- Reeve Batstone
To no one's surprise, but still a bittersweet turn of events, the biggest story the CFL has had in years left this week for the NFL. Congratulations to the heart of the Lions, if not the CFL, Nathan Rourke, on his signing with the Jacksonville Jaguars. With several offers on the table it seemed like a strange choice of teams given that nothing short of a career ending injury will unseat generational quarterback, Trevor Lawrence, from the starting spot. A closer look suggests that Rourke is taking a long term approach to building a career in the NFL whether on the field or holding a clipboard.
A quarterback who says, "the CFL has been an unforeseen detour in my football journey but a necessary one" is not someone who expects to come back to the CFL anytime soon. He is a hardworking and ambitious talent who has met each obstacle in his football journey successfully. So why did he choose the Jags? Did they offer him more guaranteed money than teams with lesser starters than the 23 year old Lawrence? (Rourke will turn 25 in May). My guess is that it had a lot to do with the stability of the Jags head coach, Doug Pederson, a former quarterback (and Super Bowl winning coach) and the two former CFL quarterbacks on his staff, Mike McCoy and Henry Burris.
Every CFL fan knows who Henry Burris is but few may remember Mike McCoy. McCoy was in fact a back up to both Dave Dickenson and Henry Burris in 1999. A season in which they both got hurt forced McCoy to start 5 games for the Stamps. He exceeded expectations throwing 10 TDs to just 2 INTs and putting up a 107 QB rating. He later replaced an injured Dave Dickenson in the Western Final, engineering 10 points in their narrow victory. More importantly McCoy is now the Jags quarterback coach and someone who understands and respects the quality of play in the CFL. Nevertheless, impressive stats in the CFL are not very important to NFL coaches. If they were Chris Streveler would not be on the roster of the NY Jets. He was never a starter in the CFL.
In a blog I wrote last fall I described how tough it is for an undrafted free agent to win a starting QB spot in the NFL. It invariably follows a catastrophic injury to a veteran starter (ie. Drew Bledsoe, Trent Green, Steve Young). Whether it's for the Jags or another NFL team it won't be any different for Nathan Rourke. It's not to suggest that he is not capable of beating out half the starting QBs in the NFL but being in the right place at the right time isn't just about talent and hardwork. It's about luck as well.
Keeping it real, the best defence that Nathan Rourke has faced in his young career belonged to the Winnipeg Blue Bombers. A team he struggled against in two starts, throwing 4 TDs and 4 INTs in three losses. In a silver lining for Lions fans their only win over the Bombers came in a start by Vernon Adams. In his two starts against the Bombers Rourke completed 58% of his passes, which was 20 points lower than his record setting 78% completion percentage over 10+ games. Notwithstanding his serious foot injury he struggled in the Western Final.
We'll get further insight into how the Jags view Nathan Rourke's potential after the NFL draft and free agency ends later this spring. Actions speak louder than words and if they sign a quality free agent or draft a QB in the top half of the draft, for insurance, it will be telling. Lets hope he gets a chance to make his NFL mark.
The relevance of Mr. Irrelevant
This has been an unexpectedly good year for the last pick in both the NFL and CFL drafts. The NFL's 2022 Mr Irrelevant, Brock Purdy, has been exceeding everyone's expectations as quarterback of the dynamic SF 49ers. Meanwhile the NFL's 2017 Mr. Irrelevant, Chad Kelly, closed the deal for the Argonauts Grey Cup championship. Going under the radar is the improbable story of Konner Burtenshaw, the Mr. Irrelevant in the 2022 CFL draft. Without ever being a positional starter in his 5 years playing for the Queen's Golden Gaels he was drafted to play special teams and made the Blue Bomber roster, appearing in 10 games for Winnipeg. An extraordinary achievement for the last player drafted and another reminder not to sleep on the underestimated.
Question: What do former Argo stars Peter Mueller, Lou Clare, Neil Lumsden, HOF'er Paul Bennett, Mark Bragagnolo, Jan Carinci, Bob Bronk, and Dan Ferrone have in common?
Answer: They were all territorial exemption choices of the Argos from the program's inception in 1972 through to its wind down in 1984. Held in advance of the regular CFL draft it allowed each team to choose two players who came from its predetermined local territory who were exempted from the CFL draft that followed. The last two years of this process were reduced to one player before these exemptions were inexplicably discontinued in 1985. This was one of the most enlightened things that the CFL has ever done for promoting local football player development and local fan allegiance to its member clubs. A shadow of this program was reinstated in 2019 but its rules and execution are so obtuse and piecemeal its not worth describing here.
The full territorial exemption program/picks should be reinstated, in advance of the CFL draft each year. It incentivizes many beneficial effects. These include benefits to CFL clubs who assist in the development of good local football talent and creating further community following of local players who eventually make the CFL team. Back in the day many of the CFL clubs hosted talent evaluation camps for college coaches to profile local talent looking for football scholarships in the NCAA. Peter Mueller, Lou Clare, Paul Bennett, Jan Carinci all received NCAA football scholarships. Dan Ferrone played for SFU in the NAIA. Unfortunately, due to frequent Argo ownership, management and coaching turnover in the 1970s Bennett, Clare, Lumsden and Bragagnolo were all traded before they became stars, elsewhere. Nowadays, USports also offers football scholarships.
There has never been a more robust marketplace for Canadian football players. Nathan Rourke should never have had to go to a US Prep school, and then play at Junior College in order to get a scholarship to a DiV 1 NCAA football school. Rourke is from Oakville, under the old rules he would have been an Argonaut territorial exemption choice. Nathan Rourke and other young talent like him should be developed and profiled to Canadian and American college football coaches by CFL teams, especially since the CFL (and USports) is now competing much more often for the Canadian player. Canadians have never been better and the CFL's current business model can no longer compete for the top end player.
Charity begins at home. This is another no-brainer for the CFL since the NFL has stepped between the CFL and the Canadian player over the last 30 years. It's not complicated and it will ensure that the CFL clubs establish and grow strong linkages with amateur football and grow both the game and fan support in the stands. These events are also important to Canadians coaching youth amateur football. Relationships to CFL coaches are important to their development too. MBT said it best last season when he pointed out that there had been no youth football clinics organized in Guelph surrounding training camp. Territorial exemptions will ensure that these opportunities aren't overlooked because each club will have something to gain from ensuring intentional community events like these. When your quarterback leader from California points this out, it's worth paying attention to. Thanks for caring about Canadian football MBT and speaking truth to power. Canadian football is lucky to have you!