If you want to understand how Winnipeg Blue Bombers GM Joe Mack believes the CFL should operate, you just need to consider the case of the club's newest starting wide receiver, Chris Matthews.
When the dust settled on all the dizzying final roster cuts the Bombers made over the weekend, it was the CFL rookie Matthews still standing tall -- literally -- as the heir apparent to take over the receiving job vacated in the off-season when Greg Carr signed with the Edmonton Eskimos.
Now, I say tall because at 6-5, that's exactly what Matthews stands. Know who else was a really tall receiver? Carr. The Bombers, of course, loved Carr and aggressively pursued him in the off-season, believing they'd struck a deal in February only to see him slip away at the last moment when the Eskimos threw an extra 15 grand at him.
The Bombers were furious, both about the way they lost Carr and the loss of the height advantage Carr had over the shorter defensive backs that populate the CFL, which provided Bombers QB Buck Pierce with a unique weapon the past two seasons. Now, the Bombers could have gotten into a bidding war with Edmonton for Carr, bumping up their last offer, to sign him. But Mack just doesn't operate that way. Simply put, Mack and player personnel director Ken Moll believe that for every CFL import veteran who bolts, there are dozens and dozens of other unemployed football players from mostly smaller U.S. colleges who are every bit as good as the ones already here.
And so instead of throwing good money after bad at Carr -- who signed for north of $100,000 a season with Edmonton -- Mack went out instead and got an almost carbon copy in Matthews for almost certainly less than half of that.
Now, while Matthews is almost a replica of Carr physically -- 6-5, 218 vs 6-6, 214 -- no one is yet willing to say the two players will perform the same this season. While Matthews unquestionably performed well during the pre-season -- six catches for 84 yards, including a 45-yard reception against Hamilton last week -- the real test for Matthews will come this Friday in the regular-season opener against the B.C. Lions.
"He's a mirror of Greg, going up to the highest point and getting the ball over smaller DBs," said veteran slotback Terrence Edwards. "But Greg did it. He proved he could do it in a game when real bullets are flying. And now that's what Chris has to do too -- come out and perform on gameday."
Indeed, it bears repeating that Carr was a proven commodity, pulling down 77 catches for 1,216 yards and eight TDs over two seasons for the Bombers, while the highlight so far of Matthews' pro football career was a four-yard TD he caught in the NFL pre-season last year before he was one of the final cuts of the Cleveland Browns.
Still, the Bombers believe all the raw materials are there to make Matthews yet another successful example of Mack replacing an aging and costlier import veteran with one of the myriad of younger and cheaper talents who are all over the U.S. looking for work and dying for a chance to continue living the dream,
"On paper, he looks a lot like Greg," said Bombers QB Buck Pierce. "We want to get the ball in his hands and just let his physical abilities show you guys what he can do. You never like to jump the gun and say this guy's going to be great or anything like that, but we really like him."
And Matthews? He's delighted with the chance to reignite his football career, but wary of any comparisons with the man he's been brought in to replace. "Greg Carr -- that's a good dude. He was a good player," said Matthews. "But in no way, shape or form am I Greg Carr -- I'm Chris Matthews. I'm going to go out there and do what Chris Matthews knows how to do."
A graduate of Kentucky, Matthews got a long hard look in Cleveland last year before he got cut. This year, he's gone from just another raw CFL rookie in a training camp full of talented receiving prospects to a bona-fide regular-season starter, in just three weeks.
It is the Mack formula and Matthews believes he's ready to become the next success story.
"I came out here and performed well in mini-camp, I came out and performed well in training camp and I came out and performed well in the pre-season games," said Matthews. "I worked hard, I studied hard and now I feel like I'm ready to go."