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Dave Naylor

TSN Football Insider

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Some hits in football have a more lasting effect on the game than others.

Simoni Lawrence’s late and high hit on Zach Collaros during the opening drive of the 2019 season is one of them, which helps explain how the play has morphed into a battle of accusations between the league and its players’ association.

There have certainly been more dangerous and egregious hits in the CFL, but the winds of change are swirling around the game of football, with player safety and concern for the image of the sport getting far more attention than they once did.

In this case, both sides are claiming the moral high ground.

In handing down a two-game suspension to Lawrence, the CFL is trying to redraw the line of discipline. Never before has a player with no previous history of suspensions or on-field fines been hit with such a measure based on a football play.

At the same time, the incident was a way for the league to challenge the CFLPA – which has at times been critical of the league when it comes to player safety – to fall in line.

The union could have decided not to support Lawrence in his appeal, but may have felt obliged to do so because the league was essentially trying to change the standard for a first-time offender to two games from one.

There is also the issue of who gets to hand down discipline, with the players’ association revealing this week that it proposed taking supplementary discipline out of the hands of the league alone during recent CBA negotiations.

In return, the players would have forfeited their right to appeal, something they would never do as long as the league is in charge of discipline, saving them the bad optics of having to choose between its members – one injured and one suspended.

Whether fans like it or not, the right to appeal is something collectively bargained by the union, which is what made it so unusual for the league to attack the union for simply exercising its right.

But the league wouldn’t have delivered a two-game suspension if it didn’t believe it would stick. There is plenty around the hit to make one think it could, at least if the arbitrator is going to consider context.

That starts with the CFLPA itself, which has made health and safety its No. 1 issue, from the removal of in-season padded practices to better injury rehabilitation to endorsing other measures aimed at keeping the players safe.

The CFL, meanwhile, ended last season with a rash of head injuries to quarterbacks – the most notable of which was suffered by Collaros, who was forced to miss a playoff game that Saskatchewan went on to lose. The off-season was dominated by talk about what the league could do to deal with head injuries, particularly to quarterbacks, instituting the option of a 25-yard penalty for roughing the passer.

It’s not hard to see why the league felt this was the moment to set a new standard.

If the suspension sticks, the league will have effectively done that. If it doesn’t, the union will have protected its members from missing two game cheques for a single hit.

Both sides claim they want to make the game safer and are incredulous when accused of shirking their responsibility in that regard.

They just can’t agree how to go about it. ​

Backup blues

With Collaros gone for at least six more weeks and possibly longer, questions are sure to be asked about why Saskatchewan would enter a season so thin at quarterback, especially considering their starter’s recent injury history.

The fact is they didn’t have a lot of options, an assertion supported by taking a glance at backup quarterbacks across the league.

The Roughriders talked to both Kevin Glenn and Travis Lulay during the off-season, but both players opted for retirement. In Cody Fajardo, the ex-Argo and Lion, Saskatchewan signed a backup with four years of experience, which is more than most.

A list of backup quarterbacks across the CFL (from most career pass attempts to fewest):

Ottawa – Jonathan Jennings, fifth CFL season, 51 games played, 1,474 pass attempts
Toronto – McLeod Bethel-Thompson, third CFL season, 11 games played, 305 pass attempts
Winnipeg – Chris Streveler, second CFL season, 12 games played, 140 pass attempts
Montreal – Vernon Adams Jr., fourth CFL season, 10 games played, 121 pass attempts
Saskatchewan – Cody Fajardo, fourth CFL season, 15 games played, 119 pass attempts
Edmonton – Logan Kilgore, fourth CFL season, 7 games, 114 pass attempts
B.C. – Danny O’Brien, sixth CFL season, 17 games, 107 pass attempts
Hamilton – Dane Evans, second CFL season, 3 games, 42 pass attempts
Calgary – Nick Arbuckle, second CFL season, 6 games played, 25 pass attempts

*Games played in which quarterback has thrown at least one pass

A few things jump out from this list. For one, the depth of backup quarterbacks in the league right now is extremely thin, in part because many veteran QBs would rather retire than hang around for backup quarterback money. Of the nine backups in the league, only McLeod Bethel-Thompson is over 30 years old.

It also explains why the league is so determined to protect the health of its starting quarterbacks, given how drastic the drop-off is to the backups. Think of the difference of a Lions-Stamps game with Mike Reilly and Bo Levi Mitchell, compared to one featuring Danny O’Brien and Nick Arbuckle. How about replacing an Edmonton-Hamilton tilt featuring Trevor Harris and Jeremiah Masoli with one featuring Logan Kilgore and Dane Evans?

It all speaks to how vulnerable CFL teams are to having their seasons altered on a single play and why the league should do all it can to keep its starters upright.

European Invasion

The question has been asked more than a few times about CFL commissioner Randy Ambrosie’s vision of a CFL full of players from around the world: Do these players exist? Are there actually players from outside Canada and the U.S. capable of competing in the CFL?

The numbers of such players may be small (this season every CFL team has one global player on its roster and another on its practice roster), but that may be about to change.

For the past three years, former Winnipeg Blue Bomber Brandon Collier has been rounding up the best teenage players in Europe and bringing them to North America for something he calls the “Dream Chasers Tour”, where players attend college workouts across the Eastern United States.

TSN caught up with Collier and his band of players this past weekend at State College, Pa. where they were participating in a Penn State workout on Sunday.

The results have been impressive so far, with at least 18 of the 45 so far receiving NCAA Division I scholarship offers to some of the best programs in America.

Last summer, one of Collier’s players (Luke Wentz of Germany) became the first European quarterback ever to get an offer from an NCAA Division I school and will start this fall the University of Virginia. Another quarterback, 6-foot-6, 230 pound Alexander Honig, who just turned 17, will be the next.

It may still be harder for a European player to land a scholarship than a player from Canada or the U.S. but the schools are noticing what’s happening. Several of them – including Penn State, Massachusetts, Michigan, Temple and Rutgers – have sent their staffs overseas to see for themselves.

All of which is good news for the CFL’s vision of capitalizing on the globalization of football.

The talent in Europe is growing. Kids now believe they can make the leap across the pond and compete, and the CFL is waiting with open arms.

Argos plan to get aggressive

No team may be harder to predict this season than the Toronto Argonauts.

That’s what happens when you win the Grey Cup one season, then go 4-14 the next and fire your head coach.

The Argos’ 2018 season will be recalled for the career-ending injury to quarterback Ricky Ray, but it was Toronto’s defence that let them down as much as anything.

These Argos have largely the same offensive personnel, with the noted addition of receiver Derel Walker, considered by many to be the league’s very best.

Defensively, there are a lot of changes among the front seven and a secondary that’s hoping to remain healthy, after struggling with injury a year ago.

Argos head coach Corey Chamblin said getting a Week 1 bye was advantageous since so much of training camp was spent installing new schemes on both sides of the ball.

Besides finishing with the CFL’s worst record one year ago, the Argos were boring, rarely throwing the ball down the field and putting precious little pressure on opposing quarterbacks.

Chamblin, who was defensive co-ordinator in 2017 before spending last season at the University of Arkansas, insists his team will be more aggressive this season.

“Without a doubt,” he said. “And aggressive is not cover zero every down. Aggressive is not a shot down field every down. Aggressive is not a fake every down. Aggressive is aggressive towards our goals and you don’t see us retreat … being aggressive and finishing going hand-in-hand.”