REGINA -- Apologies this morning for the upcoming word-vomit.
I'm just going to open up and let it fly, with no real idea of where it's going to land.
So hopefully training camp is now over.
The Saskatchewan Roughriders seemed to use the opening six games of the 2016 CFL season as just that: an extended version of training camp. And no one around here seems to have a problem with that, given the fact Chris Jones and Co. took over a franchise coming off one of its Top 3 worst seasons in franchise history.
So through these opening six games and the accompanying 1-5 record, have we learned anything about this bunch?
I'm not sure.
Thursday's 35-15 loss to the Stampeders in Calgary was more deflating than debilitating. Through three quarters the stats were virtually identical, and up until the final minute of the third period it was a one-point ball game.
But over the final 16 minutes, Stampeders quarterback Bo-Levi Mitchell said, "Enough's enough. Time to get serious" and Calgary when on to fairly easily post 19 unanswered points and put the game away for another Rider loss in the Foothills.
Pshaw. The current Rider woes really have nothing to do with Bo-Levi Mitchell and the Calgary Stampeders even if the Riders' regular season losing streak at McMahon Stadium now dates back to August of 2009. (That streak is hollow by the way, given the fact Saskatchewan won the 2010 and 2013 West Finals in Calgary but no one over there seems to remember that).
But back to the matter at hand. The Roughriders took Thursday's loss as hard as any I've seen in quite some time. Several years in fact.
And when players and coaches stare straight ahead in a catatonic trance after a game like that, I often want to ask them what they're thinking about. But of course I never do, and settle instead for looking out the window on the bus or plane all the way home.
So what have we learned through the opening third of the season other than the fact Saskatchewan sports the CFL's worst record?
Well, using last week's game as a great example, the players are simply not making plays at this time. The Riders are last in sacks, defensive takeaways, and are on pace to give up a record number of points. That's as alarming as it gets, for the time being.
If the Rider brass is wondering what the fans are unhappiest about the most, it's the sack issue and lack of pressure on opposing quarterbacks. So far, this has not been the Chris Jones Defense we expected or have become accustomed to over the years. His is a pressure defense that seems to blitz more than 50 percent of the time but more often that not when I look down from the press box, the Riders are employing three down linemen on defense.
On Thursday night in Calgary, the Riders had 69 plays on defense. They blitzed on 20 of them, or 29% of the time. On the 49 snaps where they didn't blitz, they deployed a 3-man rush on 28 plays or 57% of the time. They used a 4-man rush on the remaining 21 plays. They didn't register a single sack on the night.
Is Jones not comfortable with his personnel? Are the newbies not picking up the coach's favourite schemes? Is Jones saving those calls for the fall months? I'm not sure, and frankly am hesitant to ask.
But as far as this team not making enough big plays goes, that's the issue. And they're not rookies! For the most part anyway. It's one thing for 12 new players to play together and know each other's responsiblities, but it's an entirely different thing to still be learning the Canadian game. Sam Eguavoen, Kevin Francis, Jonathan Newsome and Justin Cox can be given a pass on that but Buddy Jackson, Shane Herbert, Justin Cappicciotti, Greg Jones, Otha Foster, Corey Irvin, and veterans of that ilk cannot.
Veterans on offense were on the hook for their share of gaffes against Calgary as well, like Darian Durant being unable to connect screen passes to Rob Bagg, or Bagg's costly fumble in Stampeders' territory midway through the second quarter.
Interestingly enough, the Riders have better first down success (7.2 yards) than anybody else in the CFL. However again the culprit seems to be the defense, where Saskatchewan Winnipeg have given up the most big plays so far this year (21 each).
However the other surprising side of today's story is that fans in the Wheat Province are vastly more positive than anyone would expect right now.
Bright and early at the coffee shop on Friday morning, the smiling young girl behind the counter said to me, "What did you think of the game last night? I listened to you right up to the fourth quarter and we were still in it! Maybe we can win this week!"
That one shocked me. I was in a ball cap and sunglasses and if I could've found a fake nose and moustache, I'd have been wearing that too. I was prepared for the usual barrage of, "'Why aren't they doing this?' 'Why are they playing him?' 'Why are they doing that?'"
