FEATURE: Why it’s so hard to develop a quarterback in the CFL

Editor’s Note: Arash Madani is a reporter and commentator for Rogers Sportsnet. He is a weekly columnist for 3DownNation.

So hastily was the whirlwind, three-team trade made in September between the Blue Bombers, Argonauts and Alouettes, that when Kevin Glenn was rushed back to Winnipeg to join his old team, he didn’t even take most of his clothes. And wouldn’t you know it, ten days later, he was summoned to the organization’s gala Legacy Dinner and Glenn, who had been cramming to learn the Bombers’ new offence, didn’t even have a suit with him.

When a pro football team needs a quarterback, things happen fast. And lately, more than ever, franchises in both the NFL and CFL have needed to pull the trigger – mainly out of desperation – to get a legit quarterback in-house.

Toronto gave up two draft picks, including a first rounder, to get Drew Willy from Winnipeg. Minnesota gave up two draft picks, including a first rounder, to get Sam Bradford from Philadelphia. Both deals are the furthest from market value, but in a desperate situation – when there’s a necessity because of injury, incompetence, or anything else – even the most conservative general managers will give up the farm to get someone capable under centre.

It’s confounding: here is the most important position in sports, where the demand for quality could not be higher – and yet the supply is so low. What’s wild is that these days the passing game is more of a priority than ever before. For generations, high schoolers just ran the football. Three, maybe four yards per carry, and a big cloud o’ dust. College programs ran the wishbone and the option and worshipped the ground game. Now, spread offenses are a staple in grassroots football, and it’s no different at the university level on either side of the border.

Spend a Saturday flipping from one game to the next, at any conference, in either country, and you’ll see five or sometimes six-receiver formations in empty sets.

So how is it that in such a premium position, where kids are throwing the ball at the same rate they Snapchat and take selfies, that there are so few that can play the quarterback at an elite level?

“How much time do you have? Because there are a lot of reasons why,” says Tiger-Cats quarterback Zach Collaros.

In multiple conversations with college and pro quarterbacks, coaches and front office executives, those determining factors appear to be five key areas: development, pro evaluation, football acumen, patience and attention to fundamentals. Discovering the next franchise player is no science, even with hundreds of scouts dispatched all over the continent to find the next elite quarterback.

DEVELOPMENT

“Too much is being taken away from quarterbacks these days,” insists Matt Nichols, the Blue Bombers quarterback, who has turned Winnipeg’s season around. “Quarterbacks are looking at sidelines for plays, because a lot of colleges make you look (there) for checks and those types of things.”

Football is the most micro-managed sport there is. Every detail is choreographed, little is left for the player to improvise. Some coaches give the quarterback a tiny bit of latitude to audible, but rarely at the high school and college levels. In those amateur ranks, any and all decisions made pre-snap must be rubber-stamped by the khaki-wearing dude on the sideline who has a headset fastened to him.

On NCAA sidelines, there are hand signals and signs, hell even cutouts of cartoon characters, used as a teaching tool to instruct the quarterback what to do next. The freedom to just go and, you know, play? Forget it.

“What I find when the kids get to the pros is that nobody has helped them with basic, foundation stuff,” says Saskatchewan QB coach Jarious Jackson, “and nobody has helped them with technique coaching.”

Beyond the fundamentals, comprehending a pro football playbook is as complex as the bar exam. But the jump from the three-word plays designed in high school, to an encyclopedic pro system five years later, can be overwhelming. In Ottawa last year, the RedBlacks call that led to the incredible Burris-to-Ellingson game-winning touchdown in the East Final, was named “Spread right Yaz, 765 Delta, backside x under.” That’s one play. Quarterbacks must memorize hundreds more, while also understanding what the eleven other players on offence are to do on each of them.

Not easy, when you haven’t been groomed to understand it from the beginning.

Nichols believes that if quarterbacks are taught from a young age how to properly watch film and make in-game decisions themselves, they’ll be able to allow more things to happen on the field. That would mean coaches adapting away from their dictatorial ways.

