Henry Burris' remarkable age-40 renaissance could redefine his career

Henry Burris' remarkable age-40 renaissance could redefine his career

Henry Burris' football career has been a roller-coaster ride. Despite a great college career at Temple, he went undrafted by the NFL, came to the CFL and sat on Calgary's practice roster in 1997, and then was stuck behind Dave Dickenson and Jeff Garcia in 1998 and 1999. He moved on to Saskatchewan in 2000, then headed to the NFL for stints with the Green Bay Packers and Chicago Bears, was sent to NFL Europe by the Bears, returned to Saskatchewan in 2003, headed back to Calgary in 2005, won a Grey Cup there in 2008 and had plenty of success but then was shipped off to Hamilton in 2012. He led the Ticats to an appearance in the 2013 Grey Cup, but was then released so they could sign Zach Collaros and wound up with the expansion Ottawa Redblacks, where he endured a 2-16 inaugural season and plenty of calls for the team to move on from him and play younger quarterbacks. Now, at age 40, he's not only having the best season of his career and the best season of any player in this league, but one that led Ottawa to a 12-6 record, a first-place finish, and could lead to a Grey Cup appearance. It's a season that's not only remarkable in its own right, but also one that should cause many of Burris' critics to reconsider his overall career more favourably. He's likely one of the CFL's top 10 quarterbacks overall, even if that's not always recognized.

The numbers Burris has put up this year are nothing short of spectacular. He threw for 5,703 yards this season, 1,152 more than second-place Bo Levi Mitchell, completed 70.9 per cent of his passes (second only to Trevor Harris' 71.0 per cent amongst those with more than 100 attempts), and tossed 26 touchdowns against 13 interceptions. Those are not only career highs for Burris in yards and completion percentage, they're highs by a significant amount; he'd only previously passed the 5,000-yard barrier twice, with 5,367 yards for Hamilton in 2012 and 5,093 for Calgary in 2008, and his previous best completion mark was 65.8 per cent for Hamilton in 2013. Thus, he's not only beating his previous top marks (apart from touchdowns; he has thrown more touchdowns five times), he's crushing them, and doing so while reducing his interceptions (13 is his third-lowest career mark in seasons with over 60 passing attempts). This is by far the best season Burris has ever produced across the board, and it's one that should spur some reevaluations of him.

Burris' career numbers overall have always been impressive, as he's thrown for the third-most yards in CFL history (60,957), but some have ascribed that mostly to his longevity. This is his 16th CFL season, and although he only saw limited action in three of those early campaigns, he had over 400 passing attempts and over 3,000 passing yards in each of the others (and over 4,000 yards in all but two). Only a few of his seasons have been really spectacular, though, particularly 2012 (5,367 yards, 43 touchdowns to 18 interceptions, a 64.7 per cent completion rate) and 2008 (5,093 yards, 39 touchdowns to 14 interceptions, a 64.5 per cent completion rate). Moreover, his completion rate only topped 61 per cent for the first time in 2008, and his touchdown numbers were quite low relative to his interceptions in many early seasons (23/18 in 2004 and 2006); those less-than-stellar early seasons may have formed some opinions of him. Much of his career also came in an era where the likes of Anthony Calvillo and Ricky Ray were tearing up the league with more impressive stats, which is part of why Burris has only earned one Most Outstanding Player award and one league all-star selection to date (2010). When you throw in the teams he's gone through, it's possible to see why some haven't always ranked Burris amongst the CFL's very best.

