Anthony Calvillo may be the most outstanding player on the Montreal Alouettes, year by year, but if general manager Jim Popp had to vote for most valuable on his roster, Diamond Ferri might get at least a little consideration.
Ferri is one of Popp's key insurance policies against being hit by falling dominoes, that nightmare for all CFL managers where losing a player at one position sets off a chain of events that can see you make two, three or even four moves to compensate.
Such is life in a league where you must have 20 non-imports (you know, Canucks), 19 imports and three non-designated quarterbacks.
Having a guy who can play a lot of positions, then, is worth its weight in precious gems.
"Diamond Ferri is a perfect example [of that guy]," said Popp, last Thursday from his office in Montreal where he's had to spend too many hours working out how to replace what's now seven defensive starters in this unluckiest of years.
"He can start at Will (weak side linebacker), if he had to play Sam (strong side linebacker) he could, he can play free safety, he can do punt and kickoff returns," said Popp, who is obviously an admirer of the Syracuse product, having had him on the Als' roster since 2007.
"The truth is, his best position that he can play is probably tail back, running back, and that one he's never played for us."But, can he bunt and move runners along?
"I think he could do that, do," Popp said, laughing.
This need for multiple skills works all over the field.
Danny Maciocia, the former Edmonton GM who now runs the football program at the University of Montreal, believes finding those multi-talented guys is among the most important jobs of a CFL general manager.
"Say you dress seven offensive linemen, and three of them go down, then you have to have a defensive lineman who can step in and maybe get you through the game and try to win," Maciocia says.
"One time [while with Edmonton] we had two free safeties go down, so we took a linebacker named Antico Dalton, lined him up in centre field and he played there the rest of the game."
Dalton, whose career ended in 2007 after three seasons with the Eskimos, played all linebacker positions, plus safety and defensive end while on the northern prairie.
Maciocia says no matter what direction you go in working out your ratio at the beginning of the season, "you are never going to play with the same 42-man roster, it's going to change ... and you have to make sure you have players in place who can step in."
Classic CFL problems
Bad managers wind up with classic CFL problems.
A Canadian offensive tackle goes down, for example, so the easy out is to plug in another Canadian one. But if you don't have one of those, you have to put in an import and that means you have to take out an import somewhere else and replace him with a non-import.
Often the dominoes fall in such a way that a talented import winds up on the sidelines, as was the case with running back Mike Pringle in Edmonton a few years back.
That scenario is a reason why getting Americans to come north of the border can be so tough. Popp says you often have to go through 10 guys before you get one to bite.
Agents are wary of the ratio rule.
Popp, who often sits with his coaches during the season going player by player to work out what they would do if he were to be injured, has a tried and true method he believes in to get through the trying times.
And few have been more trying than this one, where in the defensive backfield alone the Als have lost Jerald Brown, Etienne Boulay, Mark Estelle and Dwight Anderson.
The key, actually, is found back in training camp.
"There are seven different guys playing for us who weren't starting for us, or who weren't playing for us at all, at the start of the season," Popp says. "[But] every one of them went through training camp, and they know our system, and they were either backups or they got cut and they stepped in."
Montreal's scouting staff was confident in each player they brought in at the end of June, and when they were cut, Popp made sure he knew where to find them.
Only one replacement brought in this season was a fresh face.
"Everybody playing right now went through camp, learned the system, and knows what they are doing," says Popp.
"We didn't choose to bring somebody totally new in that might be better, might be more talented [because] it's more important, for us, for our cohesiveness, if [the replacement] knows what we are doing."
Eric Tillman had run three other CFL teams before coming to Edmonton last year (as Maciocia's replacement). He sees finding the right players you can plug in and out a result of multi-layered thinking.
"It's why I jokingly say the NFL is like checkers, and the CFL is like chess," he says. "Our structure forces us to think differently."
And, Tillman believes, that's what makes it more fun.
"It's incredibly invigorating," to be a GM here, he says.
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