November 5, 2012
Eskimos rookie QB Matt Nichols ready, willing and able
By TERRY JONES, QMI Agency
EDMONTON - Not. Ready. Yet.
That was the label attached to Edmonton Eskimos quarterback Matt Nichols.
There was no sign around his neck proclaiming that. No quote-unquote. Just no time behind the centre.
But it appears different now.
Ready. Willing. Able.
That’s the new label seemingly attached to Nichols headed into the playoffs.
It’s interesting as Nichols, a young quarterback from Redding, Calif. — the same hometown as Ricky Ray — heads to Toronto for a possible showdown against the Eskimos’ former starter.
Ray wasn’t the first starter or star quarterback the Eskimos traded away. There was a time when the Eskimos found quarterbacks and developed them for the rest of the league.
Matt Dunigan. Damon Allen. Tracy Ham.
They traded all of them away.
The difference was that there was always one waiting in the wings.
But suddenly there’s every evidence, in the final quarter of the 17th game of the season and the last three quarters of the 18th game of the year, that Matt Nichols may now be ready.
And if he is, going against Ricky Ray Sunday as the quarterback for the fourth-place, 7-11 West crossover team in the East Division semifinal, there’s a story to be written and history to be made.
Certainly there’s opportunity for the Eastern Washington University grad who passed for 12,616 yards — sixth in NCAA history — who had been here a year and a half without taking a play behind centre until this year as a third-string clipboard carrier, until the door finally opened behind Steven Jyles and Kerry Joseph.
“Getting playing time in the post season would be tremendous for Matt’s development,” said Kavis Reed.
The head coach intends to remain cagey throughout the week about whether or not he’ll start veteran Kerry Joseph and go to Nichols within two or three series, as was the plan versus Calgary until the Eskimos were handed their crossover playoff spot the night before by a Hamilton Tiger-Cats loss.
“The post season is a huge stage and it would provide him with invaluable experience,” said Reed.
“It would also give the organization a chance to gather more information on a player deemed to be its future leader.”
Monday Reed walked the tightrope on the topic in his media scrum.
“The last few weeks have given us an opportunity to look at both quarterbacks and we have concluded that we have two very good quarterbacks,” said the coach, who for most of the season hadn’t concluded he even had one.
“We have two guys who are capable of leading this football team. We’re going to continue to evaluate that up until probably Thursday or Friday. But right now, not to be coy or try to be evasive, but we feel we have two starting quarterbacks.
“The biggest thing is evaluating the entire situation. Kerry Joseph has tremendous playoff experience. He’s won a Grey Cup. He’s been Grey Cup MVP.
“Matt has done tremendously well in his two starts. He commands the offence exceptionally well. He moves around the pocket very well. Both have similar attributes in terms of their reads. Both can come off the bench and do well. Both can start and do well. It’s a situation we’re going to have to be very careful and deliberate about, to make the right decision.
“Who is best going to be the guy if one struggles? And from the psychological perspective, not just from a numbers perspective, who is going to be the guy who is best able to handle the start? And if, and hopefully this is not the case, if someone has any issues, who is the best one to come off the bench and do it?”
It’s the same decision the Eskimos were facing last week, preparing for the final regular season game against the Calgary Stampeders if it were a sudden-death, in-the-playoffs-or-out game.
Reed chose to announce Joseph as his starting quarterback with the idea he’d be quick to go to Nichols.
“If the game is a 0-0 situation, Matt Nichols will come in,” said Reed the morning before the Hamilton Tiger-Cats played the Argos in their final regular season game.
“We can’t go more than three series in that situation. We’d need to bring Matt in to inject confidence, tempo and speed,” he said then.
When the Tiger-Cats lost to the Argos and gave the Eskimos a playoff position, Reed elected to give the start to Nichols.
It’s interesting that 39-year-old Joseph, who has been mentoring Nichols all year, went into the film room Monday morning to do the same thing.
“I’m going to prepare like I have all year, watching film and taking ideas from Kerry,” said Nichols.
Which way should Kavis Reed go?
Start Kerry Joseph and give Matt Nichols a chance to watch a series or three before going in, if Joseph hasn’t had early success?
Start Nichols because he earned it in the last five quarters, with old pro Joseph there to come off the bench if he falters?
Make no mistake, Reed’s team has spoken with their body language — the way there’s a bounce in their step on the way to the huddle and between the lines in their post-game quotes, that Nichols is the young man they want to post season play and forward to the future.
And consider what Nichols managed to do in his last five quarters of the season.
He was 27 for 45 for 571 yards, with five touchdowns against two interceptions. Three of the touchdowns and 280 yards were to Stamps, who moved from out of the top five in the league into second place, 18 yards behind Toronto’s Chad Owens for the CFL receiving crown.
On his first play from scrimmage in the fourth quarter in Montreal, Nichols threw deep to Fred Stamps for a 95-yard touchdown and produced a two-point convert. A TD pass to Shamawd Chambers and another to Stamps, and Nichols was a failed two-point convert try at the end from getting the 27-25 game to overtime. He threw TD tosses to Stamps and Cary Koch and put another one into the end zone on the ground in the 30-27 loss to Calgary.
“That was big for my development,” Nichols admitted Monday before heading into quarterback meetings, as the week of preparation began leading to Sunday’s East Division quarter-final against the Argos in Toronto.
“Obviously I hadn’t played a ton yet in this league.
“As the fourth quarterback last year, not travelling with the team, I felt more like sort of an up-close spectator,” said the QB who spent the year as healthy as a horse on the Eskimos injury list.
He said he’s had to keep reminding himself of one thing.
“I’m 25. I don’t turn 26 until March. I have to keep in mind there’s no starting quarterback in this league under 29. I have a lot to learn.
“This year I’ve felt so much more involved. They’ve very much been my teammates this year and their reaction to me has been awesome.
“I’ve had some very good coaches who stressed to me that there is a lot more to being a quarterback than just reading defences and throwing the football. Being a leader is even more important. And by that, I mean your teammates knowing you are spending a lot of time in the film room and being willing to do anything it takes to be successful. Creating that kind of belief to make your teammates want to follow you is the biggest role of a quarterback — showing your teammates you’re willing to do anything … that’s what I’m hoping to do.”
There’s only one way to do that, and that’s to do it.
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