Starting quarterback is the most important position in all of professional sports and also the most vulnerable.
It’s why, given the nature of football, a team’s fortunes can change on any play.
That volatility has been on full display early this CFL season, with four starting quarterbacks sidelined less than a month into the schedule.
There is simply no greater obstacle in sports for a team to overcome than the loss of a starting quarterback, both from a psychological and practical point of view.
The stakes of losing a No. 1 pivot to injury in the CFL have never been higher. The recent salary inflation of the position has forced teams to commit a greater percentage of their payrolls to one player.
Of course, sometimes the guy waiting in the wings can provide a surprise, as Saskatchewan’s Cody Fajardo has demonstrated during his two starts since replacing Zach Collaros, or Calgary’s Nick Arbuckle did in rallying the Stampeders for a surprising comeback win over the BC Lions on Saturday.
But the mere fact that half of the teams heading into Week 4 could be starting backups demonstrates the significant amount of risk at play in every game.
Here’s a breakdown of the situation and implications of the starting quarterback injuries across the league.
Saskatchewan: Collaros placed on six-game injury list after Week 1, replaced by Fajardo
Collaros was a giant question mark heading into this season, given his injury history and the fact that his first season Saskatchewan didn’t measure up to expectations.
Collaros saw action in 14 games last season for the Roughriders but threw just nine touchdown passes against 13 interceptions, ending the season with his second head injury of the year. The fact that he suffered another concussion on the third play of this season, before any sort of evaluation of his play could occur, only deepens the mystery surrounding his future.
Collaros has said in the past that he’d want to play until a doctor told him he couldn’t. But views can change. As for the Roughriders management, which has to turn to the cold, hard reality of winning football games, Fajardo has been a revelation.
Viewed mostly as a change-of-pace or short-yardage quarterback, he was overtaken by McLeod Bethel-Thompson on Toronto’s depth chart at the end of the 2017 season. His 790 yards passing the past two weeks is not only a Roughrider record for a quarterback in his first two starts with Saskatchewan but also roughly twice as many yards as he’d thrown for during his first three years in the league.
His nearly 10,000 yards passing in college suggest this may not be a fluke, and that the Roughriders may have stumbled onto something the Argos and BC Lions missed. It’s hard to think the Riders won’t ride this as long as they can, even if Collaros does come back healthy this summer.
From an economic point of view, the Riders are better off having Collaros injured than serving as a backup, where his salary would count against the cap. That, combined with needing to be cautious with his injury, could be why they might be in no hurry to move him back onto the roster.
Toronto: James Franklin to be placed on six-game injured after Week 3, to be replaced by Bethel-Thompson
It’s the exact same scenario as one year ago when Franklin struggled and was replaced by Bethel-Thompson, although in 2018 it was strictly performance-related.
We’ll never know if Toronto was considering a quarterback change after scoring just two touchdowns and a pair of field goals during its first two games of the season, but the sense is the club wasn’t that down on Franklin and that he would have kept his job had he not torn his hamstring in Saturday's loss to Saskatchewan.
The starting job now falls to a 30-something backup with more career interceptions than touchdowns and whose play seemed to deteriorate during the back half of last season. If Bethel-Thompson is ever to prove he can be a CFL starting quarterback, now would be a good time for the Argos.
But it won’t be easy. After facing the 0-3 Lions, who lost to Calgary last week despite Mike Reilly having a superb game, the Argos are on the road for games at Winnipeg, Calgary and Edmonton before returning to host Winnipeg and Edmonton. That’s five straight games against teams that are a combined 5-2 after Week 3.
There is reason to believe that Franklin’s chance to be the successful starting quarterback of the Argonauts may have passed. Follow this thinking: If the Argos are still in the hunt when Franklin is ready to play again, he isn’t likely to get his job back since Bethel-Thompson would have played well enough to keep the job. If they are out of it, it won’t really matter if Franklin gets his job back because there won’t likely be a third season for him or Bethel-Thompson in double-blue.
Calgary: Bo Levi Mitchel leaves Week 3 game against B.C. during the fourth quarter, replaced by Arbuckle
The Stamps aren’t willing to concede Mitchell will miss his first start due to injury since 2014 this week, with head coach Dave Dickenson insisting that not practising doesn’t necessarily mean his quarterback won’t play.
Mitchell is getting a second opinion on an injury to the pectoral muscle on his throwing side, one that apparently wasn’t all bad news based on the first opinion. It would seem to behoove the Stampeders to let Mitchell get fully healthy, even if it’s not his nature to sit.
And it’s not as if the offence went cold Saturday night when Arbuckle entered the game, spectacularly rallying his team with 15 points in the final 1:30 of the game in a 36-32 victory.
The second-year quarterback was 9 for 9 for 93 yards and two touchdowns – one rushing and one passing. That had to grab the attention of the rest of the league, especially since Arbuckle is due to become a free agent at the end of this season.
Could the Stamps survive a long-term injury to Mitchell? The temptation is to say “of course” until you consider that this is a far cry from the team that won the Grey Cup last November.
Roughly half the starting defence from last season is gone, lost either to CFL free agency or the NFL. And with DaVaris Daniels (Edmonton) and Marken Michel (Philadelphia) stripped from the receiving unit, losing Mitchell for any significant period might put the Stamps run of regular-season dominance in jeopardy.
Montreal: Antonio Pipkin placed on six-game injury list following Week 1, replaced by Vernon Adams
It was a neck-and-neck quarterback battle in training camp between Pipkin and Adams, both of whom backed-up Johnny Manziel at various times a year ago.
Pipkin showed flashes of potential last season, while Adams is in his second go-around in Montreal, following stops in Saskatchewan and Hamilton, after originally being property of the BC Lions.
Adams is one of those players who may be running out of chances to prove he can be a No. 1 in the CFL. The Alouettes are desperate to find an answer at quarterback, but Adams’ 14-of-24 performance with a touchdown and an interception last week against Hamilton isn’t the kind of game that’s going to make people think the carousel will stop with him.
If he struggles, it’s possible Brandon Bridge or Matthew Shiltz could get a chance before Pipkin is ready to return. But if Adams can earn the Als some wins and show improvement along the way, he could extend his shot at becoming their guy.