The quarterback is the engine that drives any CFL team.
When that engine goes into the shop for repairs you can't always swap it with another one. Vehicles are designed to operate with specific motors. In the same sense, the offensive success of football teams is driven by a quarterback with a certain skill set.
When BC Lions quarterback Travis Lulay suffered a partially separated shoulder Sept. 15 in a win over Montreal it forced offensive coordinator Jacques Chapdelaine to go under the hood of his offensive scheme and do some modifications so it would fit backup Thomas DeMarco. Chapdelaine had to tinker with the game plan to accommodate the second-year player's grasp of the offence and select plays DeMarco is capable of executing.
"With Thomas, we kind of knew his areas of comfort," said Chapdelaine, who is in his 10th season with the Lions. "We are also getting to learn each other a little bit.
"I've had a little bit more mileage with Thomas since he was here last year. At the same time you get into a game situation it's different. When the rubber hits the road the guys react a little bit different. Part of it is making sure that you understand what makes the guy comfortable in the offence and also what he can do."
|Early learning curve|
"This is my third start and I have plenty to learn. You want to make sure you are making the right decision and have your eyes in the right place ... The biggest thing is you don't make the big mistake and you are smart with the ball."
- BC Lions quarterback Thomas DeMarco
B.C.'s 31-17 loss to the Saskatchewan Roughriders Friday night leaves the two teams tied in second place in the West with 9-5 records. The loss snapped a three-game win streak for B.C. and was just the third loss at home for the Lions since they returned to a renovated BC Place Stadium on Sept. 30, 2011.
The Lions are not alone in losing their starting quarterback this season. The Hamilton Tiger-Cats are the only team that hasn't seen their No. 1 go down in a game.
Some backups like Kerry Joseph in Edmonton and Kevin Glenn in Calgary have plenty of CFL experience. It's more of a challenge to make a young quarterback like DeMarco feel comfortable when he slips behind the wheel of an offence that was designed with Lulay in mind.
The B.C. offensive scheme doesn't vary greatly from most teams in the league. The Lions like to establish a running game to complement their passing attack. They want their quarterback to be mobile and have a strong arm. With that in mind, they are not going to sign a backup quarterback who is a drop-back, pocket passer.
"We try to find guys that can complement what we are doing," said Chapdelaine. "Whether it's Mike Reilly (now with Edmonton) or Thomas, they have to be able to do some of the things we do offensively, generally speaking.
"Specially speaking, each quarterback is a little bit different. One of the things we do each week with the quarterbacks, they get the opportunity to share with us their likes and even their dislikes. There are things they are not going to be as comfortable with."
DeMarco played well in his first two starts replacing Lulay. In victories over Saskatchewan and Winnipeg he completed 33 of 54 passes for 378 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions. The 24-year-old from Old Dominion received a dose of reality in the Saskatchewan loss.
Playing with his mother and grandmother watching in the stands, DeMarco completed 19 of 36 passes for 286 yards and one touchdown. He was intercepted three times, one a pick in the end zone that snuffed out a scoring drive with B.C. trailing 7-3. The Riders also had five sacks.
"You have to learn from these situations," said DeMarco. "You are going to have bad throws. You have to bounce back."
The Lions play in Calgary this Friday, then travel to Regina the week after. Lulay's status remains uncertain. B.C. does have veteran Buck Pierce, obtained in a trade from Winnipeg, as DeMarco's backup.
DeMarco was the third-string quarterback last season when he completed nine of 13 passes for 91 yards. He won the backup role in training camp after Reilly was traded to Edmonton. He is still facing a steep learning curve.
"This is my third start and I have plenty to learn," said the five-foot-11, 200-pound Palm Desert, Calif., native. "You want to make sure you are making the right decision and have your eyes in the right place.
"The biggest thing is you don't make the big mistake and you are smart with the ball."
DeMarco wasn't the reason the Lions lost to the Riders. B.C. managed just 80 yards rushing and played an undisciplined game, taking 13 penalties for 138 yards. There were signs the veteran Rider defence took advantage of a young quarterback.
Head coach Mike Benevides said that's part of a quarterback's evolution.
"It's like anything else, it's not going to be perfect," said Benevides. "There are going to be some growing pains and certainly experience isn't on his side.
"The rest of us have to give him a chance. All of us have to be part of that. It's never about one man."
Chapdelaine said it can take two or three years for any quarterback to completely grasp a team's playbook. A new quarterback also must learn to read CFL defences which can be a challenge for an America dealing with the extra man in Canadian football.
Sometimes that mean's keeping things simple.
"You don't want to put a guy in a bad situation," said Chapdelaine. "I'm not saying our system is that extensive or difficult to understand. You want to make sure the guy feels comfortable.
"You may have some parameters in the system that may never suit that guy and may never be called. Thomas is doing really well with what we are doing right now. I think every week there is an expansion in the parameters he is comfortable with."