Welcome to 55-Yard Line, Yahoo! Sports Canada’s new CFL blog. My name’s Andrew Bucholtz, and I’ll be your host for a journey through the world of Canadian football. I’ve been blogging for five years over at Sporting Madness and other places around the Internet, including The CIS Blog. I’ve also served as the sports editor with The Queen’s Journal and as a reporter with the Black Press chain of community newspapers. You can get in touch with me via e-mail at email@example.com or Twitter at @AndrewBucholtz.
Friday's CFL game looked like a bit of a mismatch, with the basement-dwelling B.C. Lions (1-7 heading into the clash) taking on the top-of-the-East Montreal Alouettes (6-2 going in). The Alouettes were without reigning league MVP Anthony Calvillo and normal backup quarterback Adrian McPherson, but their third-string quarterback had a bit of a higher profile than most people buried at that level on the depth chart. Chris Leak capped off his stellar NCAA career in 2007 by leading the Florida Gators to a 41-14 rout of Ohio State in the BCS national championship game, so, as Herb Zurkowsky of The Gazette wrote heading into Friday's game, it seemed reasonable to conclude he'd be able to handle the pressure of his first CFL start.
Leak had only seen limited CFL action prior to Friday's game, but he had been in the Alouettes' organization since June 2008 and looked reasonably solid in relief of the injured Calvillo two weeks ago against Winnipeg. He completed 10 of 15 passes for 99 yards and two touchdowns in that game while being picked off once, which is about as much as you can expect from a backup thrown in cold mid-game. Playing at home against the lowly Lions, with two weeks for Leak to prepare and for the Alouettes' coaching staff to modify their offensive schemes to suit him, the deck seemed stacked in his favour.
Even the best cards are no guarantee of success when player error comes into it, though, and Leak played more as if he was holding a pair of deuces than a full house. He completed 15 of 25 passes on the day, but only achieved 135 yards through the air. Much was made of his mobility heading into the game, but he only ran once for nine yards. Worse, he threw two interceptions and fumbled once in the third quarter, giving the Lions the chance to pull away. They won 38-17, giving Montreal their first home loss in 14 games in the process. It was the first time they'd fallen at Molson Stadium since a loss to Winnipeg Oct. 26, 2008.
The key question coming out of the loss is just what went wrong for Leak and Montreal. Was it Leak's lack of CFL playing time in his years with the Alouettes, as Pat Hickey of The Gazette theorizes? Was it a combination of the pressure of starting and the time B.C. spent preparing for Leak, as Zurkowsky writes? Could it have been the Alouettes' more conservative game plan early on, which saw Leak throw 10 short completions for only 78 yards in the first half? Is Montreal's success even more dependent on Calvillo than we'd thought? What about the Lions, whose losses have mostly been narrow and who have always played competitively against the Alouettes?
There aren't any easy answers for Leak and the Alouettes, but it's worth remembering that big-college backgrounds don't always translate into success at the CFL level, especially at the quarterback position. The three pivots who have thrown the most touchdowns this year are Calgary's Henry Burris, Calvillo and Hamilton's Kevin Glenn, who hail from Temple, Utah State and Illinois State respectively. In terms of passing yards, Saskatchewan's Darian Durant leads the league; he hails from North Carolina, which is a reasonably renowned football school, but hardly on the level of Florida. At the moment, the league's other starting signal-callers are Ricky Ray (Sacramento State), Buck Pierce (New Mexico State), Cleo Lemon (Arkansas State) and Casey Printers, who played at Texas Christian and Florida A&M. That's hardly the list of alma maters you'd expect if being part of a great NCAA team was key to CFL success.
It's also worth noting that Leak was replaced by Ricky Santos Friday, and Santos promptly completed 10 of 12 passes for 93 yards and two touchdowns (granted, they came in garbage time). Santos came from the New Hampshire Wildcats, who play before crowds of 8,000 in the FCS-level Colonial Athletic Association. That's a long way from the 88,548 who regularly watched Leak and the Gators at the Swamp, but that didn't stop Santos from looking like a bigger star against the Lions.
One game isn't proof of a career trajectory, of course, and it's quite possible Leak may yet turn into a valuable CFL quarterback. He's only 25, and he still has time to develop. The list of those pivots who have found CFL success suggests big-college backgrounds are far from essential, though. Leak's national title championship is a great story, but it's three years in the past. From this point forward, he'll be judged by what he's able to do in the Alouettes' colours, not what he once achieved in orange and blue.