REGINA–One of the recurring narratives last season for the Saskatchewan Roughriders was their inability to successfully throw the ball deep, with the spotlight falling on quarterback Cody Fajardo.
Heading into the 2022 CFL season, Fajardo says the negativity serves as his motivation to prove the skeptics wrong.
“I think motivation is there every year,” said Fajardo, who has been the Riders’ starting quarterback since Zach Collaros was injured on the opening series of the 2019 season.
“There’s always haters and there’s always doubters and that’s been my whole career. It hasn’t been all rainbows and unicorns. It’s been an underdog story. And honestly, the hate and all that motivates me to be better.”
Fajardo and the Riders will begin their quest to prove the doubters wrong Saturday when they host the Hamilton Tiger-Cats to open their 2022 campaign.
The Riders offense lacked explosiveness last season, with the offensive line, offensive coordinator Jason Maas and injuries to key players sharing the blame with Fajardo for the dreadful offensive output.
Fajardo averaged 7.4 yards per completion in 2021, which placed him near the bottom of the league rankings. His struggle was surprising given that Fajardo led the league in 2019 with 9.1 yards per completion.
Riders head coach Craig Dickenson says there was more than enough blame to spread around for the offensive struggles.
“Quarterbacks are like coaches–we get too much credit when things are going well and maybe too much blame when they’re not. I think he’s developed a little thicker skin and he understands that the opinions that count are the ones in this locker room and we never had an issue with him completing long balls,” said Dickenson.
The reigning East Division champion Tiger-Cats, however, are now Dane Evans’ team.
The affable quarterback begins his fourth campaign with Hamilton, but first as its starter. Evans shared No. 1 duties with veteran Jeremiah Masoli the previous two seasons, but Masoli is now with the Ottawa Redblacks after being released by the Ticats when Evans bypassed free agency to sign a two-year extension with the club.
“I’ve always prepared the same way, I feel like I always approached it as ‘the guy,'” Evans said. “So for me, nothing has changed other than everyone else is now telling me I’m the guy.
“It’s been the same for me always.”
Evans began his CFL tenure with Hamilton in 2018, and he and Masoli gave the franchise the best of both worlds. With two bona fide starters in tow, the Ticats have made two straight Grey Cup appearances, although both resulted in heartbreaking losses to the Winnipeg Blue Bombers.
Evans was Hamilton’s starter in both championship contests. He relieved Masoli in the `21 East Division final, finishing 16-of-16 passing for 249 yards and a touchdown while rushing for a pair of fourth-quarter TDs to rally the Ticats to a 27-19 road win over the Toronto Argonauts.
Evans started Hamilton’s 33-25 overtime Grey Cup loss to Winnipeg, leaving in the second quarter with a neck injury. Masoli guided the Ticats to a 22-10 fourth-quarter lead but they needed Michael Domagala’s 13-yard field goal into a stiff wind at 19:54 to force the extra session.
Zach Collaros’s 13-yard TD strike to Darvin Adams and two-point conversion to Rasheed Bailey put the Bombers ahead 33-25. Kyries Wilson cemented the victory by intercepting Masoli on the Ticats’ possession, to the dismay of the partisan Tim Hortons Field gathering.
Hamilton’s decision to re-sign Evans wasn’t surprising. He is five years Masoli’s junior and posted a 12-6 record as a starter, completing 393-of-562 passes (70 per cent) for 4,924 yards with 29 TDs and 18 interceptions.
Hamilton signed veteran Matthew Shiltz in free agency as Evans’ backup this off-season. Shiltz spent the four previous seasons with Montreal.
Masoli wasn’t Hamilton’s lone off-season loss. Shawn Burke, who spent nearly 15 years in the club’s front office, became Ottawa’s general manager and signed Canadian offensive lineman Darius Ciraco and American receiver Jaelon Acklin – both former Ticats starters – in free agency.
The Ticats and veteran receiver Brandon Banks, the CFL’s outstanding player in 2019, also mutually parted ways. Banks signed as a free agent with the arch-rival Toronto Argonauts.
Veteran Bralon Addison is expected to anchor Hamilton’s receiving corps. Addison had a stellar ’19 season (95 receptions, 1,236 yards, seven TDs) but was limited to just three games (18 catches, 231 yards) last year due to injury.