February 25, 2016

Quality time, football nerds & the anti-playbook

In 1997, an unheralded quarterback came to town by the name of Khari Jones. He was a quick learner, he threw a nice catchable ball, he looked the part…and he was behind another pivot named Damon Allen, so the chances of our pal Khari rewriting the record books in a Lions uniform were slim.

You could say things worked out pretty good for the California native who went on to become the CFL’s Most Outstanding Player in 2001 as a member of the Winnipeg Blue Bombers, Khari Jones playing card bc lionsas if being tied for second spot on the Lions’ all-time roster in games-played by guys named Jones (of which there are 12) wouldn’t be honour enough.

“One of the best pieces of advice I ever got from Damon was to learn and execute three plays Damon-Allenflawlessly in practice and then make sure those three plays were called when I had a chance to go in during a game,” says the Lions current offensive coordinator. “It paid off, I stuck around.”

While some may argue that the irony of Damon encouraging another quarterback to learn even a page of the playbook is perhaps a story onto itself, it might be a reoccurring theme in 2016 for the former signal-caller as he oversees the development of possibly the CFL’s next young gun.

Reduce the size of the playbook, develop a better understanding of the game, improve your ability to read a defence and execute at a high level. It’s Khari and the Kid, backed up by Travis the vet and 2016 is going to be very, very interesting.

Jonathon Jenning Travis Lulay smiling

With Jonathon Jennings in town this week to hang out with fellow quarterback Travis Lulay, as well as take in a hockey game, have breakfast with some key sponsors and do the obligatory social media Q & A’s with fans, he and Lulay have also spent a little football quality time with Jones.

“As a quarterback, one of the most important keys to success is having a comfort level with the playbook,” says Jones. “If you’ve had a role in its development and you understand the coordinator’s fundamental concepts then the execution of individual plays is that much easier to achieve.”

Jennings, as fans recall, got his first taste of meaningful game action after John Beck fell victim to a season-ending blindside hit in Calgary last September. Beck of course was starting in place of Travis Lulay who had fallen victim to a borderline horse collar haul-down in Montreal two weeks earlier, which resulted in a damaged MCL.BC Lions' quarterback Jonathon Jennings, right, hands off to Andrew Harris during second half CFL football action against the Calgary Stampeders in Calgary, Alberta on Friday, Sept. 18, 2015. (CFL PHOTO - Larry MacDougal)

As the Saginaw Valley State grad lined up behind centre with two minutes remaining in the second quarter equipped with the kind of keen experience only a future star can gather from a grand total of exactly zero completions and zero yards as Jennings did in that moment, you can’t help but not be surprised at what came next…handoff Harris, gain of eight.

Okay, so he didn’t rear back on his first touch and hit Arceneaux in stride for an 80-yard major, turn the game on its ear, beat the Stamps, lead the Leos out of its collective fog and into the playoffs, onto a Grey Cup win and into the ring-sizing room.

“Sounds like a movie, I like it,” admits Jones whose own acting credits can be found with a quick visit to IMDB.com.

B.C. Lions quarterback Jonathon Jennings grabs for a bad snap during first half CFL pre-season football action against the Calgary Stampeders in Calgary, Friday, June 12, 2015.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntoshNo, that’s not how it went down. Jennings finished with three interceptions, no touchdowns and quite possibly with the realization that there’s a lot more to our funky Canadian version of the great American game.

“I think what we learned about Jonathon last year is that he gives us a very talented base from which to work. We’re going to build on that base, develop other areas of his game without burdening him with a giant playbook full of things we’ll never run. It’s actually a very good exercise for all of us to go through. Working hard is great, working smart is better.”

Working hard is great, working smart is better.

Jennings too will have to take another step because there’s enough film on him out there for defensive coordinators to start building game plans of their own.

“Without a doubt, he will have to continue to be a student of the game. We saddled him with a lot last year and Jonathon will tell you his reads were likely based on a couple routes on one side of the field and he rarely looked at the backside of specific plays. We’re going to work on his vision of the field and his ability to anticipate defensive tendencies.”Coach Khari Jones

So while the self-admitted football nerds huddle up with Jones for a couple days in February, the underlying effort is to head into June with renewed focus and an approach that puts comfort level of the quarterback first.

It’s easily the single most important position in professional sports, but there’s a reason why Damon Allen and Doug Flutie had Hall of Fame careers based on their penchant for venturing outside the constraints of a playbook. The best who played the game did so with uncanny instincts that were honed over dozens of games.

“Every nuance you introduce, every change you make in a formation, every wrinkle you add to the protection becomes something a quarterback has to think about,” emphasizes Jones. “Jonathon has those instincts too and we need to avoid bogging that down. The playbook isn’t about the coordinator, it’s about creating a road map to success for all of us.”

Buckle up, the driver is young.