Wishful thinking.

PRO EVALUATION

Pour a large Americano into a coffee cup, or snap off two bottle caps on a long neck, and those involved with the position will dominate the conversation at the table, breaking down the endless reasons why those tasked with identifying talent to project a pro quarterback can so often get it wrong.

“Anyone can look good in a t-shirt and shorts,” Collaros, the former University of Cincinnati quarterback, says. “Anyone I’ve been in a locker room with, or shared the field with at a tryout, they’ve been bigger than me, and sometimes better than me.

“But then let’s put the pads on. Make them make a split-second decision before they’re going to get their head ripped off. Then what? You can’t practice getting hit. You can’t practice a game situation. And so you don’t really know what a guy has until the lights come on.”

Therein lies the difficulty. When evaluating a kid against college defenses – which at best may have one or two pro-calibre players – how do you properly scout a quarterback that in three seconds can identify the coverage, the concept, then drop, be accurate, and not stare down a linebacker or corner.

“Too much is made on measurables and no one’s ever testing decision making,” says Bo Levi Mitchell of the Stampeders, the 2014 Grey Cup MVP. “How fast can you process information? And how often can you make the right decision in a quick moment?”

Mitchell gets heated about the topic, in part because he doesn’t have the prototypical quarterback size, and also because scouts put limitations on one’s ability because of it.

“I want to test how often the guy makes the right decision, and how often he’s right or wrong,” Mitchell says.

It’s hard to really get those answers from a quarterback in the pre-season, what with the CFL exhibition schedule only two games. And further, isn’t it even more difficult to thoroughly evaluate any arms race over a few days in a mini-camp or rookie camp, when pads are now no longer permitted?

Some assistant coaches and offensive coordinators in the CFL believe it’s possible – to a certain point. The quarterback still needs to make the proper drop back, still has 23 other players running around on the field, still has to identify his keys, still has to identify what to look at and what footwork is necessary to execute the specific play. You may be able to get a look of whether or not the quarterback makes the right decision on one hitch or two, based on the route combo.

But whether the game slows down for him? Whether he can deliver when it’s live bullets? Whether he can quickly process the situation and down-and-distance on the fly?

“For us, certain things like being a leader, and being able to retain information, those are simple things to (examine), for sure,” says Jackson, who was a long-time CFL back-up quarterback after his collegiate career at Notre Dame. “But under the lights, that tells me if you’re a player. Some guys are good practice players, some guys are gamers.”

With all the bells and whistles, Mitchell gave pause – not to forget it’s fundamental football.

“It’s about when the pocket breaks down and the (defensive) end is coming right at you, or zero blitz comes at you, or they drop nine guys and a (defensive player) still comes free, it’s about how fast can you make the decision to know where to go with the ball,” says Mitchell. “How do I get there? Do I need to get out of bounds? Do I need to stop the clock? And it takes a lot to process that.”

When the St. Louis Rams opened the 2000s by winning the Super Bowl, Kurt Warner stood on the podium that night, confetti flying down, and thanked Dick Vermeil for the opportunity. In the CFL, many tell you those that get their chances come for their body of work without the pads on.

“To find a guy, you need to weigh the intangibles with the tangibles,” says Collaros.

FOOTBALL ACUMEN

Every CFL quarterback is an American, who grew up with the U.S. rules. So the adjustment coming north includes the 20-second play clock, and also includes less of a running game – with it, fewer personnel changes on defence. It means quickly comprehending what it means to have the bigger field, two more players on it, and not just one on offence in motion. Spend a Sunday watching the four down game, and you may see the guy under centre check out of two, sometimes even three plays. There’s no time for that with the play clock in the Canadian league.

Through all of this, it’s often up to the player himself to learn formations and the playbook. It starts with grasping defensive coverages first.

Not easy in a four-and-a-half hour work day.

