June 19, 2011
Few would dispute the crucial importance of the quarterback position in football, and that's even more the case in the passing-oriented offences of the CFL. The man taking the snaps is the key cog of the offence in the three-down game, and for seven of the league's eight teams, there's little to no question about who that will be when the season kicks off on Canada Day Weekend. The exception is the Toronto Argonauts, where there's a fascinating quarterback battle raging between incumbent Cleo Lemon (pictured at right in a 2010 game), backup Dalton Bell and third-man-in Steven Jyles.
Of course, it wasn't expected to be this way. When the Argonauts traded their first pick (the fourth-overall selection) in the 2011 draft and a conditional pick in 2012 to the Winnipeg Blue Bombers for Jyles, the expectation in many quarters was that Jyles would be heading into camp as the starter. His experience as a CFL starter may be limited, but Jyles has played five seasons north of the border and put up some solid numbers. Last year with Winnipeg, he completed 61.6 per cent of his passes, picking up 2,804 yards and 19 touchdowns through the air while only throwing seven interceptions, and he added 452 rushing yards and four touchdowns on 65 attempts (with eight fumbles). Yes, Winnipeg head coach Paul LaPolice didn't seem all that high on him and once pulled him for unproven Alex Brink thanks to Jyles' lack of wins as a starter, and yes, he had some injury concerns at the time of the trade. At that point, Jyles seemed like a much better option than either Lemon (61.7 completion percentage last year, but 19 interceptions and 13 fumbles against just 15 passing and three rushing touchdowns) or Bell (58.7 completion percentage in limited duty last year, three interceptions and two fumbles against one passing and one rushing touchdown).
Those injury concerns reared their ugly heads again in the Argonauts' camp, though. Jyles had shoulder surgery last fall, but was initially expected to recover by the start of camp. That hasn't been the case, and now it looks like he may not be ready until mid-July at the earliest. Meanwhile, both Lemon and Bell have been more impressive than they were last season (in Lemon's case, perhaps partly because he's had surgery on a throwing-hand finger that may have affected him down the stretch last year), and either could wind up in the starter's spot during the Argonauts' first regular-season game Canada Day against the Calgary Stampeders. Regardless of who winds up there, if they play well, Jyles may be kept to the sidelines even after he's healthy.
Saturday's pre-season game against Hamilton didn't really settle the issue of who's number one, even for the moment. Both Lemon and Bell were effective in the Argonauts' 31-12 win over the Tiger-Cats, with Lemon completing 11 of 15 passes for 130 yards and a touchdown and Bell hitting on nine of 15 for 189 yards and a TD. Neither threw an interception, and both demonstrated impressive command of the offence.
It's unclear how much those numbers really mean, as the pre-season nature of the game meant both sides were trying new things and playing plenty of backups, but it's tough to isolate one performance as better than the other. Both will have another shot to prove themselves in the team's final pre-season clash Thursday against Winnipeg (8 p.m. Eastern, TSN), and they'll be looking to try and establish some separation. Bell in particular may have pressure on him, as Lemon's incumbent status may serve as a tie-breaker if they stay reasonably equal.
The battle at the bottom of the Argonauts' depth chart is interesting, too. It isn't always a big story who a team elects to keep as a third or fourth quarterback, but it can be important; the amount of quarterback injuries in this league means we occasionally see a team to go through four or five different starters in a year, as B.C. did a couple of years back.
Moreover, the two names on that chart are notable ones; Danny Brannagan is a Canadian product (even if he isn't counted as such) from 2009 CIS champion Queen's, while B.J. Hall is a recent acquisition who's played everywhere from Troy to the NAIA to junior college to the Arena Football League. Brannagan isn't the only Canadian quarterback trying to crack the league any more, as Calgary has Brad Sinopoli and Edmonton has Marc Mueller, but he's still a notable flag-carrier who's lasted one year with the team. If he can hang on for another one, he may just get a chance to prove himself as a starter or top backup some day; if not, he'll be the latest in a long line of Canadian quarterbacks who never really got a shot.
Adding further fuel to these quarterback battles is that we'll eventually get to see what went on behind the scenes. Aquila Productions' extensive documentary series is already shooting, and plenty of content from inside dressing rooms and meeting rooms has been promised. The first episode, on training camp, is scheduled to air July 3 after the Edmonton-Saskatchewan game, and it should have plenty of interesting material on how these quarterback battles went down. By then, we'll already know who was the Argonauts' opening-day starter, but we may not know who's going to hold the top job for the rest of the year.