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February 3, 2018

Long Read | QB Tandems

Winnipeg Blue Bombers quarterback Matt Nichols (15) looks for his receivers during the first half of CFL action against the Hamilton Tiger-Cats in Winnipeg Friday, October 6, 2017. THE CANADIAN PRESS/John Woods

There were high-fives and back slaps among many Winnipeg Blue Bomber fans when the club made official the signing of Darian Durant just a couple of weeks ago.

Little wonder. The Bombers, after all, had just secured a veteran quarterback to slot in behind starter Matt Nichols, giving the club that critical in-case-of-emergency option out of the bullpen.

And yet there was also some serious cursing and second guessing from some in Bomber Nation who chose instead to fixate on Durant’s age (35) and the disastrous 2017 season he suffered through in Montreal, while questioning his willingness to play the role of a back-up and the potential impact his addition might mean for the dollars available for GM Kyle Walters to spend elsewhere when free agency opens on Feb. 13th.

Valid points, every one of them.

Still, it doesn’t take a whole lot of research – or a particularly long memory – to understand why bringing Durant aboard is so vital for a club that will head into the 2018 season as a Grey Cup contender after two successive playoff appearances and a combined 23-13 regular season record over 2016-17 that is second only to the Calgary Stampeders.

First, let’s admit the obvious: quarterback is the most important position on the field and a franchise that has questions behind its starter – regardless of his history of durability – is juggling hand grenades the minute the team steps on the field for training camp.

To that end, consider that over the last four years only four Canadian Football League starters suited up for all 18 games for their clubs – Mike Reilly of the Edmonton Eskimos last year, B.C.’s Jonathan Jennings in 2016, and Ottawa’s Henry Burris in 2014 and 2015. Last year, four other quarterbacks – including Nichols, Bo Levi Mitchell of the Calgary Stampeders, Ricky Ray of the Toronto Argonauts and Kevin Glenn, then of the Saskatchewan Roughriders and now of the Esks – made 17 starts.

It’s worth noting as well that 19 different QBs started games for the nine teams across the CFL in 2017, down from the 20 who started games in 2016 and 26 in 2015. And the nine quarterbacks who made the majority of starts for their respective clubs last year combined to post a 74-64-2 record, with the starters for the six playoff squads at a combined 61-38-2.

But of the other 10 players who made starts for their teams, only four – Lions veteran No 1-1A Travis Lulay, Winnipeg’s Dan LeFevour, Saskatchewan’s Brandon Bridge and Drew Tate of Ottawa – helped lead their team to victories.

And the combined record of those 10 back-up quarterbacks who made starts? Try 6-16.

Those are just some of the numbers that help justify the importance of having a quality No. 2.

The 2017 season ended with Durant watching from the sidelines in Montreal and with concerns about a decrease in his arm strength. He’ll step into a different situation in Winnipeg, where he is reunited with former Riders teammate Weston Dressler and offensive coordinator Paul LaPolice, and highly-respected QB coach Buck Pierce. Just as important is the experience he’ll bring to the Bombers, with 128 career starts to his name (61-66-1, but 58-54-1 prior to last year’s disaster in Montreal).

The Bombers did have some experience behind Nichols last year: Dom Davis, who was released on Thursday of this week, did have a start at the end of the 2015 season in a meaningless game against Toronto, but did not throw a single pass in 2016. And LeFevour had made seven starts previously with Hamilton before the Bombers brought him aboard to bolster their bullpen and provide the offence an intriguing short-yardage look with his 6-3, 236-pound frame.

But in adding Durant, it could be argued the Bombers now have their best 1-2 punch at the position in some time. Yes, Nichols and Drew Willy looked to be a solid combo heading into 2016, but Nichols became the No. 1 six games in, with Willy was traded that September. The last time the Bombers were this deep at the position was 2004, when Khari Jones began the year as the starter and was backed-up by a young Kevin Glenn. Prior to that, you must go back to the Matt Dunigan-Danny McManus combo in 1992 or the Tom Clements-John Hufnagel tandem in the mid-80s to find a duo as experienced or as accomplished as Nichols-Durant.

