After two games where the players don’t get paid but the home teams charge full price for tickets anyway, the 2013 Canadian Football League season starts in earnest next week. What have we learned from the exhibition pre-season?
First of all, we won’t need an 18-game season to know who’s going to make the playoffs: the only thing left to decide is in what order they’ll appear. The Edmonton Eskimos didn’t look that good on offence even before their starting quarterback was lost for the year (their defense didn’t look that bad in their last pre-season game against the B.C. Lions, however). And between some strange personnel decisions, bad judgement calls, and just a bad team all around, this year’s Winnipeg Blue Bombers may challenge the Saskatchewan Roughriders of 1959, the Roughriders of 1999, and the Hamilton Tiger-Cats of 2003 as the worst team in the CFL’s history.
(The Saskatchewan Roughriders won only one game in the 1959 season, as did the 2003 Ti-Cats (who played two more games in the regular season). The ’59 Riders should get the nod because their sole victory, if I recall correctly, was negated because the Riders violated some CFL personal rules on signing a player for that game. But most consider the 1999 Roughriders as the worst team in the CFL’s history – racked with internal dissension, QB Reggie Slack’s chemical addiction, and just the most unimaginative, incompetent, and disinterested play Canadian football has ever seen. That team was so bad, it could have meant the end of the franchise: when, just after Thanksgiving, Alan Ford resigned as general manager – or was fired in order to boost sales of the Friends of the Riders lottery, depending on who’s telling the story – the Riders’ board of directors had a near-impossible time to find anyone else who wanted the GM position – even Ron Lancaster said he wasn’t interested. And the Riders’ brass were so out of touch with the rest of the CFL’s operation that when they finally got around to interviewing the best scout in the CFL at the time (and boy did the Riders need help in scouting), Lions’ assistant GM Roy Shivers, team chairman Bob Ellard didn’t know who Shivers was – and Shivers was probably the only black guy walking through Regina International Airport.)
Take Thursday’s game in Guelph, for example. (The Ti-Cats’s former home, Ivor Wynne Stadium, was demolished at the end of last season, and will be replaced with a new 25K or so seat football stadium that’s to open in time for the 2015 Pan American Games, which will have events spread willy-nilly throughout the Greater Toronto Authority. Hamilton is supposed to host soccer games. In the meantime, the Ti-Cats will call the University of Guelph`s Alumni Stadium home. It has a seating capacity of about 13K, so expect a lot of western Canadian CFL fans – who know nothing about the challenges of marketing in southern Ontario – to complain about how communities don’t support their teams.)
The Bombers took only 40 players and left most of their veterans at home – a stupid to the point of smack-you-upside-the-farking-head move that means the first team will take longer to get into game shape and the team will have the momentum to China Syndrome. Maybe we should start a betting pool as to when the Bombers fire their head coach and GM. If prairie dog had one, I’d say they won’t make Labour Day. But it won’t matter too much as the entire psychology of the organization has to be fumigated – I mean, this is a football team whose new stadium was built with an outdoor press box. In Winnipeg. Earmuff and Armpit City. At the University of Manitoba Institute for Mosquito-Breeding Studies. (You’re from Winnipeg, aren’t you, Whitworth?)
But we’re supposed to be talking about the Roughriders here. Right.
Secondly, we’ve learned that the Roughriders of 2013 are suspiciously like the Roughriders of 1976 (it’s still too painful to bring up those memories, so I should warn you before you click on that YouTube page). I know of at least three stories of television sets that died unnatural deaths after Tony Gabriel’s reception (one by shotgun blast, two by beer bottles) and my parent’s RCA would have been next had they not sat on me for not only the last 25 seconds of the 1976 Grey Cup but also the post-game show. But the Riders’ folly came not when Ted Dushinski blew the coverage and let Gabriel come off the line unscathed but back about two years ago, when the Roughriders decided to go all in on a bunch of veterans who didn’t have much gas in the tank. Had the Riders elected to prune the deadweight instead of gambling on a Grey Cup appearance in 1976 (and many of the old guard wheezed their way into the 1977 roster), they, with some fortuitous drafting, would have finished the decade with some respectability. Instead, the Riders never made the playoffs for 12 years.
The current incarnation of of the Riders seem to have done the same thing. In the off-season, the Riders signed a lot of free agents – Dwight Edwards, Rickey Foley, Rey Williams, John Chick, Geroy Simon – but in the first half of Thursday’s game, they were pretty much anonymous. Which, in Edwards’ case, is fine. It meant the Stampeders weren’t throwing in his direction (Williams and Chick also did all right in their time). But the Roughriders paid Big Bucks for a lot of these older more experienced players, and in many cases, it looks as though instead of getting the players of old, they got old players.
The worst part is that it didn’t have to be this way – if the Riders had a good general manager. Which, in my opinion, they don’t. Brendan Taman, given the keys to the executive washroom, the liquor cabinet, and the right to sign players, brought in the CFL All-Star Team from 2008. Time has caught up to most of those players. It happens to everyone, but a good general manager in the CFL relies a lot more on scouting, bringing in younger (and cheaper) players thank playing ‘fantasy football’ with the players of yesteryear.
The major problem the Riders are going to have this season will be on the offensive line (starter Patrick Neufeld is on the nine-game injured list and in the two exhibition games the o-line looked very weak), the defensive secondary (teams will be able to convert second and very long as long as Richie Hall call the shots) and special teams (which, from the looks of Chris Milo’s kicking, don’t appear to be very special at all). The loudmouth schnooks on CKRM’s post-game call in show will instead blame everything on Darian Durant, apparently forgetting that no quarterback can do much when he’s spending more time running for his life and/or flat on his back than all of the last three years of Georges St. Pierre’s opponents combined.
With the Riders being as close to the CFL salary cap as damn is to swearing, it’s likely that some of these guys (such as Simon, who has apparently gone from being Superman to The Invisible Man) will start the season on the nine-game injury list (where the player’s salary doesn’t come under the team salary cap) or will be cut outright (if a CFL team cuts a veteran before Labour Day, the club isn’t on the hook for the player’s salary under the spending cap).
But what makes me me think most about 1976 is the Roughriders’ apparent inattention to long-term scouting. A team doesn’t replace a Ron Lancaster, a George Reed, or a Bill Baker – but you have to find the best players that are available, both in free agency and in the Canadian and U.S. college system, and set them up for success. The 1976 Roughriders instead gambled and lost everything on a last-chance bid on a Grey Cup, and with the championship game in Regina (the event is even subtitled ‘Celebration in Rider Nation’) there’ll be a lot of pressure on Taman and assistant GM Jeremy O’Day to deliver Right Expletive Now. As Calgary and British Columbia run away with the CFL West, watch for the Riders to make some risky, short term trades – picks in the Canadian draft, negotiation lsit players, that sort of thing – to bring in bigger names from other teams in trades. But I don’t think it’s going to work. When it’s Labour Day and the players from a sub-.500 Rider team talking about ‘the season starts now,’ you’ll know its over.
PREDICTION: Riders finish with an 8-10 record, third in the CFL West. B.C. defeats Hamilton for the Grey Cup.