As we count down to 2020, TSN.ca looks back over some of the most interesting stories of 2019. Not necessarily be the best of the year, per se, but memorable games, moments and events that are worthy of reflection.
On Thursday, it's 2019 in the CFL.
Zach Collaros’ astonishing path to Grey Cup Champion
On the opening drive of the CFL season, Saskatchewan Roughriders quarterback Zach Collaros escaped pressure and ran for a handful of yards. But as Collaros gave himself up by sliding to the turf, former teammate Simoni Lawrence delivered a helmet-to-helmet blow. One of the most iconic plays of the season happened just minutes into the first game.
Collaros lay on the ground for a number of moments before slowly getting up. And as he walked off the field he shared some choice words with Lawrence, who would receive a two-game suspension for the hit.
Few people at that point would have believed Collaros would end the season hoisting the Grey Cup while wearing another team’s jersey – and after a stop with a third team along the way. But that was the crazy road Collaros’ season took in 2019.
Collaros was placed on the six-game injured list and his backup Cody Fajardo promptly began his rise to stardom in Saskatchewan. With Fajardo firmly in control behind centre in Saskatchewan, the Roughriders traded Collaros to the Toronto Argonauts in late July.
Collaros continued to sit in Toronto, and may have done so the rest of the season had Argos GM Jim Popp, who had a contract extension for the QB in place, not been fired ahead of the trade deadline.
New GM Mike ‘Pinball’ Clemons shipped Collaros to the Blue Bombers, where he formed a successful QB tandem with rushing threat Chris Streveler. The pair was so successful they were named co-Players of the Game in Winnipeg’s Western Semifinal win over the Calgary Stampeders en route to the Grey Cup.
Collaros’ season came full circle in the 107th Grey Cup, taking on Lawrence, the All-Star linebacker who knocked him out in the first week of the season, and the Hamilton Tiger-Cats. Collaros finished the game 17-of-23 for 170 yards, capping a season that started so poorly by hoisting the Grey Cup. - Ben Fisher
Suspension casts shadow over Andrew Harris’ incredible season
Andrew Harris was on his way to perhaps the best season of his already decorated 10-year Canadian Football League career. Through 10 games last season, the Winnipeg Blue Bombers running back had 908 rushing yards on 141 carries, a 6.4 yards per rush average, and another 337 yards on 46 receptions.
Then the 32-year-old was suspended two games for testing positive a banned substance under the joint CFL/CFLPA drug policy. Harris said he never knowingly took a banned substance, and blamed the positive drug test on a contaminated over-the-counter supplement. But the appeal process was unsuccessful and Harris had to accept the suspension.
The two-game ban cast a shadow over Harris’ entire season, so much so that Harris was not among the team’s award winners at the end of the season, which were voted on by members of the Winnipeg chapter of the Football Reporters of Canada and Bombers head coach Mike O'Shea.
After finishing the regular season 1,380 yards on 225 carries for his third straight rushing title, and another 529 yards on 70 receptions, Harris would have been a strong candidate for both the Most Outstanding Player and Most Outstanding Canadian awards handed out at the awards banquet during Grey Cup Week.
Regardless of where you stand on whether he should have been nominated for awards or not, Harris got the last laugh as he helped lead the Blue Bombers to victory in the 107th Grey Cup, dedicating his Grey Cup MVP and Most Outstanding Canadian awards to “all the haters.” - Ben Fisher
Cody Fajardo’s unexpected uprising
When the Saskatchewan Roughriders set out for their 2019 CFL campaign, backup quarterback Cody Fajardo was merely an afterthought in the team’s offensive scheme.
That outlook quickly changed when starting quarterback Zach Collaros went down with a significant head injury in Week 1 and was forced to miss an extended period of time. The unfortunate incident occurred on the team’s opening drive of the season, no less.
The native of Brea, Calif., led the Roughriders to a West Division-leading 13-5-0 record on top of his CFL-leading 4,302 passing yards. He tossed 18 touchdown passes and just eight interceptions en route to the playoffs.
Fajardo, 27, had never started a game under centre over the course of his CFL career--with only 68 pass attempts worth of experience between his time with Toronto and BC. He threw for 414 combined yards in a limited short-distance role across those three previous seasons.
