And So It Begins

June 12, 2018 - 12:00pm

I’ve been thinking a bit about 1979 when Ron Lancaster took over as head coach of the Saskatchewan Roughriders. The team was three years overdue for a rebuild and Lancaster had the job of cutting old teammates while laying the foundation for what he hoped would be a new team.

So while Lancaster went with young players like Roger Aldag and Bob Poley on the offensive line and figured he would take his lumps as the kids learned their craft, Lanaster went got a quarterback he hoped would be able to compensate for the inexperienced offensive line and make plays.

He brought in Tom Clements which was ironic since Clements had broke the hearts of Rider fans three years before in the Grey Cup. Clements could not only throw, he could run which could conceivably buy him some time as the offensive line learned by fire.

The experiment didn’t last long. After seven games with two touchdowns to 11 interceptions, but more importantly, taking a regular beating with no hope of it getting better, Clements was traded to Hamilton.

Eventually the Riders developed a fine Canadian offensive line (for the most part) but the Clements experience showed me without an offensive line, you are not going anywhere.

Which is why following the Riders narrow 39-12 loss to the Calgary Stampeders, and after the range of cuts on Sunday , there is the question of whether Zach Collaros can pull the trigger on a Grey Cup contender. Can Collaros survive the Riders offensive line or will he end up like Clements?

On the Riders roster there are six offensive linemen listed and one of the six game injured list and four on the practice roster with two of those Junior Football players. If the Riders get hit with injuries on their offensive line, they don’t have the depth to compensate.

It’s a little premature to press the panic button perhaps, but it also premature to think the Riders as presently constituted will be the shoe-in for first place many of their fans might have thought during training camp. The team seems to be defensively oriented – between the roster and the practice roster, the Riders have 10 defensive linemen, although in Jones’ schemes, defensive linemen sometimes drop into coverage in an effort to give the opposing quarterback a number of unusual looks.

Now as I write this we are two days away from the start of the season and any number of scenarios can emerge, but what is unlikely is except for Peter Dyakowski, who was let go in the offseason, the Riders may not have many Canadian offensive linemen options at their disposal and perhaps the return of Bruce Campbell may be imminent, although he would still be out until game 3 because of drug violations.

Jones seems to have sacrificed the usual strategy of building with Canadian offensive linemen  to help fulfill the Canadian ration to playing Canadians at a number of other positions, including linebacker and safety and trying to find American offensive linemen who can keep the $400K quarterback Zach Collaros upright. The Rider performance against Calgary was in Jones’ opinion the worst he has seen in his time in Saskatchewan but at the same time, it probably demonstrated the Riders failures at developing Canadian offensive line talent  starting with the curious case of Josiah St. John, the first player drafted in 2016.

Winnipeg’s release of Faith Ekakitie who was the first overall pick in 2017 is an example of the inexact science of drafting players. According to reports out of Winnipeg, Ekakitie came into camp out of shape and while he lost weight, he didn’t show that much better than say, a defensive lineman drafted in the fifth round. For Ekakitie, being cut may result in him being picked up, but not at $88K and it will require him to make a decision on whether he is willing to work to be a football player.

St. John was a contract hold out in 2016, joining just after training camp left and the question mark was he did start at guard in Oklahoma, but he didn’t play many games and lost his starting job in his senior year. This was supposed to have been the year he finally stepped off the bench and contributed, but then he got injured in training camp.

It’s the last year of St. John’s contract and maybe he has shown signs to the coaches he has learned enough to be a contributor, but he has yet to show he is worth investing in for another contract, never mind get a raise. If players like Rob Bagg, Bakari Grant and Chad Owens get cut because their performance is not matching their contract, then the clock must be running out on St. John.

This is the other part of the cuts on Sunday, the release of so many veterans and the reasons why they were let go. Bagg was entering his 10th year as a Rider and I was there when he went out with not one, but two knee injuries.

Bagg had endeared himself by being a non-drafted signee who went on to have a productive career in the CFL and Rider fans enjoyed watching the heart he showed on and off the field and for female fans he was definitely eye candy. However age was definitely a factor and his declining production  and salary and the Riders looking at perhaps adding options on defense and the offensive line later on meant they had to clear some cap space.

While there was disappointment that Bagg couldn’t have gone out on his own terms, seeing Grant cut was somewhat of  a surprise considering he got over 1000 yards receiving last year, but when you look closer, it was not really a surprise.

