Ground lost for CFL running backs

His name was David Green, and probably still is. He was the Canadian Football League’s outstanding player and I was going to impart some football wisdom — in my world known as wise and useless media advice — that would serve him well.

“David,” I recall saying (approximately), after we’d completed a radio interview, “you might reconsider your hopes of playing in the NFL because, with the season you’ve just had, you could have a long and prosperous career in the CFL.”

Green was in the middle of his three seasons with the Montreal Alouettes. Astute as I was, and probably still am, I’d noticed how many running backs who weren’t making it to the big dance south of the border landed in the CFL and enjoyed a stable and sometimes starry career. So many talents had done just that, like George Reed, Leo Lewis, Johnny Bright, Mike Pringle and Pinball Clemons.

Green did the MVP double dip that year, adding the outstanding player award in the Grey Cup game for rushing 142 yards, even though his team lost.

The point I was diplomatically trying to make — because as good as he’d been, Green was undrafted and a candidate for disappearing in the pro running backs graveyard — was there is no shortage of replacements if he left. CFL running backs typically have brief careers, in part because they’re easily replaced by a U.S. college “star” who wasn’t big enough or good enough to make the NFL.

David Green was a nice guy with a chance at a CFL future, and he didn’t take my suggestion to heart, of course. Unhappy when the Als wouldn’t renegotiate his contract and waving the NFL flag at them the next season, his rushing yardage fell by 48 per cent, his carries by 29 per cent and he scored fewer touchdowns. There was no MVP, no Grey Cup and no new contract. He was traded to Hamilton for a half-season and he eventually made the NFL with Cleveland…for one kick-off return.

Within two years of being the MVP, he was gone.

Today, it’s even easier for a CFL running back to disappear because the game is pass-happy. The annual CFL rushing leaders already includes a bunch of one-run wonders: Troy Davis, Joe Smith, John Avery, Fred Reid, Tyrell Sutton among them. This year’s champion will likely be Calgary’s Ka’Deem Carry, who has 949 yards with three games left. The CFL hasn’t had a rushing leader with fewer than 1,000 yards since 1953.

It was once a big deal for a running back to rush for a mile (1,760 yards) in one season, and that’s only happened twice in the 21st century. Jon Cornish of Calgary was the last one, nine years ago.

Only nine players have run a mile in those shoes, and four of them are named Mike Pringle, arguably the greatest of all time. He smashed the record by running 1,972 yards in 1994 with the Baltimore Stallions, then raised that bar to 2,065 yards in 1998 with Montreal. The others to carry the ball a mile were Reed, Cornish, Willie Burden, Earl Lunsford and Jesse Mimbs.

At his best, David Green missed by 82 yards.