Tale of Two Players

Brandon Banks

When Chris Williams decided to return to the CFL and sign with the Ottawa RedBlacks a few things were certain:

  1. He would be paid handsomely.
  2. There would be same anger amongst the Tiger-Cat faithful.
  3. People would make comparisons between Williams and the man that, by and large, replaced him in Hamilton, Brandon Banks.

Points one and two were pretty much confirmed the day he signed. Williams will reportedly be paid upwards of $225,000 for the year, a large chunk of money for a non-quarterback, non-star-Canadian player, and a handful of Tiger-Cats fans reacted about as one would expect, throwing invectives and being nasty towards Williams due to his acrimonious departure from the Ticats in 2013.

Point three has been somewhat discussed amongst fans — and the feeling is that if you cheer for the Cats, you’re taking Banks and if you cheer for the RedBlacks, you are taking Williams — but it has mostly revolved around the emotion of the signing. RedBlacks fans were obviously overjoyed to be getting a stud receiver to anchor their stable of pass catchers and become that go-to guy for Henry Burris in Year 2 of the CFL’s rebirth in Ottawa. Hamilton fans, conversely, say they are happy with Banks and would never have wanted to see Williams return.

As much as it can be folly to compare two players, the comparison was inevitable given the similarities between both players. They are both diminutive, posses blazing speed and have impressive résumés despite having fewer than four combined CFL seasons under their belts.

For Williams, it can be said that he is the more complete player. He posted back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons in his two years in Hamilton, and won both the Most Outstanding Rookie award (2011) and the Most Outstanding Special Teams Player award (2012) in his only two years in the CFL. He also set a single-season record with six return touchdowns in 2012. The case could have been made that Williams was the league’s best player in 2012, but a 6-12 record and lack of a playoff appearance for the Tiger-Cats that year scuttled any hope of the former New Mexico State standout being considered for Most Outstanding Player. For better or worse, Chris Williams is the total package (and I do not mean that he is Lex Luger).

With Banks, while the offensive numbers are minuscule compared to Williams’, he is probably the more dangerous returnman. Or at least he has the knack for coming up big when it matters most. One of the defining moments of the 2014 season was Banks delivering one of the, if not the, greatest special teams performances in CFL history. His two amazing punt returns in Hamilton’s East Final victory over Montreal were the stuff of legend. While Williams had a better overall special teams season in 2012, he did not have the singular moment that Banks did on that unseasonably warm November afternoon. Williams also failed to do so when the stakes were their highest. Hamilton was in a dogfight with the Als in last year’s East Final, and it was the returns by Banks that opened the game up and punched Hamilton’s ticket to a second consecutive Grey Cup appearance.

But while both players have immense talent, there are chinks in their respective amours. For Banks, it is his limited offensive role; for Williams, it is time away from the Canadian game.

For all the great things Brandon Banks has done in his one-and-a-half season with the Ticats, his role on offense has been nowhere near as impactful as Williams’ was during his time in Steeltown. C-Dub, in addition to those six return touchdowns, was Hamilton’s leading receiver in 2012, recording 1,298 yards on 83 catches and scoring 11 touchdowns. In his rookie season in 2011, Williams amassed 70 catches for 1,064 yards and six touchdowns. Banks has come nowhere close to matching those numbers, catching 42 passes for 529 yards and five touchdowns last season.

There are a few reasons for the disparity in offensive production. For starters, Banks’ somewhat pedestrian offensive numbers are a product of the system the Ticats employ under Kent Austin, which differs drastically from the George Cortez-led attack that Williams played under in 2012. Austin’s attack is more varied, relaying on every player on the field to produce, whereas Cortez’s seemed to rely on his superstar players, Williams and Andy Fantuz. Williams and Fantuz accounted for 42.2 per cent of Henry Burris’ passing yards in 2012, while Hamilton’s top two receivers last year, Luke Tasker and Fantuz, accounted for just 32.6 per cent of the team’s total.

Another aspect that cannot be overlooked is Hamilton’s quarterback stability in 2012 compared to 2014. Henry Burris took every snap from centre in 2012. Every snap. For example, in a 51-8 blowout win over the Edmonton Eskimos in Week 12, Burris never came out of the game. Normally the backup would see sometime in a game that was out of reach by the end of the third quarter, but Cortez rarely put Quinton Porter, Hamilton’s second-string quarterback in 2012, into the game (Porter threw just one pass that season). Contrast that to last season, where starter Zach Collaros missed most of the first half of the season, which did not allow for chemistry between the quarterback and receivers to build up like it with Burris and his running mates in 2012. And that is not even mentioning the fact that Burris was a decade-plus starter in 2012, while Collaros had fewer than a half season’s worth of starts under his belt entering 2014.

The Tiger-Cats are also being judicial with using Banks on offense, a plan they will continue to employ despite giving Banks a hefty contract extension this past winter. The team wants Banks to stay just as much of a threat on special teams and are wary of putting too much of the offensive production on his back. Banks has shown more than just flashes of offensive brilliance, so if given an increased role, he could see his numbers skyrocket. But that is not the plan, and as long as Banks remains more of a third or fourth option on offense, as opposed to a first or second, his numbers will continue to look less impressive than Williams’.

So it looks like game, set, match for Williams, right?

Not so fast. While Williams is without a doubt a tremendous player, he does not come without his share of question marks, two in particular.

Firstly, while he was trying to make it in the NFL, both with the New Orleans Saints and Chicago Bears, he played sparingly, dressing for just seven games over those two seasons. That time away from the game is never good for an athlete and few, if any, head down south and return to the CFL to dominate like they once did. More often than not, players return to the CFL and are a shell of their former selves, for one reason or another. While it is way too early to say whether Williams will be another in that long line, it has to be cause for concern.

Secondly, one aspect of Williams’ game that was always troubling was his tendency to fumble. Every player fumbles, but Williams had more than his fair share of fumbling problems while with the Ticats. A moment in particular that stood out was a fumble at the goal line against the Winnipeg Blue Bombers in a late-August game in Winnipeg in 2011. Hamilton would go on to lose that game by three, 30-27, and Williams fumble was a major turning point. If Williams has not corrected his fumbling issues, Ottawa fans could let go for than a few exasperated sighs during the 2015 season.

One final point that cannot be overlooked is their differing contracts. Banks opted to sign a three-year extension with the Tiger-Cats this offseason, whereas Williams only signed with Ottawa for one season. Banks’ deal provides a level of certainty, while Williams’ does not. That is not to say that one deal is better than the other, or that it has anything to do with their on-field production, but it is a fact that should not be forgotten.

You cannot go wrong with either player, and it would seem that Williams is the one you would prefer to have due to his superior offensive numbers, but case is not so clear cut. Perhaps the only thing that is certain is that when these two players are on the field, everyone watching is in for a real treat.

Josh Smith has been writing about the Ticats and the CFL since 2010 and was sporting his beard way before it was cool. Will be long after, too.