It’s an intriguing situation, to be sure, adding an experienced starter like Durant – a man who hasn’t been a back-up in 10 years – to serve behind Nichols. In a perfect world, Nichols would make all 18 regular season starts and be healthy for the playoffs. But for as well as he played in last November’s West Semifinal loss to Edmonton while working with a broken finger and an injured calf – he was 35 of 38 for 371 yards with three touchdowns – what if he hadn’t been available? Davis and LeFevour were a combined 38 of 63 for 379 yards with zero passing TDs and two interceptions.

The Bombers and their fans have seen this movie before. And with that in mind, here are some of the bigger reserve-QB moments in the team’s long and storied history…

PLOEN AND VAN PELT, VAN PELT AND PLOEN – 1958-59

The 1957 Bombers finished 12-4 behind rookie QB Ken Ploen before falling 32-7 to the Hamilton Tiger-Cats in in the Grey Cup. Ploen led the club in passing that season, but in 1958, the club added University of Michigan star Jim Van Pelt, who had been drafted by the Washington Redskins that spring but opted instead to sign in Winnipeg.

Van Pelt began the ’58 season playing defensive halfback and handling the placekicking chores, but when Ploen was injured, he stepped in as the QB. It was Van Pelt who not only led the team in passing that year, but set a Grey Cup record with 22 points (two touchdowns, two field goals and four converts) in their win over Hamilton.

The Montreal Gazette gushed about Van Pelt’s performance in the 35-28 victory, writing:

“Jimmy Van Pelt, a freshman import quarterback from the University of Michigan, was the producer, director and principal actor in Winnipeg’s unexpected decision over the defending champions. He scored 22 points for a new Grey Cup record. … Van Pelt took over as the stream-lined Grey Cup hero … the country’s national football pin-up boy. The Flying Dutchman grabbed a surprise pass from Leo Lewis for one touchdown, plunged over center from one yard out for another.”

Ironically, a year later it was Van Pelt who gave way to Ploen in the championship. Van Pelt led the team in passing in ’59 – throwing for 31 touchdowns in the process – but late in the year suffered a shoulder injury and was replaced by Ploen, who guided the club to a second straight Grey Cup in a 21-7 win over the Ticats. Van Pelt was gone following that season, having been drafted into the United States Air Force in 1960. He was on the sidelines when the Bombers captured another title in 1962 and was offered a chance to return, but instead opted to take a job in the accounting field in Chicago.

The Ploen legend has been well told over the years in Winnipeg, but during Van Pelt’s two years in Winnipeg, he led the Bombers in passing both years, handled the placekicking chores, and played some defensive back as the club went 25-7 and won back-to-back titles.

Ken Ploen

NO BROCK, A DINGED KNIGHT AND NO LUCK – 1978

Winnipeg was a third-place squad in ’78, finishing 9-7, but had some talented pieces including future hall of famers like Dieter Brock, Joe Poplawski, Jim Washington, Mike Holmes, Jim Heighton, John Bonk and Butch Norman. The Edmonton Eskimos would start their Grey Cup dynasty that November, but the Bombers felt they could run with any team in the league.

But in the regular season finale, a 22-14 loss to Calgary, Brock – who had thrown for 3,755 yards and 23 TDs – injured his knee and was not available for the West Semifinal, again against the Stamps.

Brock’s back-up was Harry Knight, but he was also working with a bum shoulder and the third stringer – rookie Terry Luck – was also dinged in that final game. The Bombers were squashed a week later in the semi, losing 38-4 as Knight valiantly attempted to play, but was picked off three times and fumbled twice.