Grants big body made him an easy target, but one thing I was cautious about with Grant stemmed back to the 2013 western final between Calgary and Saskatchewan when Grant caught a deep ball and was headed in for a touchdown, but had the ball knocked out of his hands by a pursuing Rider. That lack of mental toughness came into play the first game of 2017 when the Riders played Montreal and Grant scored a touchdown which perhaps on second look shouldn’t have counted since it appeared he lost control of the ball before he crossed the goal line.

The cherry on top of all of that came in the last game against Montreal at Mosaic Stadium when Grant caught what looked like a touchdown, only to again have the ball knocked out of his grasp as he appeared to be walking to the goal line.

I have no doubt that Grant will be picked up at some point, but I keep thinking about BC linebacker Solomon Elimiman’s quote about what separates good teams from great is mental toughness and character and anyone with a history of coughing the ball up at inopportune moments would appear to be lacking a bit of mental toughness.

Chad Owens age and injury concerns were a problem. He appeared in three regular season games last year and then the playoffs and then injured his shoulder this camp. Owens and Bagg were good for mentoring other receivers and showing leadership and with them gone, this team will have to find out who will step forward and fill those roles.

In terms of Canadian receivers, the Riders seem to be left with Devon Bailey and Joshua Sanford and now added cut draft pick Mitch Picton to the practice roster. Picton was apparently having a good camp, but he needs to add some muscle to better compete downfield. Anthony Parker was cut by Calgary, apparently a bit of a surprise but then Parker seemed to have a reputation of picking his spots when he was going to compete for balls downfield.

One former Rider who was let go by Toronto might of interest to the Riders – Greg Morris. Morris saw spot duty last year and did some time on returns before Christian Jones put the locks on that job. Morris had some problems with ball handling, but he has a good burst and more importantly, he would be good to spell off Jerome Messam who is 33 and coming off three 1,000 yard seasons but would be more needed in the playoffs.

The Riders cleaning salary cap space may be in preparation for either the return of Jeff Knox or perhaps Dakoda Sheply, the Riders first pick in this year’s draft. Shepley has signed with the New York Jets  and the Jets are starting today a mandatory three day mini camp to showcase their top draft pick Sam Darnold at quarterback. The Jets thought enough of Shepley to throw him a signing bonus, but again, if he doesn’t make it, his return to the Riders will make the offensive line situation somewhat bearable.

So the league starts off on Thursday with Edmonton going to Winnipeg to relieve their glory of conquering the Blew Bombers in last years’ Western Semi-Final. This time though, the Eskimos will be face Chris (the Shriveller) Shreveler at quarterback because Matt Nichols is out for four to six weeks with a leg injury.

Edmonton brought in the Sisters of the Poor varsity team in their visit to Winnipeg in the preseason, which not surprisingly Winnipeg won, declared themselves Grey Cup Champions. Winnipeg is handing the keys to a quarterback right out of the NCAA which will make things interesting for the Bombers against the Eskimos.

That being said, Edmonton has some question marks of their own including a younger and rebuild defensive line and perhaps some concerns with their offensive line. Edmonton surrendered the fewest amount of sacks last year, but are missing two players from that unit so it will be interesting to see how long it takes for them to gell.

That might help the Bombers who need to play a perfect defensive and special teams game to give their team a chance to beat the Eskimos. Winnipeg will likely come out with a heavy dose of handing off to Andrew Harris in the backfield to take pressure off of Streveler, who the Bombers are fated to go with since they will not call Darian Durant who retired before training camp after taking a $70 K bonus.

But the Eskimos welcome back JC Sherritt at middle linebacker and while it will be interesting to watch that match-up, the Bombers are facing the prospect of falling behind in the West early and perhaps being the odd team out. Take the Eskimos in this one but I am expecting Winnipeg to try to keep it close here – Edmonton 24-22.

Then on Friday Toronto goes to Saskatchewan for a repeat of the 2017 Eastern Final. There have been changes on both teams, but this game will feature how well Marc Trestman can handle Chris Jones’ defense while the Argos face the prospect of seeing if the Riders have replaced the pylons serving as the offensive line with real players.

Jones has been playing cute about whether Zach Collaros will start at quarterback, considering the lousy game he had against Calgary and the hard hit he took that took him out of the game and gave rise to reports of a possible concussion.

The other option is Brandon Bridge who did not have many snaps against Calgary and considering the porous Saskatchewan offensive line, maybe the Riders can start David Watford, the third string quarterback, and let him absorb the punishment he will no doubt take from the Toronto defensive line.

