2018: Year of the Back-Up

June 28, 2018 - 10:58am

As the CFl heads into Week 3 with three of the nine starting quarterbacks out with injury, what may save or hurt those teams is how well they have managed to fill the back-up position.

The importance of a good back up quarterback was underscored in the recent NFL season when the Philadelphia Eagles Carson Wentz went down with a knee injury and Nick Foles took over and managed to lead the Eagles to a Super Bowl victory.

So while it is nice to have a franchise quarterback leading your team, if that quarterback goes down with an injury, you don’t wan to doom your team by not having a back up capable of leading the team.

So the Winnipeg Blue Bombers, Saskatchewan Roughriders and Toronto Argonauts are now in the position of finding out if their Plan B is good enough to lead their teams to the playoffs, perhaps even a Grey Cup.

The loss of Ricky Ray for the Argos, likely for the season and perhaps career ending, was a scary incident where one bad hit, complicated by one bad offensive line, leaves the Argos looking at the remaining 16 games in the hands of James Franklin and McLeod Bethel-Thompson, which may not be a bad option.

The Argos traded for Franklin, who had been sitting behind Mike Reilly in Edmonton, to be potentially the next big start in the league and a year mentoring under Ricky Ray and learning from Marc Trestman and Anthony Calvillo is not a bad way to go. Franklin had an interesting battle with Bethel-Thompson in training camp and it can be argued that Franklin and Bethel-Thompson’s mobility are perhaps best suited behind an Argo offensive line that is not the team’s strong suit.

The Argos have a bye week which allows the team time to ponder how best to alter the team game plan to reflect the strength of their new quarterbacks. Losing Ricky Ray, especially in a scary neck injury incident, is not how Argo fans wanted to see their season unfold, but Ray did not look particularly strong in the team’s first game against the Riders, perhaps a reflection of the lack of playing time he had in the pre-season when Franklin and Bethel-Thompson took the majority of snaps.

That may help the Argos in this case, and while there is talk of trading for Johnny Manziel,  I think it is premature for Hamilton to be trading Manziel considering the solid start Jeremiah Masoli has enjoyed, and remember, it helps to have to a pretty solid back-up in case something happens to the starter. The Argos may look to a greater reliance to a shorter passing game so their quarterbacks can get the ball out quickly since they may not have time to have plays develop under an opposing pass rush.

The Argos may also have to rely on a strong running game to off-set a strong pass rush with James Wilder Jr. who complained his way into a pay raise last season and so far ranks 10th in the CFL with 76 yards rushing, a bit underwhelming for someone who talked about being a 1,000 yard runner and receiver.  The potential is there for a good duo at quarterback and with Trestman doing his quarterback whisperer routine, the Argos should not write off their chances just yet.

Meanwhile Winnipeg is preparing to celebrate their June Grey Cup winning quarterback of Chris (The Shriveler) Shreveler who last week shriveled the Alouettes 56-10. Shreveler was respectable in his teams opening week loss to Edmonton and after blasting Montreal, Winnipeg fans are calling him the second coming of Dieter Brock, but I first him as Ralph way back when.

There is a but here, and while I find the word Butt and Winnipeg to be pretty well interchangeable, I have to caution that beating Montreal is no big shakes so far this season. I took in the Western Canada Women’s Football League Championship between the Regina Riot and Saskatoon Valkyries and I would say the title winning Riot could give Montreal a lesson or two in what teamwork and heart can do for a football team.

A better test for Winnipeg will come this week against Hamilton who beat Edmonton last week and upgraded their own defense to provide a stiffer test for opponents. It is not beyond the bounds of reality that Shriveler can continue to shine and the situation bears an interesting comparison to when Matt Nichols was penciled in as the starter for Edmonton before going out in a preseason game with an ACL injury allowing Mike Reilly to come in and assume control and eventually lead that team to a Grey Cup.

