Davis: Even if Collaros starts, Riders’ Jones trying to prove he can win Grey Cup without franchise QB

Saskatchewan Roughriders quarterback Zach Collaros looked very cold and badly off-target while throwing passes during a practice earlier this week.

By Friday, two days before his CFL team plays host to the West semifinal, backup Brandon Bridge was taking snaps with the first-team offence and head coach Chris Jones wasn’t announcing who was starting against the Winnipeg Blue Bombers. Maybe it’s a smokescreen — or a snow screen, considering Saskatchewan’s wintry weather conditions these days — similar to the make-believe ploys of training camp, when Jones tried insisting Collaros wasn’t the undisputed starter.

Whatever the case, it serves to highlight the issue that has plagued Jones since he resigned as head coach of the Grey Cup-winning Edmonton Eskimos to join the Roughriders three seasons ago as their vice-president of football operations, general manager, head coach and defensive co-ordinator.

The Roughriders don’t have a franchise quarterback.

And Jones, whose team has strong special teams and a game-changing defence, is trying to prove that his team can win a Grey Cup without one.

They pay Collaros like a franchise quarterback — reportedly $430,000 annually; he can become a free agent after this season — and they’re a better team with him at the controls. But Saskatchewan’s offensive stats haven’t been remarkable, demonstrated specifically in Collaros’ 13-9 interception-to-touchdown ratio.

Their quarterback situation has changed wildly from season to season since Jones’ arrival as he strives to stabilize the position, something only a few CFL teams have managed during that time — Edmonton with Mike Reilly, Calgary with Bo Levi Mitchell, Hamilton with Jeremiah Masoli and Ottawa with Trevor Harris. Even Winnipeg has had its moments of doubt this season with starter Matt Nichols.

Jones was initially stuck with veteran Darian Durant, who was on the downside of his career when the new boss arrived in 2016. It was a relationship seemingly doomed to fail, so Jones recruited journeyman Kevin Glenn to serve as the most-of-the-time starter in 2017, a scenario that deployed Bridge as a change-of-pace backup and got them into the playoffs before losing the East final to the Grey Cup-winning Toronto Argonauts, who were led by Hall of Fame-bound quarterback Ricky Ray.

Collaros, who had a history of concussions and been displaced by Masoli in Hamilton’s offence, was available for 2018. With an offence built around Collaros’ ability to read-and-react and complete short passes, the Roughriders got markedly better when the offensive line was rebuilt and the running attack helped alleviate pressure on their quarterback.

Still, Collaros was concussed earlier this season and was knocked out of Saskatchewan’s final regular-season game when he absorbed a helmet-to-helmet hit from B.C. Lions defensive end Odell Willis. Bridge replaced Collaros and, as usual, was underwhelming, although he did manage to preserve the victory that clinched second place in the West. Collaros certainly could have some lingering effects from that hit.

The Roughriders have improved markedly every season Jones has been in charge, despite all the upheaval at the team’s most important on-field position. They have a better chance of winning with Collaros at the controls and, if they do defeat Winnipeg and continue to the Grey Cup, it might convince Jones that he no longer has to play who’s-my-quarterback?

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