The interesting thing is that in many regards, though, Burris' career has defied the typical aging curve. This season's obviously the extreme example of that, but his last several seasons have all been quite good, and they've shown a significant progression from where he was early on. 2008, Burris' first year under new Calgary head coach and general manager John Hufnagel, is one watershed moment; it was the first time he threw for over 5,000 yards, and he boosted his completion percentage from 60.5 per cent to 64.5 per cent while also tossing 39 touchdowns and just 14 interceptions. He won both the Grey Cup and the Grey Cup's Most Outstanding Player award that year. 2010 was also a very good year for Burris, with 4,945 passing yards, 38 touchdowns to 20 interceptions and a 66.2 per cent completion rate, and it led to his only regular season Most Outstanding Player Award (and one he probably should have lost to Anthony Calvillo; Burris had a stronger case in 2008 (when Calvillo won) and 2012 (when Chad Owens won), though, and should win this year).That was just the first part of Burris' late-career resurgence, though.

Calgary's decision to part with him after a less-than-great 2011 season seemed like it might be a smart one at the time. Burris was turning 37 before the 2012 campaign and only threw for 3,687 yards and 20 touchdowns with 12 interceptions in 2011, and it seemed like time might have started to catch up to him. He was benched down the stretch in favour of the decade-younger Drew Tate, and although he replaced Tate after early struggles in the Stampeders' West semifinal loss to Edmonton, he didn't do much better, and Calgary opted to extend Tate and trade Burris to Hamilton. Amazingly, though, Burris managed to get even better at age 37 in a new city, putting up one of the best seasons of his career with 5,367 passing yards, a 64.7 per cent completion rate and 43 touchdowns to 18 interceptions. The Ticats' struggles (they went 6-12, thanks largely to a historically-bad defence) led to the firing of head coach George Cortez and the forced retirement of GM Bob O'Billovich to make way for Kent Austin, and that probably was why Burris' performance that season didn't get more attention, but it wasn't a blip on the radar; it showed he'd learned from past mistakes and found ways to be more efficient and more productive.

That trend has continued since. Burris' 2013 and 2014 seasons weren't perfect, but they both had good completion percentages (and 2014's issues were largely about the receivers and offensive line Burris was working with; makeovers in those areas in 2015 have helped substantially). In general, Burris has been a very good CFL quarterback since at least 2008, with seasons where he was in the very upper echelon. That isn't always realized, as his numbers before then weren't as promising and his teams didn't find much playoff success until then. The more recent versions of Burris have been much more impressive, though, and this year's dazzling performance in particular shows what he's capable of in the right situation.

It's remarkable to see this from a 40-year-old quarterback, but it's not a one-year anomaly; Burris has generally been quite good over the last eight years, despite his team and surrounding personnel changes. This year in particular should cause some to reevaluate what they think of him, and just how good he can be. Burris has been the league's best player this season, and he's shown that he's quite capable of great things. He deserves a lot of credit for that, and it should cause some reflection on just how good he's been in general. Burris will still carry the "Bad Hank" label for some of his ill-advised throws, but his later career has really seen much more of the "Good Hank." This isn't unprecedented; it's worth noting that Calvillo's stats (and his completion percentage in particular) also rose late in his career and for part of the same reason, as he was also able to use his experience to his advantage. Calvillo fell off a bit at the very end, though, battling injuries and having his arm seem to lose some of its zip. The edge Burris has is that he still seems to have the rocket arm he always did, but has now paired it with experience and better decision-making.

This late-career renaissance should be reflected in assessments of Burris' overall standing. He's one of the best quarterbacks currently in this league, and has been one of its best over his career, perhaps not in the extreme upper echelons of historic CFL quarterbacks, but not far behind those at the very top. Burris' career probably isn't quite as good as, say, Calvillo's or Doug Flutie's, but he has an argument against most others, and he's quite probably a top-10 all-time CFL quarterback at the very least. I put Burris ninth in a top-10 ranking after the 2013 season that's sadly mostly vanished; his entry still remains, though. He'd likely be a bit higher now, especially considering the peak he hit this year. Burris has defied much of the conventional wisdom this year, proving that older quarterbacks can still be successful and that a recent expansion team can still compete for the Grey Cup. That should provide some impetus to reconsider what he's done over the years, and those reexaminations might well conclude that he's been much better than people have often said.