Bombers focused on keeping Zach off his back Importance of protecting CFL’s reigning MOP brought home by injury to Lions’ star pivot
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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 23/08/2022 (221 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
It was a moment that sent shockwaves across the CFL, leaving fans of the three-down game hoping for the best while simultaneously fearing the worst.
Nathan Rourke, the B.C. Lions quarterback who has taken the league by storm this season, in just his second year in the CFL, injured his foot early in the fourth quarter Friay night following a sack from Saskatchewan Roughriders defensive lineman Pete Robertson. Rourke, who is Canadian, had put on another QB clinic prior to his injury, throwing for 375 passing yards and two touchdowns, along with a pair of interceptions, in what ended as a 28-10 road win for the Lions.
By the end of the weekend, the Lions revealed Rourke had sprained the Lisfranc ligament in his right foot, a diagnosis that despite Rourke’s positive attitude, likely means he’ll miss the remainder of the regular reason, with playoffs also in serious doubt. Just like that, the 8-1 Lions no longer seem as dangerous.
“It’s terrible for the CFL,” Bombers head coach Mike O’Shea said following the club’s closed practice Tuesday. “There’s not a guy in here that didn’t feel sick to their stomach when they saw it.”
O’Shea added that he felt the Lions would remain a quality team despite losing Rourke, who currently leads the CFL in passing yards (3,281), passing touchdowns (25), completion percentage (79.2) and QB efficiency rating (125.1), among several other statistical categories. Perhaps that’s true, though it’s hard to envision the Lions transitioning to Michael O’Connor, also a Canadian, and seeing similar results.
While injuries to key players happen every season, including star quarterbacks, it’s difficult not to look at Rourke’s injury as a cautionary tale and a reminder of just how important Zach Collaros is to the Bombers’ success. Collaros is 26-3 as a starter in Winnipeg, his arrival in late 2019 the catalyst to winning back-to-back Grey Cups, and the key ingredient to the Bombers’ bid for a third-consecutive league title.
“It’s terrible for the CFL. There’s not a guy in here that didn’t feel sick to their stomach when they saw it.” – Bombers head coach Mike O’Shea
Just the idea of Collaros getting sacked, let alone suffering a season-ending injury, is enough to make Jermarcus Hardrick’s skin crawl. The Bombers right tackle views all his teammates as family, but given it’s his job to keep the quarterback safe, there’s a special level of concern for Collaros.
“I’m thinking about the quarterback like it’s my wife or kids out there,” Hardrick said. “Like all of us O-linemen, we go into every practice, every game with the goal of keeping Zach up.”
That hasn’t exactly been the case over the past two games. Of the 20 QB sacks the Bombers have allowed through 10 games this season, eight have occurred over the last two games, both against the Montreal Alouettes, including five in their most recent affair – a 20-17 overtime loss at home in Week 10.
That’s well below the standard the Bombers O-line has set out for the group. That’s especially true when you consider Winnipeg allowed a total of 16 sacks all of last season, over what was a reduced 14-game campaign — down from 18 games — owing to COVID-19.
Hardrick understands it only takes one play for someone to get hurt; that’s just a reality of playing such a violent game. He saw what happened to Rourke, but claimed he hasn’t thought much about it, even if he does hope for a speedy recovery.
“You know it’s a possibility every time you step onto the field,” he said. “Hats off to Montreal. We lost our one-on-ones. That’s pro football. There are games we give up zero sacks and win, but we could have given up 11.”
There’s not too much concern among the Bombers O-line, a unit that has been the class of the CFL for years, over a dip in play in recent weeks. Especially with left tackle Stanley Bryant, arguably the best American O-lineman ever to play in the CFL, protecting Collaros’ blindside.
“I’m thinking about the quarterback like it’s my wife or kids out there. Like all of us O-linemen, we go into every practice, every game with the goal of keeping Zach up.” – Blue Bombers right tackle, Jermarcus Hardrick
There have been some adjustments in the middle of the O-line, with the departure of left guard Drew Desjarlais, a CFL all-star in 2021, to the NFL and an injury to centre Michael Couture, who broke his arm in Week 1 and is still weeks away from a return. Geoff Gray is also in his first season as a starter after years as the sixth man, playing left guard.
“Each and every game we’re just trying to improve,” Bryant said, before being asked about how much he thinks about Collaros’ health during a game. “Honestly, none. Zach’s a warrior, a competitor, someone who has been around the game a long time, and he’s taken some hits. I know he’s going to get up and continue to fight.”
(Side note: Hardrick said there have been several occasions over Collaros’ tenure in Winnipeg where he’s gotten up after a big hit smiling and laughing, only to give credit to the tackler in the huddle.)
When asked about the number of sacks his club has surrendered over the last two games, O’Shea said there are several factors that result in the QB going down, including outside the play of the O-line. Collaros also bears some responsibility, whether that being quicker with his reads or getting rid of the ball sooner while trying desperately to extend plays.
Collaros said when he arrived in Winnipeg near the end of the 2019 season he warned the O-line that he likes to run around to extend plays and they might take more penalties and give up more sacks than they’re used to. As he’s gotten older, he’s learned to take care of his body more effectively and while earlier in his career he used to put his body on the line whenever he took off on a run, he’s now more conscious to slide and prevent taking an unnecessary shot.
“As a younger player, I would try to lower my shoulder or try to make a guy miss and that led to some injuries. I’m old now, so just check it down.” – Blue Bombers quarterback Zach Collaros
“It’s just sharpening that skill of understanding the game — situational football. It’s tough,” Collaros, who turns 34 on Saturday, said. “As a younger player, I would try to lower my shoulder or try to make a guy miss and that led to some injuries. I’m old now, so just check it down.”
Though a wiser player, what makes Collaros such a threat on the field is how much of a competitor he is and always has been in his career. While every player fears the chance of getting injured, it’s something they rarely, if ever, think about during a game.
Getting hit is part of the deal, even part of the fun. It’s about finding different ways to battle through the rigours of the game, knowing anything can happen on any given play.
“The hits, they weigh on you as the season goes,” Collaros said. “So, you got to try and mitigate that and that’s a long season. I’ve gotten better at that over the years, but sometimes you’re just unlucky.”
After a slew of injuries playing hockey that included breaks to the wrist, arm, and collar bone; a tear of the medial collateral ligament in both knees; as well as a collapsed lung, Jeff figured it was a good idea to take his interest in sports off the ice and in to the classroom.