Flight Path: The next Canadian QB is ready for takeoff
Forty-eight years ago, Russ Jackson retired as the greatest Canadian quarterback the CFL has ever seen. While the landscape has long since changed, Andrew Buckley, Brandon Bridge, and now, Noah Picton, are trying to change it back.
By Chris O’Leary
IT WAS JUST OVER FOUR YEARS AGO NOW THAT THE CFL VERY SUBTLY ENJOYED A PEAK CANADIANA MOMENT.
The most Canadian thing about it might be that it has laid low, out of the public eye for all this time.
It took place on the field at McMahon Stadium during the Calgary Stampeders’ rookie camp. Wanting to rest the arms of quarterbacks Kevin Glenn and Bo Levi Mitchell, and with backup Drew Tate on the mend, then-Stamps offensive coordinator Dave Dickenson got inventive.
“It was one of my favourite days of my whole football career,” says Marshall Ferguson, who, as a McMaster Marauder, was taking part in what was then still a fairly new initiative that brought Canadian university quarterbacks into CFL teams’ training camps as interns.
“What they did was they decided to let me throw the majority of the reps in rookie camp. But because they didn’t want to burn out my arm in one day they said that Brad Sinopoli was going to throw with me.”
Today, Sinopoli is one of the CFL’s top receivers, with 71 catches for 810 yards this season. Back then, the Peterborough, Ont. native and Ottawa U product was on the cusp of leaving his quarterbacking days behind him. But first, he’d get to have a little fun before camp officially got underway.
“Dickenson was having a bunch of fun with it, saying it was Canadian quarterback day and how awesome it was going to be,” Ferguson continues.
“Two or three minutes into practice we go into a full skelly-type of situation and Brad rips, I’m not even kidding, like a 45-yard corner route to the wide side and it’s on a rope. I don’t think the ball got more than 15 to 20 yards off the top of the turf in terms of elevation. It was on a dime, into coverage, beat everybody.
“I remember being there in 2013 and realizing he had transitioned to receiver. I’m watching him make that throw on that rookie camp day and going, ‘Why the hell is that guy not a quarterback?’”
It’s been 48 years since Russ Jackson — a Hamiltonian that led the Ottawa Rough Riders to three Grey cups and is regarded as the best Canadian-born QB the league has seen — retired from the CFL. He went into the Canadian Football Hall of Fame in 1973. Since then, other Canadians have gotten shots at playing quarterback, but none have been able to come close to the status that Jackson built up.
That hasn’t fully changed this season, but we are in a place that’s unfamiliar to many of today’s fans, with Mississauga’s Brandon Bridge and Calgary’s Andrew Buckley playing backup roles with the Roughriders and Stampeders, respectively. Both won training camp battles against American quarterbacks to get their jobs and when they’ve gotten into games this year, they’ve shown that they can hold their own in the CFL.
Is this year a one-off? Or do Bridge and Buckley’s varied journeys to this point represent the earliest stages of a shift at the most important position in the game? And what would their future success mean for young Canadian quarterbacks that for years have been taught to not get their hopes up when it comes to taking a successful university career to the next level?
Now 26 and the play-by-play voice of the Hamilton Tiger-Cats (as well as a regular contributor to CFL.ca), Ferguson was a quarterback with the Marauders from 2011 to 2014. The myriad of above questions are hard to answer, he says.
“You look at the history of what (Canadian players) have been able to achieve and you think that barrier already would have been broken down,” he says.
“That’s where I’m at with Buckley and Bridge. It’s really, really positive momentum, but does that momentum really mean anything until we consistently have guys coming out, whether it’s from programs north or south of the border…to genuinely be considered as guys who can play at this level?
“I was talking about this on my radio show. I have confidence that if Bo Levi Mitchell couldn’t have finished that game against BC (on Aug. 18) that Andrew Buckley could have come in and won that game for Calgary.
