Naylor: The importance of having seasoned backup QBs

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Dave Naylor
9/25/2012 3:31:47 PM
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Lots of things have defined Ricky Ray's CFL career so far, including a pair Grey Cup rings, a sensational touch on his passes and the willingness to stand in the pocket and take a hit if it means making a throw.

The other is staying remarkably healthy.

Other than the 2007 season when he missed five games with the Edmonton Eskimos, Ray has never missed more than one game in a season since his rookie year in 2002. So when the Toronto Argonauts traded for him last winter, they not only got one of the league's top quarterbacks, they also got its most durable.

In fact, Ray had thrown every Toronto pass this season up until the first half of Sunday's game at Montreal - when one of his offensive linemen fell to the ground in front of him and rolled up on his knee, sending him to the sideline and into street clothes.

Enter Jarious Jackson who, while he hadn't thrown a pass all season until Sunday, has what may just be the second-most important job on any football team.

The proof is easy to find right from within this CFL season.

Start with the Calgary Stampeders, whose first-string quarterback Drew Tate was lost to a shoulder injury during Week 2. Fortunately, the Stamps had veteran Kevin Glenn backing him up, who has not only managed to not only keep the Stampeders competitive, but in the hunt for first place in West Division.

In Winnipeg, when Buck Pierce went out a week later, the Bombers stumbled with the combination of Alex Brink and Joey Elliott - both of whom may evolve into quality quarterbacks someday, but were obviously weren't ready to lead their teams this season.

For a guy who's been essentially pushed out of the last two cities in which he's played (Winnipeg and Hamilton), Glenn enters this week with a completion percentage of 67.4 per cent, second only to Ray's this season (Compared to Elliott and Brink. who are both below 60 per cent for the season). He also recently vaulted into 12th on the league's all-time passing yardage list, trailing a list of players either in or bound for the Hall of Fame.

After suffering a 'headache' during a play at the end of Sunday's loss to Saskatchewan, Glenn is a question mark for this week's game against Edmonton, which would mean turning to third-stringer Bo Levi Mitchell.

And the Stamps aren't the only team that may be turning to an unproven third-stringer this week. In Edmonton, Matt Nichols may get his first career start with both Kerry Joseph and Steven Jyles banged-up in front of him.

The Argos can be thankful that Ray's injury is simply day-to-day and that it doesn't appear he'll be on the shelf for long. He'll miss this weekend's game against the Blue Bombers and could return the following week. 

But with Jarious Jackson as a backup, at least Toronto has some insurance. The fact is there aren't many players like the 35-year old Jackson - a veteran presence who entered this season having thrown fewer than 100 passes the past two seasons combined.

In fact, only Toronto, Calgary, Edmonton and Hamilton entered this season with backup quarterbacks who have any significant degree of starting experience.

Backup quarterbacks have already seen a large share of the load for three of the eight teams this season. And there's still a third of the season left to play.

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The critical play in Toronto's 31-10 loss to Montreal Sunday came during the third quarter when kicker Swayze Watters missed a 41-yard field goal which was returned 129 yards for a touchdown by Montreal's Trent Guy. Officials ruled the kick as 'wide left,' but the replay certainly makes it appear as though the kick may have sailed above and inside the left goal post - an opinion apparently shared by some of the Argo players.

However, missed field goals are not challengeable by coaches. And while the league reviews all scoring plays, Guy's 129-year return does not constitute a Toronto scoring play. Had Guy taken a knee and conceded a single point, the play would have been automatically reviewed and a field goal (if it was determined by replay that the kick was good) could have been awarded to Toronto. But Guy's ability to take the ball out of the end zone (eventually to another end zone) meant there was no review of the kick.
 
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This is normally the time of year when the numbers of penalties in CFL games decline, as players become experienced with the officiating standard and games become more critical.

After averaging 23 penalties per game during Weeks 10 and 11, the results were considerably better in two of the four games on the weekend, although the Toronto-Montreal and Hamilton-Winnipeg games both exceeded 20, which the mark which is the league would ideally like to stay under. The Ticats - as part of an overall implosion on Friday night - had 17 alone.

TOR-MTL: 21
BC- EDM: 15
CGY-SSK: 12
HAM-WPG: 23

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It was a another troubling night for the Edmonton Eskimos' offence on Saturday, spoiling a fine defensive effort by putting up just 18 points in a one-point loss to the B.C. Lions. Eskimo running backs managed to exceed the 50-yard mark (combined) for the first time in four games but barely, with Hugh Charles and Cory Boyd combining for just 56. Fred Stamps (one catch for 11 yards) remains strangely out of the mix. And Steven Jyles did nothing to diminish his reputation as a quarterback who doesn't always to the occasion, making just five completions for 63 yards during the second half.
 
Edmonton has now gone 0-4 in September, with three of those losses coming by a combined total of four points.

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Perhaps what the Winnipeg Blue Bombers needed this season was not a new head coach, but a psychologist.

