CFL Pass

A dirty dozen? Assessing the CFL's replacement QBs in 2015 (so far)

So, it’ll be Jeff Mathews at quarterback for the Hamilton Tiger-Cats after the bye week, making the Cornell graduate the 12th such replacement starter (13th if we count Mike Nichols twice) on the 15th occasion a team began a game with a QB that hadn’t started the previous week in this CFL season.

Even crazier within the context of this revolving door of a year is the fact that, of the 15 quarterback switches between weeks two and 13, all but one were made by just four teams: Montreal, Edmonton, Winnipeg and Saskatchewan. Naturally, the 1-11 Roughriders have posted more starting QBs (three, via four switches) but the Blue Bombers are also suffering similarly, with four wins to show from four staring pivots. In fact, the four aforementioned quarterback mills have amassed just 18 wins via these 14 changeovers.

Below runs a brief look at each debut outing for replacement QBs in the CFL this season. (Warning to Tiger-Cats fans: it ain’t pretty; you’d better be hoping Matthews is more like Cato or Franklin and a lot less like, say, Brohm or Marsh). But first, let’s reset the clock to week one. How many starting quarterbacks from Opening Day 2015 can you name without looking?

BC Lions – Travis Lulay
Ottawa Redblacks – Henry Burris
Montreal Alouettes – Jon Crompton
Hamilton Tiger-Cats – Zach Collaros
Calgary Stampeders – Bo Levi Mitchell
Edmonton Eskimos – Mike Reilly
Toronto Argonauts – Trevor Harris
Winnipeg Blue Bombers – Drew Willy
Saskatchewan Roughriders – Darien Durant

The bodies immediately began piling up, with the first two surprise starters in the Year Of The Replacement Quarterback taking over in week 2.

1. Kevin Glenn for Saskatchewan
How’d he debut? Rider Nation’s collective palpable excitement regarding the return of their Grey Cup hero after an injury-shortened 2013 season was short-lived indeed, but “The Best Insurance Policy in the CFL’ kept things optimistic in Saskatchewan despite an 0-2 start with an incredible 33-of-40, 477-yard, two-TD performance against Toronto.

Since then: By the time Glenn was replaced in week six by graveyard-spiraling head coach Corey Chamblin, the Riders were 0-5, nobody was using the “insurance policy” line anymore and most optimism was replaced by fantasies of an alternate universe in which Durant was still running the show on the field.

2. Rakeem Cato for Montreal
How’d he debut? After the Alouettes QB corps lost two QBs in less than three quarters of Opening Day play, Cato floored observers with a rookie debut for the ages in an emphatic 29-11 win over the defending champions.

Since then: O, how we all wanted this exciting-seeming dude with an inspiring, compelling backstory to succeed. Unfortunately, six subsequent starts saw Cato manage just five TD passes against seven interceptions, the coaching staff implode, the team go on a 2-4 “run” and Cato temporarily leave the team for personal reasons. And no, he’s no longer the starter. For now.

3. Mike Nichols for Edmonton
How’d he debut? For the third season, the guy once touted as the Esks’ quarterback of the future was pressed into service to replace Mike Reilly in week three. The Edmonton brain trust cleverly rotated Nichols with James Franklin situationally to good results: A combined 16-of-28 for 253 yards with three TDs and one pick in a 46-17 thumping of Ottawa.

Since then: The Eskimos managed a 5-2 record during Nichols’s (presumably) final tenure as a starter in Edmonton, but this we can firmly chalk up to the defense which five times in that span held the opposition to 17 points or fewer. After a couple of passing TD-less games, however, a rare trade was thought to be in order.

4. Brett Smith for Saskatchewan
How’d he debut? Talk about getting thrown to the wolves. With the injury bug running rampant in Saskatchewan and Chamblin’s seat heating up, the rookie was thrown in against what was then and now remains the CFL’s stingiest defense. The result? The Riders were good for a field goal and two rouges for a 30-5 throttling at the hands of the Eskimos.

Since then: Smith performed admirably well in two losses before being yanked in the week 10 game at Ottawa for Tino Sunseri; yes, this is a thing that happened. Smith then redeemed himself by leading the Riders to their sole win of the season but his sorry performance of 13-of-28 for 114 with one TD and two picks in week 12 had the Riders calling on Glenn to come back in week 13.

