We are so often told that if just about any player in the NFL played in the CFL, they would dominate the sport and single-handedly take their team to the Grey Cup. Despite all of the history to suggest that isn’t true, it frequently comes up in any Twitter argument. We have seen countless big names come and go from the CFL, but there are some that are more notable than others.
Below is a list of five of the biggest stars (either in the NFL or in college football) to take a crack at the CFL, but none of them ended favourably for the player. These are in no particular order, and do not include every single name that could possibly fit into this category. If you think of someone who should be here, put it in the comments below!
Johnny Manziel, QB, Montreal Alouettes
Let’s be honest, you knew Johnny Manziel was going to be on this list, even if you didn’t see his picture at the top of it. Manziel is one of the most recent examples of a superstar heading to the CFL, expected to become the greatest of all time by those distant from the league. Thanks to his time in the NCAA with Texas A&M, Manziel carried a large fandom, many of whom thought he would rewrite the history books in Canada. That’s not how the story went, in fact, it wasn’t even close.
In two college seasons, Manziel became a superstar, often hitting the highlight reels all across the world for his improvisation outside of the pocket. Manziel tended to pass over the easy option, and instead relied on his incredible athleticism to make a play. At the college level, that worked for him, but at the next level, it stopped him from succeeding.
That didn’t stop the Cleveland Browns from selecting Manziel in the first round of the 2014 NFL Draft. Although he produced nearly 8,000 passing yards and 62 touchdowns in college, his time with the Browns changed the perception around him from superstar to fraud. In two seasons with the Browns, Manziel couldn’t find any success and quickly flunked out of the league. Rumours began to swirl that he would be heading to the CFL, and ahead of the 2018 season, he signed with the Hamilton Tiger-Cats.
After several weeks sitting behind then starting quarterback Jeremiah Masoli, Manziel was traded to Montreal alongside Tony Washington and Landon Rice for Jamaal Westerman, Chris Williams, and a pair of first-round draft choices. He became the starting quarterback in week eight, and with massive expectations placed on his shoulders, especially by American fans and media, Manziel fell flat.
Against his former teammates in Hamilton, Manziel completed just 11 of his 20 passes for 104 yards, but the most noteworthy stat on his line was the four interceptions he threw before halftime. He started again in week nine against Ottawa, but again, he wouldn’t find the endzone. Late in the game, he was hit hard by Jonathan Rose, and found himself in the concussion protocol the following week.
Manziel wouldn’t start again until week 15, but none of his performances were all that great. He finished the season with 1,260 yards, five touchdowns, and seven interceptions. The CFL ordered the Alouettes to cut ties with Manziel after he breached the terms of his contract, and teams around the league were barred from signing Manziel again. He has since had stops in the AAF and Fan Controlled Football, but his stint in the CFL effectively ended his chance to return to the NFL.
Manziel was arguably the most popular player to step foot in the CFL. He’s far from the only player to flunk out of the league, but he’s one of the few football superstars who came to the league in his prime and left with nothing to show for it. His story is a sad one, but still, he’s the player who headlines this list, and likely will for some time.
Chad “Ochocinco” Johnson, WR, Montreal Alouettes
You might think this is cheating, after all, Chad Johnson only signed with the Alouettes after a lengthy NFL career and some time away from football. At the age of 36, Johnson, who legally changed his name to Chad Javon Ochocinco before changing it back in 2012, performed well enough in a tryout with the Als to earn a two-year contract with the birds.
Were the expectations really ever there for Johnson in Canada? Perhaps not, but regardless, a player who previously had seven NFL seasons with over 1,000 yards receiving was sure to generate the headlines, and that he did. On the field, Johnson was one of the most polarizing players of his time, but he always put up the numbers to show for it. In his 11-year NFL career spent mostly with the Cincinnati Bengals before one season with the New England Patriots, Johnson hauled in 11,059 yards and 67 touchdowns. For his efforts, Johnson is up for Hall of Fame induction in 2022.
A potential Hall of Famer in the NFL hit the field with the Alouettes in 2014 on a roster that left plenty to be desired. Their quarterback room was led by Jonathan Crompton with Tanner Marsh and Alex Brink serving as his backups, but their defence helped them to a somewhat successful season.
Johnson’s season wasn’t quite as successful, however. He played just five games with the Alouettes, largely thanks to injuries that derailed his comeback efforts. In those five games, Johnson caught seven passes for 151 yards and a touchdown. Judging by the numbers alone, you could make the argument that Johnson really wasn’t that big of a bust up north. After all, he had a decent yardage total through his five games, but playing as few games as he did qualifies him by my definition.
