DAVIS: Saskatchewan is the quarterback controversy capital of Canada

Photo Scott Grant / CFLPhotoArchive.com
Photo courtesy: Scott Grant/CFLPhotoArchive.com

Folks in Saskatchewan like to harken back to the good ol’ days when reminiscing about Roughriders’ quarterback tandems: Joe Barnes and John Hufnagel; Kent Austin and Tom Burgess; Nealon Greene and Henry Burris; Brandon Bridge and David Watford.

It started again this week when Craig Dickenson, Saskatchewan’s rookie head coach, announced plans to deploy two quarterbacks during the Roughriders’ next game, Thursday against the home-town Ottawa Redblacks.

Dickenson later said Cody Fajardo, a CFL journeyman in his first season with Saskatchewan, would start and rookie Isaac Harker would get “early” playing time. Both played during a 23-17, season-opening loss to the Hamilton Tiger-Cats. Riders’ starter Zach Collaros was knocked from the game on the team’s third offensive play by linebacker Simoni Lawrence, who was penalized 25 yards and suspended for two games for maliciously and illegally hitting the quarterback in the head.

Collaros’ future remains uncertain.

It’s important to note that two-quarterback systems don’t really work. How many Grey Cup or Super Bowl champions rely on two quarterbacks for their ultimate victory?

Successful CFL coaches like Wally Buono, Don Matthews, Dave Dickenson and Rick Campbell have traditionally declared one guy as their starting quarterback. They have done so because (1) they have a bona fide starter and (2) the starting quarterback needs to have the full confidence of the players and coaching staff.

Juggling quarterbacks can have limited success. Barnes and Hufnagel, dubbed “J.J. Barnagel” by Regina Leader-Post writer John Chaput in the mid-1980s, provided some offensive sparks on a bad team that was mired in an 11-year playoff drought.

With Austin and Burgess platooning as starters, the Riders ended their playoff drought and won the 1989 Grey Cup, but they began their championship run after head coach John Gregory anointed Austin as the starter. Burgess was, however, needed off the bench when Austin was injured during the West Final. Austin was Grey Cup MVP.

In Saskatchewan, also known as the “Quarterback Controversy Capital of Canada,” the backup pivot has traditionally been the football team’s most popular player because the fans are clamouring to see him in action. Harker showed unexpected poise and a strong arm against Hamilton, drawing praise from the team and its fans, after being tossed into the fray while Fajardo recovered from an in-game injury.

Fajardo completed training camp as Saskatchewan’s backup. Dickenson and his coaches made that decision. Harker displaced Watford as the third-stringer, with the likely notion that he would be given some time to develop.

Despite a decent debut, Harker should remain behind Fajardo on the depth chart. Inserting Harker at random points throughout the game will likely disrupt everyone’s rhythm and shows a lack of confidence in Fajardo. Quarterbacks need playing time so they can develop a rhythm. And confidence.

Darrell Davis has reported on the Riders for more than 20 years and was inducted into the Canadian Football Hall of Fame media wing in 2006.