5. Robert Marve for Winnipeg
How’d he debut? Pressed into service thanks to injury to Drew Willy – or perhaps the Blue Bombers’ PR folks got tired of #WhatMarveDid – Marve seemed passable (so to speak) in a week 8 loss against Toronto, going 18-of-28 for 203 yards with one TD versus one interception. Though the illusion wouldn’t last long.

Since then: A 36-8 drubbing doled out by the Stampeders belied a truly brutal performance by Marve – 12-of-20 for 94(!) yards with two interceptions – made the Nichols trade look good and Brian Brohm appear to be a legitimate option. And the Marve Era shall never be spoken of again.

6. Brian Brohm for Winnipeg
How’d he debut? You know how the talking heads bandy about the concept of a quarterback’s relationships with his receivers? That’s a real thing, as evidenced by Brohm “leading” his zombie-like Blue Bombers in the Riders’ sole win of the season.

Since then: For Brohm, bench. Lots of it.

7. James Franklin for Edmonton
How’d he debut? Finally sick of Nichols, the Esks front office traded the perpetual product to Winnipeg for a couple of used footballs and a tee. For week 11. Franklin got the nod and was stymied by a red-hot Stampeders defense, managing only a lowly stat line of 13-of-21 passing for 105 yards and zero TDs before Reilly was again called in.

Since then: Franklin redeemed himself against the same Stampeders the following week and followed it up by besting Hamilton last week, thus taking out last year’s Grey Cup finalists in back-to-back weeks. Next up are tilts against BC and at Winnipeg, imminently winnable games before Franklin’s third crack against Calgary.

8. Tanner Marsh for Montreal
How’d he debut? With Crompton and Dan LeFevour out since game one, Cato away on personal matters and Brandon Bridge apparently erased from the collective consciousness, the Alouettes turned to Marsh in week 11. What ensued was a result only a Fantaseh football owner with a half-dozen Lions in the starting lineup could love: Marsh’s stat line read 16-of-30 for 103 yards with five interceptions.

Since then: With the return of Crompton, Marsh has seemingly been exiled to the same nethersphere as Bridge.

9. John Beck for BC
How’d he debut? After getting into the week 11 game against Montreal for the injured Travis Lulay, Beck started for the Lions against the Redblacks. Beck’s two interceptions certainly didn’t help a feeble running game that collectively managed nine yards and a heretofore outstanding offensive line which beyond uncharacteristically poor run blocking also allowed three sacks.

Since then: There good news, bad news and worse news. The good news: In his two starts, Beck has thrown as many TDs (two) as he did in his relief performance against Montreal. The bad news: He’s thrown as many picks (two) as well. The worse: The Lions are 0-2 with Beck as starter and still fighting for that last playoff spot going into Edmonton this week.

10. Mike Nichols for Winnipeg
How’d he debut? After sitting through Mavre and Brohm, Bombers backers were la fanbase primed for Nichols’s debut for Winnipeg in this year’s Banjo Bowl. And the hapless Roughriders naturally made Nichols look good – or at least good enough – for a final stat line of 21-of-30 for 283 yards with one TD and one pick. Maybe all Nichols needed was a change of scenery to realize all that potential, right…?

Since then, however, came this. I watched this game just, what, two days ago, and I’m still not prepared to believe that Nichols managed 189 yards. Or 48 attempts to do so. Or both in the same game. Before long, Winnipeg fans may be convinced that “Downfield” is actually a fashionable suburb of Toronto.

11. Jon Crompton for Montreal
How’d he (re-)debut? And so we come full circle. While Crompton is not technically a replacement QB, events in Montreal since his premature departure in week one – among them the disappearance, reappearance and retirement of Michael Sam; the DNPs and reworking of John Bowman; the overhaul of the coaching staff – essentially made his showing against Winnipeg a debut with a different Alouettes side than that of June (so long ago now…)

Since then: Leave it to Winnipeg to make the “new” guy look good and similar may be said of Saskatchewan. But the real hand-wringer for the Alouettes’ playoff hopes will be the week 15 game at Ottawa, to be played on three days’ rest. We may yet get the re-debut of Rakeem Cato-as-starter…

And good luck, Mr. Mathews!

– written by Os Davis