Monday, November 9, 2015
THE MONDAY MORNING GOALIE
- The highlights and photos from Sunday's season-ending 30-24 Saskatchewan Roughriders' overtime victory at Montreal depict exactly what it was: an exciting, emotional, relief of a win. However in no way is it a snapshot of the 2015 season. The comeback win capped the Riders' season at 3-15 and at least this unit won't be remembered as the worst team in franchise history. That had to feel good but more than anything, on this chilly late-fall afternoon in Quebec, the Saskatchewan Roughriders could finally feel good about themselves for a moment.
- And what a race to the finish line for the receiving crown! Ryan Smith had a whopping 144 yards receiving to leave him at 991 for the year. Weston Dressler caught only two passes for 13 yards on Sunday leaving him at 941. The Riders played the game to win it, not pad stats, and on this day their efforts paid off.
- As far as the game itself went, the Riders never led at any point until Brett Smith found Weston Dressler for a four yard touchdown reception on the first possession of overtime. A turnover-on-downs by the Alouettes in their only possession sealed the win for Canada's Team. And, Brett Smith showed consistently on Sunday why this team thinks he could be "the future" after coming in facing a 24-6 deficit with 14:06 remaining and rallying the club to victory. Unfortunately for Brett, the win will go to the record of Keith Price who made his first career start behind centre. Price's performance wasn't as gaudy as Smith's, but he couldn't do much with a ferocious Montreal pass rush all over him for three quarters. Somehow Brett Smith neutralized their pressure, and did it mostly with his legs, and the threat of his legs. He was spectacular, and so was the comeback effort by the Green & White who seemed to come to life after the quarterback change.
- The flight home - just like the 2015 season - was tortorously long. All I wanted to do was get back to my warm south Regina home, flip on ESPN, and get to work on these columns. However each time I glanced up at the screens, the aircraft was hovering forever over Ontario on the map of Canada. I don't even know how long the flight took. My mind was racing.
- The desire from the powers-that-be is to look ahead now, not behind. I get it, and that's my preference too. But not juuuuussst yet. We need to put this thing to bed by throwing it up on the autopsy table, hosing it off and shining a light on it. For weeks I'd planned on writing a lengthy post-mortem but I think we'll just keep it to these bullet points today.
- We've had a long time to reflect on what went wrong with the Roughriders this year, since the playoff dream went up in smoke a month ago. Realistically, it vanished some time in early- to mid-August.
- If you think the season went down in flames with the Darian Durant injury in Week 1, you are mistaken. The roster was riddled with holes long before training camp began in Saskatoon. When I sat down with various CFL personnel people in the spring and looked at all the teams' rosters, these guys asked what I thought of Saskatchewan's chances. "I think we'll be in the Grey Cup!" I cheerfully predicted. They all laughed, and one even asked if I was on something.
- They declined to go into specifics on what the issues were but suffice it to say the lack of quality Canadians was at the top of everyone's list. Everybody could see the Riders would be taxed to start the minimum of seven Canadians on a weekly basis. "Surely there's no way they'll start Connop in Week 1? He's nowhere near ready!" one guy said. Oh yes, there was. And the Riders did. And after Shea Emry went down in that first game, the defensive tackle position became the only starting Canadian spot on defense for much of the year.
- And the defense. I didn't need help from anyone to see this was an issue after that 30-26 loss to the Blue Bombers on June 27. It was so strange because the team deployed some type of pressure defense in the preseason, one which forced Grey Cup MVP Bo-Levi Mitchell into a fumble and an interception in the first half of exhibition game #2. However it seemed that was the last we'd see of that strategy.
- Through much of the season the Riders boasted the best cover units in the CFL and enjoyed the top offense (even without Darian Durant). But the defense got out of the gate last in the league and stayed there. Through the first two games they'd allowed a touchdown on all eight opposition red zone opportunities.
- If the talent was above average in two of three phases, how could it be so lacking in the third? The truth is, in my opinion, it wasn't. Remember when Eskimos QB Mike Reilly stated the Rider players hadn't changed but the scheme had? Bingo.
- So again, if the talent was at least adequate and the team can't win, then I can have to zero in only one other thing: coaching. In retrospect, I'm not the only one who feels that way because the change was made on August 31.
- The Riders had only ONE game all season where they limited the opponents to 20 points or less (a 22-7 win over Winnipeg in the Labour Day Classic). By contrast, the Edmonton Eskimos held opponents to 20 points or less in TEN games this year. There is not THAT much disparity in the talent level of the 2015 Edmonton Eskimos and the 2015 Saskatchewan Roughriders.
- Now you're saying, "But Rod, you said the talent was full of holes going into the season?" Yes, it was. In terms of depth. The Riders' 24 starters were as good as any team's but when injuries hit, the ship capsized.
