February 28, 2012
From many corners, the Saskatchewan Roughriders' signing of Colt Brennan carries a lot of anticipation. After his college career got off to a rough start at Colorado, where he was eventually dismissed from the team after convictions of felony burglary and trespassing and allegations of unlawful sexual conduct, Brennan played well at Saddleback Junior College, transferred to the University of Hawaiʻi and became a star. He put up three outstanding campaigns with the Rainbow Warriors, including a 58-touchdown season in 2006 that set a still-standing NCAA Division I FBS touchdown record, and was a Heisman Trophy finalist in both 2006 and 2007 (finishing sixth and third respectively).
Following that college career, Brennan spent two years with the Washington Redskins, then briefly bounced to the Oakland Raiders and then the United Football League. His recent career stops aren't all that impressive, but Brennan's play in the Rainbow Warriors' high-flying aerial offence would suggest he's a great fit for the CFL. Unfortunately for him, though, that's been the case for many other former NCAA stars, and few of them have ever received a real chance to show what they can do north of the border.
Most of the top-tier NCAA quarterbacks wind up in the NFL, of course, but there's a recurring pattern to those who don't; they usually come from programs that run spread offences of one sort or another, leading to them being branded as "system quarterbacks" and being overlooked in favour of the tall, hefty prototypical pocket gunslingers who haven't accomplished as much in college. A case in point of the latter is Florida State's Christian Ponder, who really didn't do a lot in his senior season (partly thanks to injury), but was still highly hyped for the 2011 draft thanks to his combine showing and his prototypical build, and wound up being taken 12th overall by the Minnesota Vikings. By contrast, in previous years, guys like Graham Harrell, Jared Zabransky, Timmy Chang, Ryan Dinwiddie and Chris Leak all threw for substantially more yards than Ponder in college (and were generally more efficient and effective as well), but they received minimal interest from the NFL and all wound up in the CFL eventually.
If the story ended there, it would be a great tale of the CFL finding and exploiting a weakness in NFL talent evaluation. That's happened before, of course, most notably with quarterbacks like Warren Moon (who shone up north at a time when NFL teams were convinced his colour prevented him from playing quarterback in the pros) and Doug Flutie (who proved that quarterbacks other than the tall gunslingers can excel, too). However, the aforementioned NCAA quarterbacks who came north aren't remembered for excelling up here, and they're all currently out of the league (although Harrell only half-counts on that front, as he's back in the NFL as a third-stringer with Green Bay). If Brennan follows their typical path, he's likely to stick around the CFL for a season or two as a little-used third- or fouth-stringer (although he may have an opportunity in Saskatchewan, as he, the unimpressive-to-this-point Cole Bergquist and fellow new signing Drew Willy out of the University of Buffalo are Darian Durant's only backups at the moment), then quietly fade into the night. Was the NFL right in their evaluation that these guys were just "system quarterbacks", or is there more than that going on?
The problem with the "system quarterback" label is that while it carries some elements of truth, it drastically undervalues what players actually did. Sure, Brennan played in a quarterback-friendly system that emphasized spread principles and a high-volume passing attack (and that's part of why he, Chang and Bryant Moniz all shone at Hawaiʻi), but he still had to make the throws. If anything, those systems can carry drawbacks for their quarterbacks as well as advantages; if teams know you're throwing the ball 65 per cent of the time or more, they can drop extra players into coverage without worrying about being burned by the rushing game. Sure, there were some things going for Brennan and the others like him who put up massive numbers, but they still demonstrated an incredible ability to consistently move the ball through the air and score. That takes talent, and that talent shouldn't be overlooked just because it came from a particular system.
If anything, teams should be tailoring their systems to the quarterbacks they land. Kyle Kensing of Saturday Blitz had an excellent article on the subject of whether college teams should try and attract quarterbacks who fit their offensive system or modify their system based on the quarterbacks they can land, and many of the same points apply to the CFL. Sure, Brennan may not be the best-suited quarterback for a traditional pro-style offence, but if he can throw for 5549 yards with a 72.6 per cent completion percentage and 58 touchdowns against 12 interceptions in Hawaiʻi's offence, why wouldn't you want to try and implement some of those same offensive concepts to take advantage of his skill set? Yards are yards and points are points regardless of how you achieve them.
Of course, there are other factors at play besides teams' unwillingness to adapt their systems. For one thing, there are only eight starting quarterback jobs in the CFL at any given point, so very few QBs will actually get a real chance to play. For another thing, running one offensive playbook is difficult enough, so it's not particularly easy to modify your offence substantially for your backup quarterback. For a third, adapting to the CFL's 12-a-side game and wider field takes some time, especially for NCAA quarterbacks. Moreover, the typical CFL offence does have some elements of NCAA spreads, and although it wasn't particularly tweaked to maximize their talents, Zabransky, Dinwiddie, Leak and Chang all failed pretty miserably in their opportunities to run it. Still, there's a firm belief in this corner that their college records demonstrate these guys can play if put in the right position, and CFL teams have found ways to emphasize talent over rigid adherence to scheme before at other positions. If the Riders are willing to do that with Brennan, he might just be the quarterback to shatter the "system" mould.