It gets very draining and maybe that's why I was so deflated after the loss in Calgary; it meant one more week of being asked for answers that I simply don't have.
But that never happened over the weekend.
Peoples' heads are up around here, smiles are on their faces, and for the moment at least, they are positive. They are still following this team's every move, and have not given up on them.
Will it translate to ticket sales for this Saturday's home game against the Calgary Stampeders (5:00 pm kickoff)?
There are many, many reasons to come to this game including the fact it's the last-ever "summer" game at the old Mosaic Stadium during this Farewell Season because the Labour Day Classic is next up and that's the annual kickoff to autumn.
To my knowledge the Riders will be honouring the 80's era this weekend and there will be some very exciting franchise legends from the 1989 Grey Cup team flying in for the game. Listen for details on the SportsCage on 620 CKRM this week, plus interviews with these guys. The forecast calls for another sunny day, and 26 degrees Celsius.
Most importantly, Saturday's game is the back-end of a home-and-home series with the Riders' biggest rival and the game represents the kickoff to the "middle third" of the season. The season is not lost in any way, especially when you consider Winnipeg and Edmonton are within the Riders' grasp. (Winnipeg is two wins up and Edmonton is only one game up with a whopping 12 games to go).
Who predicted Winnipeg and Edmonton to be scrapping it out in the mud when all is said and done? Ah, never mind.
Maybe it's this sunshiny summer that has everyone so upbeat and optimistic around here. Maybe there's something about Chris Jones that inspires Rider fans and makes them believe the next miracle is right around the corner.
I don't know? But for this week, I'll take it.
Now if you'll excuse me, I've got to mop this mess up.
5 MONDAY LATE HITS
1 - THE CONSULTANT SAYS...: I've often wondered why football teams (the good ones anyway) employ a consultant. But it's for the same reason that all good companies do: an outside set of eyes that sees things perhaps you don't when you can't see the forest for the trees.
For the past few years I've been using my own football consultant. He's a long-time assistant coach who's won multiple championships and now in retirement, is happy to pass along what he sees regarding the Saskatchewan Roughriders. I should point out that he's never been in the Roughriders' employ. Don't bother guessing who he is, because you never will.
So when I contacted him on Sunday for an assessment of the Green & White, he immediately launched into a tirade over the fact Corey Chamblin should have never been allowed to jettison Richie Hall and George Cortez.
However once I calmed him down by advising that's all water under the bridge now, he offered these points:
"The offensive line has been decimated. What kind of results can you expect after that?"
"Maybe they were too afraid to blitz Bo-Levi Mitchell because he's just too smart."
"They've started a different tailback almost every game."
"If you asked 10 people in Saskatchewan to name the Riders' starting offensive and defensive lineups, nobody would be able to. That's the key problem right there."
"It's time they make a decision on who they ultimately like, and start building from there."
"The good news is Calgary has little room for improvement while Saskatchewan has lots. That should be encouraging for their fans. But they need to start improving in their next game because they haven't improved that much each game this season."
A lot of those points sound like what I wrote in the column above, which incidentally I penned on Saturday morning before we even had our chat.
Anyway, it's food for thought.
2 - BURRIS GOES OFF: I missed Saturday's Edmonton-Ottawa CFL game because I was floating on a pontoon boat but my phone started blowing up immediately after RedBlacks quarterback Henry Burris went off on the TSN panel during his halftime interview, and then again after the game.
Hoo boy. There's so many ways to go with this. As soon as I got home I looked up the interview and it was readily available online. Henry hasn't been that upset in years and if you haven't seen it, you'd better check it out pronto.
First off, it's amazing the amount of support Burris has received nationally for his rant including a ton within Saskatchewan where he's been Public Enemy #1 for the longest time. Rider fans felt Burris had a right to defend himself from the barrage of criticism he's received from the likes of Dunigan, Climie, Stegall, et al.
Saturday night's panel seemed to be knocked on their heels after Hank's one-sided blast, and Dunigan correctly pointed out that Burris can't be so thin-skinned. But for those of us who know him so well, that's just Henry being Henry.
I'm not sure but it sounded like Chris Schultz made a comment to the effect of, "If he doesn't like it maybe he should go back to the States."
