When taking a historical look at the Canadian Football League, one of the things that stands out is that more Americans than Canadians have played the key position of quarterback.
Overall, there have been eight Canadian quarterbacks who have started in the CFL since its establishment in 1958. And if you add the years prior to that when the Canadian Football Council (CFC) was the national governing body, there were another three.
To date, the most celebrated of them all is Russ Jackson. He was drafted in 1958 and played his entire career through 1969 for the then Ottawa Rough Riders. Jackson is widely regarded as the greatest Canadian quarterback in league history.
Another Canadian QB who made a name for himself during the same time is Frank Cosentino. He was under centre for Hamilton, Edmonton and Toronto during the 1960s. Both Cosentino and Jackson are in the Canadian Football Hall of Fame, as is Greg Vavra, who played with Calgary, B.C. and Edmonton between 1984 and 1988.
There were two other guys who had some time in the league but who only started a handful of games between them. Giulio Caravatta had two starts and Larry Jusdanis had one, and that was back in 1996.
After that, there was a long drought until Brandon Bridge and Andrew Buckley emerged on the scene. Bridge played with Montreal, Saskatchewan and B.C. from 2015 to 2019, while Buckley was a backup in Calgary for the 2016 and 2017 seasons before retiring from football in 2018.
There are also a couple of Canadian-born players of note who made their mark in the NFL. The first was Mark Rypien. Born in Calgary, he grew up in Washington state, played college football there and then had 14 seasons in the NFL from 1986.
The other guy is Jesse Palmer. The Torontonian played college football at Florida and then signed with the New York Giants where he played from 2001 to 2005.
Currently, there are two Canadian quarterbacks in the CFL, Nathan Rourke at B.C. and Michael O’Connor in Calgary. And there might have been a third had Noah Picton not opted to retire from pro football to take a U Sports coaching job in 2019.
O’Connor was drafted by the Toronto Argonauts in 2019 and played a couple of games for them that season before signing as a free agent with the Stampeders in February 2021. Rourke was drafted by the Lions in 2020 and saw some game time during the 2021 season.
So, to put this in context, the obvious question is why have there been many more American quarterbacks in Canadian football in the last 70+ years? Well, according to O’Connor, it could have something to do with the difference in sporting cultures.
“In the United States football is kind of like what hockey is to Canada, so guys are kind of born into it,” he said. “I think there’s a lot more opportunity down there and more coaching, but I think that’s beginning to change. I think there are more Canadian quarterbacks who are getting more opportunities and better coaching and I think it’s going in the right direction.”
O’Connor agrees that having more Canadian quarterbacks in the CFL would be good for the game.
“I think there’s an interest in the CFL for that to happen,” he said. “It’s slowly starting to change and in five or ten years from now, I think it’ll be a higher number. Better coaching up here will lead to more development which will lead to better quarterback play.”
“But also, if you look at opportunities that Canadians are getting to play in the NCAA, I think those opportunities will only grow and with that, more players will be able to go to the States to improve their game and I think we’ll start to see the effects of that in the next couple of years.”
As things stand today, each CFL team has two quarterbacks on its 46-man roster and while they are not designated either National or American for ratio purposes, most of the time those spots are filled by Americans which leads to another question – would it make sense for the CFL to consider tweaking requirements so that teams must have at least one Canadian QB?
“I think that’d be a great idea,” added O’Connor. “That said though, you want to earn what you have. You don’t want to just be given it. But if you give more opportunities to people, I think you’ll start to see the payoff.”
“I see both sides of that one, but I think ultimately it’d be a good idea.”
In line with the CFL’s one-year contracts, O’Connor is due to become a free agent in February. He said while that can be frustrating, he sees it as being part of the business.
Including O’Connor, Calgary now has four quarterbacks on its roster. Bo Levi Mitchell agreed to restructure his contract, and the Stampeders have also re-signed Jake Maier, as well as signing another American QB Tommy Stevens.
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