- From here we could go into a lengthy debate over the depth topic. Was the team ravaged by the "All-In" approach of 2013? Absolutely it was. BUT skillful personnel decisions could've guided the franchise through this. We may never know whose decision it was to trade Ricky Foley for Shea Emry but that was a major blunder. Aside from the fact Argonauts GM Jim Barker laughed himself to sleep over unloading an injury-prone player for Foley, add the fact that when Emry didn't even last a half this season, the Riders were down two tremendous Canadian players in Emry and Foley. They never recovered.
- Back to the defense. I never could figure out what this team was trying to accomplish on that side of the ball philosophically. They were averaging, what, a sack per game in the opening third of the season with zero takeaways? Was the scheme weighted towards the secondary so they could achieve success? But those guys couldn't tackle. Not to save their life. The new CFL rules were bemoaned extensively and the Riders began, an ended, the season as the most-penalized team in the league. Discipline.
- The coaches admitted they wanted a more aggressive approach with their DB's this year but were prevented from doing so by the new Pass Interference rule. So adjust. Every other team in the league did. And the Riders coach was a former NFL defensive back! Surely any good coach could adust on the fly at the pro level but it never happened.
- The defense failed to adapt to the new CFL but that's what the coach is paid to do By the time Bob Dyce took over just before Labour Day, it was too late to scrap everything and start from scratch. That's why mid-season coaching changes rarely work. The foundation had already been laid, cracks and all.
- Missed tackles. That was evident right up to the late stages of the season and continued to be inexplicable. However players do what they're coached to do. Was too much emphasis placed on stripping the ball in training camp? And when the head coach pointed the finger at the players as the reason for the losses, that's precisely when things started to unravel from what I could see.
- That tactic did not sit well with the players. That was mentioned several times over the summer and fall but no players were willing to say it on record. Can you blame them? The players are smart. He could well end up holding their fate in his hands again one day. So, no, don't be surprised that the players wouldn't grumble about the coach. They NEVER do.
- And that's likely why they tried to drive a wedge between the players and me - for fear of discussions like that. However it was laughable to think it could be enforced. My bond with the players was forged over the prior 16 years and included the trade-off of me treating them with respect and reverence while in return they let their guards down. I never make them look bad, and they appreciate that. I'd like to have the same relationship with management and the coaching staff.
- In one of Corey Chamblin's interviews last week he alluded to the fact the season never turned around after his dismissal.
- But Don Shula couldn't have have brought this team back together at the halfway turn. They were, and are, as shattered as a pane of glass dropped on a concrete floor. Perhaps Jerome Messam said it best right after the firings when he said the pressure got to the the head coach to the point that he took it out on the players. The close losses added up to a winless ledger and as the heat rose, he snapped. He wouldn't be the first.
- Which brings us to Bob Dyce. He had a .333 winning percentage over the final nine games with the same group that Chamblin led to .000. The way things were going, I had no expectation the team would win a game in the second half. The fact Dyce manufactured three wins is a minor miracle and he even admitted on Sunday's pregame show that this was not a situation he wanted. This team was a deathtrap at that point and no coach outside of the program would touch it with a ten-foot pole. Dyce was the only internal option and he accepted the edict. However even though the players played their tails off and did not turn on each other, the light in their eyes was gone by mid-season. It had to be torture for everyone involved.
- Even Dyce changed a little over the past few months. He appears to have lost weight, and his ever-present smile is rare. He'd become edgy and it didn't help that the media sniffed out his good nature as a sign of weakness. They threw questions at him they wouldn't dare direct at Chamblin. Dyce was aware of this.
- When the gun sounded on Sunday, Bob Dyce had to have felt an immense sense of relief. Who knows if he'll be the head coach here in 2016 (it's seen as a long shot), but everyone knows that at the very least, Bob will draw a six-figure salary as a coordinator next year whether it's in Saskatchewan or in his hometown of Winnipeg where there's rumoured to be two openings on Mike O'Shea's staff. He'd be a perfect fit in any of those scenarios.
- So now it's time to look ahead. I met with several club officials in Montreal and I told each of them, "When this game's over, I'm directing all of my energies towards covering the GM search." Invariably the response was "We know that. And we're good with it."
- And now, today, that really is the show. I don't know how many candidates have applied and I certainly don't know their identities. However Tom Shepherd was right about two things: 1) a "Rock Star" candidate has applied, and 2) Tom doesn't know who the guy is. NO ONE knows the man's identity other than Craig Reynolds and I knew better than to ask. The members of the Board of Directors may know but if it gets leaked, there will be hell to pay. And, it hasn't been leaked.
- Will the Riders target some candidates? Have they had any surprise applicants? I don't know but Reynolds will adress the media on Thursday to answer these questions.
