Long Read: Inside Zach Collaros’ journey to MOP
Zach Collaros made his way into the media room on Friday night, seconds removed from giving his speech after being named the CFL’s Most Outstanding Player at the CFL Awards.
In a black suit and tie with a white shirt, he stood at the podium and showed precisely zero nerves in the biggest individual moment of his career. He was dressed much nicer, but it was a hard throwback to the night of Nov. 24, 2019, after he’d just captured his first Grey Cup win.
He would no doubt say that championship means more to him than the MOP, as does the opportunity to double up on that feeling on Sunday, with the Winnipeg Blue Bombers facing the Tiger-Cats in the 108th edition of the game here in Hamilton.
To fully appreciate the moment that Collaros had on Friday night, being named the MOP for the first time in his nine-year career, you have to start at what may have been the most challenging part of his incredible journey.
Collaros landed in Winnipeg on Oct. 9, 2019, his third stop that season (take a second to think about that) after suffering Week 1 injury while playing for Saskatchewan that opened the door to his backup; Cody Fajardo never let go of the role. On the injured list the bulk of the season, Collaros was dealt from the Riders to the Toronto Argonauts, the team that he started his career with in 2012. He never got to wear more than the Double Blue’s practice uniform before the team snuck him into the final seconds of the trade deadline, dropping him into the Bombers’ laps while they struggled to find an offensive rhythm without the injured Matt Nichols.
Collaros got into his new team’s offence for a regular-season finale win over Calgary, then led the team into the playoffs. We all know how that turned out, with Collaros leading the Bombers to an impropable trifecta of road wins over the Stamps, the Riders and then the Ticats to end Winnipeg’s 29-year Grey Cup drought. Players wept under falling confetti. A city rejoiced. A fan that had taken a shorts-only vow until the Bombers lifted the Grey Cup again felt pants touch his legs for the first time in 18 years. It was, to put it lightly, a moment.
“I’m not sure there was another guy who could fit in that seamlessly and get it done,” Bombers’ coach Mike O’Shea said of Collaros on Wednesday.
“From the second he walked in, it was obvious that he could. You wouldn’t have brought another guy in. It just wouldn’t have worked like that.”
“Probably at the time I was thinking, go in and show them what I can do,” Collaros told the Winnipeg Sun this week.
“And if nothing else, they can put in a good word for me and I might end up playing somewhere else.”
Playbook in hand
Collaros arrived in Winnipeg with questions about not just his present injury status but his career hovering over him. He was on an MOP path in 2015 when he tore his ACL, just a year after leading the Ticats to the Grey Cup game. Recovery from that injury delayed his return to the lineup and when he did get back in, he joined a Ticats team that would start 0-8 and was on the verge of a major shakeup. He was dealt to the Riders in January of 2018 and while he started there, he didn’t find the success he’d had earlier in his career. The injury bug continued to nibble at him, taking him out of a 2018 playoff game, then forcing him to the sidelines for 2019.
For many players, the injuries and the multiple moves in a season could be their final steps down the path to their exit from pro football.
Here’s how some of Collaros’ coaches and teammates remember his arrival and the team’s unlikely run to the 2019 Grey Cup, along with how they’ve seen his MOP season play out in 2021.
Jermarcus Hardrick, offensive lineman: I saw right away, he was walking around with the playbook when he got there. I knew we’d traded for him and when I got there he was already walking around with a playbook. He was just hanging out, he was a quiet guy, he wasn’t very loud.
Stanley Bryant, offensive lineman: He was quiet, but once he got in the huddle he was himself. He’s funny, likes to have fun.
I don’t think there was any doubt (about his ability). I knew that the offensive line and the group, we knew we had to keep him upright to have a chance to win any game, let alone a Grey Cup. We take pride in keeping the quarterback upright and protecting him at any cost.
Brady Oliveira, running back: It’s crazy to think about. I don’t know how two teams could let him go.
I think his first game was the Calgary game, right? Yeah, that touchdown to D.A. (Darvin Adams) in the back of the end zone. He’d just come in and he’s been lights out for us ever since.
Buck Pierce, QBs coach in 2019, offensive coordinator in 2021: All credit to Zach, he was able to step into a role. Being in a lot of different systems we were able to get him up to speed on what we were doing. I think the hardest thing isn’t so much the terminology or playbooks but getting used to how they do certain things.
Zach’s very precise and detailed and knowledgeable on those kinds of things. He was able to learn quickly and adapt to a system that he might not be too familiar with but really made it his own, eventually.
O’Shea: Never a doubt about his ability, never a doubt about his leadership. And then, once you got to talk to him, not a doubt about his health either.
Just because he was on the shelf in other places, for their own decisions, their own reasons, that didn’t really come into question because there are different organizations that made different decisions for different reasons.
Ever since, it’s just been fantastic. His teammates, they love working hard for him. They love that he challenges them and they also love that he delivers every time with them.
Hardrick: I couldn’t imagine doing it. Three (teams) in one year, being with a team maybe a month and then the playoffs start and you’re the guy. Haven’t won a Grey Cup in (Winnipeg) in 29 years…that was pretty special. Just even talking about it like that gave me a chill. It had to be hard for him, but he made it work.
