November 07, 2010
OTTAWA — Brad Sinopoli had heard there were hints about Danny Brannagan getting some snaps on Sunday.
"It does open doors," Canadian Interuniversity Sport's most prolific passer (pictured) said Saturday after leading the Ottawa Gee-Gees to a 32-31 Ontario University Athletics semifinal victory over the Laurier Golden Hawks, setting up a Yates Cup showdown vs. the Western Mustangs on Nov. 13.
"It's hard for me to think about right now, but I'm happy for Danny. I sent him a little message, 'congratulations,' 'good luck' and all that. For me, though, I'll worry about it [the Canadian Football League] when the time comes."
Brannagan, the Burlington, Ont., native who led the Queen's Golden Gaels to the Vanier Cup in 2009, will dress as the Toronto Argonauts' No. 3 quarterback for the second time this season Sunday vs. the Montreal Alouettes. If he appears, he would be the first Canadian quarterback to play in a CFL regular-season game since Giulio Caravatta with the B.C. Lions in 1996.
That ties in with one hope for three-down devotees. Perhaps it is some preemptive fallback since so many other Canadian pivots never got a real chance. However, the hope is the longer Brannagan lasts with the Argos, the better the chances for the next Canadian passer. And the next one. And so on.
That could be Sinopoli. Or it could be some impressionable teenager who could be thinking about switching to slotback or linebacker, or focusing on baseball or basketball, will opt to stick with it. The 6-foot-4 Peterborough, Ont., native, looked the part Saturday, passing for 315 yards and three touchdowns and setting up a fourth-quarter TD by breaking a tackle on an 18-yard run that came on a second-and-15.
That segues into one reason why barriers faced by Canadian-trained QBs are crumbling. Sinopoli's success, like that of record-setting rivals Brannagan and Michael Faulds at Western in '09, reflects how fast the university game is evolving.
Better Canadian coaching
It is off-base to describe Brannagan as "a youngster who stubbornly believes he received superior football training at Queen's playing three-down football in a CFL style offence." Damien Cox meant well, but an opinion cannot be stubborn when it has basis in reality. (Brannagan's former left tackle, Matt O'Donnell, will likely get a NFL shot next spring, by the way.)
It is going to get tougher to nix giving a Canadian a chance because he cannot master a CFL offensive scheme. Many top university teams run similar offences.
"Mentally, they're ahead, based on their knowledge of the [Canadian] football game," Mike Morreale, the former long-time CFL receiver who does colour commentary for The Score's University Rush OUA telecasts, said of CIS quarterbacks.
"Sometimes they [the CFL] break down the coaching and say their U.S. counterparts are better coached. I don't believe that. Not anymore, not to say that they ever were."
A glance at the CIS football record book shows CIS football is reaping the benefits of a brain gain.
In the 1980s and '90s, only four quarterbacks passed for 2,400 yards in a season (CIS stats only cover the regular season, unlike the NCAA's top division). It has happened 18 times since the start of the aughties. That might be the tip of the iceberg. Many CIS quarterbacks, such as Faulds and former Vanier Cup winners Benoit Groulx and Ryan Pyear, have gone directly from playing to being offensive coordinators.
There's a generation of coaches under 40 whom we may loosely call products of the Madden generation, with one less down and unlimited motion to play with. Established vets who are of a similar mind are also smart enough to see where the game is going.
"You're seeing a lot of new offensive coordinators [in CIS] who are younger," Morreale added. "Whether they played the game at the CFL level, they're going to lot of camps, they're using the five-receiver, six-receiver sets, you see what Sinopoli does with his receivers. It's gotten a lot more complex, which is going to help those quarterbacks at the next level. Now, they still gotta break down the stigma, which is unfortunate because these kids can play.
"It's leaps and bounds from what I experienced in the early '90s, and we were a passing school," added Morreale, who played at McMaster University. "We didn't have all that complex motion. Their offences are pro-level offences, maybe not as sophisticated as what they do in the pros, but just a bit behind."
That is filtering up to the CFL. The Hamilton Tiger-Cats, coached by Marcel Bellefeuille, who guided Ottawa to a national title in 2000, had Sinopoli at training camp as a non-roster player. That gave him a springboard into this season, where he put up the sixth-highest total in CIS history (2,867 passing yards) during Ottawa's 7-1 regular season.
"It was huge, just that experience and getting used to the faster pace of the game," Sinopoli said. "I picked up a lot of little things to help myself. It was very important to see what it's like and what it's like to work with CFL guys."
The CFL has mulled having each team give a Canadian QB that camp experience, but the Ticats did it without being forced to.
In the meantime, Sinopoli's getting a chance to mature with a team that seems to find itself in white-knuckle games on a weekly basis. The drive to set up the winning 31-yard field goal with 2:59 left was Sinopoli's fourth game-winning or -tying drive in the fourth quarter this season. The signature play on the march came when he converted a second-and-15 situation with a 32-yard deep post to wide receiver Alex Fortier-Labonté.
Coincidentally, Brannagan also had four of those gotta-have-it drives during Queen's championship run, including one in the Yates Cup.
"Brad has that 'it' factor," said Gee-Gees wide receiver Cyril Adjeitey, who caught Sinopoli's second TD pass. "He has the arm and he just has that infectious quality where you know late in games you can ride on him and take you to the victory. That's what I think the CFL guys are looking for."
"He's always the first guy to get us out of the house, get us off the couch when we're playing video games," Adjeitey added. "He's always the first guy to lead us in being a team. In team functions, he's always the one who stands up and gives speeches."
On merit, Laurier did enough to pull the upset Saturday. Sinopoli was far from perfect. In fact, Laurier got an extra chance to drive for the winning field goal after Sinopoli had a deep ball intercepted by the Golden Hawks' Scott McCahill when Ottawa was trying to get the one first down that might have let it run out the clock. He threw 13 interceptions in the regular season (in contrast to Brannagan, who had only seven in about the same number of attempts in '09), so his decision-making will have to improve.
However, Ottawa is alive and kicking thanks in large part to Sinopoli and his receivers beating tight coverage. The game turned in the third quarter when Sinopoli threw a 53-yard scoring strike to Ezra Millington to cut the margin to 24-23.
Laurier had pressure, collapsing the pocket and forcing Sinopoli to move to his left and step up in the pocket. It had good coverage on Millington. It didn't matter.
"He's just an outstanding athlete," Laurier head coach Gary Jeffries said. "He's going to make plays because he is who is he is.
"If somebody gives that kid an opportunity, he can play in that league."
In other words, Sinopoli has the tools and someone else who does will come along. Meantime, coaches with the know-how and the itch to use the whole 65-yard-wide field can furnish what is needed from the neck up.
"These guys are Canadian, they know the Canadian game, and it's our game," Sinopoli says.
Neate Sager is a writer for Yahoo! Sports Canada. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @neatebuzzthenet.