Henry Burris Grey Cup

Henry Burris just capped off one of the most remarkable seasons in Canadian Football League history, first losing his starting job thanks to injury, then coming back and regaining it, losing it to a benching, and then taking over again to lead the third-year expansion Ottawa Redblacks to their first Grey Cup Sunday. Burris almost didn’t even play in the game after hurting his knee during warmup, but took some painkillers, came out and threw for 461 yards (the fourth-highest total in Grey Cup history) and three touchdowns to lead the 8-9-1 Redblacks to an upset 39-33 overtime victory over the 15-2-1 Calgary Stampeders. He deservedly won the Grey Cup’s Most Outstanding Player award in the process, even though his knee was so badly hurt he had to attend Tuesday’s victory parade on crutches. That’s pretty good for the 41-year-old Burris, especially as people on both sides of the border have been writing him off for over a decade. Here are some of the takes on Burris over the years.

Let’s go back to 2002, where Burris played for the Chicago Bears (after a solid NCAA career at Temple, CFL stints with Calgary and Saskatchewan, and time on the practice roster with Green Bay), appearing in six games and starting one and racking up 8 completions on 51 attempts for a 35.3 completion percentage, with 207 yards, three touchdowns, and five interceptions. That one start was a 15-0 loss to the Warren Sapp and Jon Gruden-led Tampa Bay Buccaneers, on their way to a Super Bowl championship, and it featured a particularly rough performance from Burris, who completed just seven of 19 passes for 78 yards with four interceptions. That whole season was a rough one for Burris and the Bears; he started as the third-stringer, but was forced into action thanks to injuries to Jim Miller and Chris Chandler, while the team had to play their home games in another city (at the University of Illinois campus in Champaign) thanks to Soldier Field renovations and finished the year 4-12. That led to some hot criticisms of Burris and the other quarterbacks, including from their own head coach Dick Jauron, as Steve Rosenbloom of The Chicago Tribune noted:

ONE THING: The Xbox game was played with Chris Chandler starting and finishing at quarterback, and we all know that if Chandler is finishing a game, it has to be a simulation.

THEN AGAIN: The only way the Bears can have an NFL quarterback at all is via simulation.

SAY WHAT? Dick Jauron is pretty much saying that Henry Burris can’t play in the NFL. Jauron’s offensive coordinator, John Shoop, said if the Bears give a player a helmet, he can play. Dick Jauron, meet John Shoop. John Shoop, meet Dick Jauron. Why don’t you two kids go off in the corner and figure out how you’ve made the Bears look dumber than the Bengals.

Burris’ poor play in Chicago has been referenced a bunch since then. Here’s what ESPN’s David Fleming wrote about him in a 2005 list of the Bears’ quarterback woes:

Miller knocked silly by Philly, Matthews in, playoff hopes over-and-out, causing the 2002 Bears team to do what any cutting-edge NFL brain trust does when in need of a talent infusion at quarterback: look to Rhode Island and Calgary — meaning, former RI QB Ken Mastrole who was cut in favor of former CFL’er Henry Burris, which was a big mistake because Mastrole went on to play for the Firecats in Arena2 which, frankly, sounds like a made-up league, while Burris went 0 for 1 as a Bears starter with a passer rating of 28.4, by far the worst rating of the eight players.

And a 2011 list of the worst Bears quarterbacks of all time had Burris sixth:

Poor Henry Burris.  O’Henry is a CFL legend, somewhere below Doug Flutie and Warren Moon.  But when Burris came in relief to face the 2002 Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccanneers…things got bad…real bad.  Burris could be lower, but his competition was top of the line.  Burris’ performance was so inept it became memorable.  Burris finished 2002 against Carolina and Tampa Bay going 18 of 51 for 207 yards, 3 TD, 5 INT, and 4 fumbles.  Burris was quick, so he was never sacked.  It was his 5 interception performance against Tampa that made him memorable.  Only 55 dropbacks yielded a CTCR of 16.3.  God help us…and god help poor Henry Burris…I still think Warren Sapp is sitting on him.

None of those takes are necessarily wrong, as Burris’ time in Chicago definitely wasn’t successful. The Bears assigned him to the Berlin Thunder of NFL Europe the next spring, but he suffered a knee injury there and was released. He then headed back to the CFL with Saskatchewan, backed up Nealon Greene in 2003 and took over as a starter in 2004. That year carried its own ups and downs and strong internal criticism from general manager Roy Shivers and head coach Danny Barrett, as Rob Vanstone of The Regina Leader-Post recounts here:

On Sept. 5, the Winnipeg Blue Bombers — a team which would miss the 2004 CFL playoffs — invaded Taylor Field and humbled the Roughriders 17-4.

Burris was cast as the goat after fumbling on Winnipeg’s one-yard line and throwing a rally-killing interception.

During the game, Burris was booed. During interviews, the typically talkative quarterback was “speechless.’’

Initially, Roughriders head coach Danny Barrett was reluctant to endorse Burris as the team’s starting signal-caller for an upcoming rematch with Winnipeg.

