It was going to be a breakthrough campaign for career backup quarterback Matt Nichols, the year he fought to be the No. 1 signal caller.
Instead the 26-year-old Edmonton Eskimo formally ended his 2013 season Tuesday with the announcement he will undergo surgery for a torn anterior cruciate ligament on his right knee.
It’s an injury — received in last week’s pre-season game against the Saskatchewan Roughriders —that reinforced Nichols’ reputation for fearless play, but also suggested the California native is fast becoming his own worst enemy.
Nichols, his knee wrapped in a bandage, had a quick answer to concerns he competes with too much reckless abandon at such a critical position.
“I don’t really plan on changing the way I play,” Nichols told reporters at Commonwealth Stadium prior to the team practice.
“The quarterback position is a little bit more than just being able to throw a football. It’s about being a team leader.”
Nichols was hurt last Friday after the injury in the 31-24 loss at Commonwealth Stadium.
It was late in the first quarter when Nichols threw a quick slant pass to receiver Ed Gant. The ball bounced off Gant’s hands and was caught by Riders’ defensive back Carlos Thomas, who raced 30 yards untouched down the sideline to paydirt, led by defensive end Kenny Rowe.
There was no one in sight, an easy pick-six in a meaningless game, but then came Nichols barrelling in on an angle, determined to catch Thomas at the goal-line. He ran straight into the path of Rowe who delivered a textbook hit to the shoulder.
Nichols legs got caught under him and down he went in a heap, clutching his right knee in the end zone as the Riders celebrated the TD.
“All my weight just kind of happened to be on my right leg and it got pushed on my left shoulder,” said Nichols.
“I was kind of actually kind of letting up on the play.”
It was the second time that game that Nichols had put himself in harm’s way after a pick.
A few minutes earlier, he ran into the left flat and threw an interception to Riders’ defensive back Macho Harris. Nichols ran up to try and make the tackle and in doing so dropped his throwing shoulder into Riders’ defensive end turned blocker John Chick.
Nichols said he was just doing his job.
“Chasing down an interception is not something that I think is an aggressive play,” he said.
“I’ve been playing this position my whole life. I’ve thrown my fair share of interceptions and I’ve made touchdown-saving tackles on ‘em, too.”
Nichols is known for his headstrong play, but when training camp opened June 1 he said the plan in 2013 was for more discretion.
“If it’s the end of a game and it’s third and five and I need an extra yard for a first down I’m going to do anything I can to get that first down. Earlier in the game I’ll probably play it a little bit more safe,” he said at the time.
Days later he turned those words into actions, hook sliding during a team scrimmage.
At the time, Eskimo head coach Kavis Reed said he, too, wanted Nichols to lead a little less with his chin.
“(Nichols) is a young man that is hell bent on trying to make the play so that his team can be better off for it, but we want him to have longevity in this league and we are hopeful that he can preserve himself more,” said Reed at the time.
“Having gone through an injury, I think he’s going to be more conscientious of knowing when to take risks.”
The injury Reed was referring to occurred seven months earlier in last year’s East Division semifinal against the Toronto Argonauts.
Nichols was flushed quickly out of the pocket and hauled down from behind by Argo defensive end Ronald Flemons.
He tried to fight through the sack and managed to throw the ball away but in doing so got his feet trapped under him and gruesomely broke his left fibula and turned his ankle 180 degrees.
Months earlier, Nichols was concussed by two defenders diving for a extra few yards against Hamilton.
Nichols had been duelling with former B.C. Lion Mike Reilly for the No. 1 quarterback job in camp.
Reilly is starting Friday in Vancouver in the final pre-season game against his former team and heads into the regular season at the top of the depth chart.
Veteran Kerry Joseph is expected to move up into the backup role and will see playing time against B.C.