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.


  1. This game is the example that should be pointed to whenever anyone tries to claim CFL football isn't entertaining!

  2. Great column Andrew. Those are some good thoughts about Henry Burris. The game Sunday was terrific on so many levels - one of the best Grey Cups I've ever seen. He had a lot to do with making it so memorable.