How to make a CFL QB

BILL LANKHOF, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 12:56 AM ET

“A man must make his opportunity, as oft as find it.”

— Francis Bacon

The recipe for the making of a Canadian Football League quarterback is elusive and inconstant.

Bacon’s observation on the human condition came nearly 400 years ago, before there was a football, a Canada, before the rouge was invented to perplex a nation of Americans, even before there was an Anthony Calvillo.

But for the spirited young quarterbacks who come north from Bayou country, the American midwest, the sun-kissed California surf and the halls of the Ivy League intelligentsia each Canadian Football League spring, it could well be their motto for success.

CFL quarterbacks are made more often than they are found. Most times it takes years of practice, study and training.

“It’s probably about 85% mental because all the guys who come up here have the physical tools. It almost always comes down to whether they have the patience, the ability and willingness to adjust and the mental toughness to overcome when things go wrong,” says Toronto Argonauts head coach Jim Barker.

There seems to be no concrete formula that makes up a great CFL quarterback.

A great arm helps but Tommy Clements survived more on a prayer than a wing.

It helps to be speedy or elusive. But Danny McManus touched greatness and never looked anything close to leaping tall buildings and Calvillo has become one of the best quarterbacks in history while showing all the ambulant zoomability of the CN Tower.

The list of former National Football League and U.S. college stars who have tried, and failed, to make it in the Canadian version of the game is long. While few would argue the populist pre-eminence of the NFL, an argument can be made that at least at the quarterback position, the Canadian game may be more difficult to master.

“The CFL is a more challenging game than the American,” says Matt Dunigan, CFL Hall of Fame QB with Edmonton, Toronto, Winnipeg, Birmingham and Hamilton from 1983 to 1996.

“It asks a quarterback to do more every play, of every series, of every game.”

He should know.

Dunigan was a star in American and Canadian football, breaking many of Pittsburgh Steelers’ quarterback Terry Bradshaw’s records at Louisiana Tech.

“On second and 10 you just can’t throw it away and call another play on third down,” says Dunigan.

“You have to pull it down and make something happen within the scheme and NOT do something stupid.”

There is a huge philosophical abyss that rookie quarterbacks must overcome. The entire approach to the game changes from what many are used to in the NFL or U.S. colleges.

“You can’t be conservative as a quarterback up here,” says Bob O’Billovich, who has been scouting and coaching in the CFL since joining the Ottawa Rough Riders from Montana State as a defensive back and quarterback in 1963.

“There’s a whole different attitude to the position.”

A CFL quarterback has to be athletic enough to run for yardage and move the chains when plays break down, he has to be a decent passer — but more than strength, he needs to be accurate.

Most of all, he needs to know how and when to be creative and when, as Dunigan notes, to be patient.

The best analogy when comparing NCAA or NFL quarterbacks to those in the CFL probably comes from Wally Buono, general manager with the B.C. Lions: “We teach our quarterbacks how to win; they teach their quarterbacks how not to lose.”

The CFL is a big-play league. If the NFL is three-downs and a cloud of dust; the CFL is one down and what took you so long.

Says O’Billovich: “With three-down football you can’t be conservative. You gotta move the ball. Down there sometimes they don’t want you to be aggressive throwing the ball, just run it, throw screens and let the defence and kicking game take care of the rest. Our game doesn’t allow that kind of philosophy.”

O’Billovich argues that the Canadian game has always been innovative, that it requires quarterbacks to be able to make decisions quickly, often on the run.

“You need a guy with instinct and smarts. A quarterback has to study the game. He’s almost like a coach on the field, especially now with the defences being more complicated and the five-receiver sets.”

Technically speaking

What skill set does a CFL quarterback need?

What he doesn’t need is to be able to make tracks like The Roadrunner.

The biggest misconception about the CFL is that “in the States, they think our quarterbacks are runners first,” says O’Billovich.

Montreal’s Jim Popp agrees. Now in his 14th season grading talent he has the best record of any general manager in the CFL over the past decade.

“You always hear, ‘Oh, he’s an athletic quarterback and should go to the CFL.’ That type of player has an opportunity to do a little more in our league because there’s room with the wider field. But really when you analyze it, the ones who can make all the throws required on a CFL field are the ones usually who have the most success. If they can run, it gives you a double whammy.”

O’Billovich receives countless phone calls every year from agents, coaches and U.S. colleges.

“They always say, ‘Hey, we’ve got a guy for your league. Great athlete ... .’ But the point is our quarterbacks have to be great passers first. They’ve got to able to throw that wide-side out. A hitch on our field is a long way. That’s a 40-yard pass sometimes. You can’t have someone floating a lame duck out there or it’s going the other way.”

