The topic wasn’t as dramatic as who’ll win the United States Presidential election. However, the hot topic of discussion among Edmonton Eskimo fans this week was who would start at quarterback for the green and gold as they face the Toronto Argonauts in the Eastern Division Semi-Final.
The popular choice is 25-year-old Matt Nichols who came off the bench in Montreal in the fourth quarter and almost led the Eskimos to a thrilling come-from-behind victory. Nichols started against the Calgary Stampeders last Friday and enjoyed a good night after a slow start and was good on 18 of 30 attempts for 341 yards and two touchdown passes.
Despite the cries of Eskimo fans and media, head coach Kavis Reed elected to go with the veteran Kerry Joseph.
"After looking at everything, Kerry Joseph is going to be our starter," Reed announced. "I spoke with both of them this morning, both of them are very happy about the situation. Matt knows that he has an oppourtunity and Kerry knows the ball is in his hands to get us off to a fast start."
Reed says Nichols has impressed him with the body of work he’s shown on the football field. However, Reed feels Nichols is still in the development stages and a playoff environment is a different animal compared to the regular season.
"In a post-season game, Kerry has won a Grey Cup," Reed said. "He's been an M.V.P. This is a one and done; this is an elimination game. We looked at all the intangibles, we looked at most of the variables and, at this time, Kerry Joseph has the best understanding of what we're trying to accomplish and he's been on that stage before."
While the decision to go with Joseph is unpopular, it’s not overly surprising. After the Eskimos lost their fifth game in a row on September 28th, Reed gave the number one job to Joseph. Joseph won two very important football games; 35-20 over the Hamilton Tiger-Cats and 37-20 over the Saskatchewan Roughriders in the next two weeks. In those two wins, Joseph completed 43 of 69 passes for 639 yards, throwing six touchdown passes and was intercepted twice. Joseph enjoyed a completion percentage of 63% and recorded a quarterback rating of 111.
The next seven quarters for Joseph against the BC Lions and the Alouettes were nothing but a major struggle; Six of 24 against the Lions and 10 of 19 vs. the Alouettes. He had just 262 passing yards in those two games, one touchdown pass, two interceptions, a completion percentage of just 37%, and QB rating of 47.
When you compare Joseph’s numbers to Nichols’ recent body of work, Nichols is holding the hot hand. In the last 10 quarters - which includes his first CFL start on Sept 28th in Calgary, a 39-15 loss to the Stampeders - Nichols is 45 of 76 for 810 yards passing. He’s thrown six touchdown passes, three interceptions, a completion percentage of 58%, and a QB rating of 106.
This columnist is of the mindset that there’s value in giving the ball to the hot hand and giving the ball to the future. Two years ago the BC Lions elected to start Travis Lulay in a Western Division Semi-Final game in Regina against the Saskatchewan Roughriders. In 2012, Lulay had worse numbers than Nichols, except for a much higher completion percentage. The Lions lost the game to the Riders in overtime but Lulay gained valuable experience.
That Lions team, however, had Jarious Jackson as their only other viable option and Kerry Joseph is a much better quarterback than Jackson. Joseph has provided the Eskimos with a calming presence at the quarterback position. The biggest stat anomaly this season for the Eskimos might be Steven Jyles’ record as a starter. He has a winning record at 5-4 compared to Joseph’s 2-5 record, and the 0-2 record for Nichols. Joseph and Nichols have proved to be more dynamic than Jyles.
Numbers alone don’t tell the whole story; Reed has to weigh many more variables in choosing his starter. In his two starts, Nichols hasn’t started well. He pulled through it much better in his second start compared to his first start. Reed says if Joseph does get off to a bad start, he has the experience and mental capacity to work his way out of it.
The other factor Reed had to weigh was which quarterback is better coming off the bench as the ignition man. If Nichols started and faltered, would Joseph be able to provide the right amount of energy and boost compared to the younger and fierier Nichols.
There might be the game within a game playing out here too. Something Reed said at the tail end of his statement announcing Joseph as the starter for the Eastern Semi-Final caught the ear of this columnist.
“Matt knows that he has an oppourtunity and Kerry knows the ball is in his hands to get us off to a fast start."
Perhaps Kavis Reed has laid the gauntlet down to Joseph saying something to the affect of: “I have the young stud waiting in the stable if you falter, so it’s up to you to show me you can get this team off to a good start or the young stud who has looked better than you lately is going to get ball.”
So who wins out in the end, experience or youth?
The Eskimos may very well need both in their path to a Grey Cup.