Could Riders’ OC elevate Fajardo’s game even more?

Cody Fajardo is poised for big things when the Saskatchewan Roughriders return to play in 2021.

The Riders’ quarterback is already on a fast track to greatness following his illustrious breakout season. But even the most ambitious expectations can be exceeded, and new offensive coordinator Jason Maas has a proven track record of getting the most out of his quarterbacks.

So, when Maas was dismissed as head coach after four seasons with the Edmonton Football Club, Saskatchewan seemed like a match made in heaven.

Fajardo, who turns 29 in March, is only just getting started. Entering 2019, the Nevada product was unknown to most. He was seen as dangerous with his legs and sometimes erratic with his arm and a bewildering, puzzling football player on his third team in as many years, who was no apparent threat to Zach Collaros’ job as the Riders’ No. 1.

An injury to Collaros opened the door though, and after his first career start on June 20, 2019, Fajardo made a swift and emphatic emergence from CFL journeyman to tantalizing star.

His leg work was no surprise, ranking seventh league-wide in rushing yards (611) and first among starting quarterbacks (backup and short-yardage specialist Chris Streveler had 726).

It was the arm that dazzled most, however, as he led the league with 4,302 passing yards. Fajardo the passer ranked at or near the top of the league in several categories, including completion percentage (71.5 per cent), yards per attempt (9.1), interception rate (1.7 per cent), and efficiency rating (105.2).

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If not for an unfortunate last-second play that could only happen in Canada, the Riders might have played in the Grey Cup in 2019. Still, fans could not ask more of their new franchise quarterback.

Or could they? Enter Maas, whose offensive exploits know no bounds. If football is art, Maas approaches it with an eager hand to an always-expanding canvas.

For the man now associated with many of the CFL’s greatest passers, the medium has changed, but the results keep getting better.

Following a 12-year playing career including two Grey Cups and a CFL West Division All-Star nod, Maas put away his cleats after the 2011 season. He is now set for his ninth year in coaching and first as offensive coordinator in Regina.

In roles varying from quarterback coach to offensive coordinator to head coach, Maas helped summon career years from phenoms Ricky Ray, Henry Burris, and Mike Reilly. Earlier, he oversaw growth and development in Collaros and Trevor Harris, prospects who graduated to stars.

Primary Starting Quarterbacks under Jason Maas

YEAR ROLE QB Team Att Com Pct Yards Int TD LG Effic 30+ Max 300+ YPA INT% TD%
2012 QBs RAY TOR 468 321 68.6 4,059 11 20 60 99.8 28 407 8 8.7 2.4 4.3
2013 QBs RAY TOR 303 234 77.2 2,878 2 21 73 126.4 20 505 5 9.5 0.7 6.9
2014 QBs RAY TOR 620 425 68.5 4,595 15 28 69 95.1 24 431 4 7.4 2.4 4.5
2015 OC BURRIS OTT 678 481 70.9 5,693 13 26 84 101.0 29 504 10 8.4 1.9 3.8
2016 HC REILLY EDM 633 448 70.8 5,554 12 28 104 104.5 29 465 12 8.8 1.9 4.4
2017 HC REILLY EDM 654 447 68.3 5,830 13 30 108 103.2 39 461 12 8.9 2.0 4.6
2018 HC REILLY EDM 621 418 67.3 5,562 18 30 101 99.5 33 424 9 9.0 2.9 4.8
2019 HC HARRIS EDM 478 343 71.8 4,027 6 16 83 102.9 20 447 7 8.4 1.3 3.3

Maas coached the CFL’s leading passer in five consecutive seasons from 2014 through 2018, including Reilly three years in a row in Edmonton. Before that he was part of the coaching staff that helped Ray set single season records for completion percentage (77.2) and passer rating (126.4) in 2013, touting a sparkling 21:2 touchdown to interception ratio.

In his first stint as an offensive coordinator, Maas helped the REDBLACKS bounce back from their 2-16 expansion season, leading the East with 12 wins and an eventual Grey Cup appearance. That year, Burris won Most Outstanding Player at age 40, while the REDBLACKS’ offence led the CFL in first downs and passing yards.

One season as offensive coordinator was all Edmonton needed to see from Maas, offering him the head coaching job in 2016. There, Reilly began his reign as the CFL’s top-rated passer, including an MOP honour in 2017, before signing with BC in 2019.

