CFL Pass

Historically speaking, just how good was Rakeem Cato’s debut?

After one heck of an exciting debut performance, the Rakeem Cato bandwagon is already filling to capacity. While CFLpass is happy to leave the sportside hyperbolizing to ESPN and its ilk in America, we naturally wonder about a little historical perspective on the first appearance of a quarterback who could well be starring in Canadian football for some time to come – and we’re not alone.

So how does Cato’s first turn as starting CFL quarterback compare to the five all-time greats listed by Blue & Gold? Follow along as CFLpass steps into nostalgia. For no good reason we’ll even rank the six performances.

6. Khari Jones has benefitted from history a bit, as CFL fans are mostly able to overlook the first 3½ years of this quarterback’s Canadian career spent backing up Damon Allen in BC and later Kerwin Bell in Winnipeg.

If we consider Jones’s re-redebut as a CFL starter with the Blue Bombers in 2000, this ranking would be higher; suffice to say, though, that few fans could have forecasted the outstanding four-year run the former Arena League and UC Davis QB would enjoy in Winnipeg.

5. Like Cato, Roy Dewalt was eschewed by the Cleveland Browns before his professional debut and, like Jones, mostly languished on the bench at first. And once named the BC Lions’ starting QB for the team’s 1983 opener in week two, Dewalt turned in a lackluster performance in a low-scoring slog against the Toronto Argonauts.

However, week three saw Dewalt shake off the cobwebs to throw for four TDs in the first CFL game at BC Place Stadium; he’d follow this showing by leading the Lions to five more consecutive wins with an average margin of victory of over 22 points.

4. Bypassed by the NFL in the 1978 draft despite an MVP performance in the Rose Bowl for the University of Washington Huskies, Warren Moon signed with the Edmonton Eskimos but could only rise to no. 2 on the depth chart in his rookie season, playing behind the future Grey Cup MVP Tom Wilkinson.

Moon nevertheless got playing time in all but one of the Esks’ 16 games that year with somewhat mundane statistics (89-of-173 for 1,112 yards and just five TDs against seven interceptions) that belied an all-time great status very few could imagine then.

3. Unlike essentially every other member of this list, Jeff Garcia faced a make-or-break in his professional football career in his debut appearance. Said premiere came in the 1994 preseason, but Garcia’s performance was hardly irrelevant for his own future.

In one quarter of play against the Sacramento Gold Miners (yes!), Garcia was as perfect as can be: “that night I was six-for-eight with two touchdowns,” he would recall to Calgary media in 2012. “It was tied 14-14 when I came in to start the fourth quarter and we ended up winning 28-14. I only found out earlier this year, while talking to Wally [Buono], that they decided before the game they were planning to cut me after the game. That performance got me my first job…”

It would take an injury to Doug Flutie in 1995 before Garcia got a start in any professional league, but those watching the Stamps on that June day of ‘94 might have realized this guy had a bright future ahead.

2. In 1990, Doug Flutie brought to the BC Lions a most unique résumé which included a Heisman Trophy award, a USFL playoff appearance and a 6-3 record as an NFL starter.

Despite the obvious possibilities inherent in a wider field, an extra yard off the snap and generally smaller players, Flutie would turn in an up-and-down first season for BC. But as the excellent episode of the “A Football Life” TV documentary series featuring Flutie pointed out, the same magic the former Boston Collegian became known for was in evidence in game one.

“My first game in Canada,” reminisced the quarterback, “I’m throwing a darned Hail Mary to tie the game and send it to overtime.”

Like that first game for BC – which ended in a 38-38 tie – Flutie’s debut year was marked with struggles as he learned the game. Of course, thereafter, all the “too short” QB did was dominate and rewrite the CFL record books.

1. Hey, CFLpass is as shocked as you are. In spite of my loathing for hastily applying an “all-time great”-type label, we simply must admit that Rakeem Cato’s debut for the Montreal Alouettes last week was simply masterful. In this case, the stats don’t lie and these are they: 20-of-25 passing for 241 yards and three TDs with zero picks.

Of course, history will be Cato’s ultimate judge – but we can immediately see that this Moon-recalling QB has already benefitted from one heck of a circumstantial outlier. How much would, say, Garcia have given to suddenly be awarded a starting job in week two by default back in ’94…?

Meanwhile, Alouettes fans may hope with little reservation that the team’s future is now.

– written by Os Davis