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Dave Naylor

TSN Football Insider

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When you have one of those jobs in professional sports that can feel like living in a fish bowl, you learn to take the good with the bad.

Which is undoubtedly something Cody Fajardo understands more now than he did just a few short weeks ago, before the back-to-back losses to Winnipeg, before he let his frustrations get the best of him after last week’s loss to Calgary. 

Before, one could say, he showed he’s human.

It’s been a stark contrast to Fajardo’s first season in Saskatchewan, the one in which he unexpectedly inherited the starting job when Zach Collaros was injured on opening night, paving the way for a career backup to become the West Division nominee for Most Outstanding Player.

Fajardo led Saskatchewan to its second first-place finish since 1976, one throw away from a trip to the Grey Cup.

The relationship between an athlete and the fans is almost always about expectations. When a player exceeds them, as Fajardo did in 2019, he is beloved and can do no wrong, and life away from the field can be easy. 

With his success, Fajardo seemed to revel in the unique atmosphere of Saskatchewan, happy to play the many off-field roles in that community that come with the No. 1 job. 

And when a player doesn’t…and starts to show he is human, both on and off the field, well, sometimes that’s different.

Fajardo began to experience that when the Roughriders lost back-to back games to division-leading Winnipeg, in which they scored a total of 17 points and fans took to social media to share their disappointment. 

When the Roughriders bounced-back with a win over Toronto, Fajardo opened-up about emotions during his roughest time as a Roughrider.

“A lot of times I think us as players, people look at us more as like entertainment than as human beings,” Fajardo said after the Argonaut game. “And so, there’s some things that you read on social media and it really hurts and it affects you mentally. And for me it was tough. Like I said, going on there and seeing people bash my name or say disgusting things really hurts me.”

It was the other side of his success and higher profile. And it was a bit jarring to see, just given how comfortable he always appeared as quarterback of the Roughriders up to that point.

Fajardo played-out his human side in public again last Saturday when, following 23-7 loss to Calgary, he was critical of his receivers, gushing frustration over their struggles to come down with balls in tight coverage, known as “50/50” balls.

“50-50 balls are our nemesis,” Fajardo said. “I watch (other teams) throw these balls up and make catches and obviously I’m a little frustrated right now because anytime it goes up, it seems to be a pick or an incompletion,” Fajardo said.

Seeing Fajardo so out of character represented a far cry from the public persona he’d demonstrated through most of his time in green-and-white.

Fajardo wasn’t wrong in what he said about his receivers. But he was wrong to say it so publicly.

It was a definite miss-step for a quarterback who dared to show his human side for the second time in a month.

“I spazzed out like a child on the sideline like someone took my toy away,” Fajardo said. “I don’t know if you guys have ever had the feeling where you say something where you’re mad or frustrated and you didn’t mean it the way you did, but it comes out the way it was.”

How his teammates will react to that remains to be seen.

But any doubt about what he said being true seemed to be erased when less than 48 hours after the Calgary loss, Saskatchewan signed a player who addresses the exact issue Fajardo highlighted in his comments. 

Duke Williams was the CFL’s leading receiver in 2018, a big-play threat with 19 player of 30 yards or more in 31 CFL games, and just the kind of target who wins most of those 50/50 balls. 

At the time Fajardo made his post-game comments on Saturday, the Roughriders were still in negotiations with the former Buffalo Bill.

And while it’s impossible to know if Fajardo’s comments may have helped push that signing across the finish line, it’s safe to say they probably didn’t hurt. 

Either way, it makes for a great storyline.

The Roughriders have a big-play receiver who can dominate the landscape of 50/50 balls.

And Cody Fajardo showed he’s human.  

Travel Ban Coming

The federal government this week announced its intention to ban anyone not fully vaccinated from all flights and trains in Canada, effective October 30. But the process became confusing when the government announced it was offering November as a transition month for those “in the process” of being vaccinated.

Most took that to mean having at least one shot. But in fact, it’s virtually meaningless, as anyone who produces a negative test can fly through November, without being vaccinated. 

The difference for the CFL is immense. Had the hard deadline come on Oct. 30, as most expected, unvaccinated players may have been ineligible for a total of 10 regular season road games and all of the playoffs. Now, with a Nov. 30 deadline, only the East and West Division Finals plus the Grey Cup game will be affected.

Now it’s up to the league to determine what teams will be allowed to do when it comes to finding ways to get unvaccinated players to games by some method other than rail or plane. 

Will teams decide to bus greater distances to games so that everyone can play? Will unvaccinated players be allowed to drive themselves to games? And how to account for the different geography between the East and West, with such greater distances between teams in the West.

Beyond the competitive concerns of Eastern teams being better able to manage the circumstances, there is also a safety issue, especially given the way the season extends this year until mid-December. 

Does the CFL really want players travelling by car across great distances to games in winter conditions? Probably not.

The question is what will they be prepared to do to avoid that scenario.

Bruising Backs

The CFL has long been home to running backs who excel in space, shifty, undersized ball-carriers who excel more at making tacklers miss than breaking tackles.

Not in the current era.

A glance at the league’s top-five rushing leaders illustrates the trend towards bigger and heavier backs, who play with a more bruising style than the CFL has often been accustomed. 

The league’s two leading rushers, William Stanack and James Wilder Jr., are both above 230 pounds, making each of them a load to stop when they’ve got momentum.

Rounding-out the top-five, William Powell, Ka’Deem Carey and Andrew Harris all play a physical style which they sustain with their size and strength.

It’s not like the CFL hasn’t seen these types of backs before, illustrated no better than by its all-time leading rusher, Mike Pringle.

But rarely has the league seen so many physical backs all at once.

Elks Drama

The Edmonton Elks have earned the CFL’s prize so far for the most off-field drama this season.

This week’s episode involved Elks radio analyst Eddie Steele, a former Edmonton player, broadly pointing the finger at general manager Brock Sunderland for the team’s struggles.

Commentary like that on a team rights holder station rarely occurs without some consequences. Which is why Steele – who offered to apologize but has stood publicly by his comments – is no longer on the station.

And so while the Elks and CHED have been singled-out for criticism by some, it’s naïve to think that kind of pointed criticism isn’t going to be addressed. It’s that way everywhere. 

There was more drama this week, triggered by a newspaper reporter’s Tweet about the club’s relationship with the late Joey Moss, which the club denied in a statement.

All of this before what could be a very tough second-half of the season for the Elks, based on their schedule alone.

Edmonton has back-to-back games against league-leading Winnipeg, followed by home games against Hamilton and Saskatchewan, and then a brutal three-game road trip of three games in three time zones in seven days – Saskatchewan, Toronto and B.C.

That last stretch is the result of the postponement of their August game at Toronto, after a Covid outbreak spread to 13 players.

A tough year in Edmonton may be about to get tougher.