Stepping into and succeeding in such a highly regarded position, Fajardo warranted consideration for league’s Most Outstanding Player Award but ultimately fell second to veteran receiver Brandon Banks. Although, it likely won’t be the last time he’ll be considered for the award.
Simply put, what Fajardo was able to accomplish in 2019 is an incredible feat for a first-year starting quarterback.
Despite missing out on a Grey Cup berth to emphasize his remarkable season with the Roughriders, Fajardo is well-equipped to continue his noteworthy production moving into next year. His story is still just beginning. - Gord Brown
Backup quarterbacks emerge as stars
The 2019 season saw the Week 1 starting quarterbacks from all nine teams either miss time due to injury or get replaced due to ineffectiveness at some point during the year. And while that could have led to a dip in quarterback play league-wide, a handful of backups ran with their opportunities to emerge as stars. This was the year of the No. 2 quarterback.
Antonio Pipkin started the year behind centre in Montreal but was injured in the team’s season opener. Vernon Adams took over and held onto the starter’s gig the rest of the way, save for a game he was suspended. Adams finished the year with 3,942 passing yards, 24 touchdowns, and 13 interceptions, while adding another 12 scores on the ground, and was named an East Division All-Star.
A Hamilton Tiger-Cats team with Grey Cup aspirations was dealt what appeared to be a heavy blow when starter Jeremiah Masoli suffered a season-ending injury in late July. But promising backup Dane Evans didn’t miss a beat, finishing the year with 3,754 passing yards, 21 touchdowns, and 13 interceptions and upholding the Ticats’ goal of reaching the Grey Cup.
In Winnipeg, starter Matt Nichols suffered a significant shoulder injury in late September, elevating Chris Streveler into a more prominent role behind centre. Streveler teamed up with trade deadline acquisition Zach Collaros to form a tandem that would lead the Blue Bombers to victory in the 107th Grey Cup.
Before Collaros starred in Winnipeg, he began the year as the starter in Saskatchewan. But his season with the Roughriders lasted three plays before Collaros was knocked out of the game by a helmet-to-helmet hit. Backup Cody Fajardo took over and became a star, finishing the year with 4,302 passing yards, 18 touchdowns, and eight interceptions while adding another 10 TDs on the ground. Fajardo was named a CFL All-Star and was the West Division nominee for Most Outstanding Player.
And finally in Calgary, when star QB Bo Levi Mitchell missed seven games with a pectoral injury, backup Nick Arbuckle took over and led the Stamps to a 4-3 record in Mitchell’s absence, throwing for 2,103 yards, 11 touchdowns, and five interceptions. Arbuckle, a pending unrestricted free agent, is expected to get a shot as a starter elsewhere next season. - Ben Fisher
Speedy B recognized with first career MOP Award
Brandon Banks has long demonstrated a sense of swagger in his well-rounded game; however, his ability to produce highlight reel plays often understated his impact in other areas for the Hamilton Tiger-Cats.
In 2019, after years of being overlooked, that notion was finally put to rest as Banks soared to his first ever Most Outstanding Player Award.
The 31-year-old veteran receiver turned in one of his best seasons of a seven-year career, leading the CFL in several notable offensive categories. His 112 receptions, 1,550 receiving yards, and 13 touchdown receptions ranked second-to-none in the league despite losing starting quarterback Jeremiah Masoli in Week 7.
Banks provided the Ticats with the necessary leadership to produce their CFL-best regular season record (13-5) that doubles as the most single-season wins in franchise history.
On top of all that, Speedy B successfully returned two missed field goals for touchdowns and received his fifth consecutive East All-Star honour. The native of Raleigh, NC, also set a Ticats franchise record for most receptions in a single season.
It is the first time a receiver has won the MOP Award since 2012, when the ‘Flyin’ Hawaiian’ Chad Owens did so with the Toronto Argonauts.
Although the Ticats fell short of a Grey Cup championship, Banks was a primary driver in helping Hamilton salvage and maximize a season that may have otherwise been lost after Masoli’s injury.
Despite standing at five-foot-seven and 150 pounds, Banks is a leader and driving force that every team could benefit from having on its roster. An MOP Award simply verifies what many have witnessed during his time in the league. - Gord Brown