Quarterback Roulette in Saskatchewan and the CFL

January 4, 2018 - 3:02pm

Well it seems CFL teams definitely got the message from Commissioner Randy Ambrosie to put some thought into making the off-season interesting for fans and sports observers.

One of the interesting questions was how quarterbacking situations would change and develop around the league this off-season. The defending Grey Cup Champion Toronto Argonauts kicked things off with a trade with the Edmonton Eskimos for back-up James Franklin who was looking at exploring free agency and a possible starting position elsewhere.

With Toronto already having Ricky Ray who is going to be a potential free agent in February, the Argos rolled the dice being able to sign Franklin to a contract where he might not be the obvious starter if Ray comes back. The trick to all of this is Ray’s health, especially behind Toronto’s offensive line, and the news Thursday that Franklin has apparently signed a two year contract is interesting on a number of levels.

First it raises questions as to whether Ray will be coming back, after capping his year with a Grey Cup win and thinking about riding into the sunset like Henry Burris did with Ottawa in 2016. If Ray does come back, it may be more in a mentoring fashion which makes sense if Ray wants to extend his career, but not necessarily take all the physical abuse that would come with a full time starters position.

The other interesting question is the impact that Marc Trestman and Jim Popp are having on the Argonauts ability to attract top flight players. The hiring of Trestman came after CFL free agency when some players, probably notably offensive lineman Derek Dennis, didn’t know what the Argos would look like after a 5-13 season.

The culture change that Trestman has brought to the Argos organization, capped with a Grey Cup title, has made the team that much more attractive, especially with younger quarterbacks with NFL potential. Trestman has made his name as a quarterback whisperer, able to bring the level of play of his quarterbacks to a new level and if Franklin is looking to try the NFL and get some good looks on film, working with Trestman and Ray is an excellent way to accomplish this.

The big question is where Ray fits in all of this. Either as a starter who is somewhat physically fragile but has a capable replacement in Franklin who he can can mentor, or perhaps returning to Edmonton who is hosting the Grey Cup this year and serving as a back-up to Mike Reilly and having former teammate Jason Maas as coach. For Eskimo fans there may be a certain poetic justice in such a move, and it would seem to make the Eskimo Toronto trade turn out to be a Franklin for Ray, which who would have seen coming?

With Hamilton trading Zach Collaros to Saskatchewan for the 10th overall pick and now signing Jeremiah Masoli to a two year deal, the door is open on what happens with Johnny Manziel, the former Heisman Trophy winner who blew his shot with Cleveland and is looking to show he can be serious about football.

If Hamilton signs Manziel to a likely two year contract, Manziel would likely learn the CFL in year one while demonstrating he can stay out of trouble, and get a chance to take the controls in year two – unless Hamilton decides to swing a trade with say, Montreal. This is not as improbable as it sounds as new Montreal coach Mike Sherman was instrumental in recruiting Manziel in the NCAA and Manziel would be the sizzle Montreal would need to show fans they are serious after a 3-15 season and the Kavis Reed show.

Now the question would be if Montreal could swing such a trade, and Hamilton seems to be stockpiling draft picks, would Darian Durant stay as the Kevin Glenn style transition figure for Manziel or would Sherman opt to ship Durant to say, Winnipeg, which is looking for something resembling adequate back up quarterbacking in a move that dent Durant’s view of himself as a starting quarterback? Would Montreal have the ability to have the supports that Manziel would need to stay on the straight and narrow, especially in on of the most fun cities in Canada?

Which leads us to Winnipeg which saw a drop off in play when starter Matt Nichols went down with injury and demonstrated that for a team to succeed in the CFL, they need two quarterbacks who can actually play, not just one starter and one placeholder. If Durant is let go considering he is looking at another large balloon payment, and is looking to show he can be a good quarterback and perhaps a good teammate, then Winnipeg may be the best place for him as Durant may be looking at his career turning into Kevin Glenn’s “best insurance policy in the CFL” style of career. It is open to discussion whether Durant is ready for such a role.

