All-Canadian QB duo wasn’t B.C. Lions ‘primary motivation’ for signing Michael O’Connor, talent was main factor

Photo courtesy: B.C. Lions

For weeks it has been clear that the B.C. Lions were headed into the opening of CFL free agency looking to redefine their franchise.

With an abundance of cap space courtesy of the recent retirement of quarterback Michael Reilly, the team was determined to take big swings. There were a few whiffs — a reported $250,000 offer wasn’t enough to reel in receiver Kenny Lawler and a small pool of available offensive linemen sunk hopes for dramatic improvement on that front — but in the end, their lumber connected time and again.

There were jaw-dropping additions in the secondary, as the team added arguably the two top defensive backs available in two-time CFL all-star Delvin Breaux and the versatile Loucheiz Purifoy. The defensive line has been transformed, with defensive tackles ‘Stove’ Richardson and Woody Baron, as well as Canadian pass rushers David Menard and Mathieu Betts coming to the Den. Even the kicking game has been solidified thanks to the repatriation of local boy Sean Whyte.

And yet all anyone can seem to talk about is the backup quarterback.

With second-year Canadian Nathan Rourke set to take over as the starter, the common refrain was that the Lions needed a steady-handed veteran to tutor the youngster and provide insurance. For weeks, people claimed Elks and Als castaway Trevor Harris was the obvious choice.

Instead, the Lions put all their chips on red, signing third-year University of British Columbia product Michael O’Connor to create the first all-Canadian one-two punch at quarterback in the history of the modern CFL.

“I think it’s neat, I don’t want to dismiss it and call it a side note, but that wasn’t our primary motivation,” Lions head coach and co-general manager Rick Campbell said. “I think it’s great that they’re Canadian and it worked out that way, but that was not our main motivation. We want to have guys in here that can help us win.”

The Lions believe they have achieved that with the addition of O’Connor, but there is no question that the approach is unconventional. Between the two of them, Rourke and O’Connor have suited up for just 29 games and made two starts — both by Rourke last season. They have combined for just 107 professional throws and 67 completions.

Even setting aside nationality, CFL quarterbacks are rarely entrusted with the fate of the franchise with so little experience. To be so anointed as a pair of Nationals is simply unprecedented.

Yet the Lions have jumped into this endeavour not just willingly, but actively. With the dollars available to them, all quarterbacking options were on the table and this is the one they chose to pursue.

“We did a ton of homework on this and a lot of thought, a lot of film study, a lot of talking to a lot of people and we explored a ton of options from the most experienced of guys to lesser experienced ones,” Campbell explained.

“I would say it skewed younger than we thought, but at the same time, just like with any player, we watch the film. We looked at it and we think he has all the tools. After meeting and talking with him, we think he’s got a good mindset and a good work ethic and we’ll go from there.”

The teams lone requirement for the backup, beyond sheer talent, was that the player in question has experience in reading Canadian defences. Thanks to his illustrious career just up the road in Point Grey, O’Connor fit that bill and with trust in the quality of coaching he had received during his tenure with the Argos and Stampeders, the Lions were willing to bet on the high end traits that once made him ESPN’s sixth ranked quarterback recruit coming out of high school and the 20th overall selection in the 2019 CFL Draft.

Those God-given physical and mental tools are present irrespective of O’Connor’s citizenship, as the Lions know first hand. Back in 2016, the Orleans, ON native was invited to B.C.’s training camp as part of the U Sports quarterback internship program. Coming off a Vanier Cup victory in his first season at UBC, the Penn State transfer was indistinguishable from the American rookies the Lions had under contract.

Photo courtesy: B.C. Lions

“None of the other players knew that’s where he was from. They all thought he was just from Boston College, UBC. I mean, they don’t know. All they see is the ability that the player has and once he’s out throwing the ball accurately, doing all the things you want, even the guest coaches back then thought: ‘This kid here, this kid’s rolling,'” co-general manager Neil McEvoy recalled.

“They don’t know he’s Canadian. They don’t know anything about him other than the fact he’s a good football player. I’m excited with the fact that we have two good football players coming in to compete for a spot.”

While the team denies it was a motivating factor, the decision by the Lions to go with two Canadians under centre makes sense for a number of reasons. For one thing, the ability to have one quarterback on a bargain-basement rookie deal and another at a little more than that has freed up an incredible amount of salary cap room to construct the improved roster around them. More importantly, with Canadian quarterbacks now able to count as one of the team’s seven national starters, it allows another position to become an American spot.

The Lions can beef up their troublesome offensive line with an American on the interior and having O’Connor as Rourke’s insurance policy means that the team will not have to adapt their ratio on the fly if he gets injured or pulled. It provides the same continuity at quarterback that the team would seek at any other Canadian position on the roster.

Ratio flexibility is still no supplement for talent however, even in the CFL, and that is the part of the equation that the team is betting on with both prospects. Still, it’s clear that the long-time champion of Canadian content in McEvoy takes just a little bit of pleasure in the fact that he can now confidently play two of his countrymen at the sport’s most important position.

“It’s great that Nathan’s a Canadian — I love the fact he’s Canadian. I like the tradition of having Canadian quarterbacks and if all things fail, we can just go up to the media booth and grab the other Canadian quarterback who’s in the building to help us out,” he laughed, referencing former Lions backup and current radio colour analyst Giulio Caravatta.

Many CFL fans share that glee. The long-awaited next great Canadian quarterback might be here, an heir apparent to Russ Jackson that has been fifty years in the makings. It is a marketer’s dream from the Lions’ perspective, with both signal callers living year-round in the Lower Mainland and boasting deep local connections.

Still, the risk is great. The Lions are betting on inexperience at the quarterback position and if that fails, more than just the 2022 season will be at stake. Jobs will be lost and the future of Canadian quarterbacking could be stunted.

With more arm talent from north of the border playing high level college football than ever before, the success of the Lions strategy could see it emulated, sparking a golden age for Canadian quarterbacks. If it fails, the stigma against them that has so long been debated across the league could become entrenched in new ways.

There were much bigger names than O’Connor signed on the opening day of free agency in the CFL and in B.C., but few signings in league history have carried such a weight.

Abbott is a UBC student, youth coach and lifelong CFL fanatic. He specializes in coverage of the CFL draft and the league's global initiative.