Monday, November 2, 2015
THE MONDAY MORNING GOALIE
REGINA -- Let me first say this:
Looking back, if you had to make a trade, would you sacrifice the worst season in Roughrider history in order to experience the greatest?
Look at it this way -- if someone told you going into the 2013 Roughrider season that at the end of the thing, you’re going to win it all in your own stadium on the most perfect day in Saskatchewan’s history, 45-23, (over Kent Austin’s Hamilton Tiger-Cats no less), but in turn you’d have to experience the worst season the Roughriders have ever had?
Of course you would. We all would. In a New York minute. We’ve just got it backwards. However nobody at that time could’ve predicted how painful that trade-off would be just two years later.
Like, holy smokes.
Look, I understand there are scores of people going through much, much more painful things in life, like life-threatening illness, job loss, marital break-ups and all the rest.
But in football terms, what the Saskatchewan Roughriders are going through right now is as bad as it gets. Or at least, the worst I’ve seen in my 17 years on the job.
This was clear immediately following Saturday’s 42-19 humiliation in Calgary at the hands of the Stampeders when I was sprinting to the press box washroom in a break before the postgame radio show.
Some of the Rider assistant coaches were coming the other way, on their way to the elevator that led down to their locker room. I’ve seen a lot of facial expressions in my quarter century in this sports business but the look on these guys’ faces was a new one.
They looked like zombies. Emotionless. Spiritually bankrupt. It would seem the pain is gone and now they're all just numb.
Just ... get ... this ... season ... over ... with ... already.
So what do you need to know about Saturday’s game in Calgary anyway? The Stamps opened the game with a 60-yard kickoff return and three minutes later the ball was in the Rider endzone courtesy of an Eric Rogers touchdown reception. 8-0 Calgary after a two-point convert. Less than seven minutes later it was 16-3 Calgary after another Rogers touchdown and another two-point conversion.
Calgary would never trail in the game. The loss dropped the Riders to 2-15, equalling a franchise record for losses in one season with another game to go. And just why was Stampeders coach John Hufnagel going for two points (twice) so early in a game like this? I checked with the Stamps and they said that's what they always do early in games. And by the end of the first quarter, it was forgotten anyway. You can't blame them for doing what they do.
As the adage goes, “if you don’t like it, stop it”. But the Roughriders weren’t apt to do that on Saturday. Not with this defense.
So it's finally come down to this. Three more practices, one day-before walk-through, and then four more quarters of football for the Riders Sunday in Montreal before we can bury this season. I don’t expect many to attend the funeral.
I’ve taken to calling it “Football Purgatory”, this state where the Saskatchewan Roughriders currently find themselves. Not familiar with the term? Here’s the definition:
“A place between Heaven and Hell, where the soul is not bad enough to be sent to an eternity of damnation in Hell, but not good enough to go to Heaven, so it is sent there temporarily where the person suffers, and is purified so that it can be sent to Heaven.”
Suffering. That’s what it is! And unfortunately for so many members of the 2015 Saskatchewan Roughriders, they didn’t get to feel the unequalled elation of that late-November day in 2013. Not even thought-of back then were Ryan Smith, Brett Smith, Keith Price, Jeff Knox Jr., Naaman Roosevelt, Nic Demski, Rory Connop, Anthony Allen, Jake Doughty or Matt Webster.
These guys are the future. It’s an exciting group and it’s important that their spirit not be broken! Gleaming, exciting days are ahead except we just can’t see them yet. Can't see them for miles.
And, trust me, these players will never, ever again go through anything as bad as this season has been.
But just remember – we asked for it.
10 MONDAY QUICK HITS
1. RIDER SLIDE: Just like was the case more than a decade ago, everything about the road trip was great except for the game. We were treated extremely well by Calgarians and despite a lack of buzz surrounding the game, more than 31,000 fans took in the clash. It wasn't an inflated figure. There were far less Rider fans than we're generally used to but the ones who showed up were hearty. They just wanted to see the Riders win a game. Unfortunately Saskatchewan couldn't produce and the culprit was the youth in their lineup, particularly on defense. The secondary was patchwork and it showed.
2. VERY CALGARY-ISH: The front cover of the Calgary Sun on game day was typical, with the headline "BOO ROUGHRIDERS" on Halloween Saturday, but I was impressed they opted to showcase that day's CFL game rather than the Flames' 6-2 home loss to Montreal the night before. We wondered why more media love hasn't been shown to the Stampeders given their chase for first-place however the Regina Pats are likely wondering why we spend so much air-time on the last-place Roughriders. You gotta go with what's hot baby.
3. FOOTBALL KARMA: The bullish comments from Rider linebacker Tyron Brackenridge towards Calgary running back Jerome Messam on Friday were amusing and caught everyone's attention. Unfortunately for "Brack", Messam shoved his words where the sun don't shine on Calgary's second series when he delivered a knee into Brackenridge's neck/shoulder area which temporarily knocked him to the sidelines. Payback, even if it wasn't deliberate.
4. FORT KNOX: Rookie Roughrider linebacker Jeff Knox Jr. is poised to take home three of the club's major awards this season: Most Outstanding Player, Most Outstanding Defensive Player and Most Outstanding Rookie. He's already set the franchise's single-season tackles record with one game remaining. Fortunately he's not able to flee to the NFL just yet. He's under contract with the Riders for the 2016 season as well.
