O’Leary: Sunday’s Western Final entering uncharted territory
No one involved in the game will say it, not at this time of year, not when the stakes are as high as they are at the moment, so we’ll put it out there for them.
The Western Final is shaping up to be something we’ve never really seen before.
We could see anywhere from two to five different quarterbacks on the field before one of the Winnipeg Blue Bombers and the Saskatchewan Roughriders punch their ticket to Calgary for the 107th Grey Cup presented by Shaw.
The Cult of Cody will fill the stands on Sunday at Mosaic Stadium, 33,350 strong, trying to will their injured quarterback through the entirety of the game. He’ll get the start, but if his oblique injury becomes too burdensome, he told reporters on Saturday, he’ll step back and let Isaac Harker and Bryan Bennett go to work in his place.
Then there’s Zach Collaros, who had that starting job with the Riders when training camp ended in May. He lasted three plays into the 2019 season before he was injured. The Fajardo show started that night in Hamilton and has already been picked up for two more seasons.
The Riders dealt Collaros to Toronto, thinking he’d get a shot with the struggling Argos. Toronto continued to struggle but didn’t put him in a game, opting to ship him to Winnipeg at the trade deadline. As they tend to do in these situations, the chips fell in the perfect way to set up the most dramatic scenario possible.
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Chris Streveler injured his foot; an issue that’s stuck with him into the postseason. With the Bombers’ tumbling down the standings, Collaros assumed starting duties. With Streveler providing the run game and Colllaros handling the passing, Winnipeg hasn’t lost since. They rolled past Calgary last week, which gives us Collaros’ return to Mosaic.
“Just to be clear, we didn’t trade him to Winnipeg. We traded him to Toronto,” Riders head coach Craig Dickenson said, getting a laugh out of the room.
Dickenson admitted that when the Riders traded him on July 31, he didn’t know if he’d see the oft-injured Collaros on the field again.
“I was hopeful,” Dickenson said.
“When we traded him to Toronto I wasn’t sure. I felt like they had a need, I thought he might play out there. Then he went to Winnipeg. I was hopeful he’d get a shot. I didn’t think he would unless there was an injury, which there was and now he’s playing. I’m really happy for him, certainly happy to see him out there contributing and playing the sport he loves.”
Bombers head coach Mike O’Shea said there were no surprises with Collaros when he arrived in October. His team traded for a veteran quarterback and that’s exactly what they got.
“I don’t know if it’d be the same for every veteran quarterback and I’m not trying to diminish what he’s done by any means, but we knew what we were getting when we got him,” the coach said.
“A highly-competitive, really intelligent, good team guy that would fit in right away, seamlessly. All those things.
“Any time you’ve got a guy that’s been in different systems and had success in different systems, they understand how they’re going to learn the next one.
“Him coming in, he got right to work. He sat down in the room and we offered him, do you want to watch this film, do you want to do this, do you want to do that?
“He knew exactly what he needed to get started. I’d say he came as advertised. He’s been great for us. He’s been a good teammate and learned extremely quickly.”
Heading into just his fourth start with the Bombers, Collaros was his usual stoic self when he met with the media. Seated next to Streveler, the most engagement he showed a question was when he was asked about his knowledge of the Riders’ defence and how that might help his new team.
“Oh yeah, we had a two-day seminar,” he joked.
“It’s been a long season, for sure. The last four or five weeks have been awesome.”
A Riders-Bombers Western Final promises to be epic any season, but we’ll likely never see one like this again. There’s a Darth Vader – Luke Skywalker feel to the QB matchup. You can let your fandom determine which quarterback is which character.
“He’s my enemy (on Sunday) but after that we’ll be friends,” Fajardo said.
“I’m just excited for him that he got a good fit over there in Winnipeg. It seems like he went in there and they welcomed him with open arms, which is pretty cool to see for a guy who’s been traded twice in one year, but I’m excited just to compete against him.
“We obviously competed through training camp and he taught me a lot of things about playing quarterback in the CFL and for that I own a lot. I’m excited to see him back on the field, but I hope we prevail.”
Despite competing against each other in training camp, a friendship formed between the two. Collaros told reporters earlier in the week in Winnipeg that he and Fajardo have texted throughout this season. Fajardo’s success caught the vast majority of the league by surprise, with even Dickenson and Riders GM Jeremy O’Day admitting that they didn’t realize what they had until the season started to progress.
Collaros might be one of the few that wasn’t surprised.
“I remember Cody from college and he was a really good player. I remember talking to him briefly during camp, just about the season and saying, ‘Just be confident if you ever get the shot. You’ve played a lot of football in your career and once you get the opportunity it’s gonna be good.’He’s taken advantage of that.”
There will no doubt be a strange feeling for the Riders players on Sunday, seeing Collaros lining up against the Riders defence after he’d spent the last year and a half in Saskatchewan.
“I think he relishes the opportunity,” said Riders centre Dan Clark, who has worked closely with both quarterbacks and sees plenty of leadership similarities between them.
“It’s one of those things that…he was counted out and we gave him a chance to go play somewhere. Especially the way Cody was playing, (the trade was) a chance for him to show that he deserved to play.”
This is the match up that no one would have predicted six months ago. The one that very few would have dared to predict even in October when Collaros became a Blue Bomber. Whether we see two quarterbacks, three or five on Sunday, the Western Final promises to be a rarity in a longstanding rivalry.