One of the great what-if questions for me in the CFL 2017 season would have been taking in the 2017 Eastern Final.
Seeing the Riders in BMO Field is on my CFL bucket list, but I have to admit I was not really expecting them to make it to Toronto a couple of weeks ago. The trick of figuring out how to work this work-wise while trying to navigate the extornist Canadian airline air fares was more than I could muster.
A few fellow Rider fans made the trip and enjoyed themselves, noting the atmosphere at BMO Field and while it might not exactly rival the feel of Mosaic Stadium, or Dollarama Stadium in Winnipeg (Where Dreams Go To Die), it was definitely real and perhaps could be compared to the buzz around an Indie Rock Band that not only landed a recording contract, but actually had a hit album.
So while some may sneer and say the CFL wanted a Toronto win to help sell the team in the GTA, the scary reality is that while Marc Trestman may not be an NFL coach, his approach to building a team culture and encouraging responsibility and accountability moves Toronto to the list of teams who now seriously contend for the Grey Cup each year.
Another team on that list, Calgary, now has the opportunity to enjoy what Rider fans experienced in 2009 and 2010 and it couldn’t provided a greater contrast to the team culture Trestman and Jim Popp have managed to put in in Toronto. Marques McDaniel’s throwing of teammates under the bus following the game may have been correct, but it underlined something Rider fans and probably other fans in the CFL West have noted about Calgary over the last say, 15 years.
If a team can play Calgary hard and not back down, Calgary will show an unerring ability to turn on itself. I have to admit I thought this would not again rear its ugly head heading into the Grey Cup, that Calgary had really learned something from its overconfidence the year before, but once again Calgary proved me wrong.
Calgary’s confidence, some would call it cockiness, some would call it arrogance, is well earned for its regular season performance. But Dave Dickenson and John Hufnagel are going to have to examine the question of how to address the sense of entitlement Calgary seems to have in its locker room and get the team to realize that a great regular season record doesn’t really mean anything unless you win the Grey Cup – just ask the 1989 Edmonton Eskimos.
DeVone Claybrooks, Calgary’s defensive coordinator has apparently interviewed for the Montreal job, and Toronto has apparently given permission for Tommy Condell and Cory Chamblin to be interviewed as well. Calgary let defensive secondary Khalil Carter go this week, which seems strange, but maybe this was a club culture thing, maybe Carter wanted to try down south, or maybe Claybrooks is going to be the new Montreal coach and wanted to bring some people along with him, although apparently if Claybrooks is hired, Rich Stubler is back as defensive coordinator.
Ah Montreal, where the first of the post-season dominos is expected to fall. Kavis Reed’s first choice is apparently Claybrooks but if that falls through, then anything is fair game from Mark Washington, BC defensive coordinator, to Chamblin or Condell.
What is really interesting is if Kavis will bring in a GM which is an ass-backward way of doing things if he hires a coach first and then a GM. Unless of course Reed has an offer out for John Murphy to make the jump from Riderville. Murphy and Claybrooks have worked before and while Claybrooks may be jonesing for a shot at head coach, he knows he needs someone in the GM spot who inspires more confidence than Kavis Reed.
Reed wants to get a coach in place by Dec. 15 and who knows if a GM be part of the package. Once that happens, then the rest of the dominos will follow because Calgary will have a defensive coordinator position to fill and if it is Claybrooks, then there maybe hirings of assistants from across the league which will force teams to search for new coaching talent.
Another domino fell in an interesting way in BC where Wally Buono announced Ed Hervey will be the new GM while Wally will coach in his final year. Hervey was part of the team that built a Grey Cup champion in Edmonton and has a solid scouting background. He also managed to rebuild the Edmonton coaching staff after Chris Jones won a Grey Cup and took almost all his marbles to Saskatchewan and ended up in the Eastern Final.
Hervey kind of came out of left field because the impression was that Geroy Simon was being groomed for the position and had done a lot of scouting work. So while one may wonder what Simon thinks of all of this, another interesting angle is the BC Lions ownership and attendance situation.
Dave Braley owns the team and probably saw the value of the team go down while the team missed the playoffs for the first time in two decades. While Braley wants to sell, he threw out the story that a couple of concussion lawsuits have forced potential owners to back off to avoid perhaps sharing in liability payments.
