Eric Tillman blames CFLPA for lack of Canadian quarterbacks in the CFL, talks solutions

One of the refreshing things about Edmonton Eskimos' general manager Eric Tillman is he's usually ready to speak his mind. That was the case with Tillman's appearance on Sportsnet The FAN 590's Prime Time Sports with Bob McCown and Stephen Brunt Monday, where he discussed Canadian quarterbacks and why they've been unable to catch on at that position in the CFL. The whole 10-minute segment is well worth a listen, but the short version of Tillman's position itself is quite notable; essentially, he ascribes the rule that doesn't let Canadian quarterbacks count towards the non-import/import ratio to the CFLPA"s bargaining position over the years.

Tillman cites that ratio rule (which dictates that a team's 42-man active roster must include 20 Canadians, 19 imports and three quarterbacks whose nationality is not considered) as the largest factor preventing Canadian quarterbacks from succeeding right now, and there's a lot of logic to that claim. He told McCown that yes, Canadian quarterbacks tend to not be as far along as their American counterparts coming out of college, but with an incentive to develop them over several years, that might not be a problem.

"It comes down to the collective bargaining agreement," Tillman said. "Consistently, quarterbacks have been left out of the ratio."

He sees that as the primary obstacle to having a Canadian start under centre one day.

"Until they count in the ratio, given the difference of the money and the speed of the CIS and American universities, Canadian QBs are going to be further behind," Tillman said. "When there's no incentive to develop them, coaches are going to be thinking short-term and then you get what we have right now."

Tillman said the league is well aware of the issue, but allowing the nationality of quarterbacks to count has been a non-starter with the union.

"Many people, [Toronto GM] Jim Barker is one, would love to see Canadian quarterbacks developed," Tillman said. "The union, in every CBA as part of the discussion, they have not wanted quarterbacks to count."

Tillman said that's been a consistent stand the union has taken over his time in the league.

"I've been in this league for 18 years, I've been through four or five Collective Bargaining Agreements, and that's been an issue that there's been consistency on," he said. "They've wanted it to stay that way."

Tillman said that prevents the league from changing the rule.

"This is a collectively bargained issue where the union has not wanted quarterbacks to count in the ratio," he said. "They have every right to advance what they want."

Brunt said that's because CFLPA leadership wants to see as many non-quarterback spots preserved for Canadians as possible.

"It's because the CFLPA's been dominated by veteran Canadian players, because they're the guys that stick around," he said. "It's always been dominated by those guys, and they want to protect their ratio spots."

Tillman said the issue of Canadian quarterbacks isn't about relative skill levels, but rather relative training opportunities. He said if Canada invested more in developing football players, things might change further.

"I think there's a misnomer out there that Americans are inherently more talented," he said. "Athletes are athletes, regardless of nationality. It's based on training, program, finances, emphasis. In a country where we put tremendous resources in early development in hockey, you see great athletes. We simply don't have the money in amateur football right now at an advanced level compared to the American level, so players are more advanced at 19, 20, 21 if they've been in the American system. To me, it's not ability."

He thinks some Canadian quarterbacks would have the ability to catch up to Americans if given enough time to develop on a CFL roster.

"If we can develop something, maybe where there's a fourth quarterback and you allow those guys to develop over two to three years, I think you could see a Canadian QB in this league and I think it would be great," he said. "As a league we would like to get there. The question is how."

Tillman was asked if he really thinks that Canadians can beat out Americans for starting spots, given the amount of top-quality American quarterbacks out there. He said he doesn't expect every Canadian quarterback to become a starter, even with years of development, but he thinks there are some who could.

"In the big picture, no, I don't," he said. " Do I think there are exceptions? Yes I do."

One exception Tillman discussed was Giulio Caravatta, the current B.C. Lions' radio colour commentator and Sportsnet analyst who served as a third-string quarterback with B.C. for several years in the 1990s when Tillman was the general manager there. Tillman said Caravatta had the misfortune of being stuck behind two great quarterbacks in Danny McManus and Kent Austin, but he beat out the team's fourth-stringer in 1994, the then-little-known Trent Green. After sitting on the Lions' practice squad for a year, Green went back to the NFL with Washington and eventually did well with both them and Kansas City. Tillman said Caravatta consistently demonstrated he could play, and his beating out Green showed his skill level. He said if Caravatta had been with another CFL team, he might have become a starter.

"Had Giulio been with a different team, one where he wasn't behind quarterbacks of the calibre of Danny McManus and Kent Austin, he might have had an opportunity to develop," Tillman said. "He just unfortunately was with a team that was blessed with quarterbacks."

MC "If you're going to have all these crappy QBs around, there's oodles of them, every team's got one or two of them, than I'd just as soon make them Canadian and maybe, just maybe, we can find that one gem."

Tillman said there is some impressive progress being made on the developmental front, particularly at the university level (an analysis backed by others). He said the improvements in the CIS game will help the cause over time.

"CIS coaching is at an all-time high right now," he said. "Those guys are really doing a good job."

Tillman said we're going to see better Canadian talent over time, and that might be enough even without tweaking roster rules.

"I think we're going to see more and more of it," he said. "With better coaching, better development of the young guys, I think you're going to see, in time, see a Canadian quarterback emerge."

McCown asked if quarterback was the last position reserved for Americans given the rise of Canadian talent at positions such as running back, defensive end and linebacker, and Tillman concurred.

"It's the last spot," he said. "Canadians can play anywhere on the field, and play at a high level."

McCown said there are plenty of terrible CFL quarterbacks, especially at the third- and fourth-string levels, so it might be worth giving teams an incentive to try Canadians there, and if enough are tried, maybe one will succeed.

"If you're going to have all these crappy quarterbacks around, there's oodles of them, every team's got one or two of them, then I'd just as soon make them Canadian," McCown said. "Maybe, just maybe, we can find that one gem."

McCown proposed counting a Canadian quarterback as two non-imports, and Tillman said even just making him count as one would be a huge step.

"If we made it count as one, there would be a lot more incentive to develop," he said.

Tillman said he'd like to work with the union to try and change that.

"I would like to see us as a league, with the union as a partner, all come together and find a way to accelerate the process, because the union is a critical part of the league and their leadership cares as deeply about the league as we do," he said. "At the end of the day, I hope we can advance the development of Canadian quarterbacks over the next five or 10 years."

Correction: I originally had Trent Green winning a Super Bowl with Baltimore; that would be another quarterback named Trent now working as a commentator, Mr. Trent Dilfer.