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Give him an A for effort
Ron Reid
November 06, 1978
NFL defector Terry Metcalf has hardly dazzled them in Toronto the way he did in St. Louis, but it's not all his fault
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November 06, 1978

Give Him An A For Effort

NFL defector Terry Metcalf has hardly dazzled them in Toronto the way he did in St. Louis, but it's not all his fault

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In his personal tale of two cities, it should be the worst of times for Terry Metcalf, the 27-year-old American expatriate whose pro football career in Toronto has not reminded anyone of his years in St. Louis. Stateside fans will remember Metcalf as one of the most versatile athletes in the NFL during his five seasons with the Cardinals. A gifted running back, a superb receiver and a game breaker on special teams, Metcalf set an NFL record in 1975 when he rushed, received, returned and recovered the ball for 2,462 yards and 13 touchdowns. In two of his NFL seasons, Metcalf led the Cardinals to the playoffs as champions of the NFC East. For better (36 touchdowns) or worse (56 fumbles), the 5'10", 190-pound Metcalf was undeniably spectacular, and the NFL this season is less exciting without him. Particularly St. Louis.

Metcalf left 'em cheering. His last NFL touchdown helped the NFC to a 14-13 win over the AFC in January's Pro Bowl. That game marked the end of his option year with the Cardinals, who had seemed playoff bound again until they lost their last four games to finish with a 7-7 record in a season marred by open hostility among the players, the coaches and the owner, penurious Bill Bidwill. Two months later, after free agent Metcalf turned down several curiously similar NFL offers that he considered to be too low, he signed a seven-year, $1.4 million contract with the Canadian Football League's Toronto Argonauts, thereby becoming the first established NFL star to take his act north of the border.

For a player of Metcalf's speed and multiple skills, the CFL seemed made to order. The fields are 10 yards longer and 11? yards wider than those in the U.S., and there are three downs—not four. Canadian football demands a wide-open offense in which passing is the rule, not the exception: receivers can be in motion, in any direction—including forward—before the ball is snapped. CFL defensive players are also generally smaller than their American counterparts. So the prospects were good that Metcalf would tear up the CFL and collect on all the performance clauses written into his contract, especially after his debut on July 12.

In Toronto's league opener against the Hamilton Tiger-Cats, Metcalf was nothing short of brilliant. He rushed for 163 yards, returned three punts for 46 yards, two kickoffs for 82 yards, and scored two touchdowns as the Argos won 34-22. Moreover, Metcalf quieted the Toronto fans who feared he might be another Anthony Davis, the former USC running back—now an injured Houston Oiler—whose moodiness baffled Canadians when he played for Toronto in 1976.

Toronto owner William R. Hodgson, a hotel magnate with a history of bad returns on his football investments, spent $1 million to sign Davis to a five-year contract, and he promptly became the biggest bust, if not the most hated player, in the history of the franchise. Argo fans, already aggrieved by the amount of money Hodgson was paying a foreigner, were outraged by Davis' sulking and his listless efforts on the field. Davis finally bought up his contract after 13 games, and then signed on with his former USC Coach John McKay at Tampa Bay.

Metcalf, in contrast, has been a pleasant surprise, and the fans have stuck by him even though his performances have tailed off greatly since the opener.

"The best thing about Terry," says Joe Scannella, coach of the Montreal Alouettes, "is that he's really trying. He's been busting himself for the club even though everyone on the defense is zeroing in on him. The wider field, which everyone thought would help him, hasn't, because Toronto can't get him outside. He also has to play the whole game—punt returns, kickoffs and the like—and when a guy with a big name comes up here for big money, everybody's fired up to stop him and they go at it extra hard. I really admire the kid, because he hasn't quit, and if he didn't cost $250,000 or whatever, I'd love to have him."

Unhappily, Metcalfs thrilling performance against the Tiger-Cats has so far proved to be his only outstanding effort. He has suffered from a painful and lingering case of "turf toe," as well as a knee injury that sidelined him for most of one game, and an inept offensive line that so far this season has included 14 different guards.

As a result, Metcalfs stats are anemic. Through Toronto's first 15 games, he has rushed for 574 yards on 155 carries and ranks only third in the Eastern Conference. His yardage total is also topped by five Western Conference backs, including Saskatchewan's Mike Strickland, the CFL leader with 1,306 yards.

Since his debut, Metcalf has scored only one other touchdown and caught just 30 passes for 263 yards. His longest gain on any play from scrimmage has been just 34 yards on a pass play. His longest run has been 26 yards. Moreover, he has not been as effective as he expected on the special teams: a CFL rule limits downfield blocking on punt returns, and opponents wisely keep the ball away from Metcalf on kickoffs.

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