The Hamilton Tiger-Cats will bring a new quarterback to their mini-camp next week, marking the start of yet another development cycle that hasn’t produced a homegrown star in more than 30 years.
Matt Johnson, the former Bowling Green star who had a cup of coffee with Cincinnati Bengals last season, is the latest in a long line of pivots the team has brought to town in hopes that they would become the next big CFL star. It hasn’t happened since Mike Kerrigan came to town in 1986 and won a Grey Cup in his very first season.
In Hamilton’s defence, developing a quarterback is one of the hardest things to do in professional football, never mind the CFL. Just two of the nine CFL teams have starters they built from scratch: Calgary’s Bo Levi Mitchell and B.C.’s Jonathon Jennings. They are — and this probably isn’t a coincidence — two of the league’s best.
Beyond their ability, the pair have something else in common. They all spent time learning behind a more experienced quarterback before getting a chance to start. That’s also true of several other of the league’s starters, including Hamilton’s Zach Collaros, who spent a couple of seasons behind Ricky Ray in Toronto before finally getting his shot.
In recent times, that kind of succession plan has been hard to come by for the Ticats. The team has alternated between bringing in veteran guys who were ready-built — Danny McManus, Jason Maas, Casey Printers, Kevin Glenn, Henry Burris — or pushing younger players who weren’t ready for the role. Anthony Calvillo would be the most painful example, but there are plenty of others, from Quinton Porter to Timmy Chang to …
Johnson, assuming he shows some ability, will get the chance to develop. The team’s hierarchy is set going into the 2017 with Collaros the undisputed starter, Jeremiah Masoli the experienced backup, and Everett Golson the presumptive No. 3. Jeff Mathews — who for a brief shining moment looked like he could the The Next One — and Jacory Harris have moved on to try their luck elsewhere.
Collaros and Masoli are sort of hybrids, players who started their careers elsewhere but have flourished while in Hamilton. Collaros learned under Scott Milanovich in Toronto, who’s been credited for developing a couple of other CFL starters, while Masoli was a spare part in Edmonton.
Both give credit to head coach Kent Austin, a former CFL quarterback of considerable ability, for aiding in their development but also quietly credit former offensive co-ordinator Tommy Condell as well.
Austin, who won a Grey Cup with veteran Kerry Joseph at the helm in Saskatchewan then inherited Henry Burris his first season in Hamilton, has yet to definitively show he can morph raw talent into greatness right from scratch.
Which isn’t to say he can’t, especially with the right raw materials. Golson led Notre Dame to the 2013 BCS championship game in 2013 (they lost 42-14 to Alabama) then moved on to Florida State. He got a couple of NFL looks before arriving in Hamilton last summer.
Johnson, meanwhile, is an undersized guy — he’s 5-foot-11 — who set all kinds of passing records at Bowling Green and seems, based on light reading, to have the kind of football-lifer, film-rat approach that’s helped Collaros enormously. The guy spent last summer coaching high school quarterbacks.
With Collaros under contract for two more seasons and Masoli entering the final year of his deal, the Ticats have the dominoes set up nicely. Of course, an injury to Collaros, who has to prove he can stay healthy, or any number of outside factors — the Ticats have some NFL wild cards on their negotiation list — can upset the best laid plans.
And it goes without saying that Golson or Johnson or whoever comes next has to show they can actually do it on the field. And that, as history shows, is the hardest thing of all.