Again, two games, especially one against a tire fire known as Montreal, is not enough to make a definitive comment on, but Shreveler has the advantage of people not having a lot of film on him. If Shreveler can hold the fort to say, Labour Day, and if Winnipeg is in the hunt in the west, then they have a pretty good situation to look forward to with two quarterbacks capable of leading the team.

By that time teams may have have enough film on Shreveler to be able to better defend against him, but from now until then, Winnipeg will need to rely on his arm and mobility and especially their defense and special teams to give them a chance to remain competitive in the West.

The Saskatchewan Roughriders put Zack Collaros on the six game injury list after their ass-kicking loss to Ottawa and on Wednesday announced Devin Gardner, former quarterback at Michigan and apparently playing football in Japan, has come into town as a third QB.

The Riders are putting their faith in Brandon Bridge who now has six games to prove he is a starting QB in the CFL instead of a guy who comes off the bench and runs around and can throw deep, but sometimes throws an interception or two. But Saskatchewan shares a similar trait with Toronto in having an offensive line that allowed their quarterbacks to get hit 33 per cent of the time against Ottawa, which only makes concussions a matter of when, not if.

This makes Bridge’s mobility a plus but Bridge will now have to demonstrate he can look down the field to see his receivers getting open instead of locking into a receiver and running around until he has to make a throw. The Riders may get a nice treat with the return of Marcus Thigpen to add to Jerome Messam and Tre Mason and for the Riders to pull this off, they will have to juggle their Canadian content which incluldes providing more playing time for Dariusz Bladek on offensive line and more playing time for Canadian receivers Devon Bailey and Joshua Sanford.

Bridge came in against Ottawa but looked blah, along with the rest of the Riders who looked like they left their game in some club in Hull the night before. However Bridge has the opportunity to show he can be the guy and he has likely until Labour Day to demonstrate that either with the Riders or another team, he can be a reliable and hopefully winning starter.

The question of Collaros’ future though may have to be asked because so far he has not demonstrated he is worth being the highest paid quarterback in Rider history. His passes have veered from not bad to uh, ducks that have been hit by gunfire from angry hunters.

Perhaps his injury history has caught up with him and made him gun-shy, and perhaps Collaros could use the services of a very good sports psychologist during these next six weeks. Rider fans were perhaps willing to give him time to get back into playing regularly and learning a new offense, but with Bridge moving in, and with Collaros and Bridge on one year contracts, the question may have to be asked as to when Collaros is ready to come off the injury list – and I expect he will last six games to give the Riders salary cap relieg, and if Bridge has the Riders in contention and playing well, will the Riders risk losing momentum under Bridge to a player who may not be able physically give you 18 games.

The other option Rider fans may face is if Bridge goes down in flames, what are the Rider options? If the Riders go down in flames, then the question should be asked about the Riders tendency to take big swings on risky players – Vince Young, Trent Richardson, Khalief Mitchell (remember him?), Justin Cox and Zach Collaros, and striking out on a number of them.

Jones believes the Riders were short a franchise quarterback of competing for a Grey Cup, but last year came within a drive of going to the Grey Cup with Kevin Glenn working in a tandem operation with Bridge. The Collaros gamble may work out for the Riders, but the injuries to Collaros, Ray and Nichols show that CFL teams who don’t have good depth at their quarterback position are playing a risky game that could cost them a season.

So this week we have Ottawa going to Calgary as Ottawa unveiled their version of an Angry Bird defense against the Riders and showed the Riders that drafting good Canadian offensive linemen is not a bad strategy for building a team. Ottawa may have had the benefit of a Week 1 bye and no film on what their new defense under Noel Thorpe would look like, but that would ignore how Ottawa burned a Rider defense that was fat and sassy after their press clippings over beating Toronto the week before.