The bigger field may give quarterbacks more room to run and throw but what is sometimes overlooked is that it also gives defensive backs more space to intercept passes and more time to recover while covering pass patterns.

O’Billovich recalls going to U.S. campuses and asking quarterbacks to throw from the far hash marks to the centre of the field.

“That way I’d get some idea of whether they had the arm strength to make the throws in our league. If they couldn’t do that, if they didn’t have that arm, it was questionable whether you should give them a look.”

It is also necessary not to become infatuated by speed alone. Football isn’t a track meet.

“Some guys can give you a great time on the clock in a 40-yard dash on a straight line and there’s other guys who might be average on the clock — but when you put them in a game they play fast,” says O’Billovich.

He points to Doug Flutie and even Clements.

“When those guys went up field it was like they were leading a fast break,” says O’Billovich. “There’s game speed and clock speed and a lot of times the guys who have the instincts and game speed will make more plays.”

For Dunigan, the ideal CFL quarterback is someone with arm strength, mental toughness and the “ability to create while understanding and using the motion, the extra man, the 20-second clock as opposed to the 45 (second clock) they have in the States. A lot of guys come up here with a bounce in their step thinking they’re going to own this game and reality is quite different.”

At first, says Dunigan, all that motion can be confusing but “as a quarterback it’s a weapon that you can use offensively. You can’t be overwhelmed by it. You have to embrace motion not fear it ... it’s there to cause confusion in the defence.”

Dalton Bell, in his second CFL season after being undrafted by the NFL out of West Texas A&M, says that motion and the 12th man have been the biggest adjustment for him.

“You’re so used to seeing guys stationary. It’s easier. The first time you see guys moving it can throw things off especially when you know back in the States if a (defensive player) comes across it’s (man-to-man defence) — but here a guy comes across and it’s still zone.”

When it comes to scouting for quarterbacks the only sure thing is that there is no sure thing.

“You just have to be able to sense and know that when you (scout) a guy he MIGHT be suited to our game,” says O’Billovich.

Small pond, big fish

The CFL truly is an equal-opportunity employer, at least when it comes to small-college players.

From humble beginnings arise many a star.

Ricky Ray came through Shasta Community College, a budding career as a Frito-Lay delivery man, and Sacramento State, hardly traditional purveyors of football talent.

“The bigger-name guys, or those who come from major colleges, are often in offensive systems that we don’t run up here. They may be great players for their type of offences but they don’t suit our game. So, we don’t waste our time with guys like that,” says O’Billovich.

So, many CFL quarterbacks come from more modest conferences such as the Big Sky or WAC where emphasis is placed on the passing game.

Calvillo went to Utah State. Damon Allen went to Cal-State Fullerton. Saskatchewan’s Darian Durant is out of North Carolina.

“Guys are sometimes hid. They play for such small schools that nobody notices or maybe they play for such bad teams that their talents aren’t allowed to show,” says Popp. “That’s where good scouting comes in, finding that hidden guy.”

Henry Burris was a record-setting QB at Temple.

“You do find the occasional guy from the big schools who embraces the league but, mostly,” says Barker, “it’s the small school guys who seem better prepared to play here.”

Aside from a familiarity with a gung-ho passing attitude, Dunigan sees something else in the small-college quarterback.

Many, he says, have had to fight their whole life to prove themselves. They’re tough mentally because they’ve had to conquer failure, even disdain.

“It’s not the only reason, but I think it bodes well for those guys” he says. “They’ve built a lot of the characteristics I like to see. Those things are developed through having to work through adversity.

“They might not have all the measurable qualities but they’ve got the intangibles. You can control your mind set, your work ethic, your willingness to prepare to win. Everyone wants to win but you have to be willing to prepare to win — that’s going to make the difference. Maybe those guys have a leg up because they’re used to doing that.

“That’s in their backpack every day, it’s in their makeup and I love that.”

Dave Dickenson went from the University of Montana to become the CFL’s most outstanding player. Jeff Garcia came out of San Jose State. Meantime, major college stars such as Eric Crouch, Major Harris, Andre Ware and NFL refugees from Vince Ferragamo to Gibran Hamdan are mere footnotes.

There is a suspicion that many major college stars have certain expectations when they turn pro.

Playing in the CFL, often starting as backups at blue-collar wages, usually isn’t one of those expectations.

“In this league you just have to love playing football. You’re not making millions of dollars. Things are different up here than in the NFL or the major colleges because up here they’re not pandered to,” says Barker.

“When you come from Division III, you don’t have a big program with lots of people around doing things for you like players do in the major college programs.

“I’ve always believed the best players up here come from (smaller) schools because they’re hungrier and they absolutely love the game.”

Patience & persistence

Nobody this side of Ricky Ray or Doug Flutie becomes an overnight success.

It took Burris 10 years to win a Grey Cup.