“And I have confidence that when Saskatchewan played against Edmonton (on Aug. 25), if Kevin Glenn for some reason went down and they wanted to go with Brandon Bridge, he could facilitate the offence. Having guys like that is really the only way to continue to push the conversation forward.”
Before he became the CFL’s version of Adrian Wojnarowski, Justin Dunk was a dynamic quarterback for the Guelph Gryphons from 2005-2009. His career ended with Ontario University Athletics ranking him the conference’s eighth-best quarterback of the decade.
“I can’t think of a time when there were two Canadian backups in the league,” he says. “Danny Brannagan had a year (2010) in Toronto. You have Brannagan and Sinopoli, from what I remember.
“Bridge is sort of a different duck because he’s from the NCAA, but with Buckley you could make that case too. He’s from Calgary, he played in that stadium (with the Calgary Dinos) and the Stamps felt like they really knew him. Part of his game too is his character and how hard he works; not to say he doesn’t have talent.
“On one side I feel like it’s a little different because of their cases, but maybe we’re going down that path, where one might come.”
CANADIAN, BUT JUST A QB
One of the two albino moose of Canadian football started out not wanting to be that at all.
“Growing up I always wanted to be a receiver,” Buckley admits. “My dad kind of pushed me the other way, to be a quarterback.”
Standing in the lobby of a downtown Toronto hotel in early August, Buckley looks like a fresh-faced university student, even if he’s into his second season with the Stampeders. Still just 24, he’s in a sportcoat and slacks like the rest of his teammates — the standard walkthrough day attire for a road team — but he looks like the intern of the group.
A two-time Hec Crighton winner while playing for the Dinos, Buckley was taken in the seventh-round of the 2015 CFL draft by the Stamps. His father, Dr. Richard Buckley, was a slotback for the Dinos in the 70s. He knows a QB when he sees one and told his son to play to his strengths.
“Do what you’re best at, keep developing your skills and hopefully you get a shot at it,” he continues. “I was lucky to be drafted by Calgary and they were willing to give me a chance. I think that’s all it really took, was getting the opportunity to stick with what I’m good at and let things play out the way they did and it’s worked out.”
He’s had two big moments in the first half of the season. In Week 2, in for his usual short yardage work, he and his Stampeders teammates caught the Ottawa REDBLACKS sleeping. He snuck around the right side of the Ottawa defence and ran 60 yards for a crucial touchdown in what turned out to be a 43-39 Calgary win.
He got into Calgary’s lopsided win over Hamilton in Week 6 and made all 10 of his passes for 106 yards and his first passing touchdown.
Used in short yardage situations last year, Buckley has looked increasingly comfortable in the Stamps’ offence this year.
“It’s going well. It’s been a steep learning curve, coming from (U Sports). It’s not the same intellectual game, I guess, as it is in the CFL,” Buckley says. “The demands on the quarterback are much higher than I’ve ever seen before. The learning curve has been steep, just getting there. It’s been a process, a ton of work.”
That process is likely a big part of Buckley’s success to this point. The Stamps brought him into their training camp when he was with the Dinos in 2014. He took part in training camp after being drafted in 2015 and the Stamps sent him back to the Dinos for his senior year. His integration into one of the most stable and successful franchises in the league has been appropriately gradual.
“We had him for multiple camps,” Dickenson says. “He’s been with us it seems like a long time. He’s learned our system and we’ve seen a steady improvement each and every year. Ultimately I thought he earned the right to be the No. 2 on our team. If he’s needed, I have 100 per cent faith he’ll get the job done.”
While Buckley grew up in Calgary, Brandon Bridge fell in love with playing quarterback across the country in Mississauga, a city west of Toronto of just over 700,000. After his 10th grade season at St. Marcellinius Secondary School, his recruitment came in a wave of letters and hopeful Canadian university coaches showing up at his door with their best pitches. Bridge heard them out, but started to get other ideas.
“After I got the attention of Canada, I wanted the attention of the United States,” Bridge says over the phone from Regina.
