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Ranking CFL Head Coach & Quarterback Combos

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There has been plenty of shuffling at the quarterback and head coach spots in the CFL since 2019. Four out of nine teams will be starting the 2021 season with a different coach or quarterback than they finished the 2019 season with.

The head coach and quarterback shoulder the blame when things are going wrong and usually receive praise when things are going right. How do the recent changes at head coach and quarterback matchup against the consistent duos in the league?

Down south it was Bill Belichick and Tom Brady that ran the roost, now it’s Andy Reid and Patrick Mahomes. In some instances, there are even combinations that have found themselves at odds over the last few years. Pete Carroll and Russell Wilson have strong philosophical differences on how the offence should run.

Back up North, the CFL has a myriad of head coaches whose specialties range across all three phases of the game. Offence, defence and special teams. These rankings will be based on how well the head coach and quarterback complement each other. And in particular, cases will be based on previous work completed together.

1. Dave Dickenson and Bo Levi Mitchell

This duo has been working alongside one another since 2015 when Dave Dickenson took over the reins as head coach. However, their relationship spans back to when Mitchell first arrived in the CFL in 2012 and Dickenson was his offensive coordinator.

Since that time, the duo has appeared in three Grey Cups, winning in 2018. They have never missed the playoffs and have never finished worse than second place in the West Division.

As for Mitchell, he’s won two Most Outstanding Player awards (2016 & 2018), has been named a CFL West All-Star three times (2015, 2016 & 2018) and has been the CFL passing touchdowns leader twice (2016 & 2018).

The Stampeders often get compared to the New England Patriots for their consistency and excellence. Mitchell choosing to stay in the CFL after considering NFL options can further strengthen the narrative. Mitchell and Dickenson can continue to stack their resumes straight to the Hall of Fame.

Stampeders receiver, Kamar Jorden spoke to the consistency the Stampeders have in an interview with 3rd & Wrong in November.

2. Paul LaPolice and Matt Nichols

The quarterback musical chairs that took place prior to free agency may have actually benefited both parties. The Redblacks are coming off a disastrous 2019 season after losing a myriad of contributors from their Grey Cup teams. LaPolice and Nichols instantly stabilize the two most important positions within the franchise.

Many question Nichols’ health but putting that aside for a second, it’s important not to forget the production he experienced under LaPolice’s guidance.

Nichols threw for 1,936 yards with 15 touchdowns and five interceptions in 2019 with LaPolice as his offensive coordinator in Winnipeg. He led the Bombers to a 7-2 record prior to suffering a season-ending shoulder injury. In an interview with the Ottawa Sun’s Tim Baines, Nichols mentioned that prior to his injury he felt the game slowing down as he put up career numbers.

The bonus for this tandem is that there won’t be a steep learning curve with Nichols’ familiarity within the offence. It remains to be seen how the rest of the roster will fare, however, Ottawa finally has stability at the two most important spots in a franchise.

3. Orlondo Steinauer and Jeremiah Masoli/Dane Evans

Not putting Orlondo Steinauer and Jeremiah Masoli in the top three wouldn’t be a wise choice. Dane Evans finds himself here due to the production he had in relief for Masoli. Steinauer has coached up some elite defences in his time in Hamilton. His first year as a head coach was no different. Posting 15 wins, an undefeated home record and a Grey Cup appearance.

Though the Ticats fell short of their ultimate goal, Steinauer positioned himself as one of the best minds in the game. Under Steinauer’s guidance, Hamilton’s defence was first in points allowed, touchdowns allowed, third in sacks and third in turnovers forced. Steinauer also earned himself a CFL Coach of the Year award in 2019.

As for the offence, Masoli had his most impressive season in 2018 where he posted 28 touchdowns to go with 5,209 yards passing and adding nearly 500 yards on the ground.

Unfortunately, a torn ACL ended his 2019 season prematurely as he was well on his way to being a scoring machine again with nine throwing touchdowns and four rushing touchdowns.

Dane Evans filled in formidably posting 21 touchdowns to 13 interceptions along with 3,754 yards passing. With Steinauer’s ferocious defence and either Masoli or Evans making plays on offence. This duo (or trio) is set up for success well into the future.

4. Mike O’Shea and Zach Collaros

This was the hardest duo to rank. Mike O’Shea and Zach Collaros were two massive reasons why Winnipeg was able to take home the Grey Cup in 2019. But they’ve also spent such little time together that it’s difficult to see the long-term outlook of this duo. It appears the Bombers are fully committing to Collaros as they have yet to sign a backup that could really challenge for the starting position.

While Winnipeg may see upside with Sean McGuire, McLeod Bethel-Thompson still remains a free agent. Winnipeg has retained a majority of their core and had tried to further strengthen their passing game with the acquisition of Bryant Mitchell until he retired.

Could this be a shift in offensive philosophy? That’s taking it a stretch too far but it does mean that Winnipeg wants their starting pivot to have all the tools he needs. Many point to the run game as a reason why Winnipeg went on a run to win the Grey Cup but that may have not been the case. Chris Clement’s dive into the analytics says otherwise.

5. Craig Dickenson and Cody Fajardo

When Chris Jones left Saskatchewan to take a position with the Cleveland Browns a little over two years ago, many were left wondering if Saskatchewan would find itself back in the basement as they did in 2015 and 2016.