The events of the last couple of days in Riderville have indicated the new look for the Rider quarterbacking corps will be Zach Collaros, Brandon Bridge, Vernon Adams Jr. and Marquisse Williams, although not necessarily in that order. The release of Glenn made sense from a salary cap view as the Riders look to negotiate a new contract with Collaros who is looking to get a big balloon payment in February.

The trade of Collaros made sense from a change of scenery perspective as injuries and perhaps too much Kent Austin limited Collaros from his initial run of success in Hamilton including a Grey Cup appearance.  After an 0-8 start in 2017 and being benched, the writing was on the wall that Collaros would have to be moved as Masoli seemed to be a good fit for new coach June Jones offense.

The Riders for their part had Kevin Glenn as their transition quarterback in 2017 while looking for or trying to develop a new franchise quarterback. Glenn had a good first part of a 2017 season, but a combination of injuries, a porous offensive line and Glenn being inconsistent saw Brandon Bridge emerge as a change-up quarterback with greater mobility.

Bridge’s problem is developing the consistency he needs to make the right throws against various defenses and not force his throws into coverage. That should come with good coaching and considering the Riders don’t currently have a quarterback coach, this might be a role that Kevin Glenn might ease into if he can’t find someone interested in his back up services in 2018.

Teams north and south of the border are finding out it doesn’t pay to have all their quarterback hopes in one basket and Minnesota is demonstrating that having a capable player at back-up, with the right offensive scheme geared to their strengths, can help a team overcome injuries at their starter position.

So while Zach Collaros may be an upgrade, Rider GM and Head Coach Chris Jones in his effort to instill consistent success, is not guaranteeing anyone anthing in an effort to avoid the complacency that some armchair GMs would argue helped to sink the Saskatchewan Roughriders after their 2013 Grey Cup win. The book is still open as to whether Collaros can stay healthy/consistent to have the Riders make the next step in the CFL west and host a playoff game.

The Riders also said goodbye to Chris Getzlaf who retired after returning to the Riders from the Edmonton Eskimos. Injuries slowed Getzlaf down the last few years, but his work ethic and professionalism make him a potential coach if he chooses in the future. The Riders do have a receiver coach position open and Chris Jones apparently has indicated a new coach has been hired but not announced. I would not be surprised if Getzlaf started a coaching career with the Eskimos, whom he apparently impressed during his stint there.

The Riders also announced they had released draft pick and defensive back Elie Bouka who has signed a futures contract with the NFL Philadelphia Eagles. Bouka was drafted in 2016 but signed with the Arizona Cardinals and came up when he got released after being injured down there.

The signing with the Eagles indicates there was no up front cash and Bouka will be able to work with the team starting in March when the new NFL year begins. Jones indicated he expected to see Bouka should the Eagles experience not work out and Bouka joins a growing exodus of players exploring NFL options including leading receiver Brandon Zylstra to another futures contract with the Minnesota Vikings.

Meanwhile in Montreal Mike Sherman has his coordinators with Khari Jones (offensive coordinator), Khalil Carter (defensive coordinator), Mickey Donovan (special teams coordinator) and Rich Stubler (special advisor to the defensive coordinator) for the 2018 season. The hiring of Sherman was interesting, and while Sherman has an NFL pedigree with Green Bay, he hasn’t repeated the same mistakes as other American coaches and brought in people with CFL experience.

The hiring of Jones as offensive coordinator seems to indicated in Anthony Calvillo is retained, it will be as quarterback coach. Calvillo has yo-yoed between quarterback coach and offensive coordinator under a variety of coaches as it seems Montreal is trying to groom him for something down the line. Whether  Calvillo sticks around to see how things unfurl and how effective he really is as a coach is something yet to be determined.

So the new year is off and running and the 2018 Saskatchewan Roughriders will have a different look than their 2017 predecessors and will continue to evolve over the next few months as teams deal with free agency, the draft and whatever else develops. 

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