A natural fit
We saw through that short 2019 run that Collaros fit in perfectly with his new team. He went 4-0 as a starter and that momentum was one of the few things that seemed to be unaffected by the pandemic and the cancelled 2020 CFL season. The Bombers got back on the field this year and were the only team that didn’t go through a slow start, didn’t have to wait on its offence to sync up the way that other teams did, like their opponent on Sunday, the Tiger-Cats.
While the rest of the teams in the league needed a few weeks to get their footing, the Bombers had taken off, winning their first two games. They had a hiccup in Toronto in Week 3, but proceeded to rattle off a nine-game winning streak after that, pushing their record to an uncatchable 11-1. Collaros’ play was a key component in that. He led the league with 20 touchdown passes, posting an efficiency rating of 111 while passing for 3,185 yards and completing a career-best 70.2 per cent of his attempts.
What stood out more than the numbers were his poise and patience. The offence may not have overwhelmed and stuffed highlight reels each week and their wins weren’t all blowouts, but Collaros showed that veteran’s gift of knowing when and how to stick the knife in his opponents with a big play.
Hardrick: When he came in, he fit in like a glove. I almost didn’t believe he was there for only three weeks. He’s just one of those leaders, man. He’s not scared to tell you to pick it up. Not scared to call you out on Sunday. And I think that was something we needed, it showed.
I just remember his first couple of weeks he came in, there was something on field that we were doing all the time and he saw it. He was like, ‘I don’t like it. I don’t want to do it.’ And I remember looking around (at the other o-linemen), like, ‘Did you hear that? Did you hear that?’ We were all excited. We knew then, I didn’t know we were in a Grey Cup, but I knew we were going to be special.
Tommy Condell, Collaros’ O.C. in Hamilton in 2014 and 2015: I think O’Sh does a good job. Just like (Orlondo Steinauer) he’s a leader of men, he’s able to create a culture and it’s a kind of natural fit for him with what they do offensively. Then you can see the influence that Zach has as well with some of the play structures that they do and that they utilize and he’s brought in too. I think it melds together and you can see the respect that Zach has for the organization and the coaches and vice versa.
Oliveira: It’s almost like he just fit in perfectly. He just fits in with the guys. I mean, obviously, when a new guy’s coming into the team, you want to take him under your wing and be there for him. And I think with him, it was just such an easy transition. I think everyone wants to be around him.
Collaros: My wife knew it in 2019. I’d call her from the hotel and she’d ask about my day. I’d actually want to talk about my day.
Getting into prime form
Collaros’ return to form in 2021 has been one of the most fascinating storylines of the season. In his first full season with the Bombers, he has at times looked like he’s found his old self on the field and melded it with all of the experiences, good and bad, that he’s had over the last decade.
He still has the arm and the ability to find targets deep. He seems to have rediscovered that ability to slide out of a collapsed pocket, to bounce off of a d-lineman that thinks he’s about to feast on him and make a play to keep a drive going. In his time with the media after winning the MOP on Friday, he spoke about the history of the award and the names that he’s now linked to, some of the league’s greatest-ever players.
The poise and confidence that a team needs from its quarterback in big moments is readily available to him now, the stuff that may only come from escaping those career-threatening hardships the same way he does those disappearing pockets to make plays.
Hardrick: It’s hard to put into words. Eight-ball. I call him eight-ball, as his nickname. Eight-ball in that huddle, the look he gives in my eyes, you hear the play and the look he gives. I know he’s a special talent and you can see it when he’s out there.
Chris Van Zeyl, offensive lineman and Collaros’ teammate in Toronto in 2012 and 2013: You look at Zach, a lot of it speaks for itself: The style of play, his personality. He’s a gunslinger that moves around when he’s in trouble. He’s able to throw the ball deep and do pretty much whatever a quarterback can do. He can sidearm it around defenders, he does a lot. When you watch him play, it’s like watching a kid in the yard just kind of throwing the ball around. But that’s the kind of person he is. He’s a great guy but on Sunday he’s the enemy.
Pierce: Credit to Zach and his teammates, he’s put the work in. He’s really dedicated himself. To see him have the kind of success he’s having this year, obviously it’s a credit to those around him but most of it goes to him. He’s worked his tail off.
Condell: I wasn’t surprised at all. I know Zach. I know him real well. I know he’s a guy that as soon as he’s got his opportunity he’s going to take advantage of it. I wasn’t surprised at all. He’s Zach. Everyone didn’t understand that, they only saw some things that were out of his control. He was able to get into a situation that was a good situation and make the most of it because he was given an opportunity.
Oliveira: I’ve had conversations with a few guys on the team after games and seeing some of the performances that he’s had this year. I’ve never seen a quarterback play that, like, with my personal eyes.
On TV you see great performances and stuff, but personally, being there and seeing the guy throw the ball downfield like that, escaping the pocket and running and using his feet to just try and make a play downfield…he’s like a magician sometimes, he just makes things happen. Being able to witness a guy like that, it’s pretty special.
O’Shea: I don’t think it’s a surprise once you get in a room with him, as we were back then (when they were with the Argos in 2012). It’s no surprise that he’s at this level. As (Steinauer) said, ultra competitive, an easy guy to follow, a good leader.
Something that gets said by retired guys is he’s one of us. He just is. You’re just drawn to him. We’re so pleased he’s on our team.