There was interest from Syracuse, Buffalo and Akron, but he chose Alcorn State. Two years later, he transferred to Southern Alabama. Montreal chose him 31st overall in the 2015 CFL Draft.
Injuries opened the door and the history books for him in Montreal. He became the first Canadian quarterback to play in a regular season game since Branagan in 2010 with the Argos. In the Alouettes’ final game of the season, Bridge became the first Canadian QB to start a game in 19 years. The Als released him in August, 2016 and the Riders signed him quickly after.
Like Buckley, he worked his way into the backup role in training camp this season. His highlight so far this season came in Week 7, when he relieved Kevin Glenn in a loss to BC. He went 6-for-6 for 114 yards and two touchdowns.
“My friend showed me my stats the other day,” Bridge says. “I’ve only played about a game and a half, honestly. I’d play a little bit, six minutes left in the first game of my rookie year against Ottawa. Then I started the last game and then I only got a couple minutes last year and a couple minutes this year.”
Going into the Banjo Bowl series on Labour Day weekend, Bridge has five career touchdowns, made 46 of 65 passes for 581 yards and has thrown one interception.
“You never know what’s going to happen (any) weekend. You never know where you’ll end up or where you’ll be,” Bridge says. “As long as you handle your business on the field and create yourself a great resume, it shouldn’t be hard for you to find a spot and find a guy who’s going to get you that trust and let you go out there and rock.”
Neither player is bothered by pressures to be the next great Canadian quarterback.
“I’ve always competed everywhere I’ve gone,” Bridge says. “If I was Canadian, black, white, Chinese — whatever. At the end of the day, the best guy gets the job. I just have to go out there and show that I’m the best guy for whatever they ask me to do and that’s being a quarterback.”
“I feel like once I’m out there, I’m another player,” Buckley says. “It is nice to have the support and I know that a lot of Canadians are getting behind it, which is cool.”
While the present question of the Canadian quarterback is a tough one to answer, it seems that everyone has an opinion on the future. What it almost always starts with is earlier identification of players and more thorough development.
“I’m no coach or GM, but what’s going on in the States, you have these seven-on-seven leagues that are blowing up, sort of like AAU in basketball,” Dunk explains.
“They’re playing tackle in their high school seasons then they go and play this high-level flag or touch, but they’re throwing the ball all year-round, is the biggest thing. They’re in quarterback camps or (apparel sponsored) camps or university camps.”
“I remember after my first year at Guelph, our trainer Chris Munford came to me and said, ‘Look, you switch to a DB or a receiver and I think you could play in the CFL, just because of how bad you want it and your passion for the game. If you stay at quarterback it’s going to be a long, uphill battle’.”
Former Guelph Gryphons quarterback Justin Dunk
Ferguson would like to see CFL teams take a deeper interest in their best local talent.
“Buckley is an unbelievable example of this,” he says, but imagines it happening a little earlier.
“If a team identifies one or two quarterbacks that they think have potential in their market or in their area they should be able to… if you ask Andrew Buckley when he’s 17-years old, ‘Hey, do you want to come to Stamps practice one day a week in pads, walk around with our guys, learn our systems and understand the way that we do our job?’
“He’s going to be so much better off for that and it doesn’t cost the league or the team anything.”
Ferguson saw something close to this in Regina-born QB Asher Hastings. An intern with the Riders in 2012 as a junior football player, he also got to spend time with the Argos in 2015 and the REDBLACKS in 2016. Hastings didn’t get a crack at the CFL after finishing at McMaster, but he was hired on this year as the Marauders quarterbacks coach.
“It made him a better player and it made him a better coach,” Ferguson says. “He loves (coaching) and everything at Mac seems simpler because he can teach the things that he’s seen in all of those training camps to make his team better and maybe make the next quarterback better. He can pass that on.
“When you start teaching guys at the younger level, they start passing it on to the younger level, which is better development.”
As it stands today, most teams are more likely to stay in the now when they’re looking to draft, which leaves both little time for developing a quarterback and little room for draft error when incorrect choices could cost you wins and ultimately job security. That factors into why some quarterbacks opt to convert to receivers or defensive backs.