Most quarterbacks, of course, spend more than double that time at the facility. They need to. Mitchell’s car, for instance, is rarely driven during daytime hours in-season – his parking spot well utilized a McMahon Stadium. It’s a job requirement.

To be fully comfortable in the pro offenses, to have the terminology down on the hundreds of plays that can, again, be called “Spread right Yaz, 765 Delta, backside x under,” and then make weekly adjustments for the specific opponent in the game plan, takes time and it also takes football acumen. Some quarterbacks got away with playing well in high school and college because of a basic understanding of concepts, along with their gifted natural talent and athleticism.

Doesn’t work that way in the pros. Everyone is elite at that level. If you can’t process, learn, understand and react, you’re done.

Each coach brings with them a new system, a new offense, a new series of play calls. It can be overwhelming, and even confusing. When Jason Maas left Ottawa for Edmonton last winter, some believe the RedBlacks, in part, hired Jamie Elizondo as their offensive coordinator so the transition would be easier on Trevor Harris and especially Henry Burris, who had gone through learning four new offenses in as many years.

Some offenses are based on verbiage (bark out plays with words), some numerical. But across pro football, they are incredibly complex. And those who can’t learn it, regardless of their skill-level, just won’t cut it.

It’s not always on the player. The situation may not be in their favour. Football, like so many occupations, is about timing and situation. Sometimes a quarterback can be surrounded by poor players, not perform, and disappear. They could end up working with bad coaches.

“If a staff knows it won’t be around at the end of the season, how much are they going to put into it?” a position coach, who asked not to be named, asked rhetorically. “On a bad team, some (players) just don’t care. The strong locker room part weighs into it.”

Said another veteran quarterback I spoke with, who asked not to be named: “There have been some really (crap) coaching staffs since I’ve come into the league. Sometimes you can’t control the situations you’re put in.”

PATIENCE

On opening day this season, with his Raiders trailing by just one after scoring a touchdown, Oakland head coach Jack Del Rio decided to go for a two-point conversion in the dying seconds of the ball game in New Orleans.

Two weeks ago, Jeff Fisher idiotically called for a fake punt late in the fourth quarter, deep in his own territory.

Each decision speaks to one common theme: both of these coaches have job security.

In the CFL, that simply doesn’t exist.

A season-and-a-half after winning the 2013 Grey Cup, at home, Corey Chamblin was fired in Saskatchewan last August. Tom Higgins, a year removed from winning a championship in Edmonton, was sent packing, too.

Which brings us to how patient an organization may – or may not – be in grooming quarterbacks.

The luxurious way of doing it is when you have one, or two, veterans you can rely on to get it done. As a CFL infant, Bo Levi Mitchell’s quarterback room included Kevin Glenn and Drew Tate. He had time to learn and develop. There was no pressure to perform now, or else.

Same deal for Travis Lulay, when Buck Pierce and Jarious Jackson were the starter and backups in BC; Mike Reilly was Lulay’s understudy a few seasons later. Collaros and Harris had the benefit of competing and learning in Toronto while Ricky Ray was at the controls.

Luxury living is fine on paper, but not everyone rests their head at the Ritz Carlton. Not when jobs hinge on wins and losses.

Look at Montreal: in the aftermath of Anthony Calvillo’s retirement, the Alouettes have signed, and released, more than two dozen quarterbacks. With the baby, the bath water has gone, too. Dan Hawkins, Jim Popp, Tom Higgins, Jim Popp and now Jacques Chapdelaine have all been the head coach of the Als since 2013, none able to find a legit quarterback, discarding one man after the next.

Jackson, the QB coach, estimates Saskatchewan has put a helmet and shorts on more than 20 quarterbacks alone this season, just to see if there’s anything to work with.

“Players wonder, how much rope will the front office give a guy,” Collaros says. “There’s outside pressure. There’s (save your) job pressures.”

