It’s been headed down this road, almost irretrievably, for weeks and weeks, but when Zach Collaros was traded it still left a forlorn echo of what-might-have-been.
The Hamilton Tiger-Cats swapped their former starting quarterback to the Saskatchewan Roughriders on Wednesday for the 10th overall choice in this spring’s Canadian Football League’s draft of Canadian college players.
The deal metaphorically marks the end of the first stage of Ticat history at Tim Hortons Field, which was opened in phases, beginning on Labour Day, 2014. Collaros was the Hamilton quarterback on that historic afternoon, as Hamilton defeated the Toronto Argonauts 13-12, and Kent Austin was the head coach.
By late August of 2017 and the Ticats’ record at a dismal 0-8, Austin had handed the coaching reins to June Jones and, concurrently, Collaros lost the starting quarterbacking job to Jeremiah Masoli.
And it was Austin, as vice-president of football operations, who traded Collaros Wednesday.
This deal, or one like it, was absolutely necessary for the Tiger-Cats.
Collaros was scheduled to be the highest-paid player in the CFL this year, yet wasn’t even starting, and in a salary-cap league, the Tiger-Cats needed that money to sign pending free agents, one of whom is Masoli. It’s probable that the Ticats will announce in the very near future that Masoli, whom Jones wants back, has a contract.
“Just stay tuned,” Austin told The Spectator Wednesday afternoon.
But while the Ticats move ahead with Masoli, and potentially add former U.S. college sensation and the controversial Johnny Manziel, Austin allowed that he has personal feelings about trading the quarterback he signed away from the Argonauts in January, 2014.
“This is a guy that I wanted, that I brought here,” Austin said. “Every game I coached that he was healthy, he was the starting quarterback. But sometimes, things just don’t work out.
“The road you’re travelling and think is clearly defined in front of you can take a sharp turn pretty quickly.
“I’m happy for Zach. He’s with a competitive football team in a town that loves its players. He’ll be a Rider very quickly and he’ll understand what that means, just like here with our fans.”
The 29-year-old Collaros held Tim Hortons Field crowds in the palm of his hand as he directed the Ticats to 11 straight wins in their new home, but he suffered a torn ACL in mid-September of 2015 and was out of action for 11 months.
At the time, the Tiger-Cats were 8-3 (they finished 10-8) and Collaros led the CFL in most major passing statistics and was the prohibitive favourite to be named the league’s Most Outstanding Player.
Masoli, ranked fourth among Tiger-Cats quarterbacks at the time, didn’t see the field until the season’s final game, but started both of the team’s 2015 playoff games. He started eight more times in 2016 before Collaros returned from injury, then reverted to backup until Jones switched starters for last Labour Day, mostly to give the team a collective shake.
In the space of 24 months, the Tiger-Cats had regressed from a season for the ages to winning just 10 of their next 38 games.
Masoli, behind an improved line and with kick returner Brandon Banks shining as an everyday receiver, had a strong finish to the 2017 season, winning six of his 10 starts. He also showed a dramatic improvement in controlling the football, throwing 14 touchdown passes and only four interceptions during his 10 starts as the team rallied around him.
It was a completely different team from September to November — although it still missed the playoffs — and both Jones and Austin believe Masoli can improve even more this season.
Assuming Masoli is signed in the next few days, the focus of the media and of Ticats’ fans still will not shift away from the quarterback position.
The CFL has given Hamilton until Sunday at noon to offer a contract to Manziel, who is on the team’s negotiation list, making him unavailable to any other CFL team. Manziel, who has a well-documented history of off-field problems in both college and in the National Football League, has all of the physical tools necessary to eventually succeed in the CFL’s wide-open game, but has not played in two years.
He will certainly be offered a contract by Sunday, which would keep him as Hamilton’s CFL property for another year, even if he does not sign that contract.
But it’s unlikely that, unless the team stumbles as mightily as it did to open last season, Manziel or anybody else not named Masoli starts at quarterback.
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