REGINA -- A strange feeling came over me while climbing into my vehicle in the Mosaic Stadium parking lot following Saturday night’s 35-24 Saskatchewan Roughriders loss to the Edmonton Eskimos.
Just beyond the glare of the stadium lights from our old stadium sat the jaw-dropping gorgeous New Mosaic Stadium whose construction, as of Saturday, was 60% complete. It’s due to open in August of 2016 and is pegged to be the finest jewel among open-air stadiums in North America.
Just the sight of that new facility brings enormous hope for the fortunes of this Roughriders franchise and I had to sit there for a minute and imagine the possibilities.
Then, reality set in, and you realize the bright days which lay ahead are an enormous contrast to what we have now.
Old Mosaic Stadium is the oldest stadium in the Canadian Football League and, unfortunately, home to the team with the league's worst record.
Saturday’s loss to the Eskimos dropped the Roughriders’ record to 2-14 and they seem on a collision course to secure their worst season in franchise history.
In this one, the Riders built up a 21-3 lead before the second quarter was a minute old. However the Edmonton Eskimos, who are so good, woke up and started playing. They came back to build a 24-21 lead by halftime and cruised to the eventual win.
It was Edmonton’s seventh consecutive win and upped their record to a league-best 13-4. They haven't won this many games in a row in 20 years.
But all Saturday’s game showed me was the 2015 Saskatchewan Roughriders have now lost games every way imaginable. From blown fourth quarter leads, to double-overtime losses, to games they were never really in, to, now, racing out to a big lead only to see it evaporate just as quickly.
They all get filed in the “L” column, however you have to admit there were several bright spots on display in the Riders' youthful lineup.
At his postgame news conference, Riders coach Bob Dyce was asked for his assessment of the game. Initially he growled like a bear into the microphone, in an address which was carried on province-wide radio. Then he paused for what seemed like an eternity. The gap only lasted about five seconds but it felt like five minutes as the Rider Nation hung on his every word.
“When you see a team go up 21-3 ... and we've seen this team play some really good teams very well at times ... it's a challenging thing,” Dyce surmised. “We'd like consistency and some of that comes back on coaches because we need a consistent effort throughout. It's our job to get a top level performance out of them at all times. It certainly is challenging.”
After the Riders’ 31-21 home loss to Hamilton in Week 5, then-coach Corey Chamblin advised that the “pain is now over”. He felt, at 0-5, the worst was behind them. However as it turned out, it was just getting warmed up.
So now the home portion of the 2015 schedule is behind the Riders, and their ledger while defending their turf finished at 2-7. The paid attendance was 30,488 Saturday night however an optimistic guess at the actual bums in the seats would be 22,000 (I'm now told it's around 17,500). Kudos to the fans who did show up, because they all seemed to be having a great time.
But when the effects of the Pilsner wore off, reality had to set in for them too.
The wont - from this blogger and broadcaster’s corner - is to start looking ahead now. Let’s get the 2015 post-mortem written and start examining the challenges ahead. There are so many great things to look forward to! They begin with naming a General Manager, a head coach, and then retooling the roster.
But we can’t. Right now all we can do is ... wait. Two more weeks.
There are still two road games remaining for the Roughriders against opponents who have an infinite amount of things to play for. The first is this Saturday in Calgary against a Stampeders team which is challenging for first place in the CFL West. They’re only a game back of Edmonton.
And then the season will finish with a date in Montreal on Sunday, November 8 against an Alouettes team which is clamouring for a crossover playoff berth. They also currently have the CFL’s second-longest postseason streak dating back to 1996.
Perhaps now the pain for the Riders is indeed gone. All that’s left is playing out the string but the days right now are agonizingly long.
Each day feels like a week.
10 MORE MONDAY MORNING THOUGHTS
1. A SIGN OF THE TIMES: While checking out at the Southland Mall Safeway Sunday morning, the young man bagging our groceries noticed my Roughriders jacket and asked, "Did you watch the game last night?" I told him that indeed I had, but he admitted he skipped it. So too did the young lady working the till. However they both knew the Riders lost.
Unfortunately interest in the team has taken a nosedive in these final terminal stages of the 2015 campaign. It truly seems like fans were engaged right up until the 30-15 loss in Hamilton when the club was officially eliminated from the playoff race. Then it was a collective, "Click".
Heck, it's become difficult even keeping the attention of my analysts during our shows. It would seem the end of this season can't come soon enough. But there are still two more games. Will YOU be watching?
However once the final gun sounds on that Sunday afternoon of November 8 in Montreal, I expect interest in the Rider Nation to spike due to the Rider GM Sweepstakes. That will carry us through December followed by a coaching search in the New Year and player movement after that.