Calvillo had to wait as Tracy Ham’s understudy in Montreal to get a starting job and then didn’t become a champion until his 11th season.

Kerry Joseph and Khari Jones were both 30 years old before they made their impact in the CFL.

“Guys, especially if they’ve been stars in the NCAA, they want to go somewhere they can play. They lose patience but if they look there’s a lesson to be learned,” says Popp.

“Most of the quarterbacks in the CFL Hall of Fame never came into the league as starters. They came in as backups, some of them for as long as five or six years.

“McManus, Austin, Allen, Dunigan, Ham, all were backups. But they learned, they waited their turn. And if they learn well, when their turns came, they were able to perform. But sometimes when you’re young, it’s difficult to be patient.”

Popp has precisely this storyline unfolding in Montreal where Calvillo, 38, is playing ahead of Chris Leak, 25, a star at Florida and former Florida State standout, Adrian McPherson.

Leak seems to have quietly accepted his role.

“Never heard a peep out of him,” says Popp.

“But the thing is he also wants to be a coach and he’s already taking advantage of a position that has seen him play under Steve Spurrier, Urban Meyer and now Marc Trestman. He’s had some great people to learn from and he’s already working on building his own playbook.”

McPherson, like Leak looking at a third season in a backup role, has taken a different approach. He’s made it known that if he can’t start with the Alouettes he will leave after this season.

“Adrian has had tremendous success in his career, always played. He was an Arena League superstar. Anyone who has had all that playing time and finds himself sitting, would find it frustrating and Adrian has. He’s learned to handle it. He hasn’t caused any problems, but he wants to play,” says Popp.

“The other day Tracy Ham was here and told him just to be patient. He told him it’s one thing to sit behind a superstar. It’s another to take that opportunity and learn from it and put it to use.”

Dunigan would become a quarterback who, like his boyhood heroes such as Billy Kilmer and Sonny Jurgensen, would rather leave blood and guts than defeat on the field.

But it took apprenticeship behind Warren Moon and six seasons before he would lead the Eskimos to a Grey Cup.

“How long did it take me to grasp everything possible — well, probably about eight years,” says Dunigan, named one of the league’s “Top 50” players after retiring to the broadcast booth.

He laughs. “Of course, I may be a little slow on the up-take. To be honest, by that time, I was in my third offence, in my third team, I had four different head coaches by then, different philosophies, you’ve seen a lot. It just doesn’t happen that quickly. It’s a difficult game and it’s always changing.”

A case of the smarts

One of the most important things for a CFL quarterback is to be able to run for daylight — as long as that big, wide vacant space isn’t between his ears.

“The most succesful are also often the smartest,” says Popp.

They have learned the game on the field and they have learned the game around the game.

Barker has a roster full of inexperienced CFL quarterbacks this season with the Toronto Argonauts.

“Often it comes down to whether guys can overcome mental stresses. For instance, you know the press sometime is going to say Cleo Lemon never should’ve been here, the guy can’t play here ... now the question becomes can he overcome that? Is he going to press? Is he going to try to do something he can’t do?

“You have to withstand that stuff: You throw an interception. How are you going to react? A lot of times a guy gets intercepted and now he’s just going to throw underneath and he won’t go through his reads and trust his ability. Can they handle THAT?

“The number one thing is a guy has to handle the ups and downs. Those that press will be out of the league.”

Paul Masotti retired in 2000 as the Argonauts’ all-time leading receiver. This was thanks in large part to two seasons spent as one of Doug Flutie’s favourite targets.

What made Flutie, and others like Allen, such a great success was an ability to read defences, says Masotti.

“It’s being able to visualize where the openings will be. It’s not unlike a receiver because there were times I knew where the hole would be before the play started.

“It was just a matter of pushing the defence and getting to that hole and it’s the same with a quarterback. It’s knowing where the players are going to be.”

Masotti uses hockey’s Wayne Gretzky as a parallel. Gretzky had an innate ability to know not only where everyone he was playing with was, but also where they were going.

“How many times did we see Gretzky just go across the blueline, plant his butt against the boards and pass; you had no idea where it was going and some guy would come out of nowhere and pick it up for a shot on net.

“The succesful quarterbacks are similar to that. They find targets before they’re targets.”

Masotti amassed four consecutive 1,000-yard seasons from 1994-1997, the final two under Flutie.

“I asked him once why he thought it was that we connected so well on the field and he told me it was just because he could read my body language,” says Masotti.

“He understood just the way I was running where I was going to go and where he had to put the ball.”

That’s not the kind of thing they teach in college.

Some of it is intuitive and the rest isn’t learned in a day.

The making of a CFL quarterback takes time, talent, patience and perhaps most important, just a light sprinkling of fairy dust.


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