CLEMENTS AND HUFNAGEL

It says something of John Hufnagel’s three years in Winnipeg, 1984-86, that until last season he was still in the club’s Top 10 career passing yardage list. The Bombers made two big deals involving quarterbacks in 1983, first trading a disgruntled Dieter Brock to Hamilton for Tom Clements, and then a month later, acquiring Hufnagel from Saskatchewan along with defensive end J.C. Pelusi for QB Nickie Hall, WR Nate Johnson, DL Jason Riley and a fourth-round draft pick.

Both deals turned out to be brilliant acquisitions by GM Paul Robson. Clements helped guide the Bombers to the 1984 championship, but Hufnagel was exactly the kind of proven No. 1A pivot every team covets. He threw for seven touchdowns in spot duty in 1984, 11 in 1985 and then played a critical role in 1986 when Clements separated his shoulder and missed seven games. Hufnagel led the team in passing that year, and guided the Bombers into the West Semifinal where they were beaten by B.C. 21-14. Hufnagel ended back in Saskatchewan in 1987 after a competitive balance/equalization draft, but played in only one game. Clements would rebound to be the CFL’s Most Outstanding Player in 1987, but the Bombers were upset by Toronto in the East Final.

DUNIGAN DOWN, SAMMY GETS THE CALL

The Bombers made a big splash prior to the 1992 season by adding Matt Dunigan in free agency, two years removed from their 1990 Grey Cup title and just months after the club was mauled 32-3 by Toronto in the 1991 East Final. Dunigan came just as advertised: the Bombers won a ton and he brought a swagger and charisma to the franchise. But he also struggled with injuries.

Danny McManus had come off the bench in 1992 to help guide the club into the playoffs with four straight wins before Dunigan returned for the regular season finale. But with McManus leaving in free agency for a better opportunity with the B.C. Lions that winter, Sammy Garza, the No. 3 QB from ’92, moved up the depth chart and would play a prominent role in how the ’93 season would be remembered.

The Bombers were 11-4 and cruising in 1993 when, in a win over the Sacramento Gold Miners on Oct. 15, Dunigan – one series after setting a then-club record with his 36th passing TD – went down in a heap with a severed Achilles tendon. Garza came off the bench to lead the team to victory and was at the controls for wins over Ottawa and Toronto to end the season and then Hamilton in the East Final. But in the Grey Cup – and against an Edmonton squad Winnipeg had beaten 53-11 and 52-14 earlier in the year – Garza would throw for 322 yards, but was also intercepted twice and a Bombers team that had finished the regular season 14-4 came up short in the championship.

KHARI EMERGES

It was hardly a newsflash when on the last day of February in 2000, the Bombers swung a trade with the B.C. Lions, sending Chris Perez – their top O-lineman for three straight years – west for an unknown named Khari Jones and a fourth-round draft pick. Jones began the ’00 season as the No. 2 pivot behind Kerwin Bell, but by season’s end was starting and guided the club into the division final. He would be named the CFL’s Most Outstanding Player in 2001, set a club record for TD passes in 2002 with 46, and ranked second on the club’s all-time passing yardage list behind Brock when he was traded to Calgary in 2004.

DOWN GOES KEVIN, DINWIDDIE GETS HIS SHOT

The 2007 Bombers were a solid squad, finishing second in the East with a 10-7-1 record – one point behind the first-place Argonauts. Kevin Glenn was a Most Outstanding Player finalist that year after throwing for over 5,000 yards and 25 TDs. The Bombers edged Montreal in the East Semi and were leading the Argos in Toronto in the fourth quarter when Glenn and Roberts collided on a hand-off and as Glenn hit the ground to try and scoop up the fumble, suffered a broken arm in the collision.

Rookie Ryan Dinwiddie came off the bench to close out the 19-9 win by completing all four of his passes, but would make his first pro start a week later in the Grey Cup. Dubbed ‘among the unlikeliest of Grey Cup starting quarterbacks in history’, Dinwiddie was 15 for 33 for 225 yards and a touchdown, but was picked off three times and fumbled once as the Bombers fell to their arch-rivals, the Saskatchewan Roughriders, 23-19.