“I remember after my first year at Guelph, our trainer Chris Munford, he played in the CFL as a defensive back, came to me and said, ‘Look, you switch to a DB or a receiver and I think you could play in the CFL, just because of how bad you want it and your passion for the game. If you stay at quarterback it’s going to be a long, uphill battle’,” Dunk recalls.
And it was. He worked out with two CFL teams at the end of his university career.
“I remember going to a workout with the Argos and BC but it was as a receiver,” he says.
“The trouble was that I didn’t have any film. So I thought back to the conversation I had with my trainer after the first year. I would have had some film, but I wouldn’t have played quarterback.
“I felt like if I didn’t play quarterback, our team and university might not have been as good as it could have been. It’s super tough and the experience wouldn’t be there and they put the development into me that year and I didn’t want to let them down. It’s sort of a catch-22, right?
“Now I can look back at myself and say, ‘Well you weren’t the fastest kid and maybe you didn’t have the height and stuff’, but that was one drawback.”
Another factor is that the quarterback spot doesn’t count toward the ratio — regardless of whether an American or a Canadian is playing there.
“I think that rule should actually change,” Bridge says. “I’m a proud Canadian but it sucks that I’m not looked at as a Canadian on the roster sheet.”
The conundrum that comes up with discussion of the rule change is that some argue it creates an obligatory roster spot for Canadians.
“I’m not a huge fan of legislating it because I want there to be genuine interest,” Ferguson says. “But if they did change it and you have to carry somebody, that goes back to what I’m saying about (developing talent).
“It’s kind of chicken and the egg: Do you put in the ratio rule to create development at a younger age or do you develop at a younger age and all of a sudden you don’t need the ratio rule because people are ready to play in the league, like a Buckley or a Bridge?”
PICTON KNOCKING AT THE DOOR
It’s around 4:30 p.m. in Regina on Tuesday, Aug. 29 and another potentially great moment of quarterback Canadiana is unfolding.
Noah Picton is trying to choose his words carefully as he answers the question. At no time do the pauses in his speech indicate a lack of confidence. He knows the answer. He just doesn’t want it to sound too braggy.
“I think I could,” he begins. “I think my biggest advantage would be mentally. I feel comfortable. I understand the game and I think that I could make those throws.”
He pauses again for a brag check.
“I’m not saying I should be in the CFL; more so that I have confidence in my abilities and what I can do on the football field. But I’m not trying to sound arrogant or anything like that.”
Another pause. He needs to be direct.
“But I feel that I can play football.”
Last year — his third of his USports eligibility — Picton very quietly and respectfully tore the league apart. His 3,186 passing yards were a USports single-season record. His 224 completions were a Canada West single-season record and he added a conference-leading 25 touchdown passes. His pass attempts (323) and completion percentage (69.3) were single-season records at the U of R.
The reigning Hec Crighton winner has two more years to play for the Rams. He opened his fourth year on Friday night throwing for 335 yards and two touchdowns on 23-35 passing in the Rams’ 36-20 win over UBC.
It’s strange, then, if you’re unfamiliar with the script, to hear the reigning national player of the year speak of a glass ceiling waiting for him after he graduates with a finance degree.
“From my perspective it is disappointing because I feel like there are a lot of great Canadian kids who can play in the CFL and I think there are a lot of great Canadians who haven’t gotten a fair shot at it,” he says.
“You see some of these guys that come up and I’ve watched a lot of university football through the years. I’ve seen the Kyle Quinlans in recent memory, Jordan Heather, some of those guys could make a CFL roster for sure, but they weren’t given a fair chance.
“I think that is disappointing because that’s writing guys off and having that stigma around Canadians, it’s too bad. You want to see guys in your league do the best they can and play as long as they can and when you think they deserve a shot and when you think they can play it’s disheartening to see them kind of turned away.”