The Riders will unveil running back Tre Mason, the latest Jones reclamation project at running back who has not played for a couple of years, so that will be interesting. The Rider defense should be good, but it is facing Ricky Ray and let’s face it, the Riders hve too many question marks on offense to annoint them ready to knock the Grey Cup Champs just yet.

The Riders averaged 12 points a game in their two exhibition games, so lets say Toronto wins this one 14-12

On Saturday Hamilton goes into Calgary, where it lost by 59 points last year, and tries to show their 6-4 finish was more indicative of where this team is than the 0-8 start under former coach Kent Austin. So while Jeremiah Masoli gets the start, all eyes will be on back-up Johnny Manziel and whether he will see action.

In Hamilton’s first exhibition game where both played, Masoli looked tight at times and while Manziel was workmanlike and showed flashes of his Heisman Trophy winning talent, those were flashes. The mental strain for Masoli of wondering if he will be yanked if he has an unproductive series of two must be mentally draining and Hamilton still has some questions at key parts of their lineup.

Calgary for their part did score 39 points on the Riders, but now they will be playing against another team’s first stringers, not backups or fringe players. Calgary has added former star eceiver Eric Rogers who is coming off a serious injury and the question will be if Rogers has reclaimed his form.

It is possible, but not likely, that Calgary will inflict another 59 point embarrassment on Hamilton, but Calgary is another team that has made a transition to being younger so this will be an interesting look at how well those new players are meshing together.

Calgary is consistent during the regular season, but has its problems at the Grey Cup where they find that anything can happen. That shouldn’t happen Saturday and Calgary will beat Hamilton 28-17.

Finally we have Montreal at BC on Sunday where the questions will be – have BC and Montreal improved enough over the last year to challenge for playoff berths.

New GM Ed Hervey has made it a point to bring character players to the BC locker room, replacing many of the talented but too individually focused players of last year. BC has also made changes on their coaching staff, but the big question will be if BC’s offensive line has gotten any better. If it has, then BC has a chance to contend with Winnipeg behind the eight ball to start the season.

Montreal has a credible new coach in Mike Sherman, who will start Drew Willy after Josh Freeman decided he just didn’t care enough about being the new Montreal QB. Montreal made some splashes on defense with their free agent signings, but had to replace their original defensive coordinator with Rick Stubler due to personality conflicts.

Montreal may have made some changes, but face some problems in finding continuity and whether their offensive line has made some steps forward. The best way to approach this for Montreal is think of this game as part of a growing process just try to get more offensively proficient than what they were last year.

This game will be interesting but will be by no means an accurate read of how the season will unfold for both teams. BC wins this one because they have more continuity  37-17.

Which leads me to the annual predictions where I hope I don’t embarrass myself.

Eastern Conference

With their management, coaching and quarterbacking – Toronto is easily the class of the east besides being Grey Cup Champs. It was one of the most remarkable jobs turning around a franchise that was just bad the year before and getting them to fully buy into the system Trestman was selling them and using it to beat the Riders and then Calgary in the Grey Cup. The problem comes in repeating and while Trestman has experience in doing that with Montreal, he will find the other teams in the east are if not better, then definitely different from last year. But that is the playoffs and  before we get there, Toronto takes first in the east.

Ottawa will be interesting in their adjustment from the bend to don’t break system of former defensive coordinator Mark Nelson to the pressure defense favored by new defensive coordinator Noel Thorpe. Ottawa has the distinction of a lot of losses of less than seven points, meaning they were competitive but couldn’t get the job done when the chips are down. It will be interesting  to see how fast Ottawa responds to Thorpe’s new defense and how Ottawa realligns their receiving corps. Trevor Harris have have the stats, but quarterbacks are ranked by wins and Ottawa has been flirting with a 500 record the last few seasons. I think that trend continues this year, but watch out for next year when all the elements should be in place for another Grey Cup run.

Hamilton under June Jones finished 6-4 giving the team hope for this season, which only whetted the appetite for Johnny Manziel when he finally decided to sign. Manziel has to prove he is a good teammate and show a dedication to the game he lacked in the NFL while Jeremiah Masoli has to look over his shoulder after every play after finally winning the starting spot last year.

That combination of stress and spectacle and the muffed way Hamilton has handled Vernon Adams Jr – telling the media Adams was going to be traded to Montreal or Edmonton before finding out nobody was serious – puts Hamilton somewhere between six and eight wins when you also consider they have a serious hole at Canadian receiver. Team chemistry will be a fragile thing and the way head coach June Jones handled the Adams situation makes me think while Hamilton will improve, it may not contend.

