The CFL has long been known as a pass-first league but the declining level of play under centre has finally caught the attention of head office.
Speaking to the media ahead of Thursday’s tilt between the B.C. Lions and Winnipeg Blue Bombers, CFL commissioner Randy Ambrosie acknowledged that the quality of quarterback play around the league was an issue they were looking to address.
“We’ve been talking about it and I think if there was an area that we really feel like we’ve got to lean into and spend more time on, it is that quarterback development question,” he said. “How do we create this and generate the next generation of great quarterbacks?”
“We have great quarterbacks. I think the issue is, how do we develop the next generation of them? It’s something that we’re spending more time talking about.”
For generations, the CFL had a well-earned reputation for producing elite quarterback talent, giving rise to NFL signal callers like Joe Kapp, Joe Theismann, Dieter Brock, Jeff Garcia, Doug Flutie, and Warren Moon. The league also kept its fair share of prolific passers close to home, with the likes of Damon Allen, Anthony Calvillo, Ricky Ray, and Henry Burris putting up eye-popping career statistics.
However, that trend has stalled in recent years. No quarterback has eclipsed the 5,000-yard mark in three seasons — the longest such drought since 1990 — and just three CFL signal-callers have signed an NFL contract this decade. Two of those players, Dan Lefevour and Chris Streveler, were not even full-time starters north of the border, earning their opportunity due to their rushing ability.
With the retirement of Michael Reilly in 2021 and the current decline of Bo Levi Mitchell, the last generation of elite quarterbacks is fading out of the league and teams have struggled to find equivalent young replacements. Canadian phenom Nathan Rourke was the lone exception, establishing a record-setting pace with the B.C. Lions last season before missing the second half of the year with injury. After an extensive offseason NFL tour, the 25-year-old signed with the Jacksonville Jaguars and again left the league without a young star.
“It’s always been in the game of football — I guess not always because they didn’t have the forward pass, so that would have been a perfect era to not have high-quality quarterbacks — but in this era, with passing being so important, you rely so heavily on a high-quality quarterback to guide your team,” Ambrosie emphasized. “This has got to be an area that’s front and center for us. How do we develop more of them and make sure that our teams all have world-class quarterbacks?”
Acquiring talented young pivots has become increasingly difficult with the launch of two rival spring football leagues — the USFL and XFL — convincing most to stay in their home country for a quicker shot at the NFL. Even some veteran talent has been affected, with league-leading passer and Grey Cup champion McLeod Bethel-Thompson departing for the New Orleans Breakers last offseason due to family reasons.
The commissioner was quick to point to Winnipeg’s Zach Collaros, the CFL’s back-to-back Most Outstanding Player, as an example of elite quarterbacks already in the league, while also directing praise towards B.C.’s Vernon Adams Jr. for his hot start to the year. However, their early success, along with that of 37-year-old Trevor Harris in Saskatchewan, has failed to distract from the league’s dearth of up-and-comers.
The CFL currently boasts just three franchise quarterbacks under the age of 30 and two are already facing serious questions regarding their job security in Calgary’s Jake Maier and Edmonton’s Taylor Cornelius. 29-year-old backup Nick Arbuckle, once hailed as the league’s next great QB, also struggled while replacing an injured Jeremiah Masoli and could be punted further down his depth chart. Only Toronto’s Chad Kelly has shown promise, albeit in a single start this year, though he too is quickly approaching 30.
With more pressure on the league than ever before to uncover hidden gems under centre, an influx of exciting youngsters is badly needly. While Ambrosie won’t discount the current incumbents, that’s a reality he can no longer avoid.
“We’ve got great quarterbacking. I think we’re always going to be hungry to have more.”