O'Leary: Is the QB mountain about to get a shakeup?
As the days get longer and thoughts of spring start to feel like more than just a frostbitten pipedream, it’s starting to feel like you can see a new football season out on the horizon.
When you look at 2020, what do you see? When I look at it, I see a turf that’s usually claimed that feels like it’s up for grabs.
Quarterback injuries was one of the main storylines of the 2019 season. Every team in the league lost its starter at some point in the year and their backups were called upon to lead the team for prolonged stretches, if not for the remainder of the season.
The silver lining to that dark cloud of a theme was the emergence of a string of players that showed they’re more than second or third-stringers. Cody Fajardo, Vernon Adams Jr., Dane Evans, Nick Arbuckle and McLeod Bethel-Thompson all took advantage of the opportunities provided to them, showing that they can start and compete in the CFL.
Three of these guys that were understudies at this time last year have taken on leading roles for the 2020 season. Fajardo, Adams and Arbuckle will start for Saskatchewan, Montreal and Ottawa, respectively. Evans and Bethel-Thompson will go from impressive 2019 seasons into training camps in Hamilton and Toronto, respectively, trying to force their coaches to make difficult decisions.
So, what about those other guys?
For the last few years, if you were putting a QB ranking together, you’d start with 1a and 1b. Depending on which style of play or which team you liked, you were probably choosing between Bo Levi Mitchell and Mike Reilly to start your list. Trevor Harris, Jeremiah Masoli and Matt Nichols would probably fall into your rankings next (I went alphabetical for this list, as I’m remaining neutral on this topic/am a coward and don’t want to get into it in March).
Maybe that hasn’t changed. Or maybe the top of this imaginary mountain remains the same, but the faces you’d see as you slope down it are peppered with new ones, and one that had been slipped in the last couple of years.
You have to think that Fajardo will assert himself in those rankings this year. The widespread injuries to starters put a dent in the QB stats last year. Fajardo’s 4,302 passing yards led the league, but were the lowest league-leading total posted over the last decade. It made for a great breakout season for him, but with Jason Maas as his offensive coordinator and essentially a full year as a starter under his belt, those numbers could skyrocket in 2020.
Adams will look to take another step forward, after he slid in for an injured Antonio Pipkin in Week 1 and held onto the starting job for the rest of the year. The Als’ resurgence wouldn’t have happened without Adams at the helm in Montreal. He was the perfect poised but energized presence in the pocket for all of those wild comeback wins.
After keeping the Stamps afloat while Mitchell was injured early last year, Arbuckle will get a great opportunity with the REDBLACKS this year. The team will look to put a faceplant of a 2019 season behind it by providing Arbuckle with a great offensive mind (and coordinator) in head coach Paul LaPolice, who is known for a big bag of creative tricks.
Then there’s Zach Collaros. Injured before the smoke from the pre-game festivities could even settle over the field in Week 1, traded from Saskatchewan to Toronto to Winnipeg, only to take the Bombers to their first Grey Cup win in 29 years (is there a player in CFL history that can have a sentence like that attached to their name?). With their three key contributing QBs heading into free agency this winter, the Bombers chose Collaros. He’ll have every chance to re-establish himself in that QB hierarchy this year.
The other names in this debate: Proven, established names like Mitchell, Reilly, Harris, Masoli and Nichols, they probably don’t concern themselves with these kinds of conversations. I can hear all of them give some version of the following quote if you were to ask them about it:
“Every year is a new year and a new opportunity for everyone. Last year or the years before this one don’t matter now. This is a new season and a clean slate and the work you do this year puts your name on it.”
My biggest hope for this season is for health across the board. There’s so much skill at QB across the board in the league right now, from the established MOP winners and Grey Cup hoisting vets, to the guys that are just at the start of what feel like brilliant careers. I can’t wait to see them all on the field this year, so the rest of us can dive in on debates that the players can say they don’t care about.