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Who is that masked QB, anyway?

Andrew Bucholtz
55 Yard Line

Winnipeg Blue Bombers' Buck Pierce (4) scrambles for yards against the Hamilton Tiger-Cats' Matt Kirk (93) in first quarter CFL action in Winnipeg, Friday, August 13, 2010. THE CANADIAN PRESS/John Woods

The Winnipeg Blue Bombers may be slightly less secretive than the Portland Winterhawks about who's suiting up for them, but they're still operating in a rather cloak-and-dagger fashion by CFL standards. Most teams have one starting quarterback, perhaps going to a backup if the starter is injured or ineffective. If a change is going to be made for a particular week, the coach usually mentions it after the preceding game or by that week's first practice.

Winnipeg opted for a different tactic this week. As recently as Friday, head coach Paul LaPolice still refused to confirm if it would be Buck Pierce or Steven Jyles under centre for today's clash against the Saskatchewan Roughriders. LaPolice initially said that the decision wouldn't be announced until game-time, but it eventually came out Saturday that Pierce would get the call.

Keeping the starter under wraps as late as possible is an interesting tactic, however. According to LaPolice's comments to Ed Tait of The Winnipeg Free Press in that first link, it's a common one:

"Most places I've been, and whether it's in the colleges or in the NFL, they wouldn't announce right up until game time. I think I'm right and it's what most coaches would do. It'll be a game-time announcement just to give Saskatchewan a little bit more to think about. They may not change their plan, but that's our right."

Is that really accurate, though? Most college and NFL teams tend to maintain the same starter week to week. If there is a change, it's usually made by at least mid-week rather than a day before the game. The most prominent quarterback change in the NFL last year was probably the Tennessee Titans' decision to go from Kerry Collins to Vince Young after they fell to 0-6, but that was confirmed by head coach Jeff Fisher on the Thursday of their game week, long before they were set to kick off. There were signs of that change as early as Wednesday.

Fisher said holding the announcement until Thursday was for "competitive reasons". It appears he subscribes to the same school of thought as LaPolice, but there's still quite a difference between announcing your starting quarterback Thursday and Saturday. (By the way, that change worked out rather well for Tennessee: they beat Jacksonville 30-13 and rebounded behind Young to finish the season 8-8). There are other cases where the starters have been hidden until shortly before kickoff, such as then-USC coach Pete Carroll's decision to start Aaron Corp against Washington last year, which ESPN only found out one day before the game. Those cases are the exceptions rather than the rule, however, so LaPolice's comments appear to be a bit disingenuous.

Of course, the most important element of LaPolice's job as head coach is finding ways for his team to win. He doesn't have to tell the media or the fans who he's planning to start early in the week. It's unclear whether hiding the starter is really going to lead to an advantage on the field for Winnipeg, though. Pierce and Jyles are both reasonably mobile quarterbacks who can run, and given the injuries and ineffective play both have battled at times this year, it would be logical for Saskatchewan to prepare for both regardless of who's listed as the starter. Furthermore, a reluctance to publicly name a starter can perhaps undermine the confidence of whoever winds up starting and have them constantly looking over their shoulder. It's LaPolice's job to weigh the potential benefits of secrecy against the potential damage to the confidence of his starting pivot and his team. We'll see how this move works out for him.

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