Naylor: Will Colts' interest open more NFL doors for Popp?

Dave Naylor
1/19/2012 1:04:43 PM
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It is one of those peculiarities of Canadian football that success – not just failure – can be a ticket out of the league.
That's just the economic reality in a league where the pay scale can't compare to that of the National Football League with its billion-dollar broadcast revenues, drawn from a market of more than 300 million people.
And so CFL fans have come to accept that every few years a Jeff Garcia or a Cameron Wake, the kind of player who thrives in the three-down game, will want to prove himself against the best players in the world where he can maximize the financial return on his skills.

The incentives for coaches and general managers to move south are no different, although it's been a while since the NFL has gone looking to the CFL to fill a head coaching or senior management position, despite the fact names such as Jim Finks, Marv Levy, Bob Ackles, Bill Polian, Tim Ruskell and Thomas Dimitroff all have roots in the CFL.
Which is perhaps why last week's courting of Montreal general manager Jim Popp by the Indianapolis Colts caught so many people on both sides of the boarder by surprise.
The Colts – who eventually hired Philadelphia Eagles director of player personnel Ryan Grigson -- had their choice of any number of young, aspiring general managers from within the ranks of 32 teams. And yet among the four finalists they chose to interview was someone who has never worked a day in the NFL.
But is there really any reason to believe that Popp's skill set and track record of success wouldn't translate to the NFL, any less than Cameron Wake's pass rush wouldn't succeed or Jon Ryan wouldn't be able to punt?
Popp, raised in North Carolina as the son of an NFL and NCAA coach, has spent nearly his entire career in the CFL. He joined the Saskatchewan Roughriders as receivers coach and director of player personnel back in 1992, then moved on to join the Baltimore expansion franchise as general manager in 1994, leading the Stallions to back-to-back Grey Cup games.
When the Stallions moved north to become the reincarnated Alouettes, the success continued, with the Als having played in eight of the past 12 Grey Cup games.
To say success has followed Popp throughout his time in the CFL would be an understatement. In 18 seasons, the Baltimore-Montreal franchise has amassed a regular season record of 214-110, had one sub-.500 season, played in 15 Division finals, 10 Grey Cup games and won four championships.

There has been just one employee who's been there for every second of that impressive run.

Among the people who've followed Popp's success is former NFL general manager Ernie Accorsi. Accorsi, who retired from the New York Giants in 2007, first met Popp when his father, Joe, coached for him with the Cleveland Browns of the late 1980s.

"I think he is one of the better GM candidates (for) our league and I've recommended him a couple of times," said Accorsi, who declined to say whether Indianapolis was one of those. "No one who has not been a GM in the NFL can talk about a record like his. It's unbelievable."
There are two keys to Popp's success. He's been able to identify his team's most valuable assets and retain them, while demonstrating a remarkable ability to recruit new talent to fill void left by those who depart.
Those same skills are exactly what wins in the NFL.
Popp's uncanny knack for finding excellent football players among those overlooked by all 32 NFL teams may have as much value south of the border as it does in the CFL.
"I visited the Als camp in 2009 and sat in with some of the personnel meetings with Jim and listened to him handle those and was very impressed," said Accorsi.
It's not easy to crack the NFL executive management ranks coming from the CFL, but the respect and publicity Popp earned through the Indianapolis process should make him a candidate elsewhere.

"I'm just so happy he got an opportunity to interview in Indy," said Accorsi, who recommended Dimitroff  to Atlanta Falcons owner Arthur Blank back in 2008.. "Sometimes it takes a few interviews. I've done the best I can to propagate his name."
It can be argued that Popp is nearing the point in his career where he has not that much left to prove in the CFL. And while he remains loyal to the Alouettes and owner Robert Wetenhall, those who know him well insist that the desire to challenge his skills against NFL general managers has grown increasingly stronger in recent years.
The CFL will be richer if he stays. But it won't be a surprise if he doesn't.

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