However, Craig Dickenson emerged as a leader for the team seamlessly transitioning from CFL special teams guru to head coach. Adopting a philosophy of being a teacher on the field, Dickenson quickly earned the trust of his players after Jones’ departure.

As for Fajardo, he has quickly captured the hearts and minds of every Roughrider fan with his electric play on the field and calm demeanour off of it.

Fajardo exploded for 4,302 yards passing and 18 passing touchdowns. On the ground, he accumulated 611 yards rushing and 10 touchdowns.

At 29, Fajardo doesn’t have the wear and tear most other starting quarterbacks would have at this stage in their careers. The potential for longevity and chemistry with Craig Dickenson and Cody Fajardo is enormous with the foundation they laid down in 2019.

6. Jaime Elizondo and Trevor Harris

Scott Milanovich’s unexpected departure had the Edmonton Elk scrambling to find a replacement. Edmonton landed on Jaime Elizondo who twice was held back from pursuing a CFL head coaching gig.

Elizondo will also double as the team’s offensive coordinator and quarterback coach. From 2016-2018, Elizondo was the offensive coordinator for the Ottawa Redblacks that saw four receivers go for 1,000 yards.

But what really makes this combo intriguing is previous work done with Harris. In 2018, Harris set a career-high for passing yards with 5,116. That same season, Harris threw a CFL playoff-record six touchdowns in the East Final. Under Elizondo, Harris has put up 13,096 passing yards, 68 touchdowns and a completion percentage of 70.

While being a brand new duo on a new team, the work that these two have done previously gives me confidence that they will set the tone early on in Edmonton. Whatever name Edmonton ends up dawning in 2021, the fan base can have confidence in this duo.

7. Rick Campbell and Mike Reilly

We haven’t seen these two play together before but their position here is based on their impressive resumes. Mike Reilly a former Grey Cup champion and MVP also has a MOP award to go with his hardware. Rick Campbell brought an expansion team to the Grey Cup three times, winning once.

No one is mistaking that 2019 was a down year in BC where Reilly posted his lowest touchdown totals since 2015. But make no mistake, anyone writing off Reilly could be in for a rude awakening in 2021.

However, even if that’s the case, we still simply do not know how Campbell and Reilly will mesh. Campbell has his share of experience working with top-tier CFL quarterbacks in Henry Burris and Trevor Harris. But this to me feels like an odd fit.

With Reilly having the experience he does, Campbell’s attention will shift to a defence that ranked near the bottom of the league in points allowed, points allowed per game, sacks and turnovers.

There is upside to this combo but at the moment there are more questions than answers.

8. Khari Jones and Vernon Adams Jr.

Khari Jones and Vernon Adams Jr. were just the combination the Montreal Alouettes needed to break out of the post-Calvillo purgatory they found themselves in for the better part of half a decade. Jonathan Crompton, Rakeem Cato, Kevin Glenn, Drew Willy, Darian Durant, Johnny Manziel and Antonio Pipkin all tried their hand in resurrecting the franchise but nothing led to sustained success.

Enter Jones and Adams Jr. After Pipkin went down in week one of the 2019 season, Adams Jr. took the starting reigns and never looked back. Adams Jr. went on a rampage throwing for 3,942 yards, 24 touchdowns and a 63% completion percentage.

His dual-threat capabilities also proved to be a challenge for opposing defences with Adams adding nearly 400 yards on the ground and 12 touchdowns. So why on the lower end of this list?

According to Derek Taylor of CKRM, Adams Jr. had 12 passes that were deemed “interceptable” where the defender dropped the potential interception or the receiver broke up the errant pass.

That’s a startling statistic that could’ve saw Adams’ interception totals jump from 13 to 25. At the end of the day, it’s expected that Jones and Adams Jr. will continue to lead the Alouettes to a level of sustained success. If this duo can replicate the success of 2019 in 2021, they will climb the rankings on next year’s list.

9. Ryan Dinwiddie and Nick Arbuckle

I don’t like having Dinwiddie and Arbuckle here any more than you. In fact, I am very bullish on this combo. A young unproven head coach who has quietly worked behind one of the great offensive minds in Dave Dickenson.

Paired with an upstart quarterback who learned behind one of the best quarterbacks of the last decade, Bo Levi Mitchell. Together, they create one of the more intriguing partnerships on this list.

In Calgary, after Bo Levi Mitchell went down, Arbuckle came in and steadied the ship going 4-3. However, those thinking that this offence will look exactly like what Dickenson and Mitchell ran may be in for a surprise.

As Marshall Ferguson points out below, Arbuckle appeared to take the short-medium throws compared to Mitchell who took more deep shots. This could simply be chalked up to Mitchell’s veteran savvy/confidence or play calling. With the more reps Arbuckle gets, the more the offence has the potential to expand.

What remains to be seen is how effective Dinwiddie can foster and integrate a brand new culture. He has a lot working against him with massive roster turnover and potentially cancelled pre-season. This duo may be ninth this year but look for them to shoot up the rankings in the years to come. Even if the XFL is in the picture at that point.

Let’s hear from you

Whether you agree with me or not, I’d like to hear from you! What are your rankings? What do you like or dislike about mine?

Start the conversation with me at either @amateuragency or @stevebolen22 on Twitter!

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