Friday, July 17, 2009

Graham Harrell and Saskatchewan: a perfect fit?

It was rather exciting to see former Texas Tech quarterback Graham Harrell sign with the Saskatchewan Roughriders yesterday [Murray McCormick, Regina Leader-Post]. Harrell, the NCAA Division I career leader in touchdown passes, is one of the most impressive quarterbacks I've seen. As I wrote a while ago, there's a great chance he would have been able to succeed in the NFL if not for the groupthink that determines the evaluation of NFL quarterbacks. Harrell had a far better season and career statistically than first-overall draft pick Matthew Stafford or fifth-overall pick Mark Sanchez, but went completely undrafted and then failed to catch on with the Cleveland Browns as a free agent.

The logic behind passing Harrell over? Well, it isn't especially convincing. NFL evaluation of quarterbacks has long placed college numbers below such things as height and arm strength. The NFL also consistently passes over "system" quarterbacks who run pass-heavy offences in favour of those who got their playing time in a more balanced environment . Sometimes this works well; players like Matt Cassel, who never started in college, have gone on to be NFL stars, while other players with impressive college careers, like Ryan Leaf, have failed spectacularly in the professional ranks.

On the whole, though, the system is rather flawed. As Malcolm Gladwell examined in Outliers (a book I wrote about here), many different approaches have been tried, but no consistent way to predict quarterbacks' professional success has yet been found. With that in mind, it doesn't particularly make sense to eliminate massive amounts of capable quarterbacks such as Harrell because they don't fit into an evaluation model that has been demonstrated not to work.

The NFL's loss may well be the CFL's gain, though. As I wrote in my initial piece, Harrell isn't a perfect quarterback in the traditional NFL mould. He doesn't have the pure arm strength of many NFL players (although he's still able to throw deep balls when needed), and he isn't a gunslinger in the Brett Favre mould who zips bullet passes into tight coverage. That may be to his advantage, though, especially in Canada.

What Harrell excels at is running a spread offence with four or five receivers, making quick reads and finding the open man. That allows him to have an extraordinarily high completion percentage and a low number of interceptions, as well as a lot of touchdown passes. He's far more efficient and effective then the strong-armed types who rely on pure power and often throw interceptions. Harrell might or might not be a successful quarterback in a traditional NFL offence, but I'm quite confident he could be very successful with a team that tailored its offence to his strengths. Well, the CFL just happens to feature a lot of shotgun spread formations and pass-oriented offences, and the Roughriders in particular have an extraordinarily deep receiving corps that would be a perfect fit for Harrell. With the likes of former teammate Eric Morris, Rob Bagg, Andy Fantuz, Chris Getzlaf, Jason Clermont, Weston Dressler and Johnny Quinn as slotbacks and wide receivers, plus a couple of excellent receiving backs in Wes Cates and Hugh Charles, Harrell will have plenty of weapons suited to his style of play. That's not just my evaluation, either; Texas Tech play-by-play man Brian Jensen wrote that "this could be a match made in ... yes ... Canada is far enough north to be close to heaven!" and Tech assistant coach Matt Jansen wrote on Twitter that he's also a big fan of the move. " I'm so excited for Graham," he wrote. "He gets to team up with Eric Morris again and they could be a deadly combo up there. If you're a fan of that team, you couldn't ask for two guys with more heart for the game of football. I'm jealous."

Of course, the Roughriders are 2-0 so far this year, and you don't usually make quarterback changes when you're winning. Still, starter Darian Durant hasn't been overly impressive thus far, and backup Steven Jyles still has to prove himself at the CFL level. The Riders' quarterback situation is actually perhaps more open than any CFL team except Winnipeg, as neither of their top two options has really been spectacular at the CFL level yet. Thus, this could be a terrific fit for Harrell.

It also could be good for the league to get a high-profile QB like Harrell. It brings back memories of the days when the likes of Warren Moon and Doug Flutie were passed over by the NFL and opted to come to Canada. In fact, those guys faced similar challenges in cracking the NFL system; Moon was a black quarterback long before black quarterbacks were widely accepted, and Flutie was considered far too short to succeed in the NFL. Both did well in Canada and then proved to the NFL that their evaluation model was flawed with triumphant returns. Let's see if Harrell can follow in their footsteps.


  1. Let's also mention that Flutie even considered coming BACK to the CFL after his NFL career was over. That's how much of an impact the league had on him as a professional and as a person.

    I agree that Harrell wasn't given a fair chance by the NFL teams, but let's give him a chance to prove everyone in the NFL wrong, and prove all Rider fans RIGHT!

    Go Green & White!

  2. Anonymous7:16 PM

    I am a die hard Texas Tech Red Raider fan, and I saw GH throw every pass while at Tech. I must say, that I am stoked to see him heading to Regina! I do think this is a near perfect fit!

    Since all this talk, I have actually become a RoughRiders fan! (even before he signed)

    Ironically, Regina reminds me a lot of Lubbock, TX (flat, no trees, 200,000 population) It seems almost identical except colder. And the Fans seem like they are passionate and rowdy, just like Red Raider fans. The stadium is nothing fancy (just like "The Jones"), but loud!! (this all according to Youtube videos)

    Heck, if Harrel starts...I just might make the trip up from Texas to see it in the flesh!