The Hamilton Tiger-Cats have three weeks to figure out what they have in No. 4 – but the only way to do it is to play him.
The future of quarterback Zach Collaros is one of the most important questions facing the Ticats as they begin their meaningless three-game march towards the off-season. Under contract for 2018 and set to make a salary that will keep him among the CFL’s highest-paid players, Hamilton must determine whether he can regain the form that once made him one of the league’s best.
The results so far have been dismal. Collaros started the first eight games of the Ticats’ season, all losses, while posting some awful numbers: the 62.7 per cent completion percentage, 218 yards per game passing average and 1.14 touchdown-to-interception ratio were all the worst of his career, by far.
He’s lost 12 straight starts dating back to last season and he hasn’t won as the starter since Sept. 16, 2016 – one off the CFL record. How much of that is his fault, however, remains an open question: the Ticats were atrocious in the first eight games of this season.
They surrendered 77 quarterback pressures and 21 sacks in that time, tops in the CFL, while also producing an anemic 57.4 yards rushing per game (also the league worst.) They used four different offensive line combinations featuring five different offensive tackles – three of whom are no longer with the club. Play calling, which alternated between offensive coordinator Stefan Ptaszek and then-head coach Kent Austin, was also an issue.
After June Jones was promoted to head coach in late August, things improved considerably. In the seven games since he took over, the Ticats have surrendered just 12 sacks and 48 quarterback pressures and the offensive line solidified after Tony Washington was moved to left tackle and Ryker Mathews was inserted on the right side in Week 12. The running game has also been a significant factor: the Ticats ran the ball 10.6 times a game under Austin and are averaging 18.9 rushes under Jones.
One of Jones’ first major decisions after taking over was replacing Collaros with back up Jeremiah Masoli and while the move didn’t get them into the post-season, it has produced a 4-3 record. Masoli has completed 60.7 per cent of his passes with eight touchdowns and five interceptions with throwing for 300 yards in three games. His 86.0 efficiency rating is eighth in the CFL and just five points higher than Collaros.
But the biggest thing working against Masoli these last three weeks: he isn’t under contract for next season. After five years with the club and a 16-16 career record as a starter, Hamilton – and other teams around the league – should have an idea of what Masoli is: an extremely capable player with the ability to win games. An elite franchise guy in the same stratosphere as Bo Levi Mitchell and Mike Reilly? No.
And that’s what Collaros was supposed to be. Before he tore his ACL in September 2015 – and doesn’t that look like a franchise turning point – Collaros was the odds on favourite to win the CFL’s Most Outstanding Player award. When the Ticats signed him to the big contract extension the following spring, the consensus was they’d smartly locked up one of the game’s best young talents.
By playing Collaros in the last three games, they have a chance to find out whether that’s still true. It also gives them a chance to see how he plays in Jones’ offensive system – and important consideration if they are thinking of bringing him back to coach next season.
Worst case scenario, it could help stimulate the trade market for Collaros if the Ticats are intent on shedding his contract next season. If they can’t establish his value in what remains of this lost campaign, they run the risk of losing a valuable asset for nothing by releasing him before his sizeable off-season bonus is due in February. Multiple reports have said that Collaros isn’t interested in renegotiating the final year of his contract and considering how things have played out this year, it’s hard to blame him.
If Collaros doesn’t play well, then cutting him loose or trading him looks even more defensible – at least until he comes back to haunt them repeatedly in the years to come (see Calvillo, Anthony.) But if he lights it up the last three weeks, the Ticats have plenty of options.
The Ticats can’t redeem this lost season – but there may still be time to save their franchise quarterback.