Published on August 6, 2009 10:17 PM by dbo.
A constant refrain in CFL circles, at least in the past 10-15 years, agonizes over the lack of star quarterbacks and the quick development of QB‘s to play the Canadian game. With young quarterbacks struggling in their development and other established pivots performing under-par there have been comments in the media recently about the lack of quarterback development and star power in the CFL. Is there a reason there isn’t eight great QB‘s in the CFL anymore with another eight up-and-comers waiting for their chance?
Perhaps we have forgotten that the past greats served as protégés under other great quarterbacks before getting their chance. Condredge Holloway served under Tom Clements in Ottawa and Matt Dunigan under Warren Moon in Edmonton. Calgary developed a string of QB‘s with Doug Flutie mentoring Jeff Garcia who mentored Dave Dickenson. They all got playing time in mop-up and injury duties before taking over the starting job. It may seem like each of these players had immediate success and in some ways they did. They were allowed to make mistakes early in their careers and develop winning ways. Edmonton had a 9-7 record in 1984 in Dunigan’s first year in which he played 13 games with a 53% completion percentage and an almost 1-1 TD to interception ratio.
Patience was more prevalent in management and coaching staffs. While it was always a possibility young players could get hot and/or lucky and take a team to a Grey Cup, rebuilding was not a dirty word. Let me be clear: rebuilding did not mean five year projects. These were 1 to 2 years at most before team were expected to be competing at the top of their division and vying for a championship. During the rebuilding process teams were also not expected to be door mats either. The goal was to for the young players on the team to gain the experience necessary, with the quarterback position being critical in learning how to win.
Starting about 15 years ago, it became a kiss of death for a coach (in any league, really) to state they were in a rebuilding stage. New coach or existing, uttering the rebuilding word was seen by fans as a commitment to losing, to giving up on the season and would not be tolerated by impatient fans. Coaches moved to the term reloading to express their commitment to quickly returning to winning. Yet this very need to win immediately causes coaches to recycle any quarterback with experience rather than take a chance on an unproven college recruit.
Today, when coaches attempt to develop a young quarterback, impatient and vocal fans impede the situation as Blue Bomber coach Mike Kelly found out in Winnipeg. Kelly took the bold step of vocalizing his concerns over fan negativity towards their own team and was, of course, accused of blaming the fans for the team’s troubles. In the end, Winnipeg has abandoned all their young quarterbacks, instead bringing in veteran journeyman Michael Bishop to serve as their pivot. It immediately paid dividends last week, but will he be a long-term solution for the Bombers? Have the fans forced the team to achieve a .500 record at the expense of developing their next quarterback. That quarterback may not be Stefan LeFors, but the team won’t know what they have in Bryan Randall or had in Richie Williams. Finding out their next one is not on the roster certainly would have sent club personnel looking for recruits. Now, with Michael Bishop in the number one position, the status quo will prevail, leading to the development of the next quarterback who will lead the team for ten years being put on hold.
What qualities are needed in CFL quarterback recruits? Size, skill, athletic ability? Success at the college level, especially throwing the ball? These traits will all be very similar for players available to the CFL. What I believe are better indicators are intelligence, confidence and the ability to work with some freedom.
I want a QB to have a high intelligence, though I don’t know if standard intelligence tests will accurately indicate a player’s football smarts. A fast paced game and play clock along with motion and extra men on the field requires fast thinking and processing to be successful. A player with intelligence, like with chess players, thinking a few moves ahead and an understanding of how to set up a defence will be positioned to thrive is this league.
Intelligence alone will not be enough. The player must bring a confidence in themselves and their abilities. This confidence, which allows them to work through mistakes by learning from them, needs to be apparent from their first play calls, they cannot grow into it. Matt Dunigan and many other CFL QB‘s had it from their very first pass and mistakes never shook it from them. They were ready to ad lib and do whatever it took to move the ball, even if it got them into a trouble with the coach for deviating from the called play.
With those attributes, a QB who is capable of working in a less-rigid environment is more apt to be successful in the CFL. A player who only can follow the play sent in from the sideline, can’t audible or call his own plays does not show the skills that were critical to the success of many CFL QB‘s the past 30 years. For quarterbacks to get this freedom, coaches have to loosen up their reigns as well. I would rather concede this freedom to my pivot as he developed in order to reap the rewards throughout his career. Great QB‘s draw up plays in the huddle at critical points in critical games to achieve victory, so a player not able to do so indicates they do not belong with that level of QB.
A media scribe said on a radio talk show recently that the CFL lacks superstar quarterbacks and the hope of developing them like in the past seems to be dwindling. The biggest name in CFL QB‘s, Anthony Calvillo, is known more for longevity now and Henry Burris, Ricky Ray and Kerry Joseph are considered average signal callers and the rest of the teams are fielding developing quarterbacks that the jury is still out on. It does appear that the talent level cannot compare to 10 and 20 years ago.
What has caused such a drastic change for the CFL? The CFL has become reliant on the American college system for its quarterback recruits. The loss of other leagues has removed additional player development time for evaluation and development, like the USFL provided in the 1980’s and NFL Europe and Arena Football provide the past two decades. A lot of quarterbacks have come to the CFL direct from college, though. A theory is that American colleges have been turning out more cookie-cutter pivots tailored for their programs, not the CFL (or the NFL even). Even before college, players are developed to fit into systems, not think for themselves and execute their duties. The mental chess game is gone and that is hard to develop in a twenty-something field general.
There has also been a shift in Canadian Football League coaches to develop non-thinking quarterbacks, call all their plays, and play physical football where there is no deception involved, it is about out-manning and physically dominating your opponent. This comes from the American influence on the CFL since US expansion and hopefully is a phase that will pass. The pressure to win immediately contributes to the replaceable quarterback syndrome, who all run the same offence, not customized to their talents and the preference to use a recycled veteran instead of trying to develop tomorrow’s QB.
The media has also played a role. Twenty-five years ago there was only local papers and five-minute TV highlights analyzing performances. Now increased coverage and airtime on dedicated sports channels leads to a lot of criticism to fill time. Analysts have called for Quinton Porter to be pulled in Hamilton even though he has provided the best developing quarterback story in a long time. Even Ricky Ray was called to be pulled while his passion and desire were questioned after the first half in a recent game in Saskatchewan. He overcame the deficit to come back and win the game. Print media, especially when slighted by a coach as in Winnipeg, focus on negative stories to sell more papers. All of this negativity easily fuels fans and their desire to win all the time, right now. The end result is quarterbacks being booed, benched for a flown-in veteran and development taking a backseat.
Perhaps this is just a lull in the quarterback crop. There could be a new batch of stars emerge in the next few years. The CFL needs to think about ways they can encourage and accelerate the development of new quarterbacks, whether with an increase in pre-season games, roster size or off-season development camps. Quarterbacks are the marquee stars of this league and finding the marquee empty one day will have long-term ramifications to the health of the CFL.