5. WHAT EVERYONE'S TALKING ABOUT TODAY: The low hit by Hamilton linebacker Simoni Lawrence on Ottawa quarterback Henry Burris on Sunday caused some serious heat at Tim Hortons Field. Some of the postgame comments are contained in the game story below but we haven't heard the last of this. Ticats coach Kent Austin blew a gasket afterwards which caused team owner Bob Young to apologize for his coach on Twitter. Obviously it's hollow if Kent doesn't apologize himself, which would be his second public apology this season. What has people upset is Austin's treatment of the media plus his assertion that it was a "clean hit to the hip". Replays clearly showed Lawrence went for Hank's knees and if the League is as serious about player safety as they said in a news release last week, then the Hamilton player is looking at a major fine. These two teams conclude the regular season next week in Ottawa in a game which will decide first-place however this situation will have likely blown over by then.
6. ONCE YOU POPP, YOU CAN'T STOP: That may be the cheesy slogan of Pringle's Potato Chips but it may also apply to the Saskatchewan Roughriders' search for their next General Manager. Speculation abounds that since the Alouettes were bounced from playoff contention on Sunday for the first time since their relocation to Montreal in 1996, that Coach & GM Jim Popp may face the firing squad. Would he then become an attractive candidate in Saskatchewan where he began his coaching career with receivers in 1992? It's likely possible. Although the John Hufnagel rumour isn't going away either, even though Stampeders personnel said on the weekend Huff is content relinquishing the head coaching duties so he can spend more time hunting and fishing. We'll see.
7. JEREMY, ED AND KYLE: Here are two hot tips from CFL-types in the past week regarding the Riders' search for their next GM: 1) "I think Jeremy's going to get the job", and 2) "I don't think Jeremy's going to get the job". The fact is nobody's sure which direction the Riders are going to go and at this point, that likely includes President Craig Reynolds. There's still plenty of time but Reynolds' phone will likely be busy during Grey Cup Week in Winnipeg. But that hasn't stopped "insiders" from passing on what they think they know.
It appears the only minus on the list of pros and cons for interim Riders GM Jeremy O'Day is the "unknown factor". He's never held the position before and that makes a lot of Rider fans nervous. However they scoffed in Edmonton when Ed Hervey was named GM but on Sunday they locked up first-place. On the other hand people questioned the Blue Bombers when they gave the GM title to Kyle Walters and it appears we know how that's worked out.
But as one CFL manager said last week, "Somebody had to give Mike Babcock his first job." Now Mike's the best coach in the NHL.
8. POKER ON ESPN: At the Canadian Brewhouse in Regina's Harbour Landing early on Sunday afternoon, the televisions were tuned to the National Football League. Not ONE was on the Ottawa-Hamilton CFL game but I suppose we can continue to believe the TSN people that the NFL is not a threat. I was sitting with a Torontonian who said, "It's been this way in major cities across Canada for quite some time. You're just noticing it now". I'm not sure that's the case, but I'll have to take him at his word. Either way, it's alarming.
Meanwhile during NBC's broadcast of the Green Bay-Denver NFL game, ESPN was airing a replay of televised poker. They seem to know that no one's watching their channel during Sunday NFL games so they put on some filler.
A lot of this scheduling comes down to stadium availability and perhaps the Eskimos would prefer to steer clear of the Oilers as well. But it mostly comes down to the television rightsholder's wishes, I'm told.
9. THE FLAMES: Calgary is a hockey town first and foremost. Period. So it's not surprising there's considerable panic around the Flames given their 3-8-1 start. After Friday's blowout loss to Montreal, one reporter said to me "If they lose in Edmonton on Saturday, the season's over". Lo and behold, the Flames came out on top 5-4 in the Battle of Alberta and Calgary had meager hope again.
The Flames goalies are getting all the blame and it makes sense since their 50 goals against are far and away the worst of any otherwise respectable team. However their defensive zone play has been abhorrent and stars Mark Giordano and Dougie Hamilton have been shells of themselves. But if you feel your goaltending's weak, then tighten up. Stop giving the puck away.
10. OTHER NOTES: It was refreshing and exhilarating to be back in an NHL rink on Friday. The air seems rarified. They served prime rib for the pregame meal! And it was great to kibitz with the personalities in the press box. I mentioned to one Canadiens staffer that I almost shut the TV off when his Habs were up 3-0 in the second period in Edmonton on Thursday. "You should've," he smirked. "We did". The Oilers went on to win that game 4-3 ... Great to see Craig Bonner in the Saddledome press box. A couple of weeks ago he stepped down as GM of the WHL's Kamloops Blazers but he's now a pro scout for the Dallas Stars ... The tour continues next weekend in Montreal where we'll get to take in the Bruins and Canadiens the night before the Roughriders-Alouettes game ... The Edmonton Eskimos attracted a crowd of 31,014 to Sunday's home game against Montreal meaning they'll lead the CFL in attendance in 2015. Had the Esks drawn fewer than 28,100, Saskatchewan would've led the league in home ticket sales which would've been quite a feat given the season they've had ... As it is, the Riders continue to be the CFL's top road draw ... Two movies you should see: Black Mass and The Intern. They couldn't be more different but Johnny Depp and Robert Deniro are always must-sees ... Question for SportsCage listeners: would a small weekly segment on NFL Fantasy Football be to your liking? Since CKRM-types like Luc Mullinder, Mike Abou-Mechrek, Phil Andrews, Brandon Basler, Scruffy and me are all engulfed in Draft Kings, the notion came up over the weekend. It might be fun! ... Congratulations to Phil and Megan Andrews on the birth of their son Declan Charles Andrews on Saturday ... All hail the Kansas City Royals, 2015 World Series champions! They vanquished the New York Mets with relative ease in the MLB final series, which may take some of the sting out of the way the Blue Jays went down in Flames. But that was the funnest baseball season in a generation up here ... You've gotta be happy for Royals skipper Ned Yost who, after last night, is now 1-7 in World Series.
THAT'S IT FOR TODAY! SEE YOU IN THE CAGE ...