Mind matters for CFL quarterbacks

If you're going to build a CFL quarterback from scratch, it's best to start from the head down, not the legs up, say the league's two best pivots.

Relying on athleticism alone isn't a recipe for long-term success

If you're going to build a CFL quarterback from scratch, it's best to start from the head down, not the legs up, say the league's two best pivots.

And by this point they should know.

Montreal's Anthony Calvillo joined four other men last week as the only pro quarterbacks to throw for more than 60,000 yards in a career. That list begins with CFL legend Damon Allen (72,381) and winds its way through Warren Moon, Brett Favre and Dan Marino, to the Alouette they call AC.

Ricky Ray, Edmonton's starter for seven seasons (he spent a year carrying a clipboard for the New York Jets), is about to crest the 30,000 mark. If he stays healthy, he'll join that big-time group by the end of 2016 or so.

Neither buys the old CFL legend that you can make it north of the border on a rifle arm and a quick pair of legs, unless you attach a good head to it. Put another way, if you're a scrambling QB with scrambled eggs for brains, there's no chance.

"You can see a guy who, you know, maybe comes up and the first few games he's in, he scrambles around and makes some plays and everybody thinks, 'Oh, wow. He's making some plays.' But you can only do that for so long," says Ray, chatting on the phone a day before beating Calvillo's Als last week. 

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Taking control

At this stage of quarterback Anthony Calvillo's career, he says Montreal head coach Marc Trestman or offensive co-ordinator Scott Milanovich won't call for a new play if they know it doesn't fit what he can do on the field.

That's respect. And a belief in Calvillo's maturity after almost 16 years at the helm of a CFL offence.

It wasn't always that way.

"Even though there are certain throws I would have problems with, I would still try to do it and never have the confidence to tell the coach, 'Listen, I know you guys have been throwing this route up here for years, but I'm just not too comfortable with it. Let's make some adjustments,'" said the veteran quarterback.

Young quarterbacks, in any league, are simply not going to be listened to by coaches if the pivot has a problem with a play.

"Early in my career, it was, 'This is the way we're going to do it and if you don't do it, we're going to get somebody else," Calvillo said.

Eventually, if you last that long, the offensive co-ordinator learns to trust you, but that's something that has to be earned.

'That's the biggest thing, building that trust with the co-ordinator," he said. "That's so crucial."

Relying on athleticism alone isn't a recipe for long-term success simply because the defences adapt quickly and coaches figure the newcomer out.

Calvillo has seen lots of those water-bug types in a career that stretches back to the failed U.S. expansion experiment that included his Las Vegas Posse in 1994.

Making reads critical

"When you have a young guy and just making plays, it's only going to get you so far," he says. "It's going to win you some games, but you're going to have to learn to make the reads necessary to throw the ball downfield.

"The only ones who are going to be successful are the ones who are going to be able to stay in that pocket, and make the reads and not make all the mistakes they would make early in their career."

Back in training camp, one CFL legend said off the record, it took him about eight years to really understand what was happening out there. And by that he meant instinctively, thoroughly.

Statistics seem to show it took Calvillo five seasons.

His rookie year at Vegas produced a completion percentage of 44.3 and an efficiency rating of 64.4 (against a "perfect" score of 158.3). Taken by Hamilton in the dispersal draft after the American experiment collapsed, Calvillo's best in his next three seasons was a 59.2 per cent complete and 87.8 efficiency.

But Season 6, in Montreal, everything came together and suddenly he was a 66.7 per cent passer with a 108.4 efficiency — both excellent.

The difference, he believes, was not so much working out what was happening downfield (the famous 12th man problem, compared to U.S. ball's 11), as it was in understanding what it takes to be consistent in the CFL.

And that comes more from knowing what you can't do on the relatively huge, fenceless cow pastures they play on in Canada.

At first, trying to throw the same routes he had been using at Utah State on the postage-stamp American field seemed like a good idea to Calvillo. Not for long.

Completion rates consistent

"When you come into the league, you think you can get away with them because you think you have the arm strength, and then all of a sudden the ball is being run the other way by the defence," he says. "That was the biggest thing for me was to get an idea of what throws you are able to do compared to what you thought [you could do]."

Ray's adaptation seemed to be quite fast when he arrived from Sacramento State in 2002 and his completion rates have stayed over 60 per cent each year, though the efficiency has bounced up and down a bit.

He had the picture in his mind of what was happening out there after about a year he believes (though you could argue the screen went a tad fuzzy in 2005 and '06), and the real process was learning about what he could get away with.

Such as not trying to force the ball back to the wide side of the field when you're on that far hash mark — too much time for the defensive back to catch up and make a play.

Neither QB likes to run a whole lot (especially at Calvillo's age) but they can, and will, when they have to. And that's where the athleticism becomes so important.

"You look at guys like Henry Burris [Calgary's QB] who has the athletic ability to make plays when things aren't there," Ray says. "He can pick up first downs and do those sorts of things, but he also can sit in the pocket and make reads and move a team down the field when doing that."

Then you have the now-retired Dave Dickenson or Calvillo, Ray says, who can sit in the pocket and pick you apart.

"They aren't going to be the guys who will bust off the 30-yard run or make 12 guys miss and do a bunch of spin moves, but when stuff isn't there they have the ability to scramble and pick up eight yards and … a first down."

And each style, he says, needs a good thinker.

Top 10 quarterbacks in pro football history (passing yards)

  • Damon Allen, CFL — 1985-2007
  • Warren Moon, CFL, NFL — 1978-2000
  • Brett Favre, NFL — 1991-2008
  • Dan Marino, NFL — 1983-1999
  • Anthony Calvillo, CFL — 1994-present
  • Doug Flutie, CFL, NFL, USFL — 1985-2005
  • Danny McManus, CFL, NFL — 1988, 1990-2006
  • John Elway, NFL — 1983-1998
  • Ron Lancaster, CFL — 1960-1978
  • Fran Tarkenton, NFL — 1961-1978

*Sources: ESPN, Wiki, Rutgers, CFL