Finally we have Montreal – site of the great Kavis Reed tire fire. The Wettenhall’s say they are serious about building another winning team in Montreal that is successful off the field, but before they can entertain that notion,  they need to get Reed out and let Sherman handle the operation. A lot of growing pains this season and another first overall pick coming up next year.

Western Conference

The Calgary Stampeders have basically rolled through the regular season before crashing and burning in Grey Cups. A major reason for this is good recruitment and the ability to know when to cut their losses but they seem to use the template of a talented but feckless player to make up their roster and so there is a character issue with this team that has yet to be resolved.

Calgary could finish everywhere from first to third, but I’m picking them for first becase for at least one more season, theythe institutional memory to know what it takes to finish first. It’s what happens afterwards they still have issues with.

Edmonton will finish second but could easily finish first after thrying to revamp their roster to contend for the Grey Cup that city will be hosting in November. It starts with Mike Reilly, the most outstanding player in the league and the guy with the competitive instincts to lead his team wherever.

The Eskimos have Kevin Glenn adding support  and seem to have redone their receiving corps to become more consistent than what it was last year. Last year injuries took the wheels off the Eskimo bandwagon, but those injuries gave backups some much needed snaps to improve themselves for this year. So the big question is Jason Maas whose performances on the sideline undercut his calls for more discipline from the Eskimos on the field. Which means Maas will lead the Eskimos so far, but then fall short because consistency on the field begins with consistency on the sidelines and that is the Eskimos Achilles Heel.

The BC Lions are looking at Wally Buono’s final season as a chance to send the coaching legend out on a high note, but the biggest question is if the team has the ability to deliver on the sentiment. GM Ed Hervey took over the reins from Buono and addressed the issue of the character in the BC dressing room.

Last season BC lacked the ability to play as a team as opposed to a group of individuals, which was notable in a series against Saskatchewan. BC took the first game fairly easily, but when it came to the rematch, BCwas flat and the Riders used that win to turn their season around. Buono was seen telling his team in the pre-game to get their heads into the game otherwise they were going to get beat – and they were.

Jon Jennings again leads BC and hopes Hervey has improved the offensive line enough to give him time and the defense can actually get pressure on the opposing quarterbacks. Not much is expected of BC, which means they are the perfect dark horse candidate to finish third.

The opposite may be true in Saskatchewan where a few weeks ago Rider fans would have pencilled their team for first or second in the west. But two exhibition games have brought to the fore unsettling questions as to the ability of the team to protect their quarterback(s) and make no mistake, the Riders will be using all of them.

The defense will end up carrying this team, but I see a repeat of last season of a slow start as the Riders find out how to play together and maybe, depending on whether or not the offensive line learns how to block, comes together at the end of the season. But by that time the BC Lions will have leapt-frogged over them for third, sending the Riders east for another playoff run.

Matt Nichols’ legs have both helped and hurt his various teams over the last couple of years. A few years ago McNichols was poised to be the Eskimos starter before bowing out an ACL in an exhibition game. Last year while leading Winnipeg to second, another leg injury took the momentum away from the Bombers regular season finish and led them to choke against Edmonton in the western semi final.

Each team has a question and Winnipeg’s question mark is the back up quarterback position. If Winnipeg can’t get anything out of The Shriveller, then the Bombers start their season 0-4 and it goes downhill from there.Winnipeg’s defense and special teams have to play over their capabilities to get themselves out of this hole, but that will require a lot of mental toughness – something you just don’t find in Winnipeg.

So the Riders go to Ottawa for the Eastern Semi-final and it’s the battle of the former Toronto backups. Should be an even match, but the Riders once again beat Ottawa and force Trevor Harris to go back into his Tom Brady textbooks to figure this out.

In the Western Semifinal, BC goes to Edmonton and  Ed Hervey would love to bounce the team that bounced him out of the job. Jason Maas implodes on the sidelines and BC wins and goes off to the Western Final.

In the Eastern Final, Rider fans have nightmares about facing Marc Trestman in back to back situations. Again, these teams have played each other relatively close but Brandon Bridge comes off the bench to lead the Riders to a Grey Cup appearance.

In the western final, Wally Buono returns to where his coaching career began with the Stampeders before being forced out.  It reads like a perfect Cinderella finish but BC has problems playing in Calgary and perhaps it is fitting that Wally’s coaching career ends here.

So we have Calgary and the Riders in the Grey Cup, another first, and while my Argo friends dream of redemption for the 1987 Grey Cup, the Riders have memories of playing E Town in 1997 and 2010. The third time will be the charm as the Riders crush the spirits of the Stampeders and claim the 2018 Grey Cup!

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