The QB Illusion: Disproving the myth that there aren’t quality QBs in the CFL


Edmonton Eskimos quarterback Mike Reilly (13). (Amber Bracken/CP)

This was written on the morning of Friday, August 3


The notion that there aren’t a lot of quality quarterbacks in the Canadian Football League is a notion that bothers me, because I know it to be untrue. The question has been asked to me, “how come there are all these QBs from small schools in the states, and with so many good QBs out there, how come you can’t just bring one of those bigname, super talented guys up and rush him into a lineup?” (I paraphrased, but the essence is there.)

I take issue with some of this question, and here are the reasons why:

  • There are several quality QBs in the CFL. Going West to East: Travis Lulay (when he is healthy), Mike Reilly (the best player in the CFL), Kevin Glenn (his backup), Bo Levi Mitchell, Matt Nichols, Ricky Ray (out for the season – but I am still counting him), Trevor Harris. I would be remiss not to include Jeremiah Masoli, holder of two CFL passing records, and if I wanted to stretch the word quality even more, I would even include Zach Collaros and Brandon Bridge – I don’t think either one of them will win a Grey Cup as a starter, but still have talent and are very good quarterbacks. That gives us a list of ten quarterbacks in a nine-team league.
  • I could go into more detail on why each QB I mentioned above is “quality” (not my word, but I am running with it here), but that would really stretch this blog into something way too long, so just tweet at me with your angry “why is he on the list” or “why is he not on the list” and I will explain myself.

I know there are several QBs in the league, even some of whom I mentioned above, who struggle from time to time or are inconsistent in their productivity, but there is more to it than just a QB who struggles.

  • Take Montreal, for example, who as former QB Tanner Marsh pointed out on Twitter recently, Khari Jones is the 9th Offensive Coordinator the team has had since the start of the 2013 season. I’ll throw in as well that in that time, there have been six different head coaches. So six head coaches and nine OCs – that makes it tough for any kind of player continuity as each coach will have “his guy” he wants to step in and play.
  • The CFL has gone through a weird carousel the past four seasons now where QBs have become very prone to injury. In 2015, Henry Burris was the only QB who started all 18 games for his team. Not by coincidence, his OLine was the only unit to start the same five for all 18 games as well. This is a trend that has continued into this season as well. I would argue that the injury-plagued QB position is directly related to the number of OLinemen injuries, or lack of good OLinemen depth around the league (Hamilton should be very, very worried about their new left tackle and by proxy their QB, by the way). The carousel continues when coaches give short leashes to the backups, not allowing them to develop – see Chris Jones’s mishandling of Bridge/Watford, all of the Alouettes QBs,

So why can’t any good American QB come up to the Canadian game and play right away?

  • Play calling in the CFL is very different than in the American game. It is far less reliant on the run game, and the passing concepts are much more complex. Many NCAA QBs only throw 3-5 routes all season as a result of their running read option every play and only needing go routes, slants, or hitches to be successful in the air. The CFL game asks for QBs to read defences and go through their progressions more staunchly than NCAA or NFL QBs have to. With the extra receiver/extra DB, wider field, fewer downs (boosting the importance of the passing game and lessening a reliance on the run game – unlike the NFL, where teams will live and die with their ground game) and more open motion rules, it allows the CFL to be more creative in terms of the concepts run, the routes at a team’s disposal (I once saw a route invented during a practice), and provides more options for a QB – but also more defenders in coverage with constant pressure in their faces. It is a more complex passing game that takes more than a good athletic ability and strong arm (Jennings, Bridge, etc). And the defences are not necessarily more complex, but a linebacker in the CFL moves a lot more quickly than a linebacker in the NFL does (in large part due to the size difference – linebackers in the CFL end up as safeties in the NFL).
  • You can’t rush a QB. Anthony Calvillo is the best passing quarterback in the history of North American professional Football, and even he took six years and three teams until he developed fully. Henry Burris understudied under Jeff Garcia and Dave Dickenson for two seasons, Damon Allen took three seasons, Matt Dunigan was Warren Moon’s backup for a season, Danny McManus was Dunigan’s backup for three seasons, and Doug Flutie took a full season to settle in. CFL aficionados will notice that these six QBs I have just mentioned are all in the top-10 CFL all-time passing. The most recent example of a QB stepping into the league immediately and making a huge impact: Ricky Ray in 2002, his rookie season. In terms of current QBs, Reilly was a backup in BC behind Lulay before signing in Edmonton. Lulay was a backup for a season and a half before becoming league MOP in 2011. Mitchell was understudy to a trio of decent QBs in Calgary (Burris, Tate, Glenn), Nichols was a backup to Ray and others in Edmonton, Harris and Collaros were the backups behind Ray in Toronto, Masoli was Collaros’s backup in Hamilton. See a trend? These guys have developed in the league’s offensive systems and have been patient while not being rushed into things. That is the key to a quality QB in the CFL.

Now, once in a while we will get a Ricky Ray or a Chris Streveler who comes into the CFL as a brand-new quarterback and excels, but these are rarities. Top-rated pivots like Akili Smith, Troy Smith, Eric Crouch, Cleo Lemon, Chris Leak and others have come into the league only to falter and never really find their footing in the CFL for any number of reasons.

Can’t wait to find out who the next CFL boom or bust quarterback will be!

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