O’Leary: Collaros’ decade perhaps the most unique in the CFL

As I went for a pre-dinner walk on Wednesday, it hit me. This leaf that once looked down on me from a good 15 to 20 feet through the summer had yellowed and fell from its home down onto my head, off my leg and then to the ground. Here in mid-October, summer is a distant memory.

We spent the summer months getting our votes in for the players and coach that will make up the All-Decade Team presented by LeoVegas. Just like there are still some leaves on the trees, there’s still some time to vote and put your personal stamp on the past 10 years.

We usually go into these things with our minds mostly made up. We know who won the most, who has the best stats, who we saw on TV or if we were lucky enough, in-person on cold late November nights to close out the last 10 seasons. This isn’t written to sway anyone in a different direction, more just about timing and recency and taking a moment to appreciate the most unique path to a Grey Cup a player might ever have in this league’s long, long history.


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Collaros had to deal with being traded out of Saskatchewan and got to come back in the West Final to exact some revenge en route to his Grey Cup win (Matt Smith/CFL.ca)

Zach Collaros was traded from the Toronto Argonauts to the Winnipeg Blue Bombers a year ago on Oct. 9. It was the second time he’d been traded in the season. To that point, he’d been on the field for one drive all year, in the Saskatchewan Roughriders’ season-opening game of the 2019 campaign. Collaros took a hit from Hamilton linebacker Simoni Lawrence, was injured and it seemed like that might be it for him.

The Roughriders thrived with Cody Fajardo filling in. That became a permanent thing and Collaros was shipped to an Argos team that was plummeting down the standings. By the time he’d recovered from his injury, the season in Toronto was lost. A change at GM, with Jim Popp relieved of his duties and replaced by Michael ‘Pinball’ Clemons and John Murphy, would mean that Collaros would never get a chance to put on the uniform he’d started his CFL career in, back in 2012. Collaros was shipped to the Bombers in the final seconds of last year’s trade deadline.

In Winnipeg, Collaros got into the game in the Bombers’ regular-season finale against Calgary on Oct. 25. Collaros made 22 of 28 passes for 221 yards and two touchdowns and the Bombers pulled out a last-second win over their soon-to-be playoff opponent. They wouldn’t lose a game the rest of the season.

In the playoffs, Collaros worked in tandem with Chris Streveler as a sort of Frankenstein QB, where Collaros threw the ball and Streveler would come in and use his legs to keep defences off balance. It worked to perfection in Calgary, where the favoured Stamps had their season come to a premature close. That win also set the perfect Grey Cup story in motion for Collaros, who made his next stop in Saskatchewan, where he’d begun the season as the team’s starter.

There may be no tougher stadium to play in as a visitor than at Mosaic against the Riders in the playoffs. Collaros put together a tidy 17-25 passing for 267 yards and a touchdown and the Bombers were aided by a last-second Fajardo pass that hit the upright to cement the West Final win. That set up the perfect final chapter for Collaros’ season, facing a Hamilton Tiger-Cats team that helped establish him as an elite QB in the CFL and the team that dealt him to Saskatchewan after the 2017 season.

The Bombers leaned on their run game in the Grey Cup, with Andrew Harris taking MVP and Outstanding Canadian honours after a 134-yard, two-touchdown effort, but Collaros had an efficient night, completing 73.9 per cent of his passes for 170 yards in a blowout win. The Bombers rewarded Collaros’ play through those four games by signing him to a two-year deal in January.

Collaros started his career with a Grey Cup win with the Argos in 2012 and brought it full circle to close out the decade. Injuries robbed the mobile QB of more individual accolades and Grey Cup possibilities in Hamilton and his 2018 season with the Riders didn’t feel like the right fit for him, despite the team’s success. After a 2019 season where many openly wondered if Collaros’ playing days might be done, he found a team that fit for him and did what many thought would be impossible, arriving at the trade deadline and leading his new group to a championship.

Other quarterbacks had more success and have been lucky enough to stay relatively healthy through their careers, but no other pivot on this ballot had the decade — or the finish to it — that Zach Collaros did.