Canadian QBs, Drew Edwards’ rebuttal to Eric Tillman, and The 50-50 Plan: a simple solution
Unsurprisingly given the persistent interest in the Canadian quarterback debate, Eric Tillman's comments on Monday's edition of Prime Time Sports are drawing some attention. Respected CFL beat writer Drew Edwards of The Hamilton Spectator thinks changing the ratio rules as Tillman proposed to promote the development of Canadian quarterbacks is a bad idea, and he makes some valid points in response to Tillman's comments. However, Edwards' piece also rests on some questionable assumptions, and there's one potential solution, "The 50-50 Plan," that might satisfy both Tillman's desire (one that's shared by many Canadians, including this observer) to get more Canadian quarterbacks into the game and Edwards' desire (and presumably, the CFLPA's) to preserve the jobs of talented Canadian players at other positions.
First, Edwards does make some solid points. Here's the key part of his post, focusing on how changing the ratio might have some negative consequences for other Canadian players:
If the collective bargaining rules were changed to allow Canadian quarterbacks to count as non-imports, there would be eight Canadian quarterbacks on CFL rosters within a couple of years. Why? Tillman mentions it but glosses it over pretty good: because it would enable teams to put another American on the roster and help their team in the short term.
Here's the Ticats scenario: instead of putting No. 3 quarterback Jason Boltus on the roster, Hamilton gets to put an extra killer special teams player in the line up instead (think Ike Brown or Brandon Denson), who'd also likely show up situational defensive packages. That gives the Ticats a better chance to win the game. The No. 3 quarterback is, say Danny Brannagan, a local kid who might sell some tickets. He never sees the field and gets very little practice time because Hamilton coaches know he'll never be as good as Henry Burris, Quinton Porter or Jason Boltus.
In the meantime, Boltus goes from the No. 3 spot on the roster to the practice roster with accompanying drop in pay. Or maybe he says 'screw this,' gives up football and gets on with his life. Now the third string quarterback is not as good as Jason Boltus but will sit on PR for $500 a week. The league now has even more trouble developing quality quarterbacks than it does already.
In the meantime, Brannagan is taking the non-import roster spot of a guy who can actually play, though likely on special teams. On this Ticat team, that's likely Nathan Kanya, Jonathan Hood or Ray Wladichuk. Back in the day, it's probably Sandy Beveridge. But you have swapped one Canadian who is actually playing - and has a chance of blossoming into a starter - for a Canadian quarterback who will, in all likelihood, never see the field.
There's a legitimate point there, to be sure. If the ratio rule on the composition of the 42-man active roster (currently 20 Canadians, 19 imports and three quarterbacks whose nationality is not considered) is simply modified from its existing form to "20 Canadians, 22 imports, quarterbacks count", there certainly is the chance that some teams may take advantage of it by putting a Canadian quarterback who they have no real intention of developing in their third slot, cutting a Canadian special teams player and replacing him with an import. However, that's not necessarily a scenario we would see across the league.
Edwards makes the good point that right now, it's difficult to see eight Canadian quarterbacks with a real chance of playing some day. I'd concur with that. There were three quarterbacks at this year's E-Camp, and while Kyle Quinlan looks like a legitimate prospect, Billy Greene and Kyle Graves could hit that status or could have to switch positions. If quarterbacks counted towards the ratio, I'd envision those three guys picking up third-string slots somewhere, joining Brad Sinopoli, the current Canadian third-stringer in Calgary, and perhaps Marc Mueller, who appeared for Edmonton in last year's preseason. It would be tough to find another three talented Canadian quarterbacks to fill out the league, though.
Fortunately, this rule change wouldn't actually require that. All it would do is have quarterbacks treated the same way as any other position. If you have Canadians there, they help with your ratio; if you don't, you have to play Canadians elsewhere. Thus, it would give teams an incentive to develop Canadian quarterbacks, but that doesn't mean they'd all have to; if a talented Canadian with a real chance of developing into a star isn't available for the third slot, just stick with the traditional three American quarterbacks and play Canadians in other slots.
