When Roy Shivers sees the Indianapolis Colts struggling at quarterback, he thinks of the CFL. The similarities are unmistakable, the B.C. Lions director of player personnel says.
The Colts went too long relying on one man, the now-injured Peyton Manning. They didn't develop a suitable replacement. Now, they're trying to find one in an uber-competitive market – and if that's proving difficult for an NFL team, think of what that means for the CFL.
"For years, we didn't cultivate quarterbacks. We stuck with Doug Flutie, Damon Allen, Matt Dunigan," the Las Vegas-based Shivers said. "Where's the next generation of CFL quarterbacks? That's a good question."
Canadian football used to be quarterback heaven, the place where the undersized and unwanted got their chance to play professionally. And while there's still opportunity aplenty, the CFL sits on the brink of uncertainty when it comes to its most important position. With Anthony Calvillo, Henry Burris and Ricky Ray aging, who exactly are the next great CFL quarterbacks?
Travis Lulay of the Lions has emerged as one. Drew Tate, having taken over for Burris, may be another. After which, the drop-off comes via inconsistency (Darian Durant), injury (Buck Pierce) and not knowing what's actually there in terms of game-winning ability (Quinton Porter, Adrian McPherson).
Compare that to the 1980s, when the Edmonton Eskimos were quarterback central with Dunigan, Allen, Tracy Ham and a negotiation list that included U.S. collegians Jay Schroeder and Randall Cunningham. In the 1990s, the Calgary Stampeders went on runs with Flutie, Jeff Garcia, Dave Dickenson and Burris at the helm.
But since then, the CFL has been hard pressed to find, let alone develop, star quarterbacks. The reason for that is equally unmistakable: the NFL is flexing its power and influence.
If a quarterback has skill, the NFL gets him. If that skill can be transferred to a different position – receiver, kick returner – the NFL wins again. Even the old-school talk about the NFL not wanting black quarterbacks or passers from small schools no longer applies. Like the CFL, the NFL needs its share of quarterbacks, as many as it takes.
"It's definitely more so now [difficult to get quarterbacks]" Winnipeg Blue Bombers general manager Joe Mack said. "If the NFL can find anyone who can throw and move in the pocket, they keep them. Quarterbacks and agents realize there's a dearth of quarterbacks and think, 'The NFL is going to come to me.' They don't come to the CFL."
Lions GM Wally Buono raised other contributing factors.
"The NFL plays more of a CFL style now – five-receiver sets, four receivers, no backs, more wide open, the shotgun. They want the best athletes … and the pay discrepancy is out of whack. A [starting]CFL quarterback might make $200,000 but in the NFL a practice roster guy gets $100,000 [U.S.]" Buono said. "The choice is becoming less and less."
Stampeders assistant GM John Murphy said NFL teams may drop practice-roster players at other positions but usually hold onto their quarterbacks for the season. For Canadian teams, the trick is not just getting one, but one that can operate in their pay scheme and offensive system.
"The cap is a component of it," Murphy said of the CFL's $4.2-million limit on player salaries. "Realistically, if a quarterback is playing in a similar system – like [Winnipeg's]Joey Elliott did at Purdue [University]– it's a help. The thing in our league is, no matter how you play your preseason games, you only get two. Young guys get maybe the first quarter of the first game, and they get six, eight minutes in the last one. It's a tough way to make a call."
Nurturing the next great quarterback requires patience and that's not a quality pro teams have in abundance. (A prime example being the Toronto Argonauts, whose urgency to win in a crowded sports market has made them acquire veterans – some good, many bad – from other CFL teams.)
With Tate, the Stampeders allowed him only spot duty for 2 ½ years while he learned from Burris. Given his first start last week, Tate confidently guided Calgary to a 12-point win over the Saskatchewan Roughriders. That showing caught the eye of Montreal head coach Marc Trestman, whose Alouettes host the Stamps on Sunday.
"I think it bodes well for our league to have some young talent at quarterback because without the quality at the quarterback position the quality of the league will never be as high as it can be," Trestman said.
But is there enough talent to go around?
If the CFL can't find eight definitive starters now, what does next season bring, or the season after?
"I think we've been remiss in getting those second quarterbacks ready," said Shivers, who was the Riders GM from 1999 to 2006. "That's what we're fighting."
With a report from Sean Gordon in Montreal