Now they take their show to Calgary and the Stampeders stomped Toronto in a Grey Cup rematch, that doesn’t mean anything in June, but sent a message they expect to be better. Calgary is unveiling a running game by committee, which is paying off with Don Jackson leading the league in rushing and Terry Mitchell not far behind.

The game in Calgary should tilt this to the Stamps favor, but Ottawa has played Calgary pretty well and I expect this game to be close as well. It should be a pretty interesting offensive show and let’s say Calgary wins this one 35-28.

Winnipeg brings their early leading candidate for Rookie of the Year Chris (the Shriveler) Shreveler to Hamilton to play the Cats who came out of Alberta with a split after beating Edmonton pretty convincingly last week.

Winnipeg is feeling good about itself but again, they beat Montreal, which now appears to be a team on the verge of spiralling out of control after signing Vernon Adams Jr. who was released by Hamilton and who had gone on a three game winning streak in Montreal two years ago.

This week Winnipeg gets a better test of where they are as a team as they face a team that under Jeremiah Masoli is playing with more confidence. The question I had with Masoli was with the pressure of Manziel on the sideline and the public wanting to see him play, would he fold under pressure?

The answer is other than an ill-advised interception against Calgary, Masoli is continuing to build onto his streak of 300 yard passing games.  Mercer Timmis has emerged for Hamilton as a bit of surprise running the ball and Hamilton’s receiving corps is emerging as a pretty balanced and scary unit capable of three, perhaps four 1,000 yard receivers.

This will be a good test for both teams as Hamilton perhaps surprised with a win against an injury depleted Edmonton and the issue will be whether Hamilton’s defense can defend against a rookie quarterback whose ability to run and pass is similar to what Masoli is doing. The question will be which of these quarterbacks will make the mistake to cost their team the game? Let’s say Hamilton wins an entertaining 33-27 game.

BC goes to Edmonton and Edmonton is looking at losing both starting cornerbacks and defensive halfback, a rebuilt defensive line and with six new starters on the defense, there are going to be growing pains for the Eskimos as Masoli took advantage in a big win over Edmonton.

BC has activated Travis Lulay as the third quarterback and this game will feature the return of Odell Willis to Edmonton. Willis will have some incentive to show Edmonton they were foolish to let him go and Edmonton will try to show that younger might be better, but then again Edmonton has a lot of holes to fill on defense and with signing Sam Giguere, receiver well beloved by Rod Black, Edmonton has some holes on offense as well.

Edmonton may be lighting up the scoreboard, but they are also giving up a bunch of points and I have to keep in mind that BC beat Montreal in their home opener before having a bye week, so that doesn’t mean a lot. The big question is if BC’s offensive line has improved and if they can slow down Edmonton’s receiving corps. Edmonton should win this one 33-28, but this will give a better reading into whether BC is ready to start competing in the west.

Finally we have Montreal come to Saskatchewan in a game that will notable for the appearance of the Humboldt Broncos, families, survivors, first responders for an opportunity for the province of Saskatchewan to pay tribute. Montreal is coming off a 56-10 drubbing against Winnipeg in Montreal’s home opener, which is no way to attract fans.

I thought last week Montreal’s best chance to win was against a rookie quarterback from Winnipeg, but the Bombers totally dominated Montreal, causing Mike Sherman to apologize to Montreal’s fast disappearing fans.

Now the question is if, never mind how, Montreal rebounds. For the Riders, having Montreal in town is probably the best way for Brandon Bridge to get his feet wet as the Riders new starter. The Rider defense needs to rebound as well after managing to talk a good game, but not deliver against Ottawa. And the Riders biggest problem is their offensive line which if it doesn’t improve, may well be placing Brandon Bridge and the what might remain of the Riders playoff hopes, at risk.

The Riders aren’t as good as their fans might think, and Montreal, I hope, is not as bad as Winnipeg made them look. Each team gets a bit of what they are looking for in this game with Riders winning 30-20, or considering how Montreal is averaging 10 points a game, maybe 30-10?  

 

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