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Hi again, folks. The CFL Beat is back this week with a look at the CFL’s 1996 championship game – the Grey Cup game that almost wasn’t, infamously dubbed “The Snow Bowl”!
Date: November 29th, 1958
Venue: Ivor Wynne Stadium, Hamilton, ON
Toronto Argonauts fast facts:
- Season record: 15-3 (1st in East)
- Head Coach: Don Matthews
- Quarterback: Doug Flutie
The Argos won the East division title with their best record ever as a football team – and to make their accomplishments all the more remarkable, they’d done so after finishing 4-14 the year before. The 11-win improvement was also the greatest single-season improvement in franchise history. The Argos’ resurgence was due to a number of things, but bringing in Don Matthews as head coach, who’d won the 1995 Grey Cup with the Baltimore Stallions (who had folded in the off-season), and Doug Flutie as the new starting quarterback were two of the most important reasons for their gigantic rebound. Flutie, in particular, had an incredible season, taking home the league’s Most Outstanding Player award and being named to the league All-Star team. Flutie played in all 18 regular-season games, throwing for 5720 yards on 434-667 attempts for 29 TDs and 17 interceptions; he also ran for 756 yards on 101 carries, scoring nine more touchdowns on the ground. Despite his success, though, Flutie went into the title game with a reputation of being a poor performer in games in cold weather – something he was really looking to shake.
Edmonton Eskimos fast facts:
- Season record: 11-7 (2nd in West)
- Head Coach: Ron Lancaster
- Quarterback: Danny McManus
The Eskimos had a good season both on and off the field – they upset the first-place provincial rivals Calgary in the West final, but most of all, had reasonably stable finances through the 1996 season. That off-field relative success is actually an extremely important subplot of this year’s Grey Cup game, as the CFL found itself in such dire straits financially that it wasn’t sure it was going to be able to pay players for their appearance in the championship game. The post-US expansion era hit the league hard – while Montreal came north from their original home in Baltimore, every other American team folded after 1995, and at the end of the ’96 season, the storied Ottawa Rough Riders – a fixture of Canadian football for 120 years – also folded due to fiscal mismanagement. Tim Horton’s, ever the Canadian corporate presence, stepped up to cover the wages for the ’96 Grey Cup, and in early 1997, the NFL provided a $3 million dollar loan to the CFL to help stabilize their revenues, in return for negotiation power in a designated two-month for players with an option year on their contract. Fortunately, the NFL’s loan proved very successful, and in the following decade, the CFL got its revenue streams back on track and repaid the loan in full. While all of this was, of course, a very positive outcome, the uncertainty heading into the 84th Grey Cup led some pundits to proclaim it might possibly be the last CFL game ever played. I, for one, sure am glad it didn’t pan out that way.
0:00 – It’s snowing. A lot. Snow games are the greatest games, and I will hear nothing to the contrary. They’ve been clearing the field for three hours to get it to this point. (Second-greatest games are during baseball season when the old multipurpose stadiums had the infield still installed. God bless Oakland for holding out as long as it did.) Both teams are wearing five-year-old cleats because they’ve been specially made for snow and ice conditions, and are no longer being manufactured. (Also, the teams have no money to go out and get custom ones made up, I imagine.)
0:48 – We see Michael “Pinball” Clemons, running back wearing number 31, getting ready for kickoff. Clemons, of course, remains one of the most beloved figures in Argos franchise history, not to mention being a Grey-Cup winning head coach, and the team’s current general manager. Quite the guy. The Argos have their most ’90s uniform on – there’s a reason the team hasn’t gone back to embrace this era of fashion history, after all.
4:35 – Everyone knows about Doug Flutie, of course, but his brother Darren is a receiver for the Eskimos in this game. One of the reasons that Doug headed north after his first NFL stint was a chance to play with his brother as a member of the BC Lions – which he did manage to do, briefly, back in 1991 and 1992. As it turns out, Darren had himself an excellent CFL career – he was a five-time All-Star, two-time Grey Cup champion, and is fifth all-time in receptions league-wide; he had a career high of 111 catches for 1731 yards and 8 TDs in 1994, with BC. He also holds the Edmonton franchise record for catches in a single game, with 15 receptions (set in August ’97). He was named to the CFL Hall of Fame in 2007.
5:10 – Mike O’Shea, Argos linebacker listed on the screen here, is the current head coach of the Winnipeg Blue Bombers, and winner of the 2019 Grey Cup.
6:19 – McManus is looking for Darren Flutie, who’s hanging out right at the goal line, but the pass is overthrown.