2. THE STATE OF AFFAIRS: While many fans turned their attention to the Blue Jays this fall or the Federal election, it remains business as usual down at Mosaic Stadium. However it's no picnic around there either. Put yourself in the coaches' and players' shoes; how would you feel if you don't know if you'll have a job in just a few weeks' time? Most of the people on the bubble have wives and kids to support. With several players on the backside of 30 and coaches who came here because of their loyalty to Corey Chamblin, it can't be a comfortable feeling and on some occasions it has showed.
3. S-A-T-U-R-D-A-Y NIGHT: Despite the 21-3 lead slipping through the Riders' fingers, the fans in attendance Saturday night really seemed to be in a party mood. There wasn't one glum face portrayed on the SaskTel Maxtron all night long. However things weren't as rosy on the field, and the highlight of the 50-yard Adarius Bowman touchdown - where Rider DB Junior Mertile had an unfathomable brain cramp - has been replayed endlessly, including on American sports networks.
Mertile had Bowman on the train tracks, but jumped out of his way allowing the lanky veteran to gallop to the endzone. Afterwards Bob Dyce said, "No one should make that type of mistake". Dyce explained that Mertile thought teammate Tyree Hollins was going to make the tackle, and therefore excused himself from the equation.
Not a good way to make an impression!
4. QUARTERBACK CONTROVERSY: Apparently throwing a 29-yard touchdown pass on his first pro pass attempt was not enough for Keith Price to work his way into the Rider Nation's hearts. The rookie from the University of Washington did just that, connecting with Naaman Roosevelt in the south endzone on the first play of the second quarter Saturday night. However in a postgame Twitter poll where I asked fans who should lead the Riders the rest of the way, Brett Smith received 93 votes while Price garnered 62. As it stands now, Smith will start Saturday's game at Calgary.
5. START TIMES: On Saturday we went for a pregame meal at Roughrider sponsor Western Pizza. As always, long-time owners Jim and Spiro Bonis were there. Each of them stopped by our table for a chat about local sports. Regarding Saturday's 5:00 pm kickoff time, Spiro thought 2:00 pm kickoffs on weekends are the best time for the restaurant industry. Plus, it gives out-of-towners ample time to get to and from the game. However we noted 2:00 kickoffs on Saturday kills the retail industry. There is no ideal time it seems but for me, I prefer 7:00 kickoffs on any day of the week. EXCEPT FOR SUNDAYS! Hopefully the CFL stays away from the Day of Rest when they sit down to schedule this winter.
6. QUOTE OF THE WEEK: Still laughing over this one from legendary Edmonton Sun columnist Terry Jones on Friday. While waiting for the Eskimos at their media availability at a downtown Regina hotel, I read aloud an emailed news release from the Toronto Argonauts. The Argos are to serve dinner to the homeless at a downtown Toronto Salvation Army. "In other words," Jones drolled, "a team meal".
7. BYE BYE BOMBERS?: Saturday's 27-20 home loss to the Ottawa RedBlacks did not eliminate the Winnipeg Blue Bombers from the 2015 CFL playoff race. However the Bombers' tragic number to miss the playoffs apparently is at "1", meaning a B.C. or Montreal win will knock Winnipeg out.
When and if it happens, I'm wondering if there will be some sort of housecleaning in Winnipeg whereby defensive coordinator Richie Hall might come available. And further to that, would he be a head coaching candidate with the Saskatchewan Roughriders? As a franchise icon, and as solid of a human being as you could hope to find, I'd have to think he'd get some support around here.
8. SCOOTER: The Regina Thunder's PFC season ended last weekend with a 17-3 home loss to the Calgary Colts in a semifinal but I'd be remiss if I didn't recognize the great work of their head coach, Scott MacAulay. He led the Thunder to a Canadian Bowl title in his first season of 2013 but was inexplicably robbed of the Coach of the Year title that year. However he's had his team in contention in each season on the job and his players and staff love him.
MacAulay doesn't point fingers or blame officiating, and always takes everything on his own shoulders. When the Thunder wins, he puts his coordinators on my radio show. When the Thunder loses, Scott always comes on the radio to face the music.
Incidentally the Saskatoon Hilltops won the PFC championship on Sunday, beating the Calgary Colts 38-16.
9. THE NFL: The NFL tried an interesting experiment for Sunday morning's Jacksonville-Buffalo game in England. The game was broadcast solely on Yahoo.ca, hoping to attract the ever-elusive millenial generation. However the feed was inconsistent. On some plays the video was clear as-a-bell while on others it was blurry, or was lost in buffering. Broadcasting executives are still trying to figure out why the younger generation would rather watch a game on the tiny window of their smartphones rather than on a 60" television like the rest of us. Anybody have the answer to that?
