Ferguson: How will the scramble shape 2020?
The scramble, there’s really nothing like it in all of sports.
23 players all working to achieve their goal when the one with the ball in his hands decides to change the entire course of the play.
It’s selfish really. An egotistical expression of individualism at worst, but a savvy and cunning change of pace when used properly.
The art of the scramble is just that, more art than science. The ability to feel the rush, climb the pocket, understand how to beat defences that leave themselves vulnerable to a quarterback scramble. Then, there’s the balance and the desire to keep defences honest with the irrational urge to take off when there are open receivers available.
Often, young quarterbacks have high scramble rates on called pass plays for two reasons. First, they are young, excitable and have superior youthful athleticism. Second, they trust their feet more than their eyes or arm as they learn the Canadian game.
To get a sense of how 2019 CFL quarterbacks fared and what it can tell us about the 2020 QB run game, I first took a look at the pass play call percentage for each quarterback last season to understand how many passing — and therefore scramble — opportunities each passer had.
We just won’t see anything like it for a while. A quarterback who takes that many snaps over the course of a season with that type of run/pass play-calling profile.
Alouettes pivot Matthew Shiltz and Argos QB Michael O’Connor’s 2019 play-calling splits were largely situational and came from a small sample size, but Grey Cup champion Zach Collaros adapted to a very specific and unique style of play thanks to a pairing with Streveler to handle most, if not all quarterback running duties.
The Argos and REDBLACKS chased games all year, leading to a higher pass play call percentage while the mid-pack was jammed full of effective passers with minute differences between week one starters and their backups, many of whom saw plenty of snaps in 2019.
Now that we understand the run/pass splits of each quarterback, let’s look at how often, and how successfully they scrambled in 2019.
Shiltz loved to scramble in 2019, followed closely by Dakota Prukop of the Argonauts. Both passers tried to find their passing groove in backup roles but often relied on their feet more than necessary. What I found interesting here was the effective first-down scrambling of McLeod Bethel-Thompson, Vernon Adams Jr. and Cody Fajardo.
All three were well above CFL average in scramble percentage while also using their feet to do more damage than the CFL average when taking off.
At the opposite end of the spectrum was new REDBLACKS QB Nick Arbuckle who didn’t seem to be interested in running and had little success when doing so. A strong sign that we shouldn’t expect Arbuckle to be a Streveler hybrid in 2020 based on his limited college and pro scrambling acumen.
First down scrambles are great, but rarely are they off the back-breaking variety. Second down? Now that’s a much different story.
A second-down scramble has the ability to drive defences crazy over four quarters and a perfectly timed fourth-quarter scramble can be the difference between a long, lonely flight home or a road victory that energizes an entire franchise for days.
Both men were well below CFL average for second-down scrambling percentage but were the passers most likely to frustrated defensive coordinators with their off-script creations.
As for the quarterbacks most likely to take off and run on second down, there really was no surprise.
Fajardo, Streveler, and Adams led the way, confirming what our eyes saw all season long while Nichols and Masoli rarely took off against the grain — and had little success when doing so.
What does it all mean for 2020 though? With so many faces in new places — both coach and player — it’s all a guessing game. But based on the information we have, here’s my best guess.
You might notice fewer quarterbacks involved here. Yes, I actively decided to not will a million backups into action as we saw in 2019. Those backups will skew the CFL averages if they get called into action but for now, here’s how I feel about the players most likely to see action this season.
I feel that Cody Fajardo will scramble less and he learns when and where to call his own number. But with Jason Maas as offensive coordinator, he should be a more effective and efficient scrambler while Vernon Adams Jr. continues to use his legs as the ultimate change of pace along James Wilder Jr. in Montreal.
Nick Arbuckle is not a runner — as discussed earlier — but quarterbacks with something to prove often use their legs more, and Arbuckle certainly has plenty to prove to his new teammates and hometown fans in 2020.
As for the rest? It’s all an approximate guess of how aggressive they’ll be running and the average chunk of change they’ll gain. Many will do the brunt of heir damage through the air, but you can never count out an off-schedule shuffle, pump and run that breaks the game open.