Berg vs. Ferg is back for 2019 as columnists Pat Steinberg and Marshall Ferguson debate over some of the league’s most contentious storylines. This week’s question: Which return specialist is the best in the CFL?
TORONTO — Welcome to the year of the return.
Special teams plays have made all the difference throughout 2019 in what’s becoming a record-breaking season in the CFL. Return specialists have already totaled 18 kick returns in 35 games, easily on pace to break the single-season record of 22, including a record-breaking nine kickoff return touchdowns alone.
Choosing the best returner in the CFL isn’t an easy exercise, especially in 2019. With so many great returners (12 different players have at least one return TD) this season, there are myriad candidates for top of the class. I’m leaning in Chris Rainey’s direction, however, because he’s having another great season returning punts and kicks for Toronto. When you’ve been doing it as long and as well as Rainey has, you lay claim to the top of the mountain.
Rainey has been one of the league’s best returners for half a decade, going back to his first year with the BC Lions in 2015. After four years in Vancouver, Rainey joined the Argos for 2019 and has been used as their primary returner all season.
Already with a touchdown this year, Rainey is as explosive as ever returning punts. He sits second to Hamilton’s Frankie Williams with 483 total yards and is averaging a respectable 13.4 yards each return. That average is Rainey’s second highest total of his career and the fourth time he’s averaged double digits.
In the kick return game, Rainey has been extremely reliable. At just over 20 yards per return, Rainey’s average is right there with the other top end kick returners in this league; the only thing he’s missing is that big touchdown, but there’s lots of time left. With Rainey’s speed, he’s always a threat to break a big gain, so I’m expecting him to join the growing list of players with kick return TD’s this season.
The fact Rainey has done this on a struggling Argos team is impressive, too. Toronto seems to be improving in all facets of their game, so continued productivity seems likely for Rainey. This is the fifth consecutive season we’ve been talking about Rainey as one of the CFL’s most consistent returners. That type of longevity, mixed with another great year in the works, gives him my nod this week.
FERG (9-5): WILLIAMS CHANGES FIELD POSITION FOR TICATS
With the game on the line I want a dynamic playmaker with a combination of speed, agility and vision.
More importantly – and as way of a cheat code – I also need one of the better special teams blocking units to guide my returner. As you have probably noticed during the year of the returner in the CFL that we are experiencing, many of the big returns feature speedsters getting to their blockers at the right time and turning upfield without being touched.
In a season of crazy returns this charge has unquestionably been led by the Ticats who have seen Brandon Banks reach the end zone twice on missed field goal returns, Will Likely make a surprise appearance in the end zone a couple weeks ago, not to mention Frankie Williams scoring and making field position contributions.
In Williams the Ticats have found a smooth return man who is equal parts responsible and explosive. He has shown the ability to out run angles and press returns just enough to keep coverage units off balance.
While his style and running approach are far different from Roy Finch’s Most Outstanding Special Teams Award winning season for the Calgary Stampeders, the production and constant threat of an end zone dance or two is reminiscent of Finch’s production.
In Frankie Williams the Ticats have established a threat that changes opposition’s game planning and puts more stress on gunners than the average return man. Recency bias also supports Williams’ case as his big return against BC Saturday meant Dane Evans had two shots to the end zone capable of winning the game for Hamilton.
Both went to Brandon Banks, with the second bringing the final blow to BC’s Week 9 hopes. It felt easier than it should have, but winning field position and getting points off special teams will do that.