10: GO PATS GO: Imagine our surprise to show up at the Brandt Centre for Sunday's Pats-Raiders game only to have a tough time finding a seat! The largest Pats crowd of the season (5519) witnessed a wild 2-1 overtime victory by P.A. and it was a fantastic atmosphere. We were informed by many friends in the crowd that all families in the 3-4-5 age group of Hockey Regina received complimentary tickets to the game a month ago and they nearly filled the joint.
It was a fantastic move by the Pats! Although the club gets none of the concession sales, it created the type of environment the franchise has been longing for for years. And, as an added bonus, the game was tremendous meaning a lot of these folks will be back.
And, the 4:00 pm start time on Sundays couldn't be better. You can have breakfast with the family, attend church if that's your thing, or catch some early NFL action all before heading to the rink. Then afterwards, you're home in time to catch the NFL Sunday night game. It couldn't be better!
And it was a nice treat not to hear any grumbling about the parking schmozzle at Evraz Place due to the new stadium construction. People parked halfway to Moose Jaw but cheerily trekked to the Brandt on another beautiful fall day.
Sunday's Pats game was a very positive experience.
REMEMBERING STEVE STIRR
I haven't seen the life of Steve Stirr remembered anywhere other than last week's Leader Post obituaries so I thought I'd do it here. The legendary statistician for the Saskatchewan Roughriders passed away last week at the age of 82. His family flew in from all across the country for the funeral and attended Saturday's Rider game.
Here's an article I wrote for CFL.ca back in 2007 about Steve. With the CFL's permission, I'm posting it here today:
THE GODFATHER OF STATS
By: Rod Pedersen
In the Canadian Football League, we're surrounded by them. Yards, receptions, carries, attempts, completions, sacks, interceptions, field goal percentages, punting averages -- the list goes on and on.
Aside from players and fans, statistics are the most important component of football, and even those first two principles would be lost without them.
Player contracts are based on numbers, and at the end of the season generally all the Most Outstanding Player trophies are awarded to those players with the best statistics. In the CFL, stats are big business.
Since 1974, Regina's Steve Stirr has set the standard for tallying stats and tracking play-by-play. A retired accountant, Stirr oversees a six-man crew at Mosaic Stadium/Taylor Field that has worked like a well-oiled machine for years.
"Basically I chart everything that happens during the game," Stirr told CFL.ca. "All the offence like rushing, passing, receiving, punting, kickoffs, field goals, penalties, first downs, everything. Part of our crew does the defence of course but the format I'm using I modified in the '90s because the CFL went to a more pass-oriented game."
Stirr was mentored by legendary stats-man Bill Hawrylak, a somewhat mythical figure in these parts whose system he instituted for the 1954 Grey Cup game remains the Bible over 50 years later. So hallowed in these football circles is Hawrylak that an elementary school was named after him.
With so much emphasis placed on statistics, Stirr has at times found himself embroiled in controversy. He may see a certain play one way, but the players in question may see it another. It's similar to baseball where a scorekeeper may score an error and take away a batter's hit, or preserve a no-hitter. Players are very protective of their "numbers".
"I recall in 1980, it was (Winnipeg punter) Bob Cameron's first year and I was the head stats-man and it was a windy day as usual here," recalled Stirr. "He punted the ball into the wind and it actually landed behind the line of scrimmage and nobody touched it. The Riders recovered the ball and I recorded it as a minus-5 yard punt. We phoned it into Toronto back then and league statistician Gord Walker said no, that's a fumble. That was the first problem I'd encountered. One time here a few years ago the Riders lined up for a field goal on about their own 25-yard line instead of punting, trying to battle the wind. I considered it a punt, but the league said no it was a missed field goal. It can be a very difficult thing."
If a player has a beef with the way any particular play was scored across the CFL, he can take it up with the league by launching a complaint through their own team's P.R. staff.
In today's computerized age, the play-by-play of games is sent online to CFL headquarters in Toronto. However, Stirr is old school and tracks each play on a chart in pencil in case of computer failure.
Stirr isn't sure how many CFL teams use his system, however, he has had requests from most western teams for his sacred forms.
One would think you'd have to be a hardcore football fan to never miss a game over 33 years but Stirr rarely gets caught up in the Riders' fortunes.
"I like working with numbers. Many times, nine times out ten, after the game is over I have to look at the scoresheet to see what happened. You have to concentrate so much on what you're doing you don't get to watch."
Stirr performs his craft for love of the game, and his highlights include working the 1995 and 2003 Grey Cups in Regina.
"I'm like a grandpa to the boys on the crew so if you enjoy doing it, it's part of the job."
THAT'S ALL FOR TODAY! SEE YOU IN THE CAGE