Development takes time. It’s not always just the organizations that can be impatient, although it usually is. Some players grow tired of sticking around a practice roster for $750 a week, or even the league minimum, knowing they won’t play.

“You have to put more on us as quarterbacks,” maintains Nichols. Let us “make the mistakes, learn from it, and it helps you grow as a player.”

Quarterback meeting rooms are often friendly, but there is always an underlying competition: amidst the laughing and joking, everybody wants the starters’ job.

“Look at Collaros, man,” says Jackson. “In his first year, he never dressed. He learned, he learned, he learned. He told himself, ‘what do I do to make myself look good?’

“How a guy approaches it is a big thing. If he approaches it with the right frame of mind, it’s a big benefit.”

The issue, one quarterback told me, is we live “in a microwave society, a McDonald’s society. We want everything fast. Everything. You can’t develop a pro quarterback fast. Will the organization be patient enough to see it through?”

It’s always easier to go trade for proven Kevin Glenn, isn’t it?

ATTENTION TO FUNDAMENTALS

Back to the four-and-a-half-hour work day: one thing teams can’t get around is practice time. Which often means the main component lacking in-season for many offenses is the attention to fundamentals at the most important position on the field.

At its core, weekly pro football games are about matchups. Much of the week is about the installation of the game plan, on refining knowledge of the x’s and o’s. Little time, then, left to actually work on technique and mechanics.

The belief some coaches have is that by the time quarterbacks get to this level, they should have that down; that in so many ways, footwork is like riding a bike. One veteran quarterback in the league went a decade without getting help with his footwork; another had one only one coach in his first ten seasons that paid close attention to those details in workouts.

Spend time at a CFL practice and most of the periods on offence are the same, regardless of the city you’re in. The starters are executing the plays they want to run against the same defensive fronts and coverages the upcoming opponent has shown on film. What you rarely see: coaches talking the quarterback through pocket-drops, setting those drops properly, ensuring the eyes are set where they need to be and the feet positioned precisely.

One staff member from a West Division team I spoke with says they take their quarterbacks aside during the special teams period of practice to work on those fundamentals. On a random Thursday, for instance, they worked on their quarterbacks executing a tailback screen: make sure the heels don’t click, have the feet shoulder-width apart, no hop on the drop, and bam – sling it. Every little detail affects how the ball comes out; the tiniest misstep can lead to a half-second delay in firing the pass – which can lead to so much more going wrong in the progression of the play.

“If we don’t make it part of our everyday routine, we won’t get better,” a quarterback said.

Many don’t, many haven’t. For every Jon Jennings, and Mike Reilly, dozens have vanished. It’s no different in the NFL. The most important position on the football field is the most difficult to produce. If you’re able to survive a number of years, and gain the reputation that you’re a reliable arm, often out of desperation it appears there will be a job for you on a depth chart somewhere, regardless of whether or not you are elite.

Sam Bradford is now a Viking, Kevin Glenn is back in blue. And the good news for KG is that in addition to learning Paul LaPolice’s offence in Winnipeg, in a pinch he also found a suit to wear to the Legacy Dinner ball.

Arash Madani

Arash Madani

Arash Madani is a reporter for Sportsnet. He has staffed 11 Grey Cups & does play-by-play for CIS Football. His dream: the Gaiters playing for a Vanier.
Arash Madani
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Arash Madani
About Arash Madani (15 Articles)
Arash Madani is a reporter for Sportsnet. He has staffed 11 Grey Cups & does play-by-play for CIS Football. His dream: the Gaiters playing for a Vanier.
Contact: Website

8 Comments on FEATURE: Why it’s so hard to develop a quarterback in the CFL

  1. Great article Arash!

    One quick point: As Arash pointed out, “In Ottawa last year, the RedBlacks call that led to the incredible Burris-to-Ellingson game-winning touchdown in the East Final, was named “Spread right Yaz, 765 Delta, backside x under.” That’s one play.”