7:46 – Sean Fleming tries to kick a field goal for Edmonton, but the fierce wind takes the ball waaaaaay wide right. No points.
8:44 – The snap sails high over Doug Flutie’s head, and he scrambles back towards his own end zone to recover the ball, where’s he tackled for a safety! The score is 2-0, Edmonton.
12:02 – Jim Sandusky makes the catch for Edmonton – he’s both playing as a wide receiver AND working as the team’s receivers and special teams coach, all at the same time!
14:43 – Edmonton’s JUMBO PACKAGE picks up the first down on 3rd and inches to keep the drive going! Fullback Tony Burse dives over the pile to move the chains.
17:00 – Danny McManus sends a deep bomb, looking for Jim Sandusky down the right sideline, but unlike Odell Beckham Jr., Sandusky can’t make the one-handed catch.
20:06 – Pinball Clemons’ stats for ’96 – 1268 receiving yards on 116 catches, 286 rushing yards on 61 carries, and 1012 return yards. And he’s listed as a running back, not a receiver. Super strange stat lines based on his position here, but Pinball could do it all – and did! Very weird that he didn’t make an all-star team this season – especially with stats like these.
24:35 – Ron Lancaster, Edmonton’s head coach, is also in the CFL Hall of Fame for his exploits as a quarterback with the Saskatchewan Roughriders, where he won the 1966 Grey Cup (he won another as Ottawa’s backup in 1960, behind another Hall of Famer, Russ Jackson). He also won the ’93 Grey Cup as Edmonton’s head coach.
24:55 – Touchdown, Edmonton! McManus goes deep to receiver Eddie Brown, who has an absolutely amazing shoestring catch deep downfield; he runs it in for a 64-yard score. After the kick, the score is 9-0, Esks.
32:14 – That’s a lot of snow.
39:10 – Mike Vanderjagt kicks a 37-yard field goal, and the Argos are on the board. It’s now 9-3, Edmonton.
41:37 – Jimmy Cunningham shakes a bunch of tackles, and returns the Edmonton punt 80 yards for a touchdown! And just like that, Toronto is leading 10-9.
49:30 – Vanderjagt kicks his second field goal of the day, this time from 32, and it’s 13-9, Toronto.
50:45 – Another McManus bomb! Jim Sandusky takes the deep pass 75 yards for the touchdown. After the convert, Edmonton roars back to re-take the lead, 16-13!
57:22 – Derek McCready brings down Flutie for his second sack of the game!
58:08 – On what appears to be kind of a broken play, Flutie slings it down over the middle to Paul Masotti, who’s running a crossing route through some good coverage.
1:01:03 – Argos RB Robert Drummond plows through the line to run the ball in for another touchdown – the Argos, once again, are back in the lead – it’s 20-16 after the convert!
1:02:42 – Touchdown, Eskimos! Henry “Gizmo” Williams, the greatest kick returner in CFL history, cracks this one open for 91 yards. Edmonton steals the lead back yet again! It’s 23-20, after the convert. At the time, this was the longest kickoff return in Grey Cup history.
1:06:55 – Edmonton DB Darian Hagan almost manages to pick off a Doug Flutie pass to Pinball Clemons.
1:07:40 – Doug Flutie calls his own number, and just as he’s getting tackled, shovels the ball out to Clemons on the right side – a sweet play for a first down, and a really good heads-up read. It might have technically been a forward pass, but the officials don’t seem to notice.
1:11:11 – Robert Drummond takes a direct snap and runs up the middle, but he’s… fumbled? Looks like he’s managed to recover, though.
1:13:47 – Doug Flutie scores again! It’s a QB draw up the middle – he’s completely untouched as he scampers in. Toronto takes the lead yet again, 27-23, after the convert kick.
1:18:41 – McManus connects deep with Jim Sandusky again, bringing the ball back into Argos territory as time ticks down in the half.
1:20:41 – Sean Fleming attempts a 47-yard field goal, but misses wide left, and Jimmy Cunningham runs the ball safely out of the end zone to end the first half.
1:29:05 – Paul Masotti, who’s been Doug Flutie’s safety valve at receiver thus far in the game, is limping off the field.
1:29:47 – Jimmy Cunningham is wiiiiiide open in the end zone, but the touchdown catch bounces right off of his hands. Terrible break for Toronto.
1:31:35 – Mike Vanderjagt connects from 17 yards out, and the kick puts Toronto up 30-23.
1:34:14 – Danny McManus gets sacked! The ball pops loose, but the play is already dead. No turnovers.
