The Ottawa Redblacks went 8-9-1 this season, becoming the first team to win a CFL division with a losing record in the process, but they were triumphant in one category: divisional all-stars. Those all-star selections were announced Wednesday, and the Redblacks had a league-high 11 players picked, ahead of 15-1-2 Calgary’s nine. Among them was quarterback Trevor Harris, selected despite not even being the team’s starter at the moment. The divisional all-stars are a long-running CFL tradition, dating back before the league’s formation when the divisions were independent leagues, but cases like this illustrate the problems they can pose when one division’s teams are much better than the other’s.
The remarkable thing is that there’s an argument that Harris was the best choice East voters (head coaches and voting FRC members) could have made at quarterback. He’s sixth in the league in passing yards with 3,301, and all five of the quarterbacks ahead of him (Edmonton’s Mike Reilly, Calgary’s Bo Levi Mitchell, B.C.’s Jonathon Jennings, Saskatchewan’s Darian Durant and Winnipeg’s Matt Nichols) play for Western teams. He also posted those yards in just 12 games, and recorded a 73.3 per cent completion rate and 16 touchdowns to four interceptions. The next guy down in yardage, Hamilton’s Zach Collaros, might also have been an option, but he only played in 10 games, and his stats (2,938 yards, 18 touchdowns to eight interceptions, a 66.9 per cent completion rate) are weaker across the board. Yes, Harris is currently backing up Henry Burris, but he does have a decent case as the East’s best quarterback this year. It’s unfortunate that he gets more recognition than four quarterbacks ahead of him who had better seasons just based on where he plays, though.
In particular, this is rough for Reilly. He led the league with 5,554 passing yards this year, but lost out to Mitchell for the West divisional nod. That’s somewhat fair, as Mitchell posted better touchdown to interception numbers (32 to eight versus 28 to 12) and led Calgary’s dominant season, but there is definitely an argument for Reilly as the league’s top QB. It would be hard to dispute that he was at the least the second-best QB in the CFL this year. Yet, because of divisional alignment, he’s not an all-star, and neither are Jennings, Durant or Nichols, while Harris is after playing in 12 games and being the best of a bad bunch of options.
Similar situations arise in a lot of the categories. For receivers, it works out all right; the top four in receiving yards are in the West, the next four are in the East, and they’re all All-Stars, so that’s okay. For running backs, though, Calgary’s Jerome Messam and Toronto’s Brandon Whitaker are #1 and #2 in yardage and both picked, as is #3 Andrew Harris (Winnipeg), but #4 and #5 Jeremiah Johnson (B.C.) and John White (Edmonton) are left off in favor of #6 C.J. Gable (who’s from an East team, Hamilton). There are plenty of West offensive linemen and defensive players with strong arguments for selection over the East guys who were picked, too. Remember, there are five West teams and only four East teams, so the West players face a tougher field from the start. Things get even worse when you have a season where the West finishes a combined 53-36-1 (.530) and the East goes a combined 27-44-1 (.375).
Can anything be done to remedy this? Well, not easily. As long as there are divisions, it will be hard to get rid of the idea of divisional all-stars, and axing the divisions carries some challenges as well. The other thing is that most years, this isn’t a terrible issue; even the weaker division usually has at least one very good team (which is why Ottawa winning the division with a losing mark was historic) and a number of excellent players on the other teams. The East still does have good players, but many of them produced less than West counterparts this year, and that makes some of the all-star selections feel a bit off. Unlike with the playoffs, too, there’s no easy way to implement a crossover.
This will presumably be partly remedied with the league all-star picks (expect a lot of West winners there), but it’s still unfortunate for the good players in the West who might have outperformed East all-stars, but couldn’t crack the West team. All-star selections are quite significant; they matter to contract bonuses, and they matter to what players earn in free agency or with contract extensions. Thus, being deprived of an all-star pick based on where you play feels harsh. For now, this is probably only something to watch, as this is one of the few times the all-stars have seemed so unbalanced. If the divisional all-star balance stays this way in future years, though, it will only add to the case for those who want to eliminate divisions.