It's been a very weird CFL season for Cory Boyd. The running back started the year as one of the Toronto Argonauts' most-promoted players thanks to his back-to-back 1,000-plus yard seasons, and he was deserving of the hype early on, leading the league in rushing in August. While Boyd was still on top of the league rushing standings, though, the Argonauts suddenly released him with little explanation. He signed with Edmonton, but never saw many carries thanks to the strong play of Hugh Charles and the return of Jerome Messam, and the Eskimos released him Thursday. Being released twice in one year raises the question of if Boyd's CFL career's at an end, or if he may still make an impact in this league down the line.
Running back might be the toughest CFL position to keep a job at. Like quarterbacks, most teams play just one tailback at a time (unlike receivers, linemen or defensive backs, who all have plenty of spots where they can get on the field), but the difference from quarterbacks is that teams keep less spare RBs around. The three-down game requires more of an emphasis on passing than is typically seen in say, the NFL, and while the rushing attack's still crucial to teams' success, it's far more of a secondary option than it is in most four-down offensive systems.
As a result, CFL teams don't fill their rosters with as many running backs as NFL teams do. The active-roster standard is usually a starting tailback and a backup (there are also typically a couple of active-roster fullbacks who can step in and carry the ball if needed, but usually serve as blockers and special-teams players). Thanks to that and the CFL being an eight-team league, there are really only about 16 active-roster running back slots. You occasionally see three tailbacks on an active roster, but that's typically in unusual situations like what happened with the Eskimos this year, and it usually doesn't last all that long. Given that most teams' tailback slots are already pretty firmly set at this point in the season, there just aren't a lot of potential openings for Boyd.
The other element that differentiates running backs is the lessened impact of the experience factor. Playing three-down football's a huge adjustment for most Americans, and at most positions, there are things that change radically. Quarterbacks have to get used to a bigger field, an extra man on each side (which dramatically alters offensive routes and defensive coverages), sets with more receivers, expanded motion and the three-down system, and much of that impacts receivers and defensive backs as well. Linemen have to adjust to the expanded neutral zone and the emphasis on passing plays, as do linebackers.
For running backs, though, although they're used less than in most four-down systems and have to block more than they may have in the past, the adjustments are still substantially smaller, especially for those who come in from college systems that focus on the spread offence (a growing trend in the NCAA thanks to the success of schools like West Virginia, Oklahoma State, Oklahoma, Texas Tech and more); the responsibilities and usage of a CFL running back isn't all that different from the way those programs use their backs. Thus, there's always a substantial supply of import running backs coming out of American colleges and being cut by NFL teams, and many of them prove to be immediately successful in Canada (see Kory Sheets, Chevon Walker and others). When you throw in the accomplishments of Canadians like Jon Cornish and Andrew Harris, the potential talent pool only gets larger. Given the lessened role of experience and the massive amounts of potential replacements, as we saw this offseason, running back is one position where the CFL isn't a country for old men. Running backs are eminently replaceable, and that doesn't bode well for Boyd.
However, what's perhaps most in Boyd's favour is that he isn't old just yet. In fact, he's only 27, so he could have substantial mileage left, and he certainly has plenty of talent. Sure, that doesn't always translate into a job; Hamilton running back Avon Cobourne's shown this season that he's still very capable, but he was only brought back from selling insurance thanks to a training-camp injury to Martell Mallett, and he only got onto the field after first-choice backup Chevon Walker was hurt, so skill alone won't necessarily give you a shot if the opportunities don't align. It isn't hard to see things aligning for Boyd, though; a 27-year-old with his proven history of CFL success would seem like a valuable addition to most CFL teams, and reports from Edmonton certainly don't make him sound like the locker-room distraction some have tried to bill him as. No team currently has a vacancy in their top running-back slot, though, and most of the league has decent depth behind their starter, so another CFL chance for Boyd isn't a certainty. If he gets a shot in the right situation, the bet here is that he'll likely succeed; the question's just if he'll get that shot.