Boys in the attic
Cold, Hard Football Facts for Jun 01, 2006
By Cold, Hard Football Facts senior writer John Dudley
Canada is often called America's attic, both for its geographical location above the United States and for the infrequency with which most Americans think about it. We know it's up there, but it often slips our mind. Americans who do pay it a visit are generally looking for something, like a place to go AWOL.
In the case of the Cold, Hard Football Facts crew, a typical pilgrimage north of the border involves strip clubs, duty-free alcohol and Canadian bacon. For exiled NFL players, Canada represents a far more important place: It is where they can resurrect their waning gridiron careers or find refuge in a league with few morals or standards of behavior.
Draft dodgers are not the only Americans to find comfort in Canadian arms. Drug-test dodgers do as well.
The well-kept NFL house is governed according to strict policies. There is simply no room for those who under-perform or routinely misbehave. Once these types of players have been swept out, they begin to consider less-rigid alternatives, and the Canadian Football League becomes an appealing one. (The Canadian Football League just yesterday finally acknowledged that its drug policy is non-existent.)
The latest two big-name players to cross the border are running backs Ricky Williams (pictured here with his new Toronto jersey) and Onterrio Smith.
- Both began CFL training camp last week.
- Both violated the NFL's substance-abuse policy numerous times, resulting in suspensions for the coming season.
- Both had already earned ignominious spots in the backfield of our All-User Team.
- Despite their checkered pasts, both were welcomed with open arms by the CFL.
- Both will try to prove that Canada can be a steppingstone rather than a final destination.
Drug abusers are not the only players hiding out in America's attic. The truth is that several running backs have transitioned from the NFL to the CFL. Few have returned – and none have found much success upon doing so.
The CFL provides players like Williams and Smith with a fresh start. They can create a comfortable spot for themselves in the attic – much the way Greg Brady once did at 4222 Clinton Way. Williams, who lit it up with Miami, has reached a one-year agreement to play for the Toronto Argonauts, while Smith, a whiz in Minnesota, will compete on the Winnipeg Blue Bombers.
In recent years, several other high-drafted running backs have darted to the daylight of the Great White North. Many of them have prospered up there, but they subsequently found that the attic door had closed behind them.
Here is a look at four backs who have attempted to use the CFL as a springboard back to an NFL career. All four – John Avery, Troy Davis, Robert Edwards and Lawrence Phillips– have failed to return, though they have found success in Canada.
Their relative numbers in the NFL and CFL offer some compelling Cold, Hard Football Facts – and offer hope that Williams and Smith will succeed, at least in Canada. Their individual numbers and a comparison of their NFL and CFL careers can be found here. We discovered that:
- Canada truly is a JV defensive league. Our four ballcarriers averaged just 3.5 YPC in the NFL and 5.3 YPC in the CFL.
- Ricky Williams is the nexus around which refugee running backs spin. Davis and Edwards each played behind Williams in the NFL. Avery is likely to play behind Williams this year in the CFL.
- These former high NFL draft picks have found team success in Canada. Two of the four – Phillips and Avery – have hoisted the Grey Cup (Phillips with Montreal in 2002, Avery with Toronto in 2004). A rib injury prevented Edwards from participating in the 2005 title game.
- These former high NFL draft picks have found individual success in Canada. Avery and Davis have each led the CFL in rushing, while Edwards finished third in 2005, his first year in the league. All four have had CFL seasons when they rushed for over 1,000 yards.
Williams and Smith are certainly different from the previous running backs who have gone to Canada in pursuit of redemption. None of them have had the credentials of Williams, who won an NFL rushing title with 1,853 yards for the Dolphins in 2002. Few have shown the all-around potential of Smith, who has led the Vikings in rushing and kick returns and also been their top receiver out of the backfield.
The question is whether playing in the CFL essentially makes NFL careers go up in smoke. Williams and Smith may, in fact, be better-suited for the relaxed lifestyle of Canada – just two addicts in the attic.
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