Interestingly, with Glenn injured, the Bombers Grey Cup QB depth chart featured Dinwiddie as the starter, with Kliff Kingsbury and Zac Taylor as the reserves. Combined, those three pivots had thrown 24 passes that season – all by Dinwiddie – heading into the championship. Kingsbury and Taylor were both gone before the 2008 campaign.


QB DEPTH ACROSS THE LEAGUE

CFL free agency is still a week away and camp doesn’t start until May. But here’s a look at how the Bombers QB depth chart currently looks in comparison to the rest of the league:

BOMBERS

The starter: Matt Nichols (29-21 career record)
2017 starts: Nichols – 17 (11-6); Dan LeFevour – 1 (1-0)
No. 2: Darian Durant – 15 starts (3-12) in 2017; 61-66-1 career record.
Others: Philip Nelson (rookie), Josh Straughan (rookie)
Pending free agent: Dan LeFevour

B.C. LIONS

The starter: Jonathan Jennings (19-19 career record)
2017 starts: Jennings – 14 (4-10); Travis Lulay – 4 (3-1)
No. 2: TBD
Others: Mitchell Gale (6th year), Michael Birdsong (rookie), Alex Ross (2nd year; was third-stringer last year).
Pending free agent: Travis Lulay

CALGARY STAMPEDERS

The starter: Bo Levi Mitchell (56-10-2 career record)
2017 starts: Mitchell – 17 (13-3-1); Andrew Buckley – 1 (0-1)
No. 2: Andrew Buckley (0-1 career record)
Others: Ricky Stanzi (2nd year, was third-stringer last year).

EDMONTON ESKIMOS

The starter: Mike Reilly (45-33)
2017 starts: Reilly – 18 (12-6)
No. 2: Kevin Glenn (103-104-11 career record)
Others: Danny O’Brien (4th year); Eli Jenkins (rookie).

HAMILTON TIGER-CATS

The starter: Jeremiah Masoli (10-9 career record)
2017 starts: Masoli – 10 (6-4); Zach Collaros – 8 (0-8);
No. 2: Vernon Adams, Jr. (3rd year; 3-0 career record)
Others: Johnny Manziel (unsigned); Dane Evans (joined club last October).
Pending free agent: Everett Golson

MONTREAL ALOUETTES

The starter: TBD
2017 starts: Darian Durant – 15 (3-12); Drew Willy – 2 (0-2); Matthew Shiltz – 1 (0-1)
No. 2: TBD
Others: Matthew Shiltz (2nd year); Antonio Pipkin (2nd year); Josh Freeman (rookie); Garrett Fugate (spent last year on practice roster); Nick Shafnisky (rookie)
Pending free agents: Drew Willy, Jacory Harris

OTTAWA REDBLACKS

The starter: Trevor Harris (21-19-2 career record)
2017 starts: Harris – 15 (7-7-1); Ryan Lindley – 2 (0-2); Drew Tate – 1 (1-0)
No. 2: Drew Tate (11-4 career record)
Others: Ryan Lindley (2nd year), Danny Collins (2nd year), William Arndt (rookie)

SASKATCHEWAN ROUGHRIDERS

The starter: Zach Collaros (24-27)
2017 starts: Kevin Glenn – 17 (9-8); Brandon Bridge (1-0)
No. 2: Brandon Bridge (1-1 career record)
Others: Marquise Williams (2nd year), David Watford (rookie)

TORONTO ARGONAUTS

The starter: Ricky Ray (112-104-1 career record)
2017 starts: Ray – 17 (9-8); Jeff Matthews – 1 (0-1)
No. 2: James Franklin (2-1 career record)
Others: Jeff Mathews (4th year); McLeod Bethel-Thompson (2nd year)
Pending free agent: Cody Fajardo