You could argue, as Edwards does, that teams will pick up Canadians as third-string quarterbacks who have no real shot in order to gain the ratio advantage, but that argument would seem based on the third-string quarterback position not actually being all that valuable and thus being a spot where you can keep an unimportant player. I'd take issue with that; most teams currently use that spot as a place to develop quarterbacks, and we've seen plenty of promising guys eventually emerge from that position (or further down the depth chart), including 2011 CFL Most Outstanding Player Travis Lulay, current Saskatchewan starter Darian Durant and current Calgary starter Drew Tate.
The third spot has plenty of value, and although some teams might potentially abuse the rule by putting a no-hope Canadian there for the short-term advantage of an extra import special-teams player, that would likely hurt them substantially over the long term. Edwards points out that you could keep a developmental American on the practice roster (essentially the fourth-string spot), but as he also mentions, the calibre of guys willing to take that spot for the long term is lower than the calibre willing to be third-string, so that would still punish teams that try to take advantage of this rule. This is a quarterback-driven league, and smart teams are going to focus on developing quarterback talent for the long run, regardless of that talent's passport. This proposed rule change would reward the teams that do try and develop Canadian quarterback talent, but likely not so drastically that it would be worthwhile to keep no-chance Canadian quarterbacks around in the third-string slot.
It's also worth mentioning that there might eventually be enough Canadians who have a legitimate chance that every team could find a decent one with a real chance for their third-string slot. Sure, it's highly unlikely that there will be eight in a particular draft class any time soon, but given the long-term nature of the third-string position, that's not a requirement. If you take the three quarterbacks who attended E-Camp last year and the two who received CFL shots last year (Mueller and Sinopoli), that's already five, and perhaps the final three will show up in the next draft class. Hoping for eight legitimate CFL quarterback prospects a year is unrealistic, but hoping for two or three is less so.
What if we assume Edwards' scenario would come to pass exactly as he described, though? In that case, every team picks up a Canadian quarterback, some of which have no hope, and some talented Canadian special-teams players who do have a realistic chance are cut in favour of Americans as a result. That's certainly not a desirable result for the overall cause of Canadians in the CFL, and that perhaps explains some of the CFLPA's rumored opposition to changing the ratio rules. However, it's easily preventable with a slightly different solution, which has the added value of perhaps overcoming opposition at the CFLPA level.
That solution is quite simple. Thus far, most of the discussion around this has been centred around the idea of just counting quarterback nationalities, and thus, essentially keeping the status quo in terms of the overall ratio. The current setup of 20 Canadians, 19 Americans and three quarterbacks (who tend to be American) would just go to 20 Canadians and 22 Americans, and then teams could put players wherever they want positionally. However, there's no apparent reason why the ratio itself can't be changed, and there's no good reason why there should be more Americans than Canadians on CFL rosters (especially given the depth of Canadian talent these days). What if in addition to nullifying quarterbacks' lack of nationalities, we also changed the ratio to an even 50:50 split, 21 Canadians and 21 Americans?
From this corner, the 50-50 solution would work out well for just about everyone involved in the game. Canadian players as a whole benefit, as there's now an extra spot for them on CFL rosters. Canadian quarterbacks benefit, as some teams will use that extra spot on them. CIS schools benefit, as more of their players and particularly more of their star quarterbacks, get legitimate CFL shots, thus likely increasing CIS football's profile. Creative CFL general managers benefit, as they now have more roster flexibility, and Canadian scouts benefit, as there's now even more of an emphasis on finding top Canadian talent. The CFL as a whole benefits, as its product becomes more Canadian (and thus easier to sell; nationalism has always played an important role in the league's survival and success), and commissioner Mark Cohon benefits, because he doesn't have to keep answering the same questions about Canadian quarterbacks.
The only people this hurts would be American special teams players and American third-string quarterbacks who seem less promising than Canadians. While I have respect for them and their jobs, I'm not convinced that they can do them appreciably better than skilled Canadians. I'm also not convinced they're worth holding back the cause of Canadian quarterbacks for. If we'd like to eventually see Canadian quarterbacks excelling in the CFL, "The 50-50 Plan" strikes me as a solid way to get there without too many negative potential side effects.
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