Johnny Manziel’s CFL option, which might actually work better for other NCAA players

The college football world has been abuzz this week thanks to an ESPN report that star Texas A&M quarterback and reigning Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel is under NCAA investigation for profiting from autographs. Leaving aside how silly it is for an organization that earns incredible profits off Manziel to go after him for daring to try and make money himself (ESPN NCAA basketball analyst Jay Bilas did a nice job on that front yesterday, forcing the NCAA to take the search function off their online store), there are potentially serious consequences here for Manziel, even perhaps including a season-long suspension. That's caused some, most notably CBS' Gregg Doyel, to argue that Manziel should head to Canada. There are several factors that make it highly unlikely Manziel would do that even if the NCAA suspended him, but TSN's Dave Naylor has confirmed that the Hamilton Tiger-Cats have Manziel on their negotiation list: that means there is at least some CFL interest in him, and the idea of him coming north can't be completely ruled out. However, while the CFL's far from an ideal option for Manziel, it might be a great route to the NFL for other NCAA-age players who run afoul of the American college athletics bureaucracy.

First, let's address Doyel's case for Manziel coming north. It's worth disclosing that before his piece ran, he asked me if Manziel to the CFL possible, and I told him it would appear to be, as demonstrated by the Terence Jeffers-Harris case. Jeffers-Harris started his NCAA career at Connecticut, then transferred to Vanderbilt, but left the Commodores before playing a game in 2009 thanks to being found academically ineligible. The Winnipeg Blue Bombers signed him in 2010, and he spent that year with them before becoming eligible for the NFL draft in the spring of 2011. Jeffers-Harris wasn't drafted by the NFL, which was probably a good move as he's since fallen out of the CFL after stints with four different teams, but his case does suggest that those who can't play in the NCAA for whatever reason can come to the CFL if they so choose. Here's part of Doyel's argument as to why Manziel should do so:

Manziel can go to the Canadian Football League and cash his lottery ticket. The NFL has a rule against an underclassman joining its league until three years after his high school graduation, but the CFL has no such rule. The 2013 CFL season started last month, but I'm thinking a team up there would sign him up, coach him up, and turn him loose sooner than later. ... If the report is true ... Johnny Canadian Football has a ring to it.

Doyel's quite right that Manziel could instantly come to the CFL, and the league might be an excellent fit for him on some levels. There are questions about how well his short stature and scrambling-based game will translate to the NFL and if he's ready to face that level of competition, but he's often been cited as perhaps an even more athletic version of legendary CFL quarterback Doug Flutie (who has endorsed Manziel's NFL potential). Even if his NFL potential is debated, there's little doubt that Manziel has the physical skills to perhaps be an elite CFL quarterback. However, that doesn't mean he'd become one instantly, and it doesn't make the CFL a great fit for him.

Something we've seen again and again in the CFL is that it typically takes quarterbacks quite a while to adjust to the vast differences in the Canadian game, including the three downs (putting a premium on accuracy), the 12-a-side nature of the action (which drastically changes route trees and coverage schemes), the expanded motion (which offers several new options for short routes) and the bigger field (which alters what the various sideline and corner routes look like). Even stellar first or second performances like the ones we saw last week from a variety of quarterbacks have typically come after those guys have spent a year or more learning the Canadian game as a backup. Moreover, many big-name NCAA QBs (including Chris Leak, Colt Brennan and Tate Forcier) have failed to adapt to the CFL, while many smaller-school, lower-profile QBs have done quite well, perhaps suggesting that they're more willing to learn new things than those already anointed as stars.

Thus, Manziel would be quite unlikely to win a starting job instantly (especially in Hamilton, where they already have a quality quarterback in Henry Burris), and he wouldn't necessarily find northern success right away. Beyond that, too, the CFL's elimination of the NFL option window means Manziel would have to commit to the CFL for at least two seasons. As a rising redshirt sophomore, he could be eligible for the NFL draft as early as next spring if he isn't locked into a CFL deal. Thus, even if he is suspended, it might make much more sense for him to drop out and train with a quarterback consultant than to come north of the border. As explored with the Tim Tebow reports earlier this year, the CFL often isn't a great option for high-profile quarterbacks looking to get to the NFL quickly.

While Manziel could perhaps be quite successful if he committed to being a CFL quarterback for several years and focused on learning the Canadian game, even that wouldn't necessarily be a sure path to the NFL. Yes, Joe Kapp, Warren Moon, Jeff Garcia, Flutie and others all made that jump, but success as a CFL QB certainly doesn't ensure you'll get an NFL shot. Anthony Calvillo and Damon Allen, two of the CFL's best quarterbacks ever, never really got much serious NFL interest, and Ricky Ray, another CFL star, was mostly used as a third-stringer south of the border. Since Ray's 2004 stint with the New York Jets, the CFL to NFL quarterback pipeline has been almost nonexistent.

However, the basic idea of players on the outs with the NCAA coming to the CFL and training for the NFL has plenty of merit. We've seen several players at other positions go from CFL success to NFL stardom, including Cameron Wake and Brandon Browner. Given the issues with tying the primary NFL pathway to scholastic performance and arbitrarily restricting when players can be drafted by the NFL, plus forcing players to risk career-threatening injuries without being financially rewarded for their efforts, it makes plenty of sense to have a route to the NFL other than the NCAA. For players other than quarterbacks (players at other positions have much less significant adjustments to make and can usually start more quickly, plus there are usually more starting slots available for rookies at other positions), the CFL might be an excellent choice. That fits in with the model of the CFL as a loosely developmental league (not a NFL minor league, but a league that can develop talent for the NFL).

The quality of competition is notable, too. Yes, the CFL doesn't have the top-end NFL-bound talent of the best NCAA programs, but its players are older and more experienced, which can make a big difference. The amount of schools CFL teams search to pick the top guys from each also helps, and it's interesting that many guys from well-known NCAA schools don't always catch on with CFL squads. We don't know exactly how the level of play stacks up, as CFL and NCAA teams don't play each other (and which rules any hypothetical cross-border game was played under would have a substantial effect on the outcome), but it would be very reasonable to suggest that even the worst CFL team could put up a solid fight against a mid-level NCAA team from a power conference, and a top CFL team might well be able to beat a top NCAA team. The likes of Wake and Browner have been able to translate strong CFL performances into strong NFL ones, so performing well in the CFL might well allow players to be chosen high in the NFL draft.

Will the CFL prove a viable alternative for everyone? Of course not. While some NFL players are brought in from the CFL or from smaller NCAA schools, the league still tends to focus on scouting the big schools, and a chance to star at a solid NCAA program is probably still more beneficial for most prospects' NFL chances than a CFL stint would be. However, university football doesn't work out for everyone, and those who run into academic or disciplinary issues might well consider trying the CFL. Canadian football could also be an alternate NFL route for those players who want to start making money before they become NFL-draft eligible, and/or those who don't want to have to worry about the academic side of the NCAA.

The distance to Canada and the CFL's low profile south of the border present challenges, of course, but expanded U.S. broadcasts do make it easier for American players who want their families to be able to watch them (and those broadcasts may also boost awareness of the CFL as an option for American players). Moreover, technology such as Skype makes it much easier to keep in touch over long distances for free than it has been historically, reducing the impact of those distances. The CFL's never going to surpass the NCAA as a pathway to the NFL, but it may prove a useful alternative for those who run into trouble with the bureaucracy of American college athletics—especially if, unlike Manziel, they don't happen to play quarterback.