Dropping Back with Dave: The importance of options under centre
This young Canadian Football League season has reminded us that when it comes to quarterbacks, it really does take two.
Less than a month in, four of nine teams have already started more than one quarterback, a pattern consistent with 2019 when seven of nine teams had started more than one quarterback before Labour Day.
It’s to the point that evaluating a team’s quarterback requires looking beyond the starter, since the insurance policy can be as or more important.
Does that sound like an overstatement? Check this out:
In 2019, the CFL’s nine opening-week quarterbacks finished the season with 18,320 passing yards and 90 touchdowns thrown. Meanwhile, quarterbacks who began the year as backups passed for 25,290 yards and 129 touchdowns.
Three of the four leading passers in the CFL in 2019 began the season as backups. It was an opening-week backup quarterback who led the CFL in passing and was the Western nominee for Most Outstanding Player (Cody Fajardo), another led the league in touchdown throws (MacLeod Bethel Thompson), and another led his team to its first home playoff game in years (Vernon Adams), while earning his team’s nomination for Most Outstanding Player.
Sooner or later, it seems, every team must turn to their backup, a move that can either salvage or sink a season, depending upon what they have on the bench.
The curious thing is that teams would love to never have to unwrap what they have in a backup, as that would mean the starter is playing well and staying healthy.
But sometimes an injury to a starter unveils a pleasant surprise.
No team has demonstrated that quite like the Calgary Stampeders, the team that once had Doug Flutie go down to an injury and replaced him with an unknown rookie backup from San Jose State named Jeff Garcia.
More recently, the Stamps in 2019 handed the ball to unheralded Nick Arbuckle for seven starts when Bo Levi Mitchell went down, then watched him complete 73 per cent of his passes and throw more than twice as many touchdowns as interceptions.
This season it was Jake Maier’s turn when Mitchell got hurt, jumping from the No. 3 quarterback on the depth chart by outgunning Michael O’Connor in practice to earn the start in Week 3.
Maier engineered a come-from-behind win over Montreal. He then followed that up by setting a Stampeder record by completing his first 17 passes on the road against Winnipeg and coming a missed field goal away from his second consecutive win.
It’s been a remarkable start for a player whose journey to the CFL involved having to endure the lost season in 2020. That may have turned out to be a blessing in disguise because of the way Maier used his time off to prepare for this season.
It helps explain some of the “how” behind his immediate success.
“Our quarterback group met pretty frequently to go over the offence and rules of the game and on those calls were Bo and some of the other quarterbacks, so they really gave me a nice crash course during that pandemic year,” Maier said. “And when we weren’t able to play, I really didn’t stop, in terms of the mental preparation, and we still had film. There were so many things I was trying to do on my own to make sure I was as prepared as possible.
“I was pulling up YouTube, pulling up as much as I possibly could, just to get a feel for the game. That was what I tried to do with my free time during the pandemic.”
Turning his downtime as one long runway to the CFL allowed Maier to arrive at camp with a far better grip than most rookies have on the game, the league, his team, and what it takes to succeed as a quarterback in Canada.
“My first impression was just the speed of the game and how fast the decision-making process is,” Maier said. “I felt comfortable that what I brought to this league and to this team was going to be a good fit. And when you have mentors like coach Dickenson and Bo and [quarterback coach] Marc Mueller, we’re all kind of similar size and stature and our playing styles are a lot alike.
“To see them lay the groundwork for up-and-coming guys like me has been big-time because you can see yourself in a lot of them.”
No matter when Mitchell plays again, the Stampeders are a better team today because of what they’ve got in their backup quarterback.
Scoring is down
Those anticipating a low-scoring start to the 2021 CFL season have been correct thus far in a significant way.
Average scores per game have gone from a combined 49.5 points per game in 2019 to 38 so far this season, a decline of 23.2 per cent.
The drop during the first four weeks of the pandemic-shortened 14-game season compared to the same period in 2019 is even steeper, down 32 per cent from a combined 55.7 points per game.
The result? Bettors who’ve taken the under on every game this season are sitting pretty at 12-3.
