For the Montreal Alouettes, it has been quarterback by committee since longtime starter Anthony Calvillo was sidelined by a concussion five games ago.
Tanner Marsh, Josh Neiswander and Troy Smith all took snaps in the Alouettes’ last outing, a 36-14 loss in Vancouver that dropped the former CFL East Division powerhouse to 4-7.
“I’ve never been in a situation where all three guys had to play,” Smith, the former Heisman Trophy winner and NFL pivot, said Tuesday. “It’s very unique.”
When Calvillo was forced out of a game Aug. 17 against Saskatchewan, third-year pivot Alouette Neiswander took over as the backup. He completed only 12 of 30 pass attempts and was picked off twice, but Montreal was still in the game until the final minute.
Marsh took over for Neiswander after one quarter of the following game against B.C. and pulled off an unlikely last-minute win. He followed that with a victory over Toronto the next week, spurring Marsh Madness among the team’s fans.
But since then the 23-year-old rookie has struggled and looked hesitant to run or launch the ball downfield in losses to the Argonauts and Lions.
In five games since Calvillo went down, the backups have combined to throw five touchdown passes and 13 interceptions. And there was another pick thrown by slotback S.J. Green on a trick play.
Now Marsh’s status is uncertain for the Alouettes’ game against the Hamilton Tiger-Cats on Saturday in Moncton, N.B. He has a sprained right thumb and did not handle the ball during a light practice Tuesday.
Coach Jim Popp said if he can’t play, Neiswander will start.
Popp, the general manager who stepped in after firing Dan Hawkins only five games into the season, sees the Calvillo injury as a chance to see what his backups can do and help develop them for the future.
He had no update on the 41-year-old Calvillo, the CFL’s all-time passing leader who was placed on the nine-game injured list. It remains to be seen if he will be able to return before the end of the season. There is concern his 20-year career may be over.
The Alouettes have had only two starting quarterbacks since they returned to Montreal in 1996 — Tracy Ham and Calvillo.
“We’ve gone all these years with two quarterbacks that played a lot,” said Popp. “We heard a lot of complaining about not seeing anybody else.
“Now you’re seeing other people and there’s complaining that you’re seeing three quarterbacks in a game. You’re never going to make everybody happy. We’re trying to give these guys a chance — to see what they can do.”
He said the playbook will be simplified to help the quarterbacks and receivers stay on the same page to reduce broken plays, sacks and interceptions.
And he said the team can still win games if they cut down on mistakes, turnovers and penalties. They are second-worst in the CFL with a giveaway-takeaway ratio of minus-9 and have been penalized a league-worst 128 times for 1,043 yards.
Montreal is tied with Winnipeg for most fumbles lost with 15 and have had a league-high 19 passes picked off.
“We keep shooting ourselves in the foot and making it hard on our defence, getting behind in games and playing catch-up,” said Popp. “That can’t keep happening.”
Popp said Marsh would have stayed in the B.C. game if not for the thumb injury, which occurred early on. Neiswander took over midway through the third quarter and completed 14 of 23 passes for 153 yards and two touchdowns, but he also threw two picks. Smith later went in for two running plays.
Marsh would not use the injury as an excuse.
“I wasn’t getting into a groove or anything and that was the problem,” he said. “I have to make plays. We were playing a really good team and we were still in it at that time.”
He said the quarterbacks don’t see it as a three-way dogfight for playing time and perhaps a chance to take over from Calvillo next season.
“All three of us have a good relationship,” said Marsh. “We’re all friends and we help each other out.
“It can be difficult at times, but we help each other. When one comes to the sidelines, we’re all talking. Josh and me are great friends. I understood it and I helped him as much as I could.”
“At any position, you’re always competing,” he said. “I don’t think any job is safe regardless of how long you’re been here, unless you’re AC, and that’s rightfully deserved. Competition brings out the best in people.”
Smith is a different case. The former Ohio State star only signed with the Alouettes on Aug. 12. The 29-year-old didn’t play last season after being cut by the Pittsburgh Steelers, his third NFL team.
Popp said Smith is still working himself into shape and learning the playbook. The plan when he arrived was not to play at all, but to get ready for next season. So far, he’s been in two games for a total of three plays.
“He’s not where the other two are in the playbook,” said Popp. “He’s still quite a ways away, after not going through training camp.
“We’ve been fast-tracking him, but there are still things that he has not been a part of.”
The game in Moncton will be the first meeting this season with Hamilton (5-6). They will also play back-to-back games in late October that could determine playoff positions in the East.