On Brannagan and the rule the CFL should change

Saturday's Toronto Argonauts - Saskatchewan Roughriders clash featured plenty of intriguing storylines. Dalton Bell made his first regular-season CFL start in Toronto colours against his old team, while Ryan Grice-Mullen and Jamie Boreham faced off one year to the day after their last collision. The Roughriders were trying to avoid further too-many-men penalties, while Cory Boyd returned to the Argonauts' lineup after dealing with physical and emotional trauma. In the end, the Roughriders came out with a 27-16 victory and clinched a playoff spot. Yet, the most important long-term storyline coming out of this one may revolve around a man who didn't play a single down.

Danny Brannagan (pictured above in preseason action for Toronto this year) received much more attention heading into this one than your typical third-string quarterback, and for good reason. Brannagan may not be leading Earth armadas, but he is second all-time in passing yardage in Canadian university football history*, and is fresh off a Vanier Cup victory with Queen's last year, but couldn't even crack an active CFL roster until this week.

(*Note: The CP story lists Brannagan as the all-time passing leader, which was briefly true last year (and I initially ran with that here before looking into it again). Brannagan broke Matt Connell's career yardage record, but then had his own record broken by another star Canadian quarterback, Western's Michael Faulds, who remains the current leader according to the CIS record book. Those stats don't include playoff numbers, so I'm not sure how they'd change if you added those in; both quarterbacks had long playoff runs, with Faulds taking the Mustangs to the 2008 Vanier Cup (where they lost to Laval) and Brannagan winning the 2009 Vanier with the Gaels. In any case, Brannagan got his revenge on Faulds in the 2009 playoffs, beating him in a thrilling Yates Cup shootout to win the OUA championship. Faulds is currently the York Lions' offensive coordinator. Apologies for the faulty memory.)

When the Argonauts announced they would promote Brannagan from the practice squad and dress him as their third quarterback thanks to Cleo Lemon's injury, it marked one of the increasingly rare opportunities for Canadian quarterbacks in the CFL. Yes, Brannagan didn't see any playing time, but as Argonauts' head coach Jim Barker pointed out that doesn't diminish the importance of this moment:

"‘Well, someone is going to come to Rogers Centre tomorrow and they're going to see Danny Brannagan down there in warmups in uniform and be able to say, 'Maybe one day I'll be able to play quarterback,'' Barker said. ‘That's good for football across Canada.'

‘It's about Canadian quarterbacks. I had a football school (in Calgary) and had 20 young kids from age 10 through high school and to have a high school kid who has some ability come up and say, 'Coach, I want to play pro football so maybe I need to change positions,' is wrong ... it makes my skin crawl.'"

It's been quite a while since a Canadian quarterback's made any impact at that position in the CFL. The last one to start was Giulio Caravatta, who earned one start for B.C. back in 1995; he spent most of his CFL career as a kicker and currently serves as the Lions' radio colour analyst. As I pointed out in my post last week on the state of the league's quarterbacks, there have been other Canadians who have tried, including another Queen's alumnus (Tommy Denison) and Luc Tousignant, who was the Montreal Concordes' starter for much of the 1982 season. The last particularly successful Canadian signal-caller was Russ Jackson, though, and he retired way back in 1969.

Why has it been so long? Well, football by nature demands immediate success. As Henry Russell Sanders once said (and Vince Lombardi picked up), "Winning isn't everything, it's the only thing." Losing teams don't draw fans, and they don't tend to retain many players or coaches. There's always a lot of pressure to win immediately, and that favours picking quarterbacks with plenty of experience over prospects that need time to develop. For many years, Canadian university football wasn't at a high enough level to produce guys who could easily step in to the CFL. The quality of the league has improved considerably in the last 10 to 15 years, as is evidenced by the ever-growing amount of CIS players in the league (36 of the 47 Canadian players drafted this past season came from Canadian university football), but it still isn't operating on a level with the best NCAA programs, and many of the American quarterbacks out there have some NFL experience under their belts as well. It would be tough for CIS-trained guys to compete for immediate spots even if the playing field was level.

The playing field isn't level, though. The deck is further stacked against Canadians by virtue of a CFL rule that makes quarterback nationalities meaningless; they're considered "quarterbacks", not imports, so there are zero ratio benefits for teams that try to develop Canadians at the position. Without those, as Barker says, it's going to be tough to convince anyone it's worth spending a roster spot on a Canadian guy who might take longer to adjust to professional football than an American who has high-level NCAA and NFL experience. His solution is that teams should have the ability to have one Canadian quarterback count as a non-import, which would reward teams that chose to go that route by allowing them an extra import on special teams:

"‘If we just count the Canadian quarterback as a Canadian, he'd have the same advantage as every other Canadian has," Barker said. "There's nobody who can put an argument forward to me that this is not something we should do.

"I know the argument will be made that the quality of play of the quarterback dictates what our league is all about and I understand that. But I also understand if we go out and actually attempt to develop him (Canadian QB) because there's a benefit to having him on the roster now that those players will develop to a point that it won't bring our game down a level.'"

This is something the CFL absolutely needs to do, in my mind. Pure affirmative action that required every team to carry a Canadian quarterback would be going too far, and it would raise questions about if those guys had legitimately earned their jobs. Requiring every team to start a Canadian QB would be even worse at this point; it would turf some of the league's best players, like Anthony Calvillo and Henry Burris, in favour of untested CIS prospects. However, treating quarterbacks like any other player and counting their nationalities in the import ratio would reward teams who did decide to at least make the attempt to develop a Canadian without forcing anyone to do so. It would mean that we're more likely to see the next Russ Jackson than the next Matthieu Proulx, who shone as a quarterback at the CIS level but had to convert to safety to earn a shot at the CFL.

The CFL doesn't necessarily need Canadian quarterbacks to be successful. Guys like Calvillo, Burris, Ricky Ray, Darian Durant and others have become tremendous fan favourites despite their nationality. I don't see CFL fans suddenly becoming xenophobic and abandoning the league because it happens to showcase Americans at the quarterback spot. However, a successful Canadian quarterback would be huge for the league's profile, and it could give youth, high school and university football a shot in the arm as well. Plenty of Canadian guys grow up chucking a football around in the park and dreaming of being a quarterback; far less dream of being a safety or fullback. If someone can come along and prove it's realistic for Canadians to have a shot at playing quarterback in the CFL, that could dramatically boost the popularity of football across the country.

Of course, not every Canadian quarterback will be successful in the pros at that position. Even if this rule was brought in, some CIS quarterbacks will still have to switch positions to stay in the league, and some may not be able to stick around even with that sacrifice. This simple change isn't likely to lead to a raft of Canadians starting right away, and it also carries the potential for abuse, as teams could potentially carry a third quarterback they had no intention of ever playing just to gain an extra import special-teams player. It isn't a set-it-and-forget-it rule, and it isn't going to immediately solve the problem of developing Canadian quarterbacks to a level where they can shine in the CFL. For the moment, though, this simple change would provide a balance between maintaining the league's quality of play and giving Canadian signal-calling talent the chance to develop, and that's vitally important for the future of the league. Canadian quarterbacks aren't necessary for the CFL to remain strong, but they could help take it to a new level of popularity.

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