Opinion: B.C. Lions’ Vernon Adams Jr. should be M.O.P. frontrunner entering key game vs. Winnipeg

Photo courtesy: Steven Chang/B.C. Lions

When the Winnipeg Blue Bombers and B.C. Lions clash for the third and final time on Friday, there will be more than the top seed in the West Division and a first-round playoff bye at stake.

The centre-stage duel between Zach Collaros and Vernon Adams Jr. is shaping up to be the deciding battle in a race for Most Outstanding Player that too few in the media have cared to acknowledge. And while the back-to-back winner of the award enters with the quorum of votes necessary to collect a third straight trophy, it is the underdog in orange and black that should be viewed as the frontrunner.

Since the beginning of the 2023 CFL season, the M.O.P. narrative has remained pretty much unchanged. This was to be a two-horse race between Collaros and Toronto’s Chad Kelly, both of whom have put up some impressive numbers. Any suggestion to the contrary has been met with derision and ridicule.

For a while now, I have found myself on the receiving end of that laughter. At the mid-season mark, I was the lone 3DownNation contributor to have a dissenting M.O.P. vote, backing Adams over the other two contending quarterbacks. That suggestion drew an incredulous reaction from my podcast co-hosts and some listeners even took to Twitter to call it the “hot take of the year.”

As we enter the stretch run, that take has reached a perfectly drinkable temperature — though incredibly few media members appear to be taking a sip.

Heading into Week 18, Vernon Adams Jr. is the CFL’s passing yardage leader and the only quarterback to have crossed the 4,000-yard mark. He sits just two touchdowns behind Collaros for the lead in passing touchdowns as well, though he’s done so while starting one less game.

By every metric, VA deserves to be in the heat of the M.O.P discourse. So why does he continue to take a backseat to the pre-determined favourites? Frankly, it comes down to people’s pre-existing biases.

Throughout his CFL career, Adams has become associated with inconsistency and chaos — two words that can’t be used to describe his play this year. His unceremonious benching and subsequent departure from Montreal last season triggered a change in the quarterback’s preparation — reportedly influenced by veteran Trevor Harris — and the rough edges have been shaved off his game since arriving in B.C.

He still makes the jaw-dropping plays he’s always been capable of, but they now occur with startling regularity and are interrupted by far fewer mistakes. Many fans might be surprised to learn that Adams’ 68.9 completion percentage places him ahead of both Collaros (67.7) and Kelly (68.6) in terms of accuracy this season.

Critics will be quick to point out that VA is still prone to the bone-headed gamble and is currently leading the league in interceptions with 16. Even though that is just two more than Collaros, many will use that to suggest that the 30-year-old is still the same player he always was, ignoring critical context.

While Adams might have 16 interceptions, six of them came in B.C.’s Week 4 loss to Toronto. That certainly doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be counted against him but one especially bad outing must be properly weighted, just as one especially good performance shouldn’t earn anyone an award.

In reality, Adams has taken care of the football fairly well this year and has played just three games in which he has thrown multiple interceptions — accounting for 11 of his picks. Chad Kelly, who has been widely praised for protecting the ball, has had four such outings. Collaros has had just two but has also played three games in which he’s tossed more interceptions than touchdowns — something which has happened to VA just once.

Adams hasn’t been cavalier with the football but that doesn’t stop him from putting up huge numbers through the air. No quarterback has had more consistent aerial success as the Lions’ pivot has thrown for over 300 yards on nine separate occasions this season — crossing the 400-yard mark twice to boot. Collaros is a distant second in the league with six 300-yard performances while Kelly has four, including the only 400-yard outing between the pair.

Those numbers should come as no surprise given how substantial Adams’ lead in passing yardage is but the discrepancy becomes even more stark when you boil it down to a per-game basis. With 13 games started and finished, Collaros is averaging 287.5 yards through the air. Kelly is even less with 283 yards in 12 full games. Adams also has completed 12 contests, averaging 333.7 yards per outing. There is little debate as to who has been most effective.

As the season has progressed, Toronto’s three-phase dominance, conservative offensive strategy, and subsequent load management of key players have all but taken Kelly out of legitimate M.O.P. consideration. In terms of players who will continue to put up the numbers necessary to compete, just Collaros and VA remain.

But if statistical arguments don’t convince you that Adams should be at the top of the conversation, consider their supporting casts. Sure, the Lions may have the deepest receiving corps in the league but the Bombers are close behind. What B.C. hasn’t had for long stretches is a reliable running game, while Brady Oliveira has kept the pressure of Collaros with a season for the ages. And while they might not be as good as they once were, Winnipeg has the superior offensive line in all facets.

Adams has had the weight of his entire team routinely placed on his shoulders, while Collaros hasn’t needed to be a world-beater to earn the Bombers their wins. His status as an elite quarterback is certainly not in question but to this point, VA has been better.

I’m certain there will be a segment of the Blue and Gold faithful who will accuse me of homerism for backing the quarterback of the team I cover. If you check the receipts, you’ll find that I have been more critical than anyone of Adams since his arrival and at times our professional relationship has been contentious. He has earned every ounce of my respect this season with his exceptional play and I shouldn’t be the only pundit saying “mea culpa.”

If Adams fails to rise to the occasion in front of him, the voters will have every reason to hand Collaros a third trophy and I won’t blame them. But if the pair battle to a draw or Adams out-guns his rival, it’s time to finally give B.C.’s quarterback his long overdue flowers.

J.C. Abbott is a University of British Columbia graduate and high school football coach. He covers the CFL, B.C. Lions, CFL Draft and the three-down league's Global initiative.