What’s interesting is that the decline in offensive yardage has been much more moderate than the decline in offensive scoring. Teams this season are averaging 321.1 yards of net offence per game, compared to 352.8 yards in 2019, a decline of just 8.9 per cent.
What this proves is that teams are having a much harder time punching the ball into the end zone than they are moving it up and down the field. Or that defences are willing to give up the shorter, underneath plays to avoid getting beat deep, betting that even good offences will struggle to complete double-digit play drives.
It was anticipated that so much downtime and turnover across the league after the 2020 season was cancelled due to the pandemic would make it harder for offences to find their rhythms.
On top of 20 months away from football for CFL veterans, 30.7 per cent of all players this season are new to the league.
And with six of nine teams having new offensive co-ordinators, even teams with strong player carryover on offence are still starting fresh to a degree.
TV ratings are up
Being a TSN employee, I usually avoid writing about television ratings, but will make an exception this season given the curiosity factor about how the fan base would respond after a missed season.
Television audiences, especially this season, will be a truer indication of enthusiasm for the product, with live attendance affected by imposed stadium limits, COVID-19 protocols, vaccination requirements and the fact that many fans still aren’t comfortable sitting in a crowd.
Thus far, CFL TV audiences in 2021 are up 11 per cent compared to the same period in 2019, with an average audience of 524,000.
That’s impressive, especially given that the league opened its season competing against the final weekend of the Tokyo Summer Olympics and this year’s Blue Jays team, which returned to Toronto to play its home games and remains in the hunt for a playoff spot, unlike in 2019.
What this all proves is that any notion that not having a season in 2020 would cause irreparable harm to the CFL fan base or the CFL brand was wrong.
Among the highlights so far this season are last Sunday night’s Calgary-Winnipeg game which averaged 673,000 viewers, the highest number of viewers to watch these two teams play since 2013. Last Friday’s Hamilton-Montreal game reached an average of 500,000 viewers, a 25 per cent increase over a Week 4 meeting between the teams in 2019.
Vaccine requirements in place
This week, Saskatchewan and Edmonton became the eighth and ninth CFL teams to announce they will soon require fans to provide either proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test result.
In both Ontario and Quebec, the response to things has been more positive than negative, while in Saskatchewan and Alberta the reverse has been true.
The question now is whether governments in provinces with crowd limits – Quebec, Ontario and B.C. – will consider lifting their requirements since fans attending games at CFL stadiums in Montreal, Ottawa, Toronto, Hamilton and Vancouver are going to be vaccinated.
That’s the hope, certainly, so that those teams won’t be forced to play to 40 per cent empty houses – including potentially the 108th Grey Cup at Hamilton’s Tim Horton’s Field on Dec. 12.
The curious case of Jacob Ruby
When the Edmonton Elks announced Tuesday, they had released veteran Canadian offensive lineman Jacob Ruby, he became the first player let go for breaching team COVID protocols. This move suggested that there might be more to this story, and indeed there was.
According to multiple sources, Ruby repeatedly misrepresented his vaccination status to the Elks medical staff, telling them that he had been vaccinated when in fact he had not.
While CFL teams are supposed to demand proof from the outset, the Elks apparently gave him the benefit of the doubt for weeks, until they could no longer do so.
For most of that period, there may have been no consequences as all players, both vaccinated and unvaccinated, were under the same set of tight protocols. It was only after the second week of the season that some of those restrictions were loosened – for vaccinated players only.
Ruby was able to live by the standard of being vaccinated without ever having taken the shot.
There’s some culpability on the part of the Elks for giving Ruby the benefit of the doubt for so long, but the bottom line here rests with the player.
The CFL notified the league’s other eight teams that it would not register a contract for Ruby this season, saving Edmonton the humiliation of having to release a player who could come back to bite them in 2021.
It was a bizarre final twist to an eventful two weeks for the Elks, the CFL’s first – and hopefully last – COVID crisis.
The Elks were forced into isolation following a COVID outbreak that affected 13 players, leading to the postponement of Edmonton’s Aug. 26 game against the Toronto Argonauts. On Thursday, the CFL announced the game has been rescheduled for Nov. 16 in Toronto.