Canadian NFL football (and other oxymorons)

Mike McIntyre of the Winnipeg Free Press:

I’d love to tell you about the fantastic football game that went down at IG Field on Thursday night, with a raucous, packed house looking on as star NFL quarterbacks Aaron Rodgers and Derek Carr took turns going deep to their talented crop of receivers such as Davante Adams and Antonio Brown.

Except I’d be lying. Absolutely none of that happened.

What actually played out was nothing short of a sham. A boondoggle. A complete and utter embarrassment. And anyone who shelled out their hard-earned dollars to take in the action — and I use that term loosely in this case — has a right to feel like they got completely ripped off. Because they did.

The final score shows the Oakland Raiders beat the Green Bay Packers 22-21 on a last-minute field goal in a meaningless pre-season contest. But that doesn’t even begin to tell the full story of what unfolded. I’m not kidding when I say I expect to see a string of lawsuits flowing out of this gong show, with various parties pointing fingers at each other.

Sure, the game is going to be remembered. But for all the wrong reasons.

Where to begin?

How about the fact the field, which had to be reconfigured from the CFL size of 110 yards to the NFL size of 100 yards, was reduced to 80 yards just before the game began. That’s right, each end zone was actually on the 10-yard line. Marked by a bright orange pylon. Seriously. You can’t make this stuff up. All we were missing was the windmill and clown’s mouth.

Apparently there were last-minute concerns over the state of the playing surface. A gathering of players, coaches, management and NFL executives just a couple hours before kickoff led to some speculation the whole game might actually be canned. Which, in hindsight, might have been the best move rather than the farce that followed.

“The field met the mandatory practices for the maintenance of surfaces for NFL games based on an inspection (Wednesday). Concerns arose (Thursday) surrounding the area where the Blue Bombers’ goal posts were previously located. The 10-yard line will function as the goal line at this game. In lieu of kickoffs, the ball will be placed at the 15-yard line,” the Raiders, who were the “home” team, said in a statement emailed out during the first quarter.

Yes, even our football fields have potholes.

“LOL so now we have a bump in our lil end zone cause of this… we will play thru it tho! …. A sand baseball infield is way more safe in the middle of a football field for sure!” Winnipeg Blue Bombers running back and Winnipeg native Andrew Harris tweeted out Thursday night, a cheeky reference to the fact the Raiders share their home stadium with the Oakland Athletics of MLB.

Naturally, this led to all kinds of ridicule on social media from observers across North America watching the game on television, and it’s unfortunate Winnipeg (and the Bombers) will take their share of it. Because like everything associated with the event, this is entirely on the NFL and the Toronto-based promoter, On Ice Entertainment. The Blue & Gold simply rented out their facility and let the guests take over. They also have no financial stake in how it turned out, which they should be thankful for.

The absurd field flop was bad enough, but it’s just one of a number of “Lucy pulling the football out from under Charlie Brown” type whiffs.

How about the fact that, despite claims to the contrary when the game was first announced and tickets went on sale, none of the big names actually suited up. Of course, that news wasn’t communicated to anyone until moments before kickoff, with Green Bay announcing 33 healthy scratches, including Rodgers. Same goes for Carr, Brown and other prominent Raiders.

The whole sales pitch surrounding the game was that all of the stars would come out and probably play at least the first half, since it was happening during the third week of the pre-season.

Lies. All of it lies. Instead, we were treated to an assortment of NFL backups, wannabees and never-will-be’s, many of whom will likely be playing in the CFL in short order. It says something when the loudest cheers of the night came from fans applauding themselves in the fourth quarter for succesfully getting a sustained “Wave” going around the stadium.

As for the crowd, it was announced after the game that there were 21,992 fans in the stands. My best guess was somewhere in the 18,000 to 20,000 range. The bigger question is how many of those were paying customers versus giveaways meant to “paper the house” and save some face? We’ll never know, because the promoter won’t say.

Sluggish sales had been a big story leading up to the game, with approximately half of the stadium showing as available on the Ticketmaster site earlier this week, thanks to grossly overpriced tickets that were running north of $400 and represented a clear miscalculation of this market. Local sports fans were staying away in droves. But then a strange thing started happening, with many of the blue dots representing unsold seats on Ticketmaster suddenly vanishing.

