Because it’s the most important position in the sport, we naturally spend a lot of time talking about quarterbacks over the course of a season. And as we begin Grey Cup week 2023, I can’t remember a pair of quarterback stories this compelling.
Cody Fajardo has been the underdog before, which is why self-belief has always been a huge strength of his. But despite facing and overcoming plenty of adversity in the past, he truly was at a crossroads one year ago. If he was being honest, I wonder if Fajardo could have envisioned things playing out like this as his time with Saskatchewan was coming to a frustrating end.
Fajardo had two strong years with the Riders before 2022 turned sour and ended with him losing the starting job late in the season. There’s no doubt Fajardo was hurt with how things wrapped up in Regina, and rightfully so. That’s not pointing fingers at all, it’s just natural. Saskatchewan was where Fajardo got his first opportunity to thrive and was a place he wanted to stay for the rest of his career. Of course it stung when things ended far earlier than expected.
But Fajardo wanted to keep playing and opportunity existed elsewhere. He signed a two-year contract in Montreal on the first day of 2023 free agency and with even more career perspective to lean on, Fajardo embraced a brand-new opportunity. Now he’s less than a week away from starting in the Grey Cup for the first time.
Fajardo’s first season with the Als was one of the best of his career. He went 9-7 as a starter while completing a career high 71.6 per cent of his passes. Fajardo’s 3,847 passing yards and 317 completions were the second highest of his career. Oh, and let’s not forget he’s 2-0 in this year’s playoffs with three touchdown passes.
Fajardo perhaps took too much blame as the Roughriders lost seven straight down the 2022 stretch to miss the playoffs. He joined the Alouettes and reunited with Jason Maas, who was Saskatchewan’s offensive coordinator in 2021 and 2022 before being named head coach in Montreal for this season. It’s been a great reunion.
The Als are playing for the 110th Grey Cup because they have a balanced offence and a defensive unit that has gotten steadily better all season long. That culminated in Montreal’s dominant 38-17 win over the defending champion Argonauts on Saturday to the tune of nine forced turnovers.
But as the Alouettes get ready to play for a championship for the first time since 2010, I can’t help but feel good for Fajardo. It’s been a long and winding road that could have dead-ended just over a year ago.
Instead, Fajardo is playing on the biggest stage of them all.
The legacy grows
We’ve become quite conditioned to Zach Collaros being one of the league’s best quarterbacks. He’s just been that good since taking over with the Bombers in late 2019. But perhaps that conditioning takes away from the recognition he deserves. As our Kristina Costabile pointed out over the weekend, we really are witnessing greatness.
By now, most know Collaros’s backstory prior to arriving in Winnipeg. He was traded twice in 2019 with the second move being an afterthought to many. It was a deal sending him from Toronto to the Blue Bombers but came with next to no fanfare or external expectation. After all, Collaros hadn’t played since Week 1 of that season due to injury.
Both Winnipeg and Collaros had other ideas, of course, and here we are. Since joining the Bombers, Collaros is 6-1 in playoff starts with his only blemish being last year’s Grey Cup loss to Toronto. Along the way, he was two other Grey Cup victories and a perfect 4-0 record in Western Final appearances.
As a result, Collaros is now the first quarterback in CFL history to start in the Grey Cup in four consecutive years. Already in an elite class to begin with, Collaros will now accomplish something that greats like Doug Flutie, Anthony Calvillo, and Damon Allen never did. Let that sink in for a little bit.
There are myriad reasons why Winnipeg has become the league’s model franchise. From head coach Mike O’Shea’s leadership to some of the greatest to ever play their positions like Willie Jefferson, Stanley Bryant, and Adam Bighill. But there’s no coincidence the Blue Bombers went from a being a good team trying to get over the top to riding one of the best waves of success in CFL history when Collaros landed in Winnipeg.
Collaros’s arrival in Winnipeg wasn’t just the missing piece. It was the nitro fuel for a rocket ship. The Bombers are just the third CFL team to appear in at least four consecutive Grey Cup games joining Hamilton from 1961 to 1965 and Edmonton’s dynasty of six straight between 1977 and 1982.
Win or lose on Sunday, I think we’ll be using that same d-word when talking about this Winnipeg era in five or 10 years; the same way we’ll be talking about Collaros as one of the all-time greats.
While it’s the first time the Alouettes and Blue Bombers have ever met in a Grey Cup, it’s not the first time these two quarterbacks have gone toe-to-toe in a big game. Fajardo, then with the Riders, and Collaros gave us two consecutive highly entertaining Western Final showdowns in 2019 and 2021. Why shouldn’t Sunday give us similar drama?
We’re sending all the good vibes to Bighill, who left Saturday’s win over BC with a lower body injury. While he hasn’t been ruled out of Sunday’s Grey Cup, there’s concern this could be something significant for Bighill. More than anything, it would be an absolute shame for perhaps the best linebacker of his era to miss this opportunity.
Finally, a tip of the hat to Toronto’s Chad Kelly and BC’s Vernon Adams Jr. I know neither had the performances they wanted on Saturday, but both had MOP quality regular seasons and the former has a chance to take that award home later this week. It’s nice to see a couple of more names join Collaros as bona fide superstar quarterbacks.