After missing the playoffs while he was dealing with a personal matter in Florida, Johnson didn’t show up at Alouettes’ training camp in 2015, and was promptly suspended for the entire season. His contract was never renewed by the Als, and Johnson has remained a free agent in the CFL ever since.
Since then, Johnson has played in one game for the Monterrey Fundidores in the Liga de Fútbol Americano Profesional de México. He caught three passes, but it was his last crack at professional football.
Trent Richardson, RB, Saskatchewan Roughriders
Much like Manziel, Trent Richardson flopped out of the NFL, but his claim to fame came from the college ranks, during his time with the Alabama Crimson Tide. His time in Alabama was magical, picking up 3,130 yards over the course of three seasons on the ground. His best season, however, came in 2011 when he rushed for 1,679 yards on 283 carries, scampering into the endzone 21 times.
Richardson’s 2011 season earned him third place in the Heisman voting, and he was promptly selected third overall in the 2012 NFL Draft by the Cleveland Browns. His first NFL season in 2012 with the Browns was impressive, carrying the rock 267 times for 950 yards, and 11 touchdowns. Out of the backfield, Richardson added an additional 367 yards receiving and one touchdown. It looked like the Browns may have hit a home run with their pick, but things started to change in the 2013 season.
After just two games in Cleveland, Richardson was shipped to the Indianapolis Colts in exchange for a first-round draft pick in 2014. With the Colts, Richardson’s production plummeted, rushing for just 458 yards and three touchdowns in his new colours. The 2014 season was a continuation of this trend, as Richardson rushed for 519 yards and only three touchdowns. He was inactive for the 2014 playoffs and was suspended by the team for missing a walkthrough. This ultimately signalled the end of Richardson’s time with the Colts, and he was waived in the 2015 offseason.
Richardson signed a contract with the Oakland Raiders for the 2015 season, but in August, he was released by the team. After a quick stop with the Baltimore Ravens, Richardson was out of options, and looking for a league to continue playing. The Saskatchewan Roughriders came knocking, and after some indecision, Richardson finally decided to sign with the team for the latter stages of the 2017 season.
Richardson’s first-ever CFL game came in week 16 of the 2017 season against the Toronto Argonauts. He ran the ball just five times in the game for 20 yards. Each week, Richardson’s touches and production increased, and it was starting to look like he could become an every-down back for the Roughriders.
His final CFL game came in week 19, but it wasn’t known at the time it would be his last game. Against the Alouettes, Richardson rushed for 127 yards and two touchdowns on only 20 carries. Late in the game, however, Richardson suffered an ankle injury that sidelined him for the remainder of the season.
Chris Jones, who was the head coach of the Roughriders at the time, called it unlikely that Richardson would be in training camp in 2018. According to his agent, leaving the United States left Richardson at risk of losing custody of his four children, and he was signing in the AAF. Although his production was increasing, Richardson had come and gone from the CFL, leaving him a candidate for this list. It is unfortunate, however, that we never got to see how it could have played out for him.
Vince Ferragamo, QB, Montreal Alouettes
Sorry, Alouettes fans. You’re taking quite the kick in the pants in this one, but I promise, this is the last time your team comes up here. Seriously, I promise. The final Montreal connected entry is Vince Ferragamo, the former fourth-round pick of the Los Angeles Rams in 1977. Ferragamo is considered to be one of the most notable quarterbacks in Rams history, and although he led his team to the Super Bowl in the 1979 season, his CFL career was as shocking as you could have imagined.
Ferragamo never posted incredible stats in the NFL, especially when it came to his touchdown to interception ratio, but he did enough to enjoy a seven-year career. In that time, Ferragamo threw for 11,336 yards, completing 56 percent of his passes. That touchdown to interception ratio, however, was quite ugly. He threw 76 touchdowns in his career, but also threw 91 interceptions. In 1980, however, Ferragamo enjoyed his best statistical season, throwing for 3,199 yards with 30 touchdowns and only 19 interceptions.
With his best season to date under his belt, Ferragamo was heading to free agency. His next contract took him away from Los Angeles, who were completely out-bid by the CFL’s Montreal Alouettes. The Rams reportedly offered Ferragamo $250,000, while the Alouettes blew that offer out of the water, ponying up two one-year contracts worth $400,000 each.
Committing those kinds of dollars in that era was exceptionally rare, but the Alouettes felt like they had their guy for at least two seasons, and possibly even longer. Ferragamo sticking around for four years was a possibility, however, he knew that if the conditions for a return to the NFL were right, he would be going back. If not, he said that he would “reap his rewards [in Canada]” and then consider going to medical school to become a doctor.
