In football, there has always been some discrepancy between those who deserve credit and those who receive it. Running backs, receivers, and quarterbacks are made into stars on a weekly basis thanks to the unnoticed efforts of pulling guards, climbing centers, and heavy-handed tackles. In recent years, the average football fan’s awareness of the offensive line’s importance has increased tremendously, however, they’re still not the ones on the billboards and you don’t see fans flocking to souvenir shops in search of Philip Blake jerseys. I’ve long believed offensive linemen have both the most difficult and most underappreciated jobs in sports. I bring it up a lot.
As the final seconds ticked off the clock in Saturday’s game between the Toronto Argonauts and Winnipeg Blue Bombers, I started looking over my notes for the most obvious things to analyze in my rewatches throughout the week. I had scribbled down a lot about Toronto’s defensive secondary and Coach Dinwiddie’s offensive adjustments, but what jumped out all over my page was the name Foster. It made sense. DJ Foster ran for over 100 yards and a touchdown in his first ever CFL game. He’d probably be honoured with a game ball.
Foster is an excellent back. I’d been watching his Sun Devils and Cardinals film since the Argos acquired him, so his skill didn’t shock me, but his usage did. I decided at that moment I’d write a piece about how his achievements Saturday were the combined result of his gifted athleticism and the outstanding, but once again unheralded offensive line play. Imagine my surprise on first rewatch when it became apparent that the silent hero of this game was not the offensive line. It was a running back. And not that running back. It was John White.
Officially, White had 12 carries for 24 yards, two receptions for three yards, and a fumble. Not exactly his best outing, especially following his sensational game last week. And that’s where our journey begins, my friends.
In the first game of this back-to-back with Winnipeg, White had 12 carries for 111 yards and a touchdown. He averaged over nine yards per carry against a team that prides themselves on their run defense. So, what happened this game? They’re the same two teams and it’s not like he suddenly forgot how to be a running back. He embarrassed the Blue Bomber linebackers and the best defensive line in football. They were probably seeing him in their sleep and stopping him was clearly the focus of film study and defensive practice in Winnipeg all week. You might say he had become the white whale to their Captain Ahab, no pun intended. Ok fine, it was intended. Full disclosure: I originally called him the “John” Valjean to their Javert. My wife rolled her eyes at both, so I went with my gut and decided my target audience was slightly more likely to appreciate a Herman Melville reference than a Les Miserables reference. Alright, back to it.
First of all, his stats should actually be 11 carries for 34 yards, and the fumble should be attributed to Nick Arbuckle. The play in question was an RPO vs Cover-0, so it was clearly going to be a pass. Safety Brandon Alexander came flying untouched through A-gap, and White, who is excellent in pass protection, abandoned the mesh early, sacrificing himself to protect his quarterback. Arbuckle had his eyes on a wide-open Eric Rogers and never saw Alexander who blew up White and knocked the ball out of Arbuckle’s hands. White was credited with a 10-yard loss and a fumble.
11 for 34 still isn’t great, but where White really is the hero is in the attention he drew. Any good professional defense can shut down a single player, no matter his skill, but it comes at a price. The Bombers’ fixation with White led directly to both Foster and Arbuckle having a big day. Let’s look at Arbuckle first.
John White was the only running back on the field for 46 of Toronto’s 65 offensive snaps, throughout which Arbuckle was 16/23 (70%) for 225 yards and a TD, for a QB Efficiency Rating was 115.3. For some perspective, this would lead the CFL. White’s presence seemed to trigger a lot of man coverage calls and eyes in the backfield, both of which contributed to Arbuckle’s success.
For the seven snaps where both White and Foster were on the field together, Arbuckle was a perfect 3/3, but for only 15 yards and a QB Efficiency Rating of 87.5. As a side note, all seven of those snaps ended up in the hands of either White or Foster, a trend Coach Dinwiddie could look to exploit with misdirection against their next opponent.
For the 12 snaps where Foster was the only back on the field, Arbuckle was 4/6 (67%) for 70 yards and a 106.3 rating. This is still excellent, but it was aided by the noticeable drop in intensity from Winnipeg’s defense when White wasn’t on the field.
If you’re old enough to remember the Nintendo classic Tecmo Bowl, or perhaps Tecmo Super Bowl, it looked like the Bombers called Toronto’s play whenever John White was carrying the ball. Offensive linemen were knocked backwards as rabid defenders converged on White before he got to the line of scrimmage. Winnipeg also didn’t miss tackles on White, something they had an issue with last week. White was used effectively as a decoy on Foster’s only reception, which went for 14 yards, as well as his 10-yard touchdown run.
This isn’t to take anything away from Foster, Arbuckle, the offensive line, or Coach Dinwiddie’s crafty play designs. Foster was outstanding, though if you’ve been following me, that wasn’t unexpected. Arbuckle looked like the quarterback the Argonauts hoped he’d be when they signed him in the offseason. The offensive line had their best game of the year, producing a 300-yard passer and 100-yard rusher against one of the top defenses in the league. And Coach Dinwiddie’s gameplan, play-calling, and adjustments were on point. He saw the impact White was having on the defense and used it to his team’s advantage. But White made them all better on Saturday.
So, to coaches like me, analytics guys, and former offensive linemen who love to point out that every skill player’s success comes at the hands of good line play, let’s shelve this one away in our memory banks. A running back! Yes, one of those glory-seeking, first-down-pointing, endzone-dancing running backs, quietly got the job done and shone those big bright lights on everyone else. To borrow a line from one of my favourite sports movies, I’ve seen enough to know I’ve seen too much.