In a world of professional sports where teams are always focused on finding younger and cheaper players, it's incredibly impressive to see the amount of long-tenured CFL players who manage to not only survive, but thrive. I remarked on this last year when the CFL divisional all-stars were announced, with 37 per cent of the East team and 48 per cent of the West team being 30 or older at the time, and it's worth bringing up again when you look at the transactions that have happened over the last few days. Sure, Ben Cahoon, Rob Lazeo and Ryan Thelwell all retired recently, but Cahoon played until he was 38 and the two Stampeders played until they were 37. That's a good run in any sport, but it's particularly notable in such a physical game as football.
What's even more remarkable is how many long-time CFL veterans are coming back, and how many of them are expected to play critical roles. The B.C. Lions just signed 36-year-old defensive back Davis Sanchez (pictured at right battling Montreal's S.J. Green for a pass in an August game) through 2013, reportedly with a pay raise, and it looks like they might be hanging on to 41-year-old kicker Paul McCallum (a deserving selection as the team's top player last year), at least for the next little while. They also appear to be planning to start 34-year-old centre Angus Reid this year.
The Lions aren't the only team expecting key contributions from older players .The Calgary Stampeders apparently made 31-year-old receiver Romby Bryant one of the top-five paid CFL receivers today, and the Montreal Alouettes just locked up 38-year-old quarterback Anthony Calvillo for two more seasons. That's with him coming off surgery to remove cancerous cells in his thyroid, too. Clearly, the Alouettes are pretty confident Calvillo can still perform at the level that made him a strong most outstanding player candidate this year.
The quarterback position is particularly interesting in terms of age. Of the projected starters heading into the 2011 season, Calvillo is the oldest at 38, but Calgary's Henry Burris isn't far behind at 35. Hamilton's Kevin Glenn is 31, as is Edmonton's Ricky Ray and Toronto's Cleo Lemon. Only three teams have a projected starting quarterback under 30; Winnipeg can choose between 29-year-old Buck Pierce and 28-year-old Steven Jyles, while Saskatchewan's Darian Durant is 28 and B.C.'s Travis Lulay is 27. It's perhaps most notable that Calvillo and Burris, the league's two oldest starting quarterbacks, were the East and West division nominees for the league's Most Outstanding Player award last season. Clearly, age hasn't slowed them down too much.
It's not just the men under centre, though. Age also hasn't weighed heavily on the likes of McCallum (by far the league's best kicker last year), or 33-year-old Barrin Simpson, who led the CFL in tackles. There are a whole cast of veteran receivers who were outstanding last season, including 31-year-old Terrence Edwards (second in receiving yards), 33-year-old Arland Bruce III (third) and 35-year-old Geroy Simon (seventh). In fact, if you go through any position, you'll find many of the top players are over 30, and some are quite a ways over.
By contrast, the NFL tends to skew more to younger players. If you look at the six primary individual stats categories they track (passing yards, rushing yards, receiving yards, tackles, sacks, interceptions), five of the six leaders from the 2010 season are under 30. The exception is the Ravens' Ed Reed, who led the league in interceptions with eight, but he's only 32. Moreover, two of those category leaders (Jerod Mayo and Arian Foster) are only 24; it's very rare indeed to find a CFL player who makes that kind of impact that young. Former B.C. Lions receiver Emmanuel Arceneaux (who turned 23 last season) is about the closest I can think of, but despite all his skill, he didn't finish in the top-10 in receiving yards, let alone on top (he was 11th).
Why do we see this difference between the leagues? I think it's primarily due to a couple of factors. First, the CFL is still hard-hitting, but its players tend to be smaller than those in the NFL these days. Force is mass times acceleration, after all, so (overall) there's less destructive force exerted on CFL players. That's also perhaps aided by the larger field, which gives offensive players more room to maneuver and avoid tacklers. Also, the emphasis on the pass means there are less plays that have to end in violent collisions; most running plays result in a big hit, but passing plays often end in the ball sailing incomplete, the receiver making a catch and then stepping out of bounds, or the receiver being dragged down in the open field rather than hit full-on. That's not to say that pass plays aren't violent, as they certainly are, but on the whole, the CFL's game does tend to produce less of the brutal hits that do serious damage and shorten players' careers.
Perhaps even more important, though, is the time it takes to adapt to the CFL. Many of the American players coming into the league have never played the three-down game before, and a lot of the concepts are significantly different from the four-down system. The extra man on each side often means routes and coverage schemes have to be completely relearned, and the formations and motion involved are drastically different too. When you add that CFL teams have less practice time and less off-season time together than NFL squads, it's easy to see how it takes a while to adjust.
That fits in with what Simpson told me at the Roughriders' Grey Cup breakfast earlier this year. At age 33, he had one of his best seasons statistically, and he said his experience was a huge part of the reason why:
"I think this was one of my best seasons. Going out there, it's getting easier because you know what to do, what to prepare for and how to prepare in the off-season. It's much easier now as a ten-year vet than it was as a five-year vet. ... I like to say I'm like fine wine, I get better with age."
We see plenty of players who struggle to adapt from the NCAA to the NFL, or even from one NFL team's system to another; adjusting to the CFL is much more difficult, as it's a brand of football that most have little to no experience with. It's easier for Canadian players, but there's still a huge jump from the CIS ranks to the CFL. That's why a lot of young players, despite great athleticism, don't exactly set the league on fire at first, and I'd venture it also is part of the reason so many older players still do so well. Experience is incredibly valuable in the CFL, as Simpson stated, and for at least a while yet, it should continue to be a league where older players can thrive.