The CFL's most outstanding player finalists this year aren't quarterbacks, and only two of the eight candidates chosen to represent their team in the first round of balloting were pivots. On one hand, that suggests that voters are willing to look beyond just quarterback play, but on the other hand, it at least raises the possibility that maybe the state of quarterbacking in the CFL isn't all that great. When you throw in the Eskimos' indecision over naming a starter for Sunday's playoff game, it's worth asking if there are enough capable quarterbacks out there for eight CFL teams to have solid starters—and perhaps more importantly, if there will be enough in 2014 when Ottawa enters the league and many of the current starters are even older.
Focusing only on the present moment, the problem isn't actually as dire as it may seem. Yes, only Travis Lulay and Anthony Calvillo were selected as their team's top player this year, and yes, the stats of both were somewhat less impressive than what they did in 2011. However, both Lulay and Calvillo had excellent years, and injuries that forced each to miss some time (plus the insignificance of both of their teams' final stretches of games) played a role in keeping them from putting up statistical marks. Moreover, there were solid quarterbacking performances elsewhere; Henry Burris might have been the league's best pivot statistically this year (he led in passing yards and touchdowns, posted a solid completion percentage and recorded a career-high quarterback rating), while Ricky Ray was quite effective in Toronto despite the Argonauts' struggles, Darian Durant had a reasonably solid season in Saskatchewan, and Kevin Glenn and Drew Tate played well enough in Calgary to give the Stampeders a tough decision about who should start Sunday (they eventually settled on Tate). Really, the only places where real quarterback issues reared their head in 2012 are Edmonton and Winnipeg. That's two out of eight teams, which doesn't represent a league-wide crisis.
However, the specific issues that arose with the Eskimos and Bombers are potential harbingers of future problems. In Edmonton in particular, Steven Jyles didn't work out. That's fine, and that's something many might have expected. The Eskimos' response was to go to 39-year-old Kerry Joseph, though, and although Joseph wasn't terrible (2,187 passing yards, a 60.7 per cent completion rate, 12 touchdowns to 10 interceptions), trotting a limited-upside veteran like him out there is an unusual move. Perhaps the Eskimos' coaching staff had more faith in him than in an inexperienced player like Matt Nichols, but that's concerning enough in its own right. Similarly in Winnipeg, the Bombers kept sending Buck Pierce back in despite his ineffectiveness and inability to stay on the field, and they rotated backups Joey Elliott, Alex Brink and Justin Goltz so frequently when Pierce wasn't healthy that none could really develop a rhythm. None really impressed when they did play, which could be thanks to that system or their own flaws.
At the moment, there aren't clear long-term answers at quarterback in either Edmonton or Winnipeg. That could change; Nichols impressed down the stretch and might seize the Eskimos' job if given a chance in the playoffs, and one of the Bombers' backups might improve over the winter, grab the starting job in training camp and hang on to it. However, if neither of those situations happens, two teams may have to look elsewhere for quarterbacks. That could become a common theme over the next few years; Ottawa's entering the league in 2014 and will need a quarterback, and the ages of many of the league's current pivots (Calvillo's 40, Joseph's 39, Burris is 37, Glenn and Ray are each 33) suggest more starters may be needed soon. Of the current crop of backups, there are some intriguing possibilities, including B.C.'s Mike Reilly and Saskatchewan's Drew Willy, but there are a lot of unknowns. That could make for interesting times down the road.
From this corner, the issue isn't an absolute supply of talent. There are always plenty of talented quarterbacks available in the NCAA, and there are getting to be more and more in CIS all the time (the Canadian quarterback debate is going to be around for a while, but that could provide more talented pivots if the rule's changed). Moreover, many successful CFL quarterbacks come from the lower reaches of the NCAA, so there are even more guys who could potentially fit up here. The problem is more about converting talented players into capable starters, and that's a long and slow process considering the vast differences in the Canadian and American games (12-a-side, bigger field, three downs, expanded motion, etc). Experience is crucial, but it's tough to get players that experience given the CFL's limited off-season workouts, short exhibition season and relatively-light in-season practices.
What seems to work is identifying a capable young guy who can start, developing him as a backup for a while and then giving him the keys and sticking with him through struggles, even if it doesn't go great at first; that's what B.C. did with Travis Lulay and what Calgary did with Drew Tate, and it's a blueprint other franchises should consider. It can hurt in the short term, but it may be required for long-term success. If more franchises adopt that strategy (and if ones with aging quarterbacks work hard on securing capable replacements as soon as possible), we may never see a real quarterback crisis. However, if teams take the Winnipeg route of just throwing guys out there and hoping one sticks, or the Edmonton route of going with declining veterans instead of giving young guys a chance, then there may be a quarterback shortage.