VANCOUVER — By rights, Mike Reilly ought to be a broken man by this point, his brain turned to mush from the incessant pounding his head and body have taken in his first season as the Edmonton Eskimos’ starting quarterback.
He should be outraged that the series of horrific-looking blows to the melon he has absorbed from opposing defenders has resulted in just four cases of supplemental discipline from the Canadian Football League -- all of them fines, none suspensions.
On a 3-13 team going nowhere, he should be, as someone said Thursday, just looking for a soft place to lie down for a couple of days.
But the guy who backed up Travis Lulay in B.C. until it was apparent he was too good to sit any more is not even in the same area code as bitter.
Yes, he said, the CFL could do a better job of policing the reckless players, the ones who put careers in jeopardy for no reason, but then he put into words what we pacifists always forget about football and the people who play it.
“I don’t really think anybody has taken my statements out of context, or think I’m complaining about hits, and if anyone thinks that’s where I’m going with it, then they’ve misunderstood me,” Reilly said, chatting amiably with a knot of reporters at B.C. Place, where he will face his old team Friday night.
“Because I’ll be the first to say that hits are part of the game, and one of the things I love most about the game. I love the physicality, and I believe that if you take that away, the game of football loses its appeal not just to fans, but to us as players.
“And there are head shots that happen in the game and can’t be avoided, and that’s something you’re not going to be able to change without losing the integrity of the game.
“But when you do have guys playing reckless and taking hits that are completely unnecessary, those are the things we need to change, whatever it takes.”
Reilly has looked at times this season like a pinata, free for the whacking by whoever wants to take a swing, without fear of any very serious penalty.
Then again, the CFL -- unlike leagues that have stronger punishment available -- is handicapped by its lower-case appeal, and scale, and profile. This not an insult, by the way, it’s part of its charm.
Its players don’t make millions. Its teams and players and league policies aren’t scrutinized with the same intensity as in the NFL, or even NHL.
And it’s not popular in Toronto, so the setter of the national temperature never moves toward the thermostat until Grey Cup week, and not at all on regular-season issues that may crop up.
The league, then, based in the Toronto vacuum, finds it fairly acceptable to take a sort of paternal “boys will be boys” approach to supplemental discipline, wagging its finger at the naughty ones, taking away their allowance, while simultaneously expressing deep concern for the safety of its players.
The last player suspended for an on-field incident of any kind was Saskatchewan’s Tearrius George for his helmet-to-helmet kayo of Calgary quarterback Drew Tate in last year’s West semifinal. The Stampeders won the game, so George sat out the first game of the 2013 regular season.
Not a single player has been suspended for an on-field incident in 2013.
The Eskimos came under fire a couple of weeks ago for starting Reilly in the very next game after he suffered a concussion on a helmet-to-helmet hit by Toronto’s Cleyon Laing, but their embattled head coach, Kavis Reed, not only defended the team’s concussion protocols Thursday, but also the league’s efforts to keep its players (not only quarterbacks) safe.
A hard-nosed defensive back in his playing days, Reed doesn’t see this as a weakening of the basic nature of the game.
“I just think that’s the way the game evolves. The guys from the 60s probably say we were softer when we played in the 80s and 90s,” said Reed.
“When technology is in place, when communications are in place, more things are highlighted. The medical technology has advanced tremendously, so we’re understanding the ramifications of this sport, and with that comes a responsibility to change the game. Obviously when I played we didn’t have the information we have now about concussions, and the longevity of football players after the game is done -- if we knew what we know now, it would have changed things.
“It will continue to evolve,” he said, tongue-in-cheek. “I think robots will be playing in the next 25 years instead of players.”
But for now, he’s got flesh-and-blood, and brain matter.
Reilly isn’t overly concerned about his, and Reed says he isn’t about to ask his 28-year-old quarterback to play a safer game.
“Mike plays the game the way the game’s supposed to be played. He plays the game fast,” Reed said Thursday. “He understands he’s the franchise quarterback of the Edmonton Eskimos, and he’s been a lot smarter when he’s outside the pocket. Mike knows how to play the game.”
Whether Reilly can play it for the long haul, given the physical toll it exacts, is an open question, but there is little doubt he’s enjoying everything -- well, other than the losing and the injuries -- about the experience.
“It’s been really difficult at times and really great at other times, but I wouldn’t change where I’m at at all, or pick a different team to play for,” he said.
“It’s certainly not how I envisioned things before the season started. It’s never a fun time going through this stuff when you’re going through it, but looking back, most of the times I’ve had success, it’s followed times like this.
“It’s like here in BC when we won the (2011) Grey Cup ... 2010 was a terrible start to the season, we got a little momentum going at the end, but then we started 2011 getting booed out of our temporary stadium over at Empire. And it’s easy to remember being in this building with all the confetti coming down and drinking champagne out of the Grey Cup, but I’ll never forget walking off that (Empire) field, up the ramp and hearing people say Wally Buono was the worst coach in history and should fire himself, and Travis Lulay would never be a starting quarterback in this league.
“So I understand that success is great, but it’s what you do when things are going against you that molds you into who you’re going to be.”
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