All season, all around the Canadian Football League, it was a common assumption that the one player any team could least afford to lose to injury was Hamilton Tiger-Cats quarterback Zach Collaros.
Now we’re all going to find out if that assumption was true.
The Tiger-Cats confirmed late Monday afternoon that Collaros would miss the rest of the season with a torn ACL suffered in the second quarter of Hamilton’s 25-18 loss to Edmonton at Tim Hortons Field on Saturday evening.
Collaros will undergo surgery on the knee, but no date has yet been set.
“I would like to thank the great players, coaches and fans around the league who have extended their support,” Collaros said via Twitter. “I will work my hardest for my teammates and our organization to come back stronger.”
Head coach Kent Austin said Monday the reins will be turned over to Jeff Mathews, who struggled mightily when he took over for Collaros and was eventually benched in favour of No. 3 quarterback Jacory Harris.
“There’s a reason we came out of camp with Jeff as the second quarterback,” Austin said of the strong-armed Mathews, whom he coached for three years of college ball at Cornell University.
After replacing Collaros, Mathews fumbled once and threw three interceptions; one in the Eskimos’ end zone and two more that were returned for touchdowns, spoiling a brilliant effort by the Cats’ defence.
When Aaron Grymes took his third interception 68 yards for a touchdown, Austin glued Mathews to the sideline.
On his second pick-six, Mathews was just trying to throw the ball incomplete to avoid being sacked. But, instead of going to the closest side of the field where he could have thrown it out of bounds, he threw to the wide side where Grymes had enough time to mail him a thank-you letter as he waltzed into the end zone.
“He knows better,” Austin said right after the game. “He should have gone to the short side.”
Collaros wasn’t just the pilot light of the Hamilton offence, he was the fuel and the match.
Before his season was curtailed, he was the consensus choice to win the CFL’s Most Valuable Offensive Player award and was on his way to setting franchise records for completions and passing yards, and perhaps a league record for completed-pass percentage.
Both of Collaros’s replacements carried the ball carelessly when they ran, and both clearly had trouble with the speed of the game, especially against a vicious Edmonton defence that was already ranked as the best in the league and could smell blood with the CFL’s leading quarterback gone.
Mathews had thrown only nine passes previously this year, and Harris had not thrown one in the CFL. That begs the question — and not for the first time this season — why the Cats hadn’t used either of them more often late in their several blowout wins earlier in the campaign to familiarize them with the pace of the game, just in case.
Yes, some of those big victories were closer in the comeback-happy CFL than they appeared to outsiders, and a bit of extra field time wouldn’t have made either Mathews or Harris an instant starter at the ready. But perhaps even a handful of extra live-action snaps might have cautioned Mathews against the temptation to throw a couple of those intercepted balls.
Mathews was devastated, and very self-critical, after the game, but his teammates on the offensive line kept coming up to him to offer sympathy and belief in his abilities.
The mobile Jeremiah Masoli, who is on the practice roster, actually has the most CFL experience of the three non-injured Ticat quarterbacks. He started one game last year, and threw 47 passes over the 2013 and ’14 seasons with the Cats, but had a low completion percentage (46.7) and he, too, has thrown a number of unwise passes.
The Cats could really help Mathews by somehow developing a running attack in the next fortnight. Opposing defences, starting with the excellent Stampeders, will be coming at him relentlessly, and he hasn’t got Collaros’s experience, nor demonstrated ability, to help him avoid it.
And the defence and special-teams group, both of which have scored a number of touchdowns this year, just took on added importance.