Shine has faded from Stampeders’ QB Jake Maier following ‘dark, frustrating’ first year as starter

Photo courtesy: Paul Yates/B.C. Lions

The 2023 season ended for Calgary Stampeders’ quarterback Jake Maier in the same room as his 2022 campaign — deep in the bowels of BC Place stadium, staring down the media after another playoff loss to the hometown Lions.

“I think the experiences that I went through personally this year are something that I’ll be able to be so much better from,” the defeated quarterback said at the podium. “It wasn’t easy. We lost a lot of close football games. I didn’t have very good performances myself. As far as a grade goes, you guys can be the judge of that. It is what it is; I can live with any criticism or any praise that [the media] might have.”

In the year and a half since he took the reins from Bo Levi Mitchell in Cowtown, Maier has stumbled twice in the Western Semi-Final. The first time around, he failed to finish the contest and was given the hook in the fourth quarter. On this occasion, he achieved the redemption of playing a full 60 minutes but was still decidedly out-duelled in a 41-30 loss.

The 26-year-old had his share of impressive moments, connecting on two deep shots on his team’s first series to capture an early lead. He piled on the yardage late in the quest for a comeback but never came within striking distance of the upset, finishing 23-of-34 for 304 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions.

“I thought it was one of his best games. He answered the bell. He made four or five off-schedule plays to me that are big,” head coach and general manager Dave Dickenson said post-game, expressing full confidence in his starting pivot.

“That’s the only way you can really win in the CFL. If you have to design everything and it’s got to work perfectly, you’re not going to win. You need your quarterback and I thought he had some of his best out-of-pocket plays tonight.”

Despite a solid statistical output and the endorsement of his coach, the gap between Maier and the league’s elite seemed to widen on Saturday. Once anointed as the next great CFL quarterback, public consensus has soured on the kid from UC Davis and questions abound as to whether he is truly the signal-caller the Stampeders should be hitching themselves to.

His first full season as an unquestioned starter was rife with disappointment, as Calgary posted their worst record since 2004. He finished third in the league in passing, completing 363-of-578 attempts for 4,244 yards, 19 touchdowns, and 15 interceptions, but the deeper numbers told a troubling tale.

Maier was the only quarterback in the league to start all 18 games and attempted 90 more passes than his next closest competitor, but struggled to effectively press the ball down the field. In terms of yards per attempt, only Nick Arbuckle generated fewer than his 7.3. When it came to average depth of target, his 9.1 yards tied with rookies Dustin Crum and Taylor Powell while leading only Taylor Cornelius. It was a similar story when it came to completion percentage (62.8) and a quarterback efficiency rating (85.2), where Maier outpaced only Cornelius amongst qualifying starters.

Not all those numbers rested solely on the youngster’s shoulder, as Calgary was ravaged by injury, plagued by drops from key playmakers, and limited by poor protection. That didn’t change the result, which was an offence that finished eighth in the league for yardage and limped into the postseason.

“I can go on and on about [the injuries we faced]. I can talk to you forever about it. It’s not going to change your reality,” Maier acknowledged. “It’s something that you have to overcome and at times, I didn’t overcome that.”

For Stampeder fans, this feels like unfamiliar territory. Transitioning smoothly from one great quarterback to another has been the franchise’s calling card since Jeff Garcia took over for Doug Flutie and the last time they broke in a young passer, it resulted in nothing but instant Grey Cups. The move from Mitchell to Maier has felt more like the end of an era than a new beginning.

“Everybody’s journey is different. Some guys come into the league and light it on fire right away and then they’re untouchable and on top of the world constantly. You just don’t know when your adversity is gonna come,” Maier said.

“Mine just happened to come in the first year of me being the franchise guy and I wouldn’t trade it. There were times when it was really dark, and it was frustrating, and it was banging your head on the wall trying to find answers, trying to figure things out but that comes with the territory of the position.”

At every turn, Dickenson has stood behind his young signal-caller and there is no indication that the organization will look to bring in a proven commodity to compete with Maier, who has more than $100,000 of his salary guaranteed next season. It will be on the quarterback to prove he is worth the investment in the final year of his contract and salvage a contender from the ruins of a once-great dynasty.

“I want to be able to build something like Winnipeg’s built. I want to build something like B.C.’s building, like Toronto’s building,” Maier said, stressing the need for him to be a better leader.

“You see the camaraderie those groups have, you see how much fun they have, you see the continuity they have. You see how every week they go out there and, win, lose or draw, they always seem to be on the same page and they know what they want from each other. I think about those things all the time.”

Those things used to be true of the Stampeders too, but not any longer. Still, for all the disappointment inherent in the sub-.500 finish and playoff loss, Maier sees positives in his first season at the helm.

“We did have some good moments. We did win specific football games that we needed to win,” he said. “Being a 6-12 football team that made the playoffs, I know that that can be frowned upon and that can be laughed at and mocked; then don’t make it six teams in the playoffs, make it five. We happened to be one of the six and at the end of the day, I can feel proud about that.”

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.