September 19, 2018

Morris: The rise and falls of the sport’s toughest position

Adam Gagnon,

The fingers were being pointed at Zack Collaros after the Saskatchewan Roughriders’ woeful offence performance in last week’s loss to the Ottawa REDBLACKS.

Collaros channelled his inner Wally Buono when asked about the criticism he was facing from Rider Nation.

“In this position, you get all the praise when you win and a lot of the blame when you lose,” the Rider quarterback told reporters in Regina. “Praise and blame is all the same.”

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As Zach Collaros stated following the Riders Week 14 loss to the REDBLACKS, quarterbacks receive all the praise with a win and all of the blame when you lose. (Matt Smith,

For years Buono, who has more wins than any other coach in CFL history, has said a quarterback gets too much praise when a team wins and receives too much criticism when they lose.

He reiterated his point this week as his BC Lions (5-6) have been preparing to host the Hamilton Tiger-Cats (6-6).

“There’s going to be times when the defence makes plays. When the defence puts a whole lot of pressure on a quarterback and mistakes happen,” said Buono. “It’s not always the quarterback. It’s the protection, it’s the route running, it’s the adjustments. It’s all the other things most people don’t see when it comes to a quarterback’s failure.

“What I’ve always said is, the better we execute on offence the better the quarterback is.”

With the CFL season entering its final third, some of the league’s quarterbacks are riding a roller-coaster.

Collaros played like he was the solution when the Riders won four consecutive games but then looked like the problem in a 30-25 loss to Ottawa where he completed just 37 per cent of his passes and threw two interceptions.

Ottawa quarterback Trevor Harris looked great against the Riders, throwing for 339 yards and two touchdowns. This was after a pair of very mediocre performances in losses to BC and Montreal.

In Winnipeg, the Blue Bombers are trying to get on track after losing four consecutive games. Quarterback Matt Nichols has been under scrutiny after throwing just four touchdowns and eight interceptions during this streak.

Matt Nichols has fallen under much scrutiny lately as a result of the Bombers current losing streak. (The Canadian Press)

“At some point, everyone is going to play a rough game or two in a row,” Nichols told reporters in Winnipeg. “It’s always about how you handle it.

“I know I’m a lot better than I have played the last couple of weeks. Bad games happen.”

A quarterback can be the whipping boy when things go bad for a team. Most accept the public floggings as part of the job.

“That is a dynamic of the position you have to deal with,” said Matt Dunigan, a Canadian Football Hall of Fame quarterback and TSN analyst.

Quarterbacks do make mistakes. But Dunigan argues a host of other factors, some out of a quarterback’s control, can leave him walking off the field to a chorus of boos.

The relationship between a quarterback and his offensive coordinator is crucial. Sometimes certain plays designed by the coordinator to thwart a defence are not in a quarterback’s wheelhouse.

“Designing an offensive scheme and attack . . . and knowing your quarterback is comfortable with it, that is critical,” said Dunigan. “Sometimes it’s not there. You’re just not comfortable with a specific play that’s supposed to be good in a particular game plan.”

What separates quarterbacks like Calgary’s Bo Levi Mitchell and Edmonton’s Mike Reilly from the rest of the league is their ability to not only be productive in whatever scheme is designed but to also get the rest of the offence to function properly.

“It’s getting everybody else in your huddle on the same page, working and executing at a high level of consistency,” said Dunigan. “It’s just not how much football I know, it’s how much you know when you are out there working with me.”

Injuries to the offensive line, the receiving corps or the backfield, can also affect a team’s play.

Dunigan pointed to the Riders where Bakari Grant, a 1,000-yard receiver last year, was released. The enigmatic but talented Duron Carter started the year on defence then was released. Veteran Rob Bagg was released then resigned but hasn’t played. Caleb Holley is on the six-game injured list.

“You have some young bucks around (and they are) trying to figure it out,” said Dunigan.

Someone else’s mistake can also make a quarterback look bad. A ball thrown to the right place can be intercepted because a receiver ran the wrong route.

In BC’s three-point loss to Saskatchewan on Aug. 25, Lions receivers dropped seven catchable balls. If those catches are made Travis Lulay would have completed 28 of 36 passes, finished with more than 240 yards, and possibly added a touchdown.

Dunigan said every quarterback has thrown passes they want back. They also can’t forget who keeps dropping balls.

“When you have an excessive amount, particularly from one receiver, it can affect the way you throw the ball,” he said. “Now you are trying to be too perfect. You are now aiming it. That sometimes compounds the problem.”

Both Toronto and Montreal enjoyed early success this year with rookie quarterbacks.

Antonio Pipkin started four games for the Alouettes and managed two victories but lost his job after completing 11 of 22 passes and throwing four interceptions in last week’s 32-14 loss to BC.

McLeod Bethel-Thompson was the talk of the league after rallying the Argos from a 24-point, third-quarter deficit to defeat Ottawa 42-41. The next week he led Toronto to a win over BC. Reality has since set in with three straight losses.

Dunigan compared new quarterbacks to a rookie baseball pitcher.  After a few innings, hitters figure them out.

Given time, and with film to watch, defensive coordinators can turn any rookie quarterback’s dream start into a nightmare.

“They shut down their strengths and make them play to their weaknesses,” said Dunigan.

Jonothan Jennings looks to redeem himself from his early-season woes. Jennings started the season as the Lions starting pivot due to an injury suffered by Travis Lulay, and now returns as starter as a result of a similar situation. (The Canadian Press)

Jonathon Jennings of the BC Lions understands better than most how a quarterback can be the toast of the town one week, then just toast.

Back in 2016 Jennings’ exciting, athletic play made him look like the second coming of Matt Dunigan. He’s been trying to recapture that magic ever since.

With Lulay sidelined by a separated shoulder Jennings has been given a chance to revive his career.

“I want to show people I can still play,” he said. “It’s not a secret to me, sometimes it feels like to a secret to other people.”

One lesson Jennings has learned in his short career is nothing comes easy, especially for quarterbacks.

“The game is hard,” he said. “People look at stats and they see one guy threw for 400 yards and (say) it’s easy. This game is tough.”

“Every single defence is planning to beat you. They are looking at your weaknesses, they are looking at what they can do to stop our scheme, what they can do to stop your quality players. There is a lot of factors.”