Cody Fajardo, Dane Evans and Vernon Adams Jr. have made 2019 the year of the backup CFL quarterback.
All three began the season as backups but when opportunity knocked, they answered the call and have become emerging CFL stars heading into the 2019 playoffs.
"That’s the beauty of sports, you don’t really know what you have until these guys get an opportunity to show what they can do," said Khari Jones, the Montreal Alouettes’ rookie head coach and a former CFL quarterback. "I know how hard it is, how much you have to do to even be halfway successful.
"I root for quarterbacks even when they’re on other teams, which is weird. But I know how tough it is so I appreciate it when guys play at a high level."
Fajardo, Evans and Adams all got their chance to play due to injury. They’ve led their teams — Saskatchewan, Hamilton and Montreal, respectively — to a combined 38-16 record with the Tiger-Cats (CFL-best 15-3 mark) and Roughriders (13-5) finishing first in the East and West. Montreal (10-8) is in the post-season for the first time in five years and will host Edmonton in the East semifinal on Sunday.
Quarterback injuries were a dominant CFL storyline as all nine opening-day starters went down. That forced every club to play backups, with some going three or four deep under centre.
"You’d like to keep the league’s best players healthiest because they’re the most exciting," said Winnipeg offensive co-ordinator Paul LaPolice. "But I think it’s good to see people play because when an older guy retires or moves on, people wonder, ‘Who’s the next guy?’
"This is actually good to see guys get opportunities to play so you can evaluate them."
Sophomore Nick Arbuckle was thrust into the spotlight June 29 when he rallied Calgary past B.C. 36-32 after starter Bo Levi Mitchell (pectoral muscle), the CFL’s top most outstanding player last year, was injured.
Arbuckle went 3-3 under centre and so when Mitchell returned, the Stampeders (12-6) were still contenders in the West before finishing behind Saskatchewan.
Winnipeg wasn’t as lucky. The Bombers were 7-2 and atop the West Division when veteran Matt Nichols suffered a season-ending shoulder injury.
Winnipeg went 3-6 with backup Chris Streveler. But veteran Zach Collaros rallied the Bombers past Calgary 29-28 at IG Field in their regular-season finale Oct. 25 and is expected to start in the West Division semifinal at McMahon Stadium on Sunday.
Collaros contributed to Fajardo becoming the CFL’s feel-good story this year. Collaros was Saskatchewan’s starter but suffered a concussion early in its season-opening 23-17 road loss in Hamilton.
Fajardo came in and was 12-4 as the starter, resulting in Saskatchewan trading Collaros to Toronto in July before the Argos dispatched him to Winnipeg last month. With Fajardo ailing (oblique), rookie Isaac Harker led the Riders (13-5) past Edmonton 23-13 on Saturday to clinch first in the West for the first time since ’09.
Fajardo, 27, who’d been a backup previously with Toronto (2016-17) and B.C. (2018), threw for a CFL-high 4,302 yards with a stellar 71.5 per cent completion average. The Riders rewarded him in October with a two-year contract extension and last week Fajardo was named the team’s outstanding player nominee.
"He’s a pretty humble guy but he’s got some swagger to him and some confidence," Riders rookie head coach Craig Dickenson said of Fajardo. "You just don’t see it displayed on the outside so much.
"He comes from blue-collar roots and I think that shows through when he talks to people."
Fajardo admits this season has been a whirlwind. But he’s intent on finishing it the right way — hoisting the Grey Cup.
"I don’t think I’ll realize what kind of happened until after the season," he said. "But honestly, I’ll trade all of those things for a Grey Cup.
"There’s nothing better than hoisting a cup over your head, which I’ve had the privilege to do (’17 with Toronto). The bond you build in that locker room when you win a Grey Cup with guys, it’s different, it’s special."
Hamilton’s historic season — the 15 wins are a single-season club record — appeared in jeopardy July 26. Starter Jeremiah Masoli, the East Division’s top player last year, suffered a season-ending knee injury in a 23-15 home win over Winnipeg.
That forced Hamilton to look to Evans, a second-year player with one CFL start under his belt. The Ticats were 5-1 with Masoli, their undisputed offensive leader who’d thrown for 1,576 yards and nine TDs while scoring four himself.
Evans, 25, lost his first start of ’19, a 24-19 road decision to Fajardo and Saskatchewan on Aug. 1. But he led Hamilton to five straight wins and nine of 10 overall before backups Hayden Moore and David Watford guided the Ticats past Toronto 21-18 on Saturday night to finish the regular season 9-0 at Tim Hortons Field.
The six-foot-one, 218-pound Evans threw for 3,754 yards with 21 touchdowns and 13 interceptions. He added 161 yards rushing (4.7-yard average) with three TDs.
Hamilton’s Orlondo Steinauer, who tied the CFL record for most regular-season wins by a first-year head coach, said the Ticats were quick to support Evans when he became the starter.
"Quarterback is by far the hardest position to play," Steinauer said. "You have to please everybody and we have some guys who want the ball, which is great.
"But they’ve supported him, they’ve given him grace. Tommy (offensive co-ordinator Tommy Condell) has given him grace. He’s not going to play perfect (but) I haven’t seen repeated mistakes. I’m proud of him but not surprised."
Adams’ path to success is much more compelling. Twice he contemplated retirement after stints with Montreal (2016), Saskatchewan (2017) and Hamilton (2018), which tried converting the five-foot-11, 200-pound quarterback to receiver.
"I’m a Vernon Adams Jr. fan," Steinauer said. "I was fortunate to watch him in training camp last year … what I saw was just a positive teammate who’d do anything.
"I remember him running routes, punting the ball. Just a fun person to be around. He’s an easy person to follow and I see that in Montreal."
Adams Jr. re-signed with Montreal in ’18 after leaving Hamilton. He began the year as the Alouettes’ backup but replaced injured starter Pipkin in the club’s season-opening 32-25 road loss to Edmonton, completing seven-of-10 passes for 134 yards with a TD and interception.
Adams was 10-5 as the starter, guiding Montreal to second in the East Division and double-digit victories for the first time since 2012. He was named the Alouettes’ outstanding player nominee (3,942 yards passing, 24 TDs, 394 rushing yards, 12 touchdowns).
"He’s just a winner," Jones said. "That’s one thing you want to be known as a quarterback, a guy who finds ways to win games.
"He never gives up, he fights, he makes plays with his feet and throwing the ball."
Jones isn’t surprised to see Fajardo, Evans and Adams Jr., all emerge as bona-fide CFL stars.
"You almost have to see it because guys get older and guys change," he said. "Once you get that opportunity and show you can play, then the league kind of changes over.
"It’s a fun time to see a new crop of guys develop but it takes time. They were backups for a while and now they’re getting their opportunity and making the most of it."
— Judy Owen in Winnipeg and Kelsey Patterson in Montreal contributed to this story.