How the CFL is screwing over Canadian quarterbacks (and how it could stop)

If there are three things football fans in this country can get behind they are Grey Cup Sunday, cold beer, and the prospect of a Canadian quarterback becoming a starter in the CFL.

Two of these things are firmly embedded in the fabric of Canadian football. The third — not so much.

The CFL currently does nothing to incentivize teams to carry a Canadian quarterback. In fact, the league actively disincentivizes clubs from employing a national pivot under its current roster rules.

This year’s CFL combine was paired with the inaugural Mark’s CFL Week in Regina and the results were overwhelmingly positive. Bringing current and future CFL players together in an intimate environment allowed for fans and media to gain access to players and personnel people from around the league, generating a ton of stories, news, and buzz on social media.

The issue is that the players who partake in the combine are virtually all nameless faces to most fans.

Regina product Jeremy Zver was cheered by the locals during the offensive/defensive line one-on-ones, while local boy Mitchell Picton got a similar response from the crowd during the receiving drills. Polite applause with a smattering of hoots and hollers — a solid showing of support, but nothing that blew the lid off of Evraz Place.

That all changed when Noah Picton hit the field. Picton, still a junior at Regina, is the starting quarterback of the Rams. Tossing balls to cousin Mitchell, Noah won the 2016 Hec Creighton Trophy as U Sports’ Most Valuable Player after a campaign that saw him break Andrew Buckley’s record for most all-time single-season passing yardage (3,186). Picton isn’t eligible for this year’s draft, but participated in the combine’s receiving drills to provide an extra arm. With all due respect to eligible draftees Sam Caron (Montreal) and Asher Hastings (McMaster), Picton was by far the best passer on the day.

Picton’s got a lot to prove before he joins Buckley in the CFL. Buckley, the former Dino, will enter the 2017 CFL season with a chance to become Bo Levi Mitchell’s primary back-up following the trade of Drew Tate to Ottawa back in February. Picton’s size is suspect (he’s listed at 5’9, but is actually closer to 5’7) and there’s no understating the difference in game speed between U Sports and the CFL. Still, the Regina native deserves a shot to play professionally in Canada.

And the CFL would be insane to not want him to get a shot at the pro level. Picton is beloved in Regina — he’s the closest thing the Queen City has to a prodigal athlete like Sidney Crosby or LeBron James — and he plays the game’s most important position. It also doesn’t hurt that the kid is charismatic and bears a striking resemblance to pop sensation Harry Styles. He has superstar written all over him.

Quarterbacks sell. They are the game’s biggest stars, hands down. As long the top prospects at the CFL combine are 300-pound offensive linemen (and I’m speaking as both a former offensive lineman and admitted draft junkie), the event will never be a must-see spectacle for most CFL fans. If you want to elevate the profile of the combine and capture the imagination of football fans, quarterbacks have to form a reasonable part of the equation as they do south of the border.

For that to happen, the league needs to stop disincentivizing teams from carrying Canadian quarterbacks. How is the CFL preventing Canadian pivots from being on even footing with their American counterparts? Allow me to explain.

Back in 1969 (yes, the CFL governs its roster regulations by a fifty-year-old rule) there grew concern that teams weren’t doing enough to develop quarterbacks. Pivots — virtually all of whom were U.S.-born — were being traded across the country en masse every off-season, largely due to the overabundance of American pivots interested in coming north (this was back when the CFL could compete with NFL salaries, along with providing better off-hour and off-season job opportunities). Teams were unable to carry more than one quarterback at the time, meaning that acquiring a new passer would require trading or cutting the incumbent unless he was able and willing to play another position.

Much was proposed in the way of rule changes to allow for teams to carry a back-up quarterback. Finally, a proposal put forth by Winnipeg was approved with a 7-2 vote. The proposal allowed teams to a) dress a maximum of 14 imports (ie. Americans), one of whom could only enter the game if the player he replaced was no longer going to play or b) dress a maximum of 14 imports with two strictly designated as quarterbacks.

Finally, CFL teams could carry two quarterbacks without one having to play a second position, significantly limiting his development.

(For more information about the history of the CFL, check out Frank Cosentino’s excellent book A Passing Game: A History of the CFL.)

This tradition of designating quarterbacks as a separate category on CFL rosters continues today. Since rosters were expanded as part of the new CBA in 2014 teams are required to dress 44 players for every game: 21 nationals (ie. non-imports or Canadians); 20 internationals (imports or Americans); and three quarterbacks.

Teams that dress Canadian quarterbacks — and there are currently only two: Calgary (Andrew Buckley) and Saskatchewan (Brandon Bridge) — get no roster benefit in doing so. Dressing Canadians at any other position benefits teams by allowing them to allocate international roster spots elsewhere. Dressing a Canadian quarterback doesn’t benefit teams because quarterbacks are not considered nationals or internationals due to the origin of the league’s roster rules outlined above.

Some pundits have suggested making it mandatory for all nine CFL teams to carry a Canadian quarterback in past years, creating a new roster spot specifically for national passers. In my opinion, this would be an unnecessary over-correction. Canadian quarterbacks shouldn’t be forced upon teams, especially considering that there aren’t nine national pivots available today who could realistically play in the CFL.

I’d suggest that fixing the league’s roster problem is as simple as eliminating the separate designation for quarterbacks. Canadian pivots should count as nationals and American pivots should count as internationals. It’s not a complex solution.

Instead of teams fielding 21 nationals, 20 internationals, and three quarterbacks, teams should field 22 nationals and 22 internationals regardless of position. This would make clubs like Calgary and Saskatchewan eligible to dress an extra American player because of their use of a Canadian quarterback.

Many teams would continue to dress three international quarterbacks, sure. But who’s to say that, under this proposed rule change, there wouldn’t be a small handful of Canadian pivots to stick on CFL rosters who otherwise would have gone overlooked? Suddenly there would be an incentive for teams to draft, sign, and develop Canadian quarterbacks. Under the current system, no such incentive exists.

Some will suggest that Canadian quarterbacks, particularly those who are the product of U Sports programs, will never be able to compete at the CFL level.

I disagree.

The CFL has all-star caliber players at running back (Andrew Harris, Jerome Messam), receiver (Brad Sinopoli, Andy Fantuz), offensive tackle (Chris Van Zeyl, Dan Federkeil), defensive tackle (Zack Evans, Ted Laurent), defensive end (Jamaal Westerman, Connor Williams), linebacker (Alex Singleton, Cory Greenwood), and safety (Taylor Loffler, Craig Butler). Of the 14 players listed here, just five are the products of NCAA football programs. The rest starred in the Canadian Junior Football League (CJFL) or U Sports prior to joining the CFL.

The CFL will never be a league that features nine starting Canadian quarterbacks, nor does it have to. It’s already been proven that a small handful of national players from a diverse number of post-secondary football backgrounds can become CFL stars at any position that is traditionally reserved for American players. There’s no reason to believe why — with a tweak to the CFL’s roster rules — that Canadians won’t also prove that they can also play quarterback.

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