Sunday, November 27, 2016

Henry Burris finally quiets critics, outdueling Mitchell in dazzling passing-record Grey Cup

Henry Burris has long seemed so determined to quiet his detractors, and Sunday's Grey Cup set up as the perfect opportunity for him. It was against his old team, the Calgary Stampeders, the team that decided to trade him to Hamilton before the 2012 season to go with a younger quarterback (Drew Tate, who in turn gave way to Bo Levi Mitchell, Burris' opponent Sunday). It was after a year where the 41-year-old Burris was initially the starter, was replaced by Trevor Harris thanks to injury, was replaced again thanks to ineffectiveness, and then returned to lead the Redblacks into and through the playoffs. It was after a year where many were questioning if Ottawa even deserved to be in the postseason, and it was with Burris' own future seemingly up in the air, with the Redblacks apparently set to move on with Harris next year. It was with his individual highs (in particular, his Most Outstanding Player awards in 2015 and 2010) never seeming to quite align with his teams that won it all. It was the perfect opportunity for Burris to answer the call and bolster his legacy, and he did so in incredible fashion.

Sunday was perhaps the greatest game Burris has ever played in his 20 years of professional football, and that's before you consider the stakes or the other context. Burris completed 35 of his 46 passing attempts (76.1 per cent) for 461 yards and three touchdowns with one interception, and he also ran for two touchdowns on goal-line plays. He was a deserving winner of the Grey Cup's Most Outstanding Player, and that performance was essential to the Redblacks' victory. Looking at the matchups, 15-2-1 Calgary seemed well ahead of 8-9-1 Ottawa in most categories, but quarterback play was potentially more even. The Stampeders had Mitchell, who had a tremendous season and won the hard-to-earn unanimous Most Outstanding Player, but the Redblacks had Burris, who won MOPs in 2010 and 2015. He didn't play as much this year and wasn't always dominant when he did, but he was impressive down the stretch, averaging 383 passing yards in his final several regular-season starts. Any reasonable case for a predicted Ottawa win had to involve Burris having a dominant game (with the aid of his impressive receiving corps), and that's exactly what happened.

Burris needed to have an incredible game, too. Yes, Calgary made plenty of mistakes early on, and that's what led to a 20-7 lead for the Redblacks at the half, but these Stampeders were too good to go down without a fight. Mitchell's three interceptions on the day deserve criticism, but he threw for 391 yards (combining with Burris for 852, the highest joint total in Grey Cup history) and two touchdowns with a 68.3 per cent completion rate, a showing better than many other Grey Cup champion quarterbacks have turned in. Burris wasn't perfect, as that interception proved, but he was an essential part of what Ottawa did here, and they needed every single bit of his production. They still barely escaped with the win; the play of the game might have been Redblacks' DB Abdul Kanneh getting just a hand on Calgary quarterback Andrew Buckley's heel and tripping him up on an otherwise-open second-and-goal run in the final minute, leading to the Stampeders kicking a field goal and sending the game to overtime. In the end, though, Burris was able to hit Ernest Jackson (who juggled the ball, but still made the catch) for an overtime touchdown, and Ottawa's defence was able to stop Mitchell and the Calgary offence on their own possession.

What's particularly remarkable is that Burris almost didn't get to this point. Before the game, he hurt his knee in warmup, and there were reports that he would be unavailable. He wasn't on the field when the teams were introduced, receiving treatment and painkillers in the locker room instead. That makes this performance even more incredible, as does how unlikely it looked that he would be leading the team at this point; the thought before the season was that the Redblacks would be Burris' team this year and then be turned over to Harris next year, but when Burris was hurt in the first game and Harris stepped in and dazzled, the younger quarterback might well have continued leading them if he hadn't gotten hurt himself. The quarterback carousel between the two played out all year, and there were low points as well as high ones for Burris; he memorably told "all those guys at TSN" to "shove it" after he received deserved criticism following a loss to Toronto where he threw for just 218 yards and a touchdown with two interceptions. There were times where he looked done as a starter, times where imagining him as the Grey Cup's most outstanding player would have seemed an incredible reach.

That speaks to a larger dichotomy with Burris and with player evaluation in general. People can hold two ideas at once, and just because Burris reached the top of the mountain here doesn't mean everyone who ever moved on from him or criticized him was wrong. Burris has had major ups and downs throughout his CFL and NFL stints; there's a reason he's remembered as one of the Chicago Bears' biggest starting quarterbacking failures, and there's a reason the "Bad Hank" narrative has followed him throughout his CFL career. At times, he's played very poorly and made terrible decisions, and the recent calls by Calgary (in 2012) and Hamilton (in 2014) to move on without him had some merit. Those moves paved the way for the emergence of Tate and Mitchell in Calgary and the emergence of Zach Collaros in Hamilton, and it's hard to blame teams for trying to go with a younger quarterback. Most quarterbacks anywhere near Burris' age aren't dominating the CFL (and have a lot of injury concerns), and paving the way for the future is understandable.