    How the heck do the CFL Wired A.K.A. Mic’ed up gadget and gimmick lovers expect to get any insight from a series of codes that include 765 Delta? It is time to admit that CFL Wired is a gimmick. If as to Mr. Madani’s point new QB’s who have played the game for years have a hard time keeping the calls straight, what real value is this to most fans? The answer is no value and therefore does nothing to sell the game.

    • The techno jargon … sure.

      I found the HC comments and ensuring the team was prepared for the challenge going either way interesting.

      As for “does nothing to sell the game” – I’d rather some followup figured that out.

      I know what I think but that doesn’t mean the potential market out there thinks the same way or is of the same opinion.

      • Yes you are right there is only supposition to support CFL Wired attracting viewers. Fox continued to say the glow puck concept sold hockey in the USA to non-hockey fans right up until the gimmick died a quiet death. Spin is rampant by media outlets trying to sell their ideas to sponsors, but until a study clearly states that it has attracted new fans it remains a gimmick that serves no purpose.

  2. The biggest thing I took from this article is that the teams are hampered by the paltry 4.5-hour/day, 3 days/week, team schedule (the total number of hours the teams are allowed to schedule) imposed by the CFLPA. Of course, most players “voluntarily” spend the extra time outside that mandate for film work.

    I wonder how much better players would be if they actually had to “work” 8 hours a day? Would the coaches actually be able to schedule the footwork and timing drills with QBs, work on tackling technique with defenders, etc. Soon enough, the CFLPA will eliminate practice time altogether… lol

    • There’s NOTHING stopping ambitious players from grabbing a football, grabbing some teammates, and playing some ball. In truth, during that whole hubub between Cato and Carter, Rakeem repeatedly offered to work extra hours with his receivers. Two guesses how much extra work Carter and Stafford put in.

      Chapdelaine was right in cutting those two. Practice time is at a premium. A new head coach has very little time to implement changes during the course of the season. The CFLPA shoots itself in the foot every time it negotiates things like lowering practice times or ANYTHING that reduces teams’ abilities to improve on the field.

      I mentioned Cato’s call to his receivers because it’s the ONE thing that could improve this game: that players who REALLY care about their careers, teams and fans, put in whatever extra practice time they need, to be successful and bring a Championship to their team.

      As a fan I expect nothing less. As an old fogie, I can’t help thinking this World is poorer for having moved on from this kind of devotion. What an advantage if you had a team FILLED with players intent on winning, regardless of the work and effort they need to put in.

      *SIGH*

  3. Ticat Mike // October 18, 2016 at 8:38 pm //

    Now this is a terrific read — very analytical and refreshing insight into the important QB position. I sometimes think that OC and head coaches are mkaing things too complicated, with too many variables needing to work in order to execute. If you simplify the playbook and can do the fundamentals with superior talent, you can go far. Great article — the Cats certainly have not been a team to develop QBs — but you need patience, coaching, and excellent pro-scouting/evaluation.

  4. Ron Bates // October 18, 2016 at 9:09 pm //

    Interesting and the pads comment Collaros made is true as a lot og QBs are not the same after the scrimmages start and the hitting is for real. Then again I don’t like Collaros either in TO. and now in Hamilton. Overall he is easily distracted and has been the target of angry men as well as it seems the turf. So overall QBs from All Americans from UCLA or USC to stints with the NFL arrive here and if the system isn’t in place at least in part they flounder. Seen it and been there. The best team in the past to adapt their offence to a veteran pro from the NFL.Montreal. Now they are in the hands of a better suited CIS man and Interim Coach. We need smarts all over and smarts in all phases of the now splitting apart CFL.

  5. skinpiglet // October 20, 2016 at 10:55 am //

    Enjoyed this article. The section on football acumen and being comfortable in the offence reminded me of an anecdote a beat reporter had about Michael Bishop. Back in 2009 with the Bombers, Bishop ran two plays that were totally off the mark. He came to the sidelines, wondering what was going on. It was pointed out to him that he had the wrong wristband on.

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