VANCOUVER — A mass migration of several star quarterbacks has given the CFL a whole new look, says one of the league’s top pivots.
"It’s kind of rare to see a quarterback move teams," said Mike Reilly, former starter for the Edmonton Eskimos.
"Usually they retire as the franchise quarterback or they get replaced by a younger guy and then they might bounce somewhere else to be a backup."
The 34-year-old is just one of the quarterbacks who found a new home over the off-season, signing a four-year, $2.9-million deal with the B.C. Lions in free agency.
After leading the league in passing last year with 5,562 and 30 touchdowns, Reilly replaces his good friend and long-time Lion Travis Lulay, who retired at the end of February.
The Reilly deal had a domino affect across the country.
The Eskimos scooped Trevor Harris from the Ottawa Redblacks in free agency to fill his spot. Ottawa responded by promoting Dominique Davis to the starting role and picking up former Lion Jonathon Jennings to add some insurance.
Both men are a good fit for the Redblacks, said offensive lineman Alex Mateas.
"The good thing is there really isn’t much of a change, between the two," he said. "From the outside looking in watching the game it’s a big difference as the main player that impacts the play is different, but we just have to execute our position and the job the best that we can."
Meanwhile, outside factors have forced other clubs to juggle their own quarterbacks.
The Toronto Argonauts turned to James Franklin and McLeod Bethel-Thompson after losing Ricky Ray early last season. So far, it looks like the team will rely on Franklin to begin this year.
In Montreal, the Alouettes have dubbed Antonio Pipkin their starter. The 23-year-old saw action in six games last season as former Heisman Trophy-winner Johnny Manziel struggled in the spot. The league directed the Alouettes to release Manziel in February, saying he had breached an agreement that entitled him to play in the league.
Pipkin isn’t letting the change in role add new pressure.
"My goal is to come out here and just get better every day," he said. "Keep working and let everything else play where it’s supposed to play."
It took a "perfect storm" to generate the conditions necessary for such a dramatic shift across the CFL landscape, Reilly said.
"It’s changed the structure of the league, for sure," he said. "It’s the ultimate team game but everyone likes to say in the CFL there’s a big weight on who your quarterback is and how it’s going to shape your offence and your team."
"It’s going to be awesome for all the fan bases because you don’t really know who the front runner is."
The quarterback carousel isn’t changing how the Saskatchewan Roughriders prepare for the season, said defensive back Ed Gainey.
"Guys are going to shuffle around. A couple of those quarterbacks had some of their receivers come with them too. It is all about preparation during the week and seeing how they are going to try and attack us," he said. "We’re just breaking it down and making them play into our hands."
Saskatchewan is one of just four teams whose starting quarterback will return this year.
Zach Collaros spent six weeks on the sidelines with a head injury last season, but still managed to throw for 2,999 yards and nine touchdowns.
Having him back in the lineup is a big advantage, said Riders receiver Naaman Roosevelt.
"It is big for us to get that chemistry down with just all the guys and understand where we need to be," he said. "As a whole group as an offence, we want to be there for each other throughout this whole year doing great things and I think we will."
One thing Orlondo Steinauer doesn’t have to worry about in his first season as the Hamilton Tiger-Cats’ head coach is the club’s quarterback position. Returnee Jeremiah Masoli was the East Division’s top player last year, passing for 5,209 yards and 28 TDs, both career highs.
However, Steinauer said having a capable backup is as important as a bona-fide starter. That’s a big reason why the Ticats signed third-year veteran Dane Evans to an extension through 2021 this off-season.
"We’re fortunate to have a guy like (Masoli) but I think the majority of teams in the league have a guy," he said. "But you always have to have somebody in the bullpen ready to go.
"You have to have somebody who can spin it, somebody who can take control of the huddle, lead, battle through adversity not always just when times are good but when times are tough."
One quarterback who had an opportunity to make a move in the off-season but opted to stay was Calgary’s Bo Levi Mitchell.
The 29-year-old Texan headed into free agency after winning a Grey Cup with the Stampeders last November, then signed a four-year, $2.8-million deal with the club in February.
"I hope the Stamps always see having me as a quarterback as an advantage," he said. "I’m excited to be back here and I hope the Stamps feel lucky to have me just as much as I feel lucky to be here."
All of the quarterbacks who opted to make different choices are in good positions, Mitchell added.
"Mike, Trevor, all those guys, they’re going to be fine," he said. "Those teams paid them a lot of money for a very good reason."