Last week the Argonauts cut Rocky Butler and Anthony Davis. This got me thinking... Why would the Argos cut a running back they just traded for a few months ago? Apparently, now that they have Kerry Joseph they simply have no need for a running back. But more importantly, it also got me thinking about the status of back-up quarterbacks and how it's been years since the Riders have developed one.
Rocky Butler arrived in Saskatchewan in 2002 as the 4th string quarterback. No one knew anything about him or really cared (whereas 6 years later, people know slightly more about him and care slightly less). He won the big Labour Day game that year (due entirely to brilliant play calling rather than anything Rocky actually did himself) and people started to get excited that maybe we'd found the next great one. But he spent the next 4 years with a clipboard surgically attached to his hands and, a short resurgence in 2006 aside, faded away into the background again. Then all of a sudden we're headed into the 2007 season, Rocky is now 28 years old, never did develop into that next great quarterback, so Tillman ships him off to Hamilton. Not even a year later he's already been through Hamilton and Toronto, and has now been cut for possibly the last time. Such is often the life of a CFL back up.
For years, the CFL just kept bouncing all the same names around the league at starting quarterback. In the 90's it was Allen, McManus, Ham, Dunigan, Flutie etc. All those quarterbacks were getting older (with the exception of Damon, who apparently doesn't age), and there was no real answer as to who was going to take over for them. Then the next round of guys stepped up, and in this decade it's been guys like Burris, Dickenson, Calvillo, Khari. But now we're getting to the point where it's once again time for the changing of the guard, and the search is on for the next crop of elite quarterbacks.
In recent years, we've seen players such as Ray, Pierce, Glenn, Printers and Bishop step up from unknown back-up status and grab the spotlight. Those are going to be the guys that are getting the attention as the league goes into the next decade. But the thing with everyone on these lists, all the way back to the guys in the 90s, is that none of them were developed in Saskatchewan.
Our philosophy on QBs has always been to acquire rather than develop. In 2000, we needed a QB - acquire Burris. 2002 - trade for Nealon. 2006 - trade so we can draft Joseph. Our most promising QB prospect in recent years, Kevin Glenn, was shipped off before his development was complete.
But this year we are seeing some pretty strong signs that our philosophy is shifting. All our acquired starters are gone: Burris skipped town for more money, Joseph was shipped off for similar reasons and Nealon... well he's fallen off the face of the earth which suits me just fine. While I do miss his musical stylings, his football skills often made me envious of Helen Keller's inability to see and hear.
We have 3 young QBs who are all highly touted (good word "touted") and who management have high hopes for. The expectation is clear... one of them will step up and win the back-up spot - A prize package that also includes being our starter come '09 and, depending on how things go, maybe even sooner.
For years, the mere thought of a young quarterback starting for the Riders (Butler's dominance of Hamilton notwithstanding) had me thinking the Riders would have about as much chance at sustained success as Hanson. That's a situation that isn't unique to the Riders - all one has to do is recall Higgins' "No, but he's going to have to" when asked whether Akili Smith was ready to start last year for evidence of that - but it seems that other teams have put themselves in positions where they have the chance to get lucky and find a young quarterback that can be effective in the Canadian game much more regularly than we have. Somehow the Edmonton's and BC's of the world seem to be able to bring together that ideal combination of natural skill, effective coaching and valuable in-game experience that translates into success any time it is needed.
Eric Tillman seems to be committed to building the future of his team around the belief that at least one of his young quarterbacks will be the next great CFL quarterback - a strategy similar to jumping out of an airplane based on the rumour that your backpack contains a parachute. But I think Tillman’s plan will pay off given how good a motivator he can be for Jyles, Tate and Durant. If you show you’ve got what it takes to make it in the CFL, Tillman will reward you with the reigns to the team. If you come up short you’ll be rewarded with a one-way plane ticket and new coloured jersey.
It’s all or nothing, which is going to make for one heck of a training camp.