Somebody else - perhaps Milt Stegall - said it's incredibly rare for a pro athlete to go after a national television crew like that. Maybe, but it sure was entertaining!
And who can forget the time in 2004 when Rider receiver Travis Moore had to be restrained from tearing apart Jock Climie when the panel traveled to Taylor Field for a game?
Ahhh, good times.
But as far as the talk on the panel goes, it's all bunk. All you need to do is watch the games and that's all you need to know.
TV panels, sports radio and blogs like this are all just noise.
3 - MURPH ON THE RATIO FINE: The Roughriders made big news last week when they were slapped with a $15,000 fine for not deploying enough Canadians for a series of plays in their game against B.C. a few weeks ago. Riders Assistant V.P. of Player Personnel John Murphy addressed the matter on Thursday's pregame show at Calgary.
"I can't talk to why they decided to go forward with the fine," Murphy said. "Somebody else makes those decisions. From a commentary standpoint, it boiled down to early in the game they had a sub package, our guys did a sub package, they pulled one guy in and one guy out, and I think it was just a numbers thing of 'run a guy on, run a guy off' and not realizing it was two for two.
"Later on in the game, due to injuries that we had suffered, a Canadian guy that was normally a back-up - so the substitution would've been one for one - came off instead of the America guy coming off. Again, it's just something of inside a game where injuries occur, the bottom line is at the end of the game does it add up to why the violation should or shouldn't have been fined? Absolutely not. That's the league's decision to make.
"We played eight guys 51% that were Canadian that day but by the particular individual rules of play-by-play, I guess they felt that there were certain plays were there weren't enough Canadians on the field."
4 - THE OLYMPICS AND CANTON, OHIO: The Rio Games have been a joy to watch. With the beautiful weather, the MMG hasn't been stapled to the couch watching wall-to-wall coverage of the 2016 Summer Olympics on NBC, CBC, TSN or Sportsnet but it was a joy to catch some Beach Volleyball, Canada's upset of the USA in Mens Volleyball, and the grotesque injury in Mens Gymnastics.
Living half my life on social media, it was impossible to miss the fact the daughter of former Regina Pat Colin Ruck was part of Canada's relay team who won the bronze medal in the pool on Saturday. Ruck played 52 games with the Pats from 1989-1991, which was five years before my time with the club.
However it was a downer Saturday night to watch the Womens Beach Volleyball match between China and Switzerland go to video review. Just like the CFL, we were left twiddling our thumbs while replay officials determined that a Swiss player in fact went under the net and thus nullified a point. The Swiss players then complained to the referee - who was Canadian - that the infraction occurred too early in the rally and the overturn was overturned.
SHEESH! Enough of this already.
Meanwhile on Sunday evening I was in a panic to find out which network was carrying the NFL's annual Hall of Fame game from Canton, Ohio between the Packers and Colts. The Riders' Jeremy O'Day was there but like the thousands in attendance, he had to go home early because the game was cancelled due to an unsafe playing field.
So it really didn't matter which network it was on, because the game wasn't played anyway.
The broadcaster in me felt sorry for whomever was scheduled to call the game because NBC's Al Michaels - who's called play-by-play of the Hall of Fame Game for years - was in Rio for the network's Olympic coverage and clearly was unavailable.
Whomever was lined up to replace Michaels likely was bouncing off the walls to get his big shot, only to have it blown to smithereens.
And from the looks of the hours and hours of coverage on the NFL Network from Canton, the culprit was a negligent field crew who improperly laid down the Pro Football Hall of Fame logo at midfield.
How do you screw up a grass field in Ohio in August?
5 - FORE!: The Regina Pats - remember them? - will hold their annual Wickenheiser Golf Classic benefitting Regina Palliative Care on Monday at the Royal Regina Golf Club. 620 CKRM's SportsCage will be on hand broadcasting live from the RRGCC from 4:00-6:30 pm.
Lorne Molleken always said that as soon as Buffalo Days are over, it's Pats season and training camp opens in about 16 days at the Cooperators Arena.
THAT'S IT FOR TODAY! SEE YOU ON THE RADIO ...