- From everything I read out of Montreal last week, it seemed as though GM Jim Popp isn't going anywhere primarily due to the two years remaining on his contract. However the buzz in the Percival Molson Stadium press box on Sunday suggested there may be a desire for a change of scenery for both Popp AND the Alouettes. At 51, he's got of tread left on the tire and boasts a sterling resume. This will be worth following.
- I guess this has been a longer post-mortem than promised but it needed to be addressed. We'll dig into it more on the SportsCage in the days, weeks and months ahead. It'll be invigorating conversation, and not the dreary daily talk of how bad the Riders were in 2015. That was a marathon of depression I hope to never experience again. Back in 1999 when the Riders were simlarly 3-15, there were no daily sports radio talk shows in this town nor blogs or social media. You could actually get away from it for awhile but not anymore. YUCK! Thank God it's over. It's fun again starting today!
- As for me, it's time to take the foot off the gas for the next six months. I'll still be in the SportsCage daily on 620 CKRM for the next little while but we've got upcoming trips planned to Edmonton, Winnipeg (for Grey Cup), Florida, Las Vegas, Phoenix and the Dominican Republic. Most of them revolve around NHL games and by mid-winter, I'll have watched more live NHL games than WHL and we think that's a pretty good deal.
- I'd planned to write quite a bit about Saturday night's experience at the Boston-Montreal game in the Bell Centre but this season wind-up took precedence. Perhaps those observations will go into the Thursday column.
- What a ride this year has been. Thanks for being here every step of the way. It's been a pleasure writing for you and an even bigger honour serving this role for the Saskatchewan Roughriders, Canada's Team. I'm extremely grateful for the opportunity.
O'DAY'S IN THE RACE
The General Manager of the Roughriders always appears on 620 CKRM's weekly pregame show and for the last nine games I've chatted with Jeremy O'Day who filled the role on an interim basis after the firing of Brendan Taman. Will these chats with O'Day continue with the beginning of the 2016 season? That's anyone's guess right now.
Generally we cover the team's roster moves going into each week's game but this past weekend in Montreal, knowing it could well be the last such chat with O'Day, I asked the 41-year old Buffalo, NY product if he's reflected yet on where this all went wrong -- this meteoric plummet from the CFL's best team to its worst in under two years.
"That's something we'll have to talk about at the end of the season when it's all said and done," O'Day stated. "You can go through it week by week and tell what went wrong but you can probably go further back to see what went wrong and how our approach was coming into the season. Any time, good or bad, you can go back and point to things that didn't turn out the way you wanted but you can also go back, if it was a good year, and look at the good things you did in the off-season."
Clearly the team's problems began to formulate long before the Week 1 injury to franchise star Darian Durant, and O'Day seems aware of that. However it's admirable that he makes no effort to distance himself from the prior regime. He's always held the "we're in it together" mantra, whether it's win or lose.
"We always evaluate our thoughts going into the season, how we set up the roster, how we drafted," O'Day explained. "Those types of things all need to be re-thought out and develop that plan moving forward with how we're going to improve it. It's gonna be a step-by-step improvement - it's not gonna happen just overnight. You just can't take out 20 guys and put 20 guys in, it's going to have to be a sysematic approach that is smart and keeps all things in consideration. Hopefully we get a chance to do that."
That last sentence was a subtle message that O'Day's ultimate goal is to remain in the GM's chair once the search by team President Craig Reynolds is completed. Jeremy used the term "we", but could've easily been referring to himself. Again, that's just his way.
I further asked O'Day if the Riders have looked at the dramatic turnaround of the Ottawa RedBlacks, who've gone from 2-16 last season to clinching first-place in the CFL East just one year later.
"Unfortunately we're in a situation where you've gotta look at things like that," O'Day admitted. "You gotta have a positive attitude saying it can be turned around. Ottawa's done a great job. You look at last year, you probably wouldn't think they were a 2-16 team with the talent they had but right now you probably wouldn't think with the close games we've had that we should be a 2-15 team either.
"You have to keep that in mind but you never want to be a in a position where you say 'if we'd have won a couple more games we'd have been alright' and squeeze into the playoffs. We need to do a better of job of getting more consistency where we're back to being a contender every year and not have the ups and dones. We need to have sustained success."
I would suggest again, not to paint O'Day with the brush of the prior regime. He followed direction and didn't seem to have a massive amount of input into "the plan". The moves he's made since taking over on August 31 are an example of this. But you'll believe what you want to believe.
JIM HOPSON, THE AUTHOR
It would seem former Saskatchewan Roughriders President Jim Hopson is living a charmed life these days. Having exited the scene in the spring of 2015 into a life of retirement, he managed to escape without the smell of this season anywhere on him. He has, to his own admission, been the benefactor of excellent timing. Now Hopson is speaking at major conventions and business gatherings across Canada as a sought-after keynote spaker.