Like Dunk and Ferguson, Picton would love to see quarterbacks get attention from good coaches at a younger age, the way they do in the U.S. He’d like to see them get the chance to play 12 months a year if they want to.
He goes back and forth on a mandatory roster spot for Canadian QBs. He sees the benefit long-term, but wants a coach to award that spot on merit, too.
“I think more of the emphasis should be put on the development and then hopefully he’s good enough that he’d get a realistic shot,” he says.
“I’m not very physically dominating on the football field, nor am I exceptionally fast. So I don’t know if there are many positions that I could play other than QB.”
Noah Picton on the prospects of switching positions in the pros
Picton doesn’t say it, but he already meets most of this criteria. His father, Dean, was the quarterback of the Regina Rams junior football team 30 years ago. The night Noah won the Hec Crighton, Dean had won the Peter Dalla Riva award 30 years back as the most outstanding offensive player in junior football.
“I think growing up, football was always on TV. I always knew that my dad played for the Rams and whatnot and as I got a bit older, I started to not only enjoy falling in love with the game through my upbringing, but it was almost like I had a full-time quarterbacks coach at home,” he says.
“Just naturally, we’d be watching the CFL on TV and my father would be pointing things out: Watch the quarterback do this, watch how the defence does that. It was never really a time that I said, ‘Hey, I’m going to start playing football now’. It was just gradual as I grew up. It was always part of my life.”
He’s draft eligible in 2018, but for now Picton is trying to stay in the present. He knows that CFL teams will say that at 5-foot-9, he might not be able to command a pro huddle the way a 6-foot-5 Bridge might, or the way Buckley, at six-foot, can.
Those who have been on the field with him disagree.
“I got the opportunity to work with him at the East-West Bowl and was completely blown away,” says Quinlan, who is now the co-offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach at McMaster.
“I thought that guy was unbelievable. Who knows whether teams will look past his size, but he’s obviously proven he’s able to do it.”
“I played against him for a few years at Calgary,” Buckley says. “He’s certainly a good quarterback and a really smart kid. I know he’s a quarterback who’s taken it upon himself to push the mental side of the game. He’s a smart guy so I think he’ll have a shot.”
Quinlan, who won the Hec Crighton in 2012 and led McMaster to a Vanier Cup win in 2011, was pegged as a strong possibility to break through as a Canadian quarterback in the CFL. He signed a deal with the Alouettes in 2012, but opted not to report to training camp in 2013, retired and pursued coaching.
He said the Alouettes never approached him about playing a different position, but that the bug had been planted in his ear at some point before he retired.
“Honestly it wasn’t a stubbornness thing where I was saying quarterback or bust,” he says. “It was a realistic expectation. I’m not just going to learn receiver within this amount of time where I can pass other Canadian receivers. It felt almost disrespectful to those guys.
“I was a good athlete but I wasn’t running as fast as those guys, jumping as high, that type of stuff.
“I was confident enough that guys like Will Finch, guys coming up through the pipeline after me were going to make this impact. And you saw with Brandon Bridge and with Andrew Buckley right now, they’re doing that. I didn’t feel like it was on me to right that ship.”
In his own humble way, Picton inferred that down the road he might have a similar outlook.
“I think if they’ve watched their film they’ll see that I’m not very physically dominating on the football field, nor am I exceptionally fast,” he says. “So I don’t know if there are many positions that I could play other than QB. I don’t punt or kick very well so that’s out of the question too.”
Ferguson gained a valuable lesson from his time in the Stampeders camp in 2013. Watching Glenn, Mitchell, Tate and the freshly departed QB Sinopoli was a reality check.
“My interesting perspective wasn’t just that I sucked. It was the fact that I played at McMaster with a guy (Quinlan) who I knew could play at that level,” he says.
“I think it goes back to youth development, getting the number of reps that you need in order to be successful at a higher level. That’s part of the higher system of where you’re going right down to the basics of how we teach tackling or throwing or when you get introduced to football or flag, any of that stuff. It’s all going to play a role in being able to develop more Quinlans and less me.”