Coming off his best NFL season, Ferragamo took the field with the Alouettes for the first time, but it went nothing like he would have planned. He played just 13 games in Montreal, and was demoted to being Gerry Dattilio’s backup in the second half of the season. He would then be demoted once more to the third-string spot, as the Alouettes missed the playoffs with a 3-13 record.
The Alouettes somehow made the playoffs in the 1981 season, but it was in no way thanks to Ferragamo’s performances. He finished his CFL career having thrown for 2,182 yards on 51 percent completions, and throwing 25 interceptions, offset by just seven touchdowns. He watched his final CFL game from the press box, as the Alouettes’ season was mercifully put to an end by the Ottawa Rough Riders.
Ferragamo returned to the NFL for the 1982 season, but he would never have another season where he threw more touchdowns than interceptions. He had stops with both the Buffalo Bills and the Green Bay Packers, before finally calling it quits after the 1986 season. A player who once threw 30 touchdown passes in the NFL had come to Canada with a massive contract, and it blew up in everyone’s face.
Mark Gastineau, DL, BC Lions
Mark Gastineau is one of the best pass rushers in the history of the National Football League, and you might be shocked to see him here. Gastineau played with the New York Jets from 1979 until 1988, and was a key part of the group known as the ‘New York Sack Exchange.’ In 2012, he was inducted into the New York Jets Ring of Honour, so how did a superstar in the NFL come to the CFL and completely flunk out? Well, it’s certainly an interesting tale.
After his college career with East Central Oklahoma University, Gastineau was selected in the second round of the 1979 NFL Draft by the Jets. In his rookie season, he suited up in all of the Jets’ 16 games, however, he started just one game. In his limited action, he recorded two sacks, although the accuracy of that can be questioned as sacks weren’t an officially tracked stat until 1982.
Gastineau’s NFL career lasted 10 seasons and included 107.5 sacks. He was also a heavily decorated player on football’s biggest stage, taking home plenty of awards. In 1982, he was named NFL Defensive Player of the Year. Gastineau was also a four-time first-team All-Pro, a one-time second-team All-Pro, a five-time Pro-Bowler, and a two-time NFL sacks leader in 1983 and 1984, where he recorded 19 and 22 sacks respectively.
Although Gastineau was exceptional on the field, off the field, things were sometimes interesting. Leading the AFC in sacks after seven weeks in 1988, he announced his retirement after his fiance announced she was suffering from cancer. With some players on the team already annoyed with Gastineau for crossing the picket line during the 1987 player strike, and with many not being thrilled with him, to begin with, New York media began wondering if he was telling the truth. Despite that, Gastineau never played another down in the NFL, and when he retired, he was the league’s all-time leader in sacks with 107.5.
In 1990, Gastineau attempted a comeback with the BC Lions. If you are wondering how that went, not good, especially considering he’s on this list. In his first game in the CFL, the Lions faced off against the Calgary Stampeders, and at halftime of a game that ended in a 38-38 tie, Gastineau was involved in a massive brawl as the teams headed back to the locker rooms. Gastineau ripped the helmet off of the Stamps’ backup linebacker, Dan Wicklum, before slamming it off the turf, splitting it. He was involved in numerous shoving matches before halftime, but he was ejected after his helmet-ripping shenanigans.
This wasn’t the first time he had been involved in something in the CFL, either. In a preseason game against the Winnipeg Blue Bombers, Gastineau traded punches with Bombers’ offensive tackle, Chris Walby on the very first play. If nothing else, Gastineau had made his mark on the CFL, but it wasn’t thanks to his play. His stint with the Lions lasted just four games, and in that time, he registered only six tackles and didn’t manage to sack the quarterback even once.
Once known as one of the best edge rushers in the world, Gastineau was released by the Lions at the age of 33, doing nothing more than getting into fights and occasionally playing some football. He went on to become a boxer, and in 18 fights, Gastineau won 15 times, lost twice, and had one no-decision. You could make the argument, however, that his boxing career really began in BC when he fought Walby on the field.
Gastineau has previously said that he is suffering from numerous health concerns. 13th Man Sports wishes him nothing but the best in his battles.
What’s the point of this? Why would anyone care about some of the big names that have flunked out? The point here is that the CFL isn’t some league filled with rag-tag talent that anyone in the NFL could come into and dominate. Sure, the elite players of the world are there, but this league is filled with players who are good football players, and some could even be stars in the NFL at some point. If you should take anything from this, it’s that there are legitimate athletes in the CFL that you might not respect as much as you should.