And, he's on the media trail promoting his new book "Running The Riders - My Decade as CEO of Canada's Team". Last week Hopson popped by the studios of Access Communications to appear on our weekly television program In The Huddle.
For information on the writing of the book, read my column at the Roughriders' official website which was posted last week: http://www.riderville.com/article/rod-s-blog-november-5th
Regarding his take on the current situation the Roughriders find themselves in, Hopson summed it up in one word.
"Painful." Hopson winced. "Like any hardcore Rider fan, I had high expectations coming into the year. Last year, the disappontment of losing Darian and not being as good of a team as we thought we'd be. We still had a decent year and made the playoffs, but I thought this year was going to be a good year but of course, everything that could go wrong did. There's no sense blaming injuries but that's what started the big ball of momentum going down. That, and then bad decisions at different levels whether it was officiating, or the head coach, or players' decisions, it just compounded.
"On the other hand, I'm a bleed green fan and the turnaround can and will happen. We've seen that in so many places in pro football. It used to be it would take years to get back but we bounced back after a disastrous 2011 and I think this team still has that core but obviously there's things that have to happen."
Co-host Marshall Hamilton pointed out that unlike the 2-14 seasons of 1979 and 1980, the Saskatchewan Roughriders are in a much different situation than they were some 35 years later. The coffers are full and Saskatchewan remains a preferred destination for pro football players.
"I agree," Hopson said. "I remember players saying they wouldn't come here, free agents wouldn't sign here and quality football people didn't see us as a good alternative. But the reality is with our fanbase, our resources and a beautiful new stadium that's going to open up soon, people want to be here. We'll retain the players we want to and we'll sign some free agents and it's a different situation. The other thing too is the expectations of the province and the fans have changed. Back then, people thought it would just be more of the same and that was the expecation. Now the expectation is we're going to win and we can win. I think that's a good thing overall. It puts pressure on you but that's what pro sport is."
Those expectations took flight right around Hopson's hiring on February 2, 2005. But it was no easy feat to change the culture that had been bred in the Wheat Province for decades.
"It was a task that we had to take on," Hopson explained. "Things had improved greatly and in my book I gave Roy Shivers a lot of credit. Roy and Danny came in here at a difficult time and we were almost at rock bottom with expectations and finances. So he did a good job of getting us back to a competitive level but we couldn't get over that hump. And there was till that residue of people saying 'We're the Riders and maybe we'll get to a Grey Cup' and we had to change that expecation of that would be the norm. That we'd be a good team. It was hiring good people and supporting them.
"Eric Tillman came in with the belief that we could win and would win quickly. Kent Austin was a real catalyst with that mindset. His first speech to the players in 2007 was 'If you don't believe we're going to win a Grey Cup, you should leave right now'. That's really where it started, I think. Of course the Grey Cup win in 2007 set the bar and a new level and ever since it's been consistently repeated. I know it's hard to believe that now with our record, but the core is there."
To end our interview - just for spits and giggles - I asked Hopson who who'd hired as the team's next General Manager if he were still in the President's role.
"I have no idea," Hopson laughed. "When people ask me that now I say 'I'm not accountable! It doesn't matter what I think!' It matters what Craig Reynolds thinks and I told Craig he needs to go with the person he believes in. I was fortunate to get people like Eric and Brendan Taman to come here but that was then and this is now."
Without question, Hopson is a strong supporter of interim GM Jeremy O'Day. As a player and team captain, O'Day assisted Hopson in dealing with the various scandals which plagued the franchise in the best. Then, following O'Day's retirement after the 2010 season, Hopson helped him transition into the front office.
"I championed Jeremy to stay in the organization when he retired," Hopson reflected. "I thought that he was a young man that had great potential. I always thought he'd be a great GM and he'll be a GM in this league whether it's here, great, but if it isn't, it'll happen. He's an up and comer and a talent but in the end it'll be Craig's decision. I know this: whoever's chosen, there will be supporters and detractors right out of the gate. That's just the nature of sport and particularly our fanbase. They're so passionate and that's not going to change."
I read Hopson's book in its entirety on this weekend road trip to Montreal and have to say it's good. Real good. In fact, I learned things about Jim in the first few pages that I didn't even know. We all knew how he felt about Roy Shivers but I had no idea what he was thinking during the Tillman or Ken Miller eras until reading his memoirs.
One thing I learned in no uncertain terms is that Hopson was never swayed by the fans' opinions when making tough decisions on the hiring and firing of people. I expect Craig Reynolds will operate the exact same way.
The book - edited by Hall of Fame football writer Darrell Davis - is now available in all five Rider Stores across the province and will be in all provincial bookstores in time for Christmas. The official launch of the book is this Thursday at Regina's Lancaster Taphouse at 7:30 pm.
LET THE OFF-SEASON BEGIN!