It took me less than half a second to decide which Rider topic I should begin this new column with. I don’t think it will take you by surprise: the Saskatchewan Roughriders quarterbacking situation.

When Zack Collaros re-signed with the Riders in February, there was a firm and collective thumbs down from Rider Nation. After all, football fans in this province know the CFL game very well. How can any fan dressed in green be happy with an often injured signal caller who tossed nine TD passes versus 13 picks a year ago?

Many detractors could also argue with validity that Collaros was 10 and four as a starter only because of the stellar 2018 Saskatchewan defense. It is also valid to argue that Collaros looked like one of the best quarterbacks in the CFL last October in Calgary. 

Free Agent Frenzy

First off, let’s dissect what Riders general manager Jeremy O’Day was up against when three marquee CFL pivots were available for CFL free agency on Feb. 12.

Mike Reilly wanted to be close to his northern Washington State home for family reasons plus he won the 2015 Grey Cup in Edmonton with current BC Lions GM Ed Hervey. The relationship was there. Reilly certainly wasn’t coming to Saskatchewan. Orange all the way. 

Here’s a fact. Bo Levi Mitchell would never leave the side of Calgary Head Coach Dave Dickenson. He’s smarter than that. The Calgary Head Coach is an offensive genius and Mitchell has done nothing but win in Cowtown including last year’s Grey Cup. The relationship was there. Mitchell hit free agency only to try and squeeze a few more loonies out of Stampeder GM John Hufnagel. Mitchell was not coming to Saskatchewan. 

Like the other two, Trevor Harris also gravitated to a friendly face. Edmonton Eskimos GM Brock Sunderland knew Harris in Ottawa when Sunderland headed the REDBLACKS player personal department. The relationship was there. Harris even helped recruit other Ottawa players to Edmonton, so to say this was a done deal would be a gross understatement. Harris was not coming to Saskatchewan. 

Despite the greatest of efforts and hard work from O’Day to sign one of these three experienced pivots, it simply was never in the cards.

After his three years in Saskatchewan, Chris Jones as GM left some good players behind, however the quarterbacking cupboard he passed on to his successor was bone dry.

Bring Zach back?

After CFL free agency, O’Day only had two reasonable options as far as experienced CFL quarterbacks were concerned: free agent BC Lions QB Jonathon Jennings, or Collaros. The CFL is a small league with continuous information flowing freely between all teams. It was no secret towards the end of the 2018 season both Lions management and coaching staff were not impressed with Jennings behind the scenes. Despite a strong arm and a great set of legs, study habits, attention to detail and attitude were not Jennings strong suits. 

Zack Collaros is the exact reverse. Zack knows the play book inside and out and is a true pro off the field. Along with talent, O’Day wants character stamped onto his football team. From what I’ve seen so far, O’Day values the character trait more than his predecessor. Riders Head Coach Craig Dickenson has a similar philosophy. Collaros was signed to a one year deal. 

So can Zack Collaros be a better quarterback in 2019? No one can know for sure, but it’s possible and here’s why: the offensive line and running back look better from a year ago but there is another important issue to consider. 

Towards the end of Collaros’ career in Hamilton, Ti-Cats Head Coach and Riders legend Kent Austin by and large imploded, or exploded, take your pick. Austin blamed Collaros for everything from soup to nuts. Austin pointed fingers at a pile of folks as losses mounted, eventually losing the dressing room. The atmosphere for Collaros at the end of his Hamilton career was 100 per cent toxic. His play showed it.

A new coach at the helm

Last season Chris Jones handled his quarterbacks like hand grenades. After games, Jones often publically criticized his quarterbacks and shuffled his pivots in and out of tilts like yo-yo’s. I find it impossible to believe this approach could or would build confidence for any QB. 

A different, more conventional approach will be applied this year. Craig Dickenson has publically placed his faith in Collaros right from the get go. O’Day has done the same. 

I believe Coach Dickenson will handle Collaros more professionally and in a manner quarterbacks should be handled. It’s been quite a while since Collaros has enjoyed internal support. When it last happened, he was one of the best quarterbacks in the CFL, but time will tell.

Don Hewitt started covering the Saskatchewan Roughriders for CKCK-TV in 1979.