In his final year with Edmonton, Maas’ offence ranked second in the CFL in net offence (6,707 yards) and first downs (387), while allowing the fewest sacks (25) by a wide margin. There, he was reunited with Harris, who completed 71.8 per cent of his passes while boasting a 102.9 quarterback rating.

Since becoming a coach, Maas’ teams have led the league in passing yards five out of eight years, including seven top-three finishes – and never worse than fourth. His offences are routinely tops in first downs, completion percentage, and efficiency rating.

Jason Maas Key Offensive Rankings (2012-2019)

Year Team Position 1st Downs Pass Yards Comp. Pct. Eff. Rating
2012 TOR QBs 6 3 5 5
2013 TOR QBs 4 1 1 1
2014 TOR QBs 3 1 1 1
2015 OTT OC 1 1 2 4
2016 EDM HC 1 2 1 1
2017 EDM HC 1 1 3 1
2018 EDM HC 1 1 2 2
2019 EDM HC 2 4 3 6

Nothing less is expected of Fajardo. The Roughriders are a team on the brink of a championship, emerging from a short but painful rebuild in 2016 under the leadership of Chris Jones (the most dramatic rebuild of this era and, quite possibly, ever, turning over nearly three quarters of the roster in one year).

Led by Fajardo and first-year head coach Craig Dickenson, the Riders took the next step in 2019, finishing 13-5 – their highest win total since 1970, when Canadian Football Hall of Famer Eagle Keys was head coach.

Stylistically, Maas and Fajardo should complement one another. Maas comes from the Scott Milanovich/Marc Trestman school of thought, just like predecessor Stephen McAdoo.

In 2019 the Riders ranked second in rushing attempts and first in completion percentage, sustaining drives and taking care of the football while focusing on shorter, high-percentage passes.

But the Riders’ offence could see some changes with Maas, perhaps a more aggressive downfield approach that would still fit Fajardo’s strengths as a passer.

Percentage of Passes 20+ Yards (2019)

Quarterback Percentage
Vernon Adams Jr. 21.1%
Mike Reilly 19.0%
Bo Levi Mitchell 19.0%
Jeremiah Masoli 18.3%
Matt Nichols 17.5%
Cody Fajardo 15.9%
McLeod Bethel-Thompson 15.6%
Dane Evans 15.0%
Dominique Davis 14.7%
Trevor Harris 13.4%
Nick Arbuckle 12.6%
CFL AVERAGE 16.2%

In 2019 the Riders attacked vertically less than the league average (15.9 per cent of the time compared to 16.2 per cent CFL-wide) but had plenty of success when doing so. Fajardo’s 1,173 yards on attempts of 20-plus yards ranked second only to Vernon Adams Jr., while his quarterback rating of 130.6 on such passes was behind only Matt Nichols and Nick Arbuckle. Fajardo completed nearly half (48 per cent) of his attempts of 20-plus yards, only slightly behind the league leaders and threw only three interceptions.

In Edmonton under Maas, Harris threw passes of 20 yards depth or more just 13.4 per cent of the time in 2019, the lowest of any starting quarterback in the CFL. Historically, however, Maas has never avoided the deep ball, including in 2018 when Edmonton attacked vertically one in five plays (21.4 per cent) with Reilly.

In an offence featuring one of the CFL’s best route runners in Shaq Evans, who led all receivers with 1,002 completed air yards and 15 receptions of 30-plus yards in 2019, one might expect the Riders to utilize the deep ball more often under Maas.

Highest Percentage of Passes 20+ Yards (2017-2019)

YEAR TEAM 20+
2018 Calgary 22.9%
2018 Edmonton 21.4%
2019 Montreal 19.5%
2018 BC 19.4%
2017 Calgary 18.6%
2019 BC 18.5%

On paper, the threat of both Fajardo and William Powell in the run game, in addition to Fajardo’s success as a medium range passer where he ranked second in the CFL with a 70.8 per cent completion rate, has the potential to create issues for opponents when challenging vertically.

For this team with legitimate title aspirations, Fajardo will have every opportunity to build on a breakout campaign that saw him finish runner-up to Brandon Banks as the league’s Most Outstanding Player.

No stranger to excellence at the position, Maas is ready to work with his next star pupil in Regina. Can the Riders’ offensive coordinator elevate Fajardo in 2021?

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