Burris’ play was also bluntly critiqued by the Roughriders’ general manager, Roy Shivers.

…A few hours later, Shivers addressed the media following the Roughriders’ practice. He singled out Burris for criticism.

“Right now, we’ve got a question mark at one key spot,’’ Shivers said. “We surrounded him with good players. We’re just not getting the job done right now at the quarterback position.’’

Publicly and privately, Shivers challenged Burris to elevate his performance. So did Barrett, who gave Burris an emphatic vote of confidence two days after the Labour Day game.

“That was the one bad day,’’ Burris says. “It was a tough day, but I learned a lot from it. It made me stronger.’’

…Despite a noticeable improvement in his play, Burris was again vilified by many Roughriders supporters. Shivers wasn’t impressed, either. He confronted Burris in the dressing room and blasted the quarterback for not putting his head down and fighting for the necessary yardage.

Again, not necessarily wrong given the way Burris played at the time, and Burris said the criticism made him stronger, but the ferocity of that criticism may have played a part in his decision to leave Saskatchewan for Calgary as a free agent after that year. He went on to great success with the Stampeders, winning the Grey Cup (and the Grey Cup Most Outstanding Player) in 2008 and winning the league’s Most Outstanding Player (albeit controversially) in 2010, but there were plenty of low points there too, and that led to him losing his starting job to Drew Tate late in the 2011 season, leading to plenty of takes on him being done:

At 37 and with his best days seemingly behind him, Burris was traded to Hamilton for Kevin Glenn, Mark DeWit and a conditional draft pick that offseason, leading to this extremely cold take from yours truly:

The primary issue is Burris’ age. He’ll be turning 37 on June 4, and he was already the CFL’s second-oldest starting quarterback by far (interestingly, the next-closest guy is Glenn, who’s four years younger). Of course, age and experience isn’t always a bad thing in the CFL, and the immortal Anthony Calvillo in Montreal continues to remind us that some old quarterbacks are still incredible, but Calvillo has been far more the exception than the rule over his career. It’s also worth noting that while Calvillo has a good arm, his success has been much more about his ability to read the play and make incredibly accurate throws. Burris has some of that as well, but he’s also known for his arm strength, and that tends to degrade faster. Burris may or may not be able to return to top form in 2012, but perhaps an even bigger question is just how long he’ll be able to keep playing beyond then.

Yep, I was wrong. Burris actually put up a much better season statistically in 2012 under offensive-minded head coach George Cortez, helping Hamilton lead the league in most offensive categories, and he deserved a league all-star nod, which he didn’t get only because of the Tiger-Cats’ terrible defence (they finished the season 6-12). Cortez was fired after the season, leading to Hamilton bringing in Kent Austin as head coach and general manager, and although there was some friction between him and Burris, Burris still helped the Ticats to a 10-8 record and a Grey Cup berth. Austin dumped him in the offseason in favor of younger QB Zach Collaros, though, something that’s motivated Burris since then, and a move that led to him to Burris signing with the expansion Redblacks after a lot of reports about him heading to Winnipeg.

Burris wound up in Ottawa, though, and oddly enough, he displaced Glenn in the process. However, it wasn’t smooth sailing there either. 2014 saw Ottawa go 2-16,  including a 32-7 August loss to Calgary that saw Burris and the Redblacks’ offense booed at home (which he admitted they deserved) and led to a lot of takes on him being done:

The takes continued as the season got worse and worse for Ottawa:

Burris had one of the best seasons of his career in 2015, though, winning a deserved MOP at age 40 and leading the Redblacks to a Grey Cup appearance in just their second year of existence. However, when Ottawa acquired younger quarterback Trevor Harris in the offseason, it led to a lot of questions about Burris’ role. Burris started the season, then got hurt, was replaced by Harris, worked his way back when Harris got hurt, then got benched again. That led to a lot of questioning of him during the year (and to him firing back at critics).

Maybe the best one came from this CFL.ca debate on August 24, where both Pat Steinberg and Marshall Ferguson agreed the Redblacks were right to go to Harris for the time being, with Ferguson arguing further that Burris was washed up:

The REDBLACKS need a jolt. Simply put, Trevor Harris gave them that jump earlier this season when Burris went down with a hand injury. He will get spot duty here and there in cleanup or blowout situations, but I believe he has finally hit the wall every professional athlete inevitably faces.

It is easy to look at a piece of paper with an age listed on it and hear the man claiming that age has been benched and say, “wow, the game has really passed him by”. I say Burris is done not on face value but on the mechanics of his play in 2016.

Burris’ arm is strong as ever but his pocket movement and trademark quick release seemed to have faltered. The same can not be said for Trevor Harris.

There is a reason Harris was brought to Ottawa: to start and lead the Ottawa REDBLACKS to the Grey Cup sooner rather than later. I’m not sure anyone thought it would happen before Burris retired but the CFL plays quarterback Russian roulette more than most.

Instead, it was Burris leading the Redblacks to the Grey Cup, and once again getting the last laugh over all of us who wrote him off at one time or another.

About Andrew Bucholtz

Andrew Bucholtz is a staff writer for Awful Announcing.