How do you develop a young quarterback in the CFL? The question is an ever-present challenge to franchises that are perpetually in win-now mode. There’s no such thing as ‘tanking’ in the CFL. Thankfully, that means teams are constantly pushing.
Unfortunately what that also means is that quarterbacks are rarely given the chance to learn on the fly, persevere through mistakes and figure out the game in real time. When the losses start to stack up, passers often take the brunt of the blame and are benched for the next possible solution. That is, unless they show enough promise to stay in the lineup through hard times.
For the 2023 Hamilton Tiger-Cats the goal was never to play Taylor Powell. Bo Levi Mitchell was the off-season’s biggest move, swapping his Red and White Stampeders career to become the man in Black and Gold, searching for a Grey Cup late in his career on the other side of the country.
A turnover and injury-plagued first half of the season gave way to Matthew Shiltz, who sustained his own ailments, leading to Powell’s forced arrival on the main stage. Since Week 7 Powell has played 397 snaps leading the Tiger-Cats huddle with a slow, but consistent improvement in understanding and performance.
A large part of his development has been the consistent coaching of well known quarterback guru Scott Milanovich, who assumed a more prominent role in the organization following the departure of former Hamilton offensive coordinator Tommy Condell.
That’s no slight to Condell, who himself is a tactician in the art of guiding quarterbacks towards improved performance, but Milanovich’s approach with Powell is clearly paying dividends as the perky Ticats refuse to go away in the East Division playoff hunt.
Powell’s Pro Football Focus metrics tell me the story — paired with the eye test — of a young quarterback cautiously growing his skill set to mesh with the CFL game and increasingly testing the boundaries of what is possible.
He has the highest completion percentage in the CFL — ahead of Argonauts standout Chad Kelly — at 69.0 per cent Powell’s adjusted completion percentage (completed passes counting drops) of 78.9 is second in the CFL just 0.1 per cent behind Ottawa Dustin Crum and five per cent clear of third place Alouettes’ QB Cody Fajardo.
Perhaps the truest sign of Powell’s development this season is his 16.1 per cent uncatchable pass percentage. That metric looks at the number of pass attempts where he gives the receiver no chance and his total is good enough for second lowest in the CFL this season. It’s a sign that he consistently gives the Tiger-Cats’ receivers a chance to make plays, which is all a receiver ever asks for.
As Powell’s learning curve has evolved he has shortened his average time from snap to throw, but still ranks second slowest on the dram at 3.06 seconds behind only Tre Ford, whose magical escapability and improvisational skills play into his long plays.
The next challenge for Powell is the closing stretch. With Shiltz healthy and listed behind Powell on the depth chart, the statement has been made that the Eastern Michigan grad has been picked to lead Hamilton until Bo Levi Mitchell might be healthy enough for a return. Based on the rocky road Mitchell has traversed this season you have to wonder what call head coach Orlondo Steinauer makes if that situation arises as Powell continues to help the playoff push.
Montreal falling backwards in two straight loses to Toronto won’t be enough for the Ticats to make the playoffs though. At some point Powell will have to push Hamilton through with another big victory, just like he did against the Winnipeg Blue Bombers this past weekend when he completed 20 of 26 passes for 236 yards.
Efficiency, smart choices, trusting progressions and finding receivers in space with a chance to make plays have all played a key role in Powell’s evolution this season. With a little over a month to play, Hamilton still has a chance to host the Eastern Semi-final on Saturday, Nov. 4 and could play a pivotal — pun intended — role in Hamilton’s playoff push.
In a season with so much turnover at key positions what a tale it would be to have Powell lead the charge for an East Division crown and an at-home Grey Cup berth. It could happen.
This is the CFL, where anything is possible.