TORONTO – Contrary to recent evidence, there is no CFL rule stipulating that only B.C. Lions backup quarterbacks are allowed to win games.
But it sure seems that way.
In a season now marked by three quarters of the league’s starting pivots missing at least one game with injury, the prospects for teams missing their starters are not good.
That doesn’t bode well for the Edmonton Eskimos, who lost all-star Ricky Ray last Friday to a separated throwing shoulder. Ray took a punishing hit from Toronto linebacker Willie Pile and will miss at least four weeks under the best-case scenario.
More likely, Ray, the sixth CFL starter to go down with an injury this season, is lost for the year, meaning the Eskimos’ playoff hopes ride on the inexperienced arm of Stefan LeFors, who makes his first start Saturday against the Argonauts at Rogers Centre. The same goes in Calgary, where the Stampeders have turned to CFL rookies Akili Smith and Barrick Nealy in place of the injured Henry Burris (separated shoulder).
The Stampeders and Eskimos are chasing the final playoff spot in the West Division, and have an outside chance of stealing the East Division’s third post-season berth. But to do so, the Eskimos and Stampeders are going to have to buck an alarming trend.
Before the advent of the Arena Football League and before the NFL expanded to 32 teams, the CFL was known for quality quarterbacks and most teams had two capable passers where the drop-off from starter to backup was negligible.
Not any more.
This season, backup quarterbacks are 7-12-1 when replacing injured starters. Buck Pierce and Jarious Jackson of the Lions have six of those wins in place of Dave Dickenson. Last year, backups went 8-12. Again, the Lions accounted for five of those victories.
So, in the last two seasons, CFL backups residing somewhere other than Vancouver are 4-20 with two of those wins courtesy of Saskatchewan’s Marcus Crandell, a former Grey Cup-winning starter.
“Right now, we’re quite confident with the situation we have here and the guys we’ve got,” said Eskimos head coach Danny Maciocia. “I still think we have a pretty good shot. We control our own destiny.”
The Stampeders might have sounded that chipper heading into their first game without Burris, but after Smith and Nealy combined for 136 passing yards in a 42-9 loss to B.C., their optimism was bruised.
“Was Barrick Nealy ready to play that game? Absolutely not,” said Calgary general manager Jim Barker. “If he had to play a steady diet of four or five games, there is a good chance his confidence gets shot and he may never recover.”
Barker said that there is a fine line that many teams have not been able to walk when developing backup quarterbacks.
The first is that the backup is thrown to the wolves despite being too young and inexperienced, and that his development is forever stunted by the traumatic experience. Either that, or his reputation takes such a hit that he is not given a second chance.
The other scenario is that teams don’t get their No. 2 quarterback enough time on the field, thus he stagnates and doesn’t develop.
But in B.C., general manager/ head coach Wally Buono has been able to avoid this pitfall, despite missing Dickenson for 16 games over the last two seasons. And it is of little coincidence that Buono, whose reputation for developing quarterbacks dates to the early 1990s and his stewardship of the Stampeders, has been immune.
“Who has the [job] security to struggle through the growth process of their No. 2s?” said Buono, who ranks second in all-time CFL coaching victories. “The Hugh Campbells, the Cal Murphys… When you look at who has developed the No. 2s it’s been the guys who have had longevity at their positions and haven’t had to worry about owners firing them.”
Buono will not admit it, but another reason is that the Lions have an excellent team. Quarterbacks are only good as their surrounding talent, and B.C. has talent in spades.
“There is definitely some validity to that,” said Barker. “They’re able to take the pressure off that position. That has a lot to do with it. They have a good team and the players around [the quarterback] are able to handle it.”