- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 27, 2011

ANALYSIS/OPINION

This game against the Buffalo Bills in Toronto would be a lot more fun if Sav Rocca, the Washington Redskins‘ punter, could score a rouge.

A rouge, for those who snoozed through French class, is the point that’s awarded in the Canadian game when a punt goes into — or through — the end zone and isn’t returned. (The same holds for a kickoff.) Then again, maybe the teams should be forced to play 12 on a side, the way they do in the CFL, or be allowed only three downs to gain 10 yards. It just seems like there should be more of an acknowledgement that Sunday’s scrum at Rogers Centre is being played in the Great White North.

Besides, wouldn’t Anthony Armstrong make an awesome flying wing (as they used to call the 12th man in Canadian ball)?

Alas, the Redskins-Bills game will be just like any other NFL game, except for the picture of Queen Elizabeth on the bills being passed between fans and beer vendors. It wasn’t always thus, you’ll be pleased to know. In the 1950s, when NFL clubs first ventured to Canada — for preseason tilts — they were much more open-minded about these things. They would play the first half under Canadian rules and the second under American rules. Of course, there was a good reason for this: They were playing Canadian teams.

Let the record show that when the New York Giants traveled to Ottawa in 1950 to meet the Rough Riders, Tom Landry — yes, the Tom Landry of Dallas Cowboys fame — opened the scoring for the visitors with … a rouge. Back then, touchdowns in Canada were worth five points, not six; so despite two TDs, two point-afters and Landry’s single (as a rouge is also known), the Giants came out of the first half with a mere 13-11 lead.

The game sure did get confusing at times. The Giants lost a touchdown in the early going when one of their players made the mistake of blocking more than 10 yards downfield. In those days, that was a no-no in Canadian ball.

On the other hand, playing on a 110-yard field in the first two quarters had its benefits. After the Giants‘ quarterback led the offense to a go-ahead score, coach Steve Owen told him: “I’ve got to compliment you. You not only played a great game, but you’re the first Giant* quarterback that ever [drove] the team 108 yards to a touchdown.”

In the second half, playing in the more familiar NFL style, New York pulled away to a 27-6 win. A good time was had by all — good enough for the clubs to stage a rematch the next year. The Giants won that one, too - by a 41-18 margin.

It might seem farfetched that teams from the NFL and CFL would knock helmets, but you have to remember: The gap between the two leagues wasn’t nearly as cavernous then as it is now. Canadian clubs, some of them bankrolled by oil money, occasionally outbid American teams for talent, and the quality of play in the league was pretty good. Indeed, in 1959, when the Chicago Cardinals laid a 55-26 whipping on the Toronto Argonauts, a CFL general manager took it hard, calling it “a very bad thing for the prestige of Canadian football.” (Heck, nowadays it would be considered a moral victory.)

The latter game, by the way, was the first played by an NFL club in Toronto (though the Bills have since made it their home away from home). The following year, the Pittsburgh Steelers came north to take on the Argonauts and, as an added attraction, agreed to play all four quarters under Canadian rules. Even 12-on-12, though, the Steelers had no trouble subduing the Argos. It was 36-3 at the half — with the legendary Bobby Layne throwing three touchdown passes — and 43-16 when it was over.

(This came as a great relief to Pittsburgh safety Dean Derby, who’d had to chase after flying wings all night. “I’m sure glad I don’t have to defend in any of those 25-yard [CFL] end zones again,” he said.)

After 1961, NFL teams stopped making pilgrimages to Canada to beat up on CFL clubs (and collect nice, fat appearance checks). Speaking of which — trampling Canadian teams, that is — the victors weren’t entirely without pity, I’ll just point out. In the last minutes of the Steelers-Argonauts game, for instance, the Argos scored on a highly suspicious 102-yard interception return. And in the last minutes of the Chicago Bears-Montreal Alouettes game in ‘61, the Als scored on an equally dubious 53-yard INT return. Needless to say, it gave the crowds something to buzz about as they were exiting the stadium. (Unless the folks in Montreal were still reliving the, uh, fight just before the half that got three players ejected.)

The Redskins-Bills game Sunday won’t be anything like these earlier exercises in international brotherhood (and collective disorientation). There won’t be any 108-yard drives. There won’t be any five-point touchdowns. And if one of the clubs scores on a long interception return in the dying minutes, you can be sure it’ll be a coincidence. An incomplete pass, but a complete coincidence.