Burris has proved to be able to turn back the clock, though, in some ways becoming even better in the last few years. His 2012 (5,356) and 2015 (5,693) seasons are his two highest yardage totals, and his completion percentage has shot up since leaving Calgary. It's understandable why those teams moved on from him, but it's also understandable why he took offence to that. He clearly can still play, and Sunday's game certainly showed that. Burris had perhaps the best game of his career on the biggest stage imaginable, and while some of the criticism of him has been justified, he certainly proved able to answer it for at least one day.

A quarterback's legacy should never rest on one game, and Burris was a certain CFL Hall of Famer, a probable top-10 all-time CFL quarterback, and a likely top-five all-time CFL quarterback before this. However, this does add another Grey Cup ring (his third; 1998, 2008, 2016) and another Grey Cup MOP (also in 2008) to his impressive trophy case, and the dominant performance he turned in here illustrates just how good he can be. We'll see where Burris goes from here, but whether he opts to ride off into the sunset on a high note or keep playing (in Ottawa or elsewhere), this was another piece of evidence that he's one of the CFL's legends. It was the perfect game from him at the perfect time, and one desperately needed. The 8-9-1 Redblacks and the 41-year-old Burris both had Rodney Dangerfield syndrome all week, getting no respect next to Mitchell and the Stampeders, but they did their talking on the field Sunday. Burris was able to use all that disrespect and all that motivation, and to deliver one of the most remarkable performances you'll ever see.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

Eskimos' White leads them to controversial win, but they lose Reilly

The Edmonton Eskimos accomplished the first step towards defending their Grey Cup title Sunday, defeating the Hamilton Tiger-Cats 24-21 in the CFL's East semifinal, but it wasn't an easy win, an unquestioned win, or a win without cost. Edmonton dominated the first half on the scoreboard, leading 7-3 after the first quarter and 18-3 at the break, but that was after Hamilton failed to take advantage of multiple Eskimos' miscues; despite a blocked punt and other Edmonton mistakes, the Ticats went 0 for 7 on second-down conversions in the half and only notched one field goal. Hamilton woke up more late in the game, though, and had a chance to win it late, especially after Edmonton quarterback Mike Reilly went down, but the Eskimos came out victorious thanks to a great performance from running back John White, a crucial interception from Kenny Ladler, a close non-call on what looked like a late hit, and an eventual field goal from Sean Whyte.

White's play in this one was really the biggest difference between the teams. On a windy day in Hamilton, neither passing offence did particularly well, and Reilly was certainly a far cry from the guy who led the league with 5,554 passing yards and posted a 70.8 per cent completion mark this season. On Sunday, he only completed 10 of 19 passes (52.6 per cent) for 133 yards, and backup James Franklin only completed two of four for 19 yards. Hamilton's Zach Collaros wasn't much better, though, completing 20 of 31 (64.6 per cent) for 231 yards with that late interception, and backup Jeremiah Masoli produced the biggest spark from the quarterback position, completing his only pass for 46 yards and rushing for a touchdown. The ground game did a lot to decide this, though; White rushed 20 times for 160 yards and two touchdowns, averaged 8.0 yards per carry, and set up the decisive late first and goal inside the final minute with a 23-yard-run (after recovering his own fumble on the previous play) that led to Whyte's chip-shot field goal to give Edmonton the lead with seven seconds left, letting them win after they picked off a Brandon Banks lateral on the subsequent kickoff return.

One element from this that will receive a lot of discussion going forward was on Hamilton's final drive. The Ticats tied the game at 21 with a rushing touchdown from Masoli, a perfectly-thrown two-point conversion from Collaros, and then a rare kickoff rouge, and they then forced Edmonton to punt into the wind late. The Eskimos' defence stood stout, though, and forced an incompletion from Collaros, which backed the Ticats up deeper thanks to a holding call. Edmonton defensive end Odell Willis hit Collaros after the ball was thrown, but it wasn't called on the field, and while Hamilton head coach Kent Austin challenged roughing the passer on the play, the command centre opted to uphold the on-the-field non-call.

From this perspective, that's the wrong decision; it looked like Willis launched late. However, it was close, and that is a tough call to make in real time. It's not certain that Hamilton would have won even with a call there, either; yes, they'd get a first down deep in their own territory, but there's still a long ways to go from there, and their offence wasn't doing much on the day. The non-call did set up Edmonton's win, though; the Ticats wound up in second and long, tried to throw deep, and had Ladler pick it off, leading to White's run and Whyte's field goal.

The Eskimos move on with this win and will face Ottawa in the East Final (in a Grey Cup rematch, and a clash of Edmonton HC Jason Maas with his old team) next Sunday, but they'll have a lot of questions to answer going forward. First, there's the issue of Reilly's health and if he'll be able to play. Franklin is a skilled backup, but Reilly's one of the league's best quarterbacks, and being without him would be a major loss. Beyond that, there's a lot for the Eskimos to clean up. There were too many fumbles and miscues in this one, and if Hamilton had taken advantage of just a couple of those, it might be the Ticats moving on. The Edmonton passing offence, so good for so much of this year, was also missing in action Sunday, and Hamilton demonstrated an effective plan to shut down top receivers Adarius Bowman and Derel Walker. The Eskimos will have a lot to work on this week if they want to get back to the Grey Cup. However, their hopes of being the first crossover team ever to appear in the championship game are still alive for now, and that's the important thing.