The problem with Braley is that while he pays the bills, he puts nothing into building interest or selling tickets in BC. The draping of the upper deck fools no one and I remember my first game in BC Place where Calgary played BC and the place rocked. If Ottawa, Saskatchewan and Winnipeg have shown that selling fan experience is the way to build support, then BC is the case of what not to do.
The best thing for BC would be a sale of the team to new ownership who will actually make an effort to find what it will take to make the team meaningful again. But the addition of Hervey is an important step because if he can stock the Lions roster, and he noted his first priority is building the Lions porous offensive line, then the team has a chance to combine fan experience with an entertaining team to move back to the playoffs.
So once those teams make their moves, that will set the agenda for the other teams to not just rebuild their rosters, but also probably some of their coaching staffs. The time from here to February 14 will be spent on teams resigning their own free agents they deem more important for 2018.
The science of capology, building a team under a salary cap, means setting a dollar figure for each position and then staying within that. Teams that tend to overspend for say a quarterback, find it difficult to then surround the quarterback with talent to make the team as a whole a contender.
So from a Rider perspective, who the Riders don’t sign will be as important as who they do. One of the interesting question marks for the Riders will be status of offensive lineman Derek Dennis, the crown jewel of 2017 free agency and offensive lineman of the year who came to Riderville and against Calgary was not shown to be exactly as advertised or hoped for.
The Riders may think about sending Dennis elsewhere to build up their stock of draft picks, or getting him to agree to take less money and freeing that up to go after picks elsewhere. The offensive line will be one of the biggest question marks for the Riders because they have some Canadian draft picks who have done well, some not so well, and having Canadians who can play offensive line will allow then to adjust the roster ratio elsewhere.
The other question is at quarterback where Brandon Bridge’s agent has approached the Riders about a new contract, and while Kevin Glenn is under contract for another year, the Riders would probably prefer a James Franklin or perhaps someone who can deliver consistent quarterbacking.
When Glenn was pressured, he was not able to deliver and while Bridge was a nice counterpoint, alternating styles with Glenn by being able to move and make plays with his legs, where Bridge provides a question mark and a challenge is his ability to read defenses and make the throws necessary.
Where the jury is out is that while coming in after standing on the sideline is different from starting and having to face a defence that is planned to stop you, Bridge has shown enough to warrant being given the chance as a starter. But I remember having a conversation with Chris Best a couple of years ago at a Rider function where I asked about then Rider quarterback Brent Smith who was a bit of a playground quarterback who improvised a lot, but in doing so failed to realize a simple thing about offensive linemen.
When they know where the quarterback is, they are better able to focus on making their blocks, but most of the time their blocks are only needed for a few seconds. If a quarterback is scrambling, the offensive linemen don’t know where he is and then they tend to hold more in an effort to give him more time. So whatever big play is made is more often or not cancelled by a holding penalty.
If Bridge is not a Rider, that is probably going to be the reason why he isn’t. With the Riders offensive line being porous, they will need a quarterback who can both get the ball off quickly (which means knowing the playbook) and be able to move. That might mean James Franklin, the current back up in Edmonton, may be the Riders starter next year.
With a solid offensive line, that may help with the running game as well and if there are more Canadians on the offensive line who can actually play, this would allow the Riders to play Cameron Marshall and Trent Richardson in the backfield. The Riders experience with Canadian Kienan LaFrance was not that impressive and Greg Morris hasn’t yet stepped forward and had some problems holding onto the ball on returns last season.
So the Riders are starting their free agent camps in the States while planning out how they want this offseason to go. While fans enjoyed a 10-8 season and took a big step forward, what Trestman and Popp with the Argonauts has got to bug them going from worst to first.
But going from last to a division final is not bad and if the Riders can find the consistency that cost them several games, then they can make that next step. I would think it likely Jones signs an extension since he is heading into the last year of his contract, but it will be interesting to see how Jones continues with the blueprint he set out before Rider management when he got hired.
As important as building a team culture as Trestman did with the Argonauts is coping with change and in the salary cap world, change is the biggest constant in the CFL and teams that succeed are those who can handle change best.
So let’s see where those dominos fall.
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