August 30, 2012

Calgary’s Johnny Forzani and the island of ‘Z’

Stats don’t lie, they just don’t always tell the whole truth.

If you want proof, look no further than Calgary Stampeders wideout Johnny Forzani.

The first thing I asked him ahead of Monday’s fast-approaching Labour Day Classic was about what I thought has been a ‘disappointing season’ so far.

With 11 catches for 212 yards and no touchdowns, Forzani is currently quite a way off the pace of last year’s breakout season, in which he had 761 yards and five touchdowns in just his second year in the league.

I don’t think he appreciated my choice of wording.

“Why am I disappointed?” He asked.

The 23-year-old, like most Stampeders fans, had high expectations in the footsteps of a strong 2011, but so far is averaging fewer than two catches and barely over 30 yards a game.

That doesn’t mean he’s disappointed though – these ups and downs are really just the nature of his position.

“If you watch CFL football you understand that the position that I play, the Z receiver, is not the first option, not the second option, not the third and it’s not really the fourth,” explained Forzani.

Oh, the plight of being an outside receiver in the Canadian Football League.

It’s no coincidence that when you think of all the greatest receivers in CFL history, whether it was Ben Cahoon, Milt Stegall, Allen Pitts, or current BC Lion Geroy Simon, they all were/are great slotbacks.

Meanwhile only two of the current top-five leading receivers – Chris Matthews and Chris Williams – play the outside receiver position.

“I think the fact that if you take a look at the position that I play on the field and you just simply break down numbers of guys that played there, a typical Z receiver usually finishes with around 350 yards,” said Forzani.

“Last year I had 761 yards and that was great, so of course I had higher expectations this year,” he added. “But I’ve just really got to be so blatantly honest and that’s just the way the CFL is – if you’re a slot receiver on the short side, it’s just the fact that’s who gets the most balls.”

Forzani’s best game statistically game on July 28th against the Lions, when he caught three passes for 52 yards in a 34-8 loss at McMahon. Just as he appeared to be heating up though, the bye week came, while the following week he was forced out of action because of the flu.

On top of all that, it’s also been a season of adjustment for Forzani and the other Stamps receivers, as they’ve had to get used to catching passes from a different quarterback after Kevin Glenn took over the reins from the injured Drew Tate.

While it’s never an easy adjustment, Forzani said the offence is a tight-knit group, and everyone’s getting more comfortable with each passing week.

“It just takes some time on the field, I know I’m definitely not pointing any fingers but it just does take time,” he said.

Forzani returned to action against the Argos on August 18th and found a way to stretch the defence with a 50-yard reception against one of the league’s top defences this season.

But the following week he was held catchless, partly due to uncontrollable circumstances.

“I felt we were maybe going to start to open it up, but then we get to Saskatchewan and we’re in the middle of hurricane Ike, and it was the windiest game of the year so throwing the ball there was just absurd on its own,” said Forzani.

Now he looks forward to Labour Day as his next big chance to make an impact, with the team ready to make a statement game in its first meeting with the hated Eskimos of this season.

“It’s the halfway mark and it can bring us to 5-4 and it can bring them to 5-4,” said Forzani. “It’s going to be a battle coming out of the West as you know, and as long as we come out and take care of business like we can and we can get the win at home.”

While it’s a big game in the standings, the importance of Labour Day itself isn’t lost on Forzani, who was born in Calgary and grew up cheering for the Stamps and going to these games.

“It’s pretty special, I always liked this game,” said Forzani, who will suit up for his third Labour Day Classic. “My first year every newspaper in town asked me that question in 2010, and it was one of those games I got to play in my rookie year.”

His previous two Labour Days are memorable for all the wrong reasons. Last year, the Stamps fell 35-7, while the year before, he pulled his hamstring.

“I got the first kickoff return though in that game, so that was cool,” Forzani said of his first Labour Day game in 2010. “I wish I had something cool to show for it, but hopefully if we had this conversation on Tuesday it would be different.”

But while he hopes to make Monday a Labour Day to remember, don’t expect a 10-catch, 150-yard performance. Forzani knows that as much as he’d love to make that kind of appearance on the stat sheet, that’s not his role in the offence.

The biggest thing will be running hard, blocking well, and making the big catch when the opportunity arises – everything he needs to do to help his team win.

“I wish it could be all about me, but that’s just not how it is so you’ve got to just sometimes look at it from the outside picture,” said Forzani.

“Whatever we need to do to win games is really the most important thing, and if that means that you’re not going to be targeted that many times then you just have to accept that for what it is, and when the ball comes your way you have to make the play.”

Forzani calls his position the island of ‘Z’, where it’s easy to get lost and hard to get noticed – and it’s quite possible that only Forzani and the other 15 players that currently reside there can truly appreciate its difficulty.

The playmakers on offence often get the glory in football, but for the outside receiver, at least in this league, we really do have to look beyond the stats.