How else would one explain a team getting blown out one week and looking competitive the next? Or a team that can look highly motivated in front of its home fans at Canad Inns Stadium, but clueless every time it leaves Manitoba. Since mid-August, the Blue Bombers are a plus-25 team at home and a minus-93 team on the road.

And that should be troubling to the Toronto Argonauts - who visit there on Friday night.

It was hard not to feel good for Bombers head coach Tim Burke - who got his first win in four tries Friday night against Hamilton since replacing Paul LaPolice. Much of what has been said and written about the Bombers during the past several weeks has been fair criticism and the timing of the LaPolice firing still seems like a very bad idea. But as the Bombers proved last week, the world can look a whole lot different when your starting quarterback is behind centre - instead of a pair of youngsters still learning the ropes.

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Not a great week for gestures in the CFL.

First, B.C. defensive lineman Khalif Mitchell was flagged for repeatedly making what appeared to be a throat-slashing gesture, but which he claimed was simply drawing a cross in the air. Then towards the end of Calgary's loss at Saskatchewan, Stampeders running back Jon Cornish apparently mooned the crowd. Was Cornish simply adjusting his equipment? Apparently not, as he issued an apology on Monday afternoon.

Not that we need to see more penalties called in CFL games, but how in the world did Cornish not get flagged for pointing at an official and then firing the ball at the ground in his direction during the second half of the Stamps game against Saskatchewan? Cornish, who had a tough afternoon against the swarming Riders defence, encountered an official as he went to make a cut after a handoff. His frustration at the unexpected obstacle was understandable. Venting his frustration in such a way is not.

If Saskatchewan head coach Corey Chamblin was looking to get Cornish off his game by guaranteeing that a player on his defence would lose a job if Cornish rushed for 100 yards, it seemed to work. It also appeared to get the attention of his defence, which swarmed to Cornish each time he touched the ball, preventing him from making any of his signature long runs up-field.

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Cincinnati receiver Andrew Hawkins became the third former CFL player to score a touchdown this NFL season, when the former Montreal Alouette scored on a 59-yard catch-and-run for the Bengals. Hawkins joins Jerrell Freeman (Indianapolis) and Marcus Thigpen (Miami) as other CFLers who have crossed the goal line during the first three weeks of this NFL season.

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If the Argos are going to challenge Montreal for the East Division this season, they're going to need better production out of their receiving corps beyond Chad Owens. That means starting with Ken-Yon Rambo and Maurice Mann. Since those two were added to the roster over the last month, Owens has continued to dominate the statistics from week to week - which is understandable given that Ray is more familiar with him over the course of the season. But when Rambo has two catches for 12 yards while Mann has none, it shows there's need for more balance.

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Have to like the look of Saskatchewan's Jock Sanders early in his first full CFL season. Sanders, who had four carries and two receptions for B.C. last season, is a former teammate of Montreal's Noel Devine who both completed their senior seasons at the University of West Virginia in 2010.

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Interesting call on video review Sunday to uphold an on-field decision that Sanders had not fumbled the football, despite losing his grip on it before he hit the ground. The replay appeared to show that Sanders had trapped the ball against his leg on the way to the ground which, apparently, does not constitute a fumble.

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Saskatchewan's Odell Willis was widely criticized last season with Winnipeg for the decline in his production during the second half of the season. Good news for Saskatchewan that Willis had perhaps his best game on Sunday, constantly finding his way into the Stampeder backfield, particularly during the critical junctures of the second half. Although Willis mugging for the crowd after taking an unnecessary roughness penalty against Calgary's Kevin Glenn late in Sunday's game was unnecessary itself.

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While he's still got a reliable leg, B.C.'s Paul McCallum is having nowhere near the kind of field goal kicking season he was a year ago when he hit 94.3 per cent of his attempts. After going four of six on Saturday against the Eskimos, he is at 77.8 per cent for the season.

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The Winnipeg Blue Bombers are last in points scored, offensive yards per game and passing yards per game. And yet Chris Matthews and Terrence Edwards rank sixth and seventh among CFL receivers in yards so far this season.
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Hamilton's Andy Fantuz has just one 100-yard game so far this season, that coming on July 21. Two seasons ago, when he led the CFL in receiving, he had five.

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Saskatchewan last week released preliminary designs of a proposed new stadium estimated to cost $278 million. The next major step comes on Oct. 24, when the City of Regina will hold a municipal election. Assuming the new council approves the plan, the project is expected to go to tender in 2013 with construction beginning before the end of the year. The Riders hope to be in a new stadium by 2017 at the latest.

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When Ricky Williams ushered in pro football's dreadlock era back as a rookie with the New Orleans Saints, the question was asked, what happens if a tackler grabs him by the hair? Given the number of players sporting braids these days its remarkable it doesn't happen more often than it does. But as Toronto's Mike Bradwell demonstrated against Montreal's Trent Guy on Sunday afternoon, it is an effective - and legal - way of making a tackle.

Jarious Jackson  (Photo: The Canadian Press)

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(Photo: The Canadian Press)
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