thought I'd touch on a subject, CFL players going to the NFL, which is heavily debated amongst CFL fans.

People say that only two things are constant in life: death and taxes. Well I'd like to add a third thing: CFL players going to the NFL. It's nothing new for players to go from the Canadian Football League to the National Football League. Many people look at the mass exodus that occurs every off-season as a bad thing for the CFL. I strongly disagree. When players leave the CFL to play in the NFL I believe it only elevates the stature of the CFL.

One of the first examples, and maybe the most famous example, of a player using the CFL as a springboard for NFL success was Warren Moon. Moon won a Rose Bowl and was the game's MVP in 1978 but couldn't find a job in the NFL as a Quarterback because of the stigma at the time against black Quarterbacks. Instead of taking the money in the NFL and converting to another position, Moon decided to ply his trade up north, in Edmonton, for the Eskimos. We all know how that turned out. FIVE consecutive Grey Cups later, Moon was a member of the Houston Oilers. After the Oilers, Moon would go on to play for the Minnesota Vikings, Seattle Seahawks and Kansas City Chiefs before retiring from football following the 2000 NFL season. Moon never won, or even played in, a Super Bowl, but he was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio in 2006. Moon was also enshrined in the Canadian Football Hall of Fame in Hamilton, Ontario in 2001. During Moon's induction speech in 2006, the NFL Network (which broadcast it) showed footage and graphics detailing Moon's career in Edmonton. It was clear that his time in Edmonton helped in his selection. Moon himself thanked Hugh Campbell, then Head Coach of the Eskimos, for giving him a chance to play Quarterback at the professional level. Without the CFL Moon may never have been given the chance to become a Hall of Fame QB.

If Moon is the most famous, then Doug Flutie is a close second. Flutie won three Grey Cups, one with Calgary and two with Toronto. After the second of back-to-back championships with the Argonauts in 1997, Flutie made the move to the NFL, where he was signed by the Buffalo Bills. Flutie would also play for the San Diego Chargers and New England Patriots during this stint in the NFL. While Flutie never dominated in the NFL like he did in the CFL, where he won an unprecedented six CONSECUTIVE Most Outstanding Player awards in the 1990s and was voted the greatest player in CFL history, Flutie still had a memorable NFL career. He successfully attempted the first dropkick since 1941 on January 1, 2006, while playing for the New England Patriots, and he was famously benched by then-Bills, and current Cowboys, Head Coach Wade Phillips the last time the Bills made the playoffs in 1999.

Flutie's exit from Canada opened the door for others to shine in the CFL and then go on to the NFL. Players like Jeff Garcia followed in Flutie's footsteps. Garcia left Calgary following the Stampeders' 1998 Grey Cup Championship to play for the 49ers. Garcia has had a relatively successful NFL career, making three Pro Bowls with the 49ers and being the only player in 49er history to throw for over 4,000 yards in a season (no small feat when the names MONTANA and YOUNG directly preceded you). Garcia's departure opened the door for Dave Dickenson, who himself left for the NFL but came back with the BC Lions later on.

Players have always left to go to the NFL, but not all succeed. For every Flutie, Moon or Garcia, there is a Henry Burris, Jesse Lumsden, Dave Dickenson, Casey Printers or Ricky Ray, who make their way back to Canada. That's not to say these players aren't talented, it's just that their skill sets are better suited for the CFL than the NFL. So while players like Martell Mallet (the 2009 CFL Most Outstanding Rookie), John Chick (the 2009 CFL Most Outstanding Defensive Player), Ricky Foley (the 2009 CFL Most Outstanding Canadian), Larry Taylor (the 2009 CFL Most Outstanding Special Teams Player) and Stevie Baggs all look to parlay their success in the CFL to success in the NFL, history has shown that some will come back and others will not. The ones that don't return just provide an opportunity for new players to step in and fill the void created by their departure. Heck, Martell Mallet was one of those guys just last season when Stefan Logan signed with the Pittsburgh Steelers and Mallet took over as the starting Running Back for the BC Lions.

Players come and players go. The CFL will always be home to outstanding athletes, and players leaving to go to the NFL just shows the type of talent that calls the CFL home, even if only for a short time.

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