The promoter previously slashed prices for about 6,000 end zone seats — after initially claiming there would be no such price reductions. And that angered many of the loyal fans who bought tickets when they first went on sale in June, only to discover they got suckered into paying about twice as much as others who were late to the party.

Despite On Ice president John Graham’s claim that the ticket agency would handle issues, I’m told many fans have been met with “Sorry, final sale, no refunds,” upon their repeated inquiries. On Ice painted themselves into a corner by charging way too much out of the gate, then made a bad situation even worse.

Speaking of Graham, he’s pretty much gone into hiding throughout this process, including not responding to several messages I’ve sent him. Other media colleagues have expressed similar concerns.

Graham did break his silence to speak with Paul Friesen of the Winnipeg Sun on Wednesday, sort of, and went on a bizarre rant, accusing him (and other local media) of biased reporting — even asking the veteran scribe at one point if he was trying to “go to war” with him.

Friesen was later told his media credentials were being revoked for the game, leading to an hours-long behind-the-scenes battle that ended with the NFL getting involved and Friesen rightfully being allowed to cover the game. Talk about trying to shoot the messenger.

But wait, there’s more! How about Graham’s promise in June for a big festival and celebration of football surrounding the game. He even cited the Winnipeg Jets “Whiteout” street parties as something they would try to emulate.

“It’s not that we’re flying in, playing a game and getting out of town,” he claimed at the time. “We don’t do those things.”

But that’s exactly what happened here. Both teams flew into town late Wednesday, with no practices or player availability prior to the game. And then they left, just as quickly as they arrived. There was little fanfare or related activities, other than the Bombers putting on a viewing party at The Forks for those who couldn’t afford tickets to the game.

Go figure that Oakland’s punter, A.J. Cole, getting off the team plane wearing a “Winnipeg, Alberta” T-shirt he’d ordered on Amazon, was actually far down the list of embarrassing things associated with this game.

We weren’t the first choice to play host, with Edmonton and Regina rumoured to be the original destinations targeted. Given how it all played out, those cities can breathe a big sigh of relief that they avoided having this debacle in their own backyard.

As for Winnipeg, I suspect most people will be saying good riddance to what was billed as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, but ended up being nothing more than a Mickey Mouse production that most people saw for the greedy cash grab that it was.

See you later, NFL. Sorry it didn’t work out. It’s not us. It’s you.

Winnipeg’s tabloid newspaper had a muted response:

Edmonton would have been a better choice, even though this was a home preseason game for the Oakland/L.A./Oakland/Las Vegas Raiders. The Edmonton Eskimos, like the Packers, are a community-owned team that wears green and gold, and has a better, though older, stadium. The game also could have been played in Toronto, where the CFL Argonauts’ stadium has a hybrid grass surface similar to Lambeau Field.

McIntyre may not know the history of NFL preseason games outside the U.S. The Dallas Cowboys played a preseason game at Estadio Azteca in Mexico City in 1994 against the Houston Oilers that drew 112,376 fans. Cowboys owner Jerry Jones took one look at the turf before the game and decreed that none of his star players, including quarterback Troy Aikman, running back Emmitt Smith and wide receiver Michael Irvin, would play. Azteca was supposed to host Kansas City and the Los Angeles Rams last season, but the game was moved to L.A. due to the state of the field.

At least the game, such as it was, was played. In 2016 the Packers were supposed to play the annual Hall of Fame Game against Indianapolis in Canton, Ohio, but the game was canceled because, of all things, the paint for the NFL logos and in the end zone didn’t stick to the artificial grass. There had been rumors yesterday afternoon that the game might be canceled due to the goal post issue.

The point is that there should have been an expectation that the field be nearly perfect if you want to see anyone you’ve ever heard of, based on past experience with the NFL. And on that score, Winnipeg failed. On the other hand, the NFL also failed because, thanks to both teams’ coaches keeping their starters out of the game, the game was utterly meaningless to each team. That could be said of a lot of NFL preseason games.

The NFL makes its teams play four preseason games even though the players hate it. There have been thoughts of dropping two two preseason games but increasing to 18 regular-season games, and the players seem to not like that either. (You can gue$$ why the NFL per$i$t$ in mandating four pre$ea$on game$, which are in team$’ $ea$on-ticket package$.) There probably won’t be a preseason change in the NFL until a team plays none of its starters for the entire preseason.


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