August 8, 2019

Ferguson: Breaking down the ‘Game Manager’ title

Shannon Vizniowski/

As with all my work, this article is based on a genuine question that I have no answer to. It’s how I like to learn and I find it the most interesting way to entertain both myself and you, the reader.

Sometimes these questions are answered with steadfast numbers or cold hard facts that clearly tell me what I was looking for. Other times the question is on a topic with so many variables and subjective opinions that little is answered.

After spending a couple days pondering, researching and calculating, the question of what is a game manager in today’s CFL and how should we absorb the term gave me a bit of both.

The definition of a game manager to me is as follows:

“A CFL quarterback who is able to manage and win games despite having below average or poor personal statistics. They typically depend on a strong defence and/or running game on offence to win games while the QB simply manages the game well enough to win. A “game manager” quarterback is not an elite, play-making quarterback and will not win a division title or Grey Cup single-handed. Their career statistics show consistent mediocrity while finding a way to win more games than lose.”

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» Checking Down: News and notes on the Bombers


Seems a bit harsh right? As someone who was never characterized as a game-changing thrower capable of single-handedly carrying a team to victory, I have a soft spot, and honestly feel a bit defensive, anytime people pull out the ‘game manager’ label.

As a result I completely understand why Matt Nichols has – in seriousness or in jest – done the same but what I’m more interested in is the way we perceive the label and why has it become a dirty term?

I can remember a time where a quarterback wasn’t relentlessly punished and generalized for being surrounded by exceptional talent, but rather celebrated for their ability to keep the train on the tracks and serve their role in the greatest team sport there is.

So what are the metrics we use to create the above definition? To me, game managers are all about limiting mistakes, especially the major ones, while allowing the talent around them to rise the team’s tide high enough to get a win.

With that in mind, let’s look at a couple specific ways of limiting mistakes through a sort of ‘risk assessment’ perspective.

The lower the risk, the less there is asked of a quarterback. The less there is asked of a quarterback – be it on each throw or the overall workload – the more likely they are to be defined as a game manager.

First a look at percentage of passes attempted at or behind the line of scrimmage.

These are your screens, shovel passes, jet sweeps and all around neutered second down calls designed to stay clean. Dane Evans – and his limited number of snaps relative to most other passers – leads the league in conservative attempts while perceived gunslinger Mike Reilly rests ahead of Matt Nichols, Trevor Harris and other perceived ‘game manager’ types.

Here is a look at Evans targets so far in 2019 to paint the picture:

Another way to limit mistakes and keep a clean sheet is to throw the ball away and live to play another down. It’s one of the least sexy plays in all of quarterbacking but coaches preach it for a good reason, it adds up to helping win games over time by the limiting of dangerous and intercepted passes or taking sacks.

Amazingly in 272 pass attempts, the Argos quarterback duo of James Franklin and McLeod Bethel-Thompson have combined for a grand total of one throwaway while Antonio Pipkin’s small sample size leads the way by a wide margin.

In terms of quarterbacks with at least 100 pass attempts, Bombers QB Matt Nichols does lead the way by a decent mark as he continues to play it safe and trust Justin Medlock to flip field position. A wise decision considering Medlock is once again posting a new career-high in net punting average this season.

The last way we typically characterize a game manager is to lesson the workload by taking the ball out of their hand. Here is a look at the five most pass-happy teams leading into Week 8 who buck that trend due to their coordinator’s confidence.

Run/Pass Play Call Percentage
Toronto Argonauts QB McLeod Bethel-Thompson – 82.0%
Calgary Stampeders QB Bo Levi Mitchell – 81.8%
Toronto Argonauts QB James Franklin – 79.5%
Montreal Alouettes QB Antonio Pipkin – 72.7%
BC Lions QB Mike Reilly – 72.7%
Hamilton Tiger-Cats QB Jeremiah Masoli – 71.3%
Winnipeg Blue Bombers QB Matt Nichols – 70.9%
Ottawa Redblacks QB Dominique Davis – 70.5%
Calgary Stampeders QB Nick Arbuckle – 67.2%

The Argos and Lions passers are clearly here because they’ve been fighting back into games all year and both Bo Levi Mitchell and Antonio Pipkin’s stats are a bit skewed due to only having a couple games each under their belt. There isn’t much to be gained here other than that Matt Nichols and the Paul LaPolice led Bombers offence actually call pass plays above the league average (69.1%) tendency.

Now for a look at the bottom end, a group of quarterbacks – theoretically based on common belief in what a game manager is – are being protected by their run game and offensive coordinator.

Edmonton’s Trevor Harris cracks the bottom five as does Dane Evans and Vernon Adams Jr. Meanwhile Cody Fajardo and the run heavy Riders attack slot into the second most run happy offence bested only by Ottawa when playing Jonathon Jennings, the only CFL quarterback to have more runs than passes called when in the game.

There is nowhere to hide in the three down game for passers unable to make throws, that’s the beauty of this game. It requires everyone to perform at a consistent level not demanded by the four down game.

For that reason alone, the CFL is less likely to create game manager’s like Trent Dilfer who can win a Super Bowl with twelve completions but there will always be passers who post lesser numbers and as long as there is sports debate, there will be those who condemn them as football’s sneakiest dirty word: Game Manager.