1:37:07 – Sean Fleming goes for another field goal for the Esks, but this one is wide right – he’s 0/3 on the day. Not great, but the snow is causing havoc out there. Apparently he’s also dealing with a charley horse, to boot…
1:39:30 – Argos guard Pierre Vercheval is down on the ground, getting attended to by the training staff.
1:46:33 – Doug Flutie, master of the shovel pass, connects with RB Robert Drummond for another first down.
1:51:38 – Another shovel pass from Flutie to Drummond!
1:53:45 – Jimmy Cunningham has another drop over the middle – he’s not had great luck with catching passes today.
1:55:23 – Mike Vanderjagt kicks his fifth field goal of the game – connecting from 28 yards out on this one. The score is now 33-23, Argos.
1:59:15 – Danny McManus and Eddie Brown showing some fine chemistry; Brown catches his second ball in a row to keep Edmonton’s drive going.
2:01:10 – Esks RB Eric Blount runs to the right and scores – we’re not done yet, folks! After the convert, the score is 33-30, Toronto.
2:04:11 – Robert Drummond makes something out of nothing yet again, picking up a little dumpoff pass and turning it into a first down for the Argos.
2:06:50 – Drummond gets stuffed by Eskimos linebacker Willie Pless. Pless is considered the greatest defensive player in the history of the CFL – eleven-time All-Star, five-time Most Outstanding Defensive Player, and a Grey Cup win in 1993. He also holds the record for most tackles in the history of the league, with 1241 in fourteen seasons.
2:12:44 – Say what you will about police presence in official sporting events – I’m 100% on board with the removal of nationalistic propaganda such as anthems and flybys and whatnot from games – but the contrast of the red jackets carrying a gleaming silver trophy against the crisp white of the snow on the ground is an appealing visual, one might argue. Still probably not enough to keep it, though, considering the RCMP’s history of colonialist racism.
2:13:25 – Doug Flutie tries a QB sneak, but is denied. The play is whistled dead, most definitely prematurely, as the ball pops loose and Flutie scrambles to recover it. Edmonton coach Ron Lancaster is incensed with the call from the officials about the non-turnover.
2:16:28 – Mike Vanderjagt kicks his fifth field goal of the day – this one from 28 yards out. Snow? What snow? Toronto leads 36-30.
2:19:11 -PICK-SIX! Needing a converted touchdown to win, Edmonton QB Danny McManus instead has his pass for Darren Flutie picked off by Argos DB Adrion Smith, who returns it 49 yards for the score. It’s devastating for the Esks. Had they not been denied the fumble recovery earlier, this game could be looking awfully different about now. It’s now 43-30, after the convert.
2:23:22 – Eric Blount can’t hang on to a checkdown pass, and third down is coming up for Edmonton.
2:23:58 – Darren Flutie keeps the drive alive with a catch over the middle. It’s still looking like too little, too late for the Esks.
2:26:00 – Jim Sandusky makes a move to the goal line like he’s got a catch, but it’s ruled incomplete.
2:28:19 – Marc Tobert has a great catch over the middle, and Edmonton is now in the red zone.
2:30:00 – Shirtless dudes in the upper deck. Respect. They’re probably Bills fans now.
2:30:58 – Touchdown! Marc Tobert grabs the ball just inside the right side of the end zone, and after the kick, it’s 43-37, Argos. There’s nine seconds left on the clock…
2:31:50 – Looking good, Laurie Flutie.
2:33:18 – Edmonton tries the onside kick, but Toronto comes up with it. That’ll do it! The Argos win their first Grey Cup since 1991.
2:35:23 – The final knee, and the celebration is on!
As we all know, the CFL lived on, even as some naysayers reveled in the doom and gloom of the league’s financial outlook that season. And just as well – with the quality of play at an extremely high level, it would have been a waste to see it lost forever. Doug Flutie proved his doubters wrong with the victory in cold weather, and took home a well-deserved Grey Cup MVP award for his sterling performance. Argos kicker Mike Vanderjagt took home the Most Outstanding Canadian award with a perfect night on his end – five field goals and four converts. The Argos would return next season to the Grey Cup in 1997 – the Flutie years were arguably the last heyday of football in Toronto – and the team has been looking to reclaim its identity ever since he returned to the NFL in 1998.
Thanks for reading! Check back next week, when we look at a game that has some similarly inclement weather – the 1962 “Fog Bowl” between the arch-rivals of the early CFL years – the Winnipeg Blue Bombers and the Hamilton Tiger-Cats.