It's been years since the CFL has seen a big back take over a football game, but with the way franchises mimic successful performances -- and the cyclical nature of the game -- it shouldn't be much longer before this event becomes more than a rare occurrence.
In a game last Thursday night where the Winnipeg Blue Bombers defence held the offence of the reigning Grey Cup champions to only 115 yards in the air, and nine points on the scoreboard, a tailback listed at 6-3 and 245 pounds brought us back to an era of downhill running and smash-mouth football that is a drastic departure from the style of smaller backs that populate rosters today.
To be honest, after witnessing the first 10 carries by Jerome Messam Thursday night, the first thing that came to mind was, "when did Mike Sellers come out of retirement and why did he sign with the Green Riders?" If you have forgotten "Big Mike," you are obviously new to following this football team, but he had some games during his tenure where it looked like he couldn't be stopped -- much like how the Blue and Gold had no answer for Messam five days ago.
With only 19 carries, Messam rushed for 126 yards, good for almost seven yards every time he touched the football. That kind of production puts your football team in second and awesome. He didn't hesitate at running downhill, he didn't chop or shuffle his feet as he gained the line of scrimmage, and he ran over, through and around would-be defenders. He was the perfect contrast and complement to Will Ford's preference to bounce it outside of the tackles and, quite frankly, nobody has seen anything like it since 2011.
In 2011, two of the three top rushers in the CFL were Cory Boyd and Messam. Cory was only 220 pounds or so, but they were both power backs that rushed for over 1,000 yards and changed how defenders had to approach stopping the run, especially late in games.
Though Bombers defensive co-ordinator Gary Etcheverry would probably argue with me that "finger strength" is the most underrated component of tackling, I would also suggest conditioning and one's "commitment to tackling" are even more critical. We often see backs, and especially big backs, gain more yardage late in games, and it isn't because they suddenly got better at their jobs -- it's because players become exhausted and sticking an arm out there, or throwing a shoulder in here, isn't the kind of commitment you need to bring somebody down in the fourth quarter. The bigger the backs are and the more momentum they get before contact, the harder it is to stop them and the more it demoralizes your defence.
Looking around the CFL today, Messam is the only running back listed in excess of 230 pounds. I'm not talking about fullbacks who aren't nifty enough to get consistent carries. I'm talking about primary, ball-carrying ability tailbacks. Outside of Jon Cornish, who is listed at 220 pounds, there isn't a starting running back heavier than 215 currently featured in the CFL. And when used correctly, those extra pounds make all the difference in the world.
Just like most positions in the Canadian game, size comes in and out of favour as teams have success employing it. When smaller scatbacks are getting all the carries and being productive, it trickles down to other positions. Smaller, quicker defenders are more aptly suited to defend running games predicated on speed, but when you go against the trend and are the first to reintroduce a variable no one has had to deal with for years -- such as a bulldozer of a tailback -- the effects can be devastating. You just have to be the first to do it and catch your opponents unprepared.
This column is not to suggest a back of Messam's dimensions would be the saviour to the Bombers run game that is currently struggling. While it wouldn't hurt to have someone like that as a change-up back to Nic Grigsby, Messam is the perfect match behind an offensive line that sustains blocks and does not allow backfield penetration, which lets him get going. When you often have free defenders in the backfield on running plays, you absolutely need a back that can be elusive from the handoff and can run away from upfield pressure and not just over it.
What we saw last Thursday is a power back perfectly matched to a road grading offensive line facing a defence that hasn't had to bring an elephant gun to work with them for some time.
When you are the first to do something different in this league -- something no one else has done for seasons -- it can flat out win football games, just like it did for the Riders on Thursday.
Doug Brown, once a hard-hitting defensive lineman and frequently a hard-hitting columnist, appears Tuesdays in the Free Press.