Looking Forward to 2018

January 2, 2018 - 10:17am

As we turned the lights out on 2017 there has been enough going on in the CFL post-season to keep things interesting and heighten interest in 2018.

The hiring of Randy Ambrosie is starting to look like one of the more inspired choices by the CFL and represents a change in attitude from a league that tends to operate like nine separate fiefdoms and not as an organization looking to grow or maintain interest. Besides reducing the number of challenges, Ambrosie deciding to open the off-season meetings to the media is a welcome step forward. The NFL has managed to create interest in things like the upcoming Black Monday following the regular season when coaches and GM’s get fired, to the players combine, to free agency to the draft that keep fans interested in the offseason.

Major League Baseball has their awards in the offseason, then the Winter meetings, free agency and then spring training. The idea is to keep your product in the sports discussion and hopefully build interest towards when the season starts.

The CFL started a bit last year with their CFL week and combining it with the players combine in Regina. It was great meeting CFL stars of the present and past and watching the combine testing of players and seeing how things operate.

This year the CFL Week and Combine are in Winnipeg and fans there should take the event in and indulge their armchair GM evaluation of future talent.

With the CFL CBA coming up in 2019, there are going to be some interesting issues for the league to get their heads around and perhaps not surprisingly, the issues are interconnected with one another and could play a factor in how teams approach the next two to three years.

With a potential Atlantic CFL expansion franchise in Halifax, the league is going to have to look at how they might structure the expansion draft and address the issue of how many Canadian starters should there be on the roster. Tied in with that is the question of whether Canadian quarterbacks can count towards the ratio and if so, how this will affect how teams are structured.

With the Ottawa expansion a pretty recent memory and seeing the success of the franchise on and off the field, one of the issues/questions has been the quality of Canadian talent in the league and whether there is enough to stock a 10th franchise without seriously watering down the Canadian talent of other teams. Quality Canadian starters tend to get paid more because they are so much more valuable and rarer than American starters.

The problem is whether there is enough Canadian talent to back up the starters because if you have a Canadian starter who goes down and you put in an American backup, you need to pull an American starter elsewhere and replace him with a Canadian. So you need not just a good Canadian starter, but a backup and they both had better be able to play football.

The nature of the Canadian university system which plays fewer games and is more geared towards trying to make players student-athletes is a challenge. Compare the football preparation of Canadian university players to American university players who come from football factories otherwise masquerading as universities, and the rule of thumb that a Canadian player needs about three years of exposure to professional football before being able to contribute in a meaningful way comes into effect.

So while adding an expansion team will add to team coffers, including David Braley who is holding onto the BC Lions to cash in on his share of the expansion fee and hopefully gin up the price of the BC Lions with a better season than last year, there will be added costs to adding a 10th team, especially travel and with another team bidding for Canadian talent, well things get interesting there.

It would therefore be in the owners interest to reduce the number of Canadian starters who would make more money than their American counterparts in an effort to keep their costs in check. Another gremlin in the room when it comes to the CFL is the question of television ratings and contract and what will happen when the current contract with TSN ends.

Depending on who you ask, ratings are either dropping compared to other years or maintaining their own in a changing marketplace. A look south of the border shows the NFL is also suffering a ratings drop, even though advertising revenue is doing well.

There are a combination of factors including people cutting their cable cords because the cost is not worth getting few channels you want and being saddled with others you never watch. The NFL is exploring other broadcast options and while Jeffrey Orridge, the former commissioner, may have faded into the wordwork, some of what I heard indicated this was an issue he was trying to get the league to face with questionable results.

So when the CFL contract comes up for renewal, the CFL may have to face that the money it gets from the current contract may not be in the next contract and they may want to look at having not just TSN broadcast games. The CFL has left money and interest on the field with their exhibition games, most of which are not televised, the draft, which has a lousy presentation with maybe an hour long show, the opening of free agency which compared to the production for the NHL free agency non event is also non-existent.

The proposal for moving up the CFL schedule to avoid holding late season games in frigid weather, especially on the prairies, has been running into oppositon because it may conflict with the NHL playoffs. Which is where either having another broadcast partner or two or different platforms, becomes more important.

If either Rogers Sportsnet or the CBC wanted to bid on a portion of the package, say exhibition games, or perhaps CFL Week/Combine – draft day, then why not let them? Or if someone comes up with a package where you could watch games on a mobile package or even see games you miss if you weren’t able to see them the first time, then maybe the CFL will take another step towards meeting the changing needs of their fans.

It takes vision and imagination to pull something like that off, and this will be the major challenge facing Randy Ambrosie. Here is another suggestion for him to consider – perhaps the CFL in an effort to develop Canadian players, and perhaps grow the games not just in traditional markets, but perhaps new ones, look at an Arena league format in from say January or February to April.

With smaller rosters because of the limitations of the arena format, you could develop either Canadian draft picks or free agents alongside say, American or Canadian quarterbacks you may want to sign or have signed and want to get work. So with an arena style league, you could have teams in say Halifax, or Moncton, Quebec City, Saskatoon, Kelowna, Victoria, along the regular CFL stops and start developing players prior to the CFL regular training camp and not only keeping the Canadian game in the public mind, but growing it in potential future markets.

I realize it’s not as easy as I set out, but here is a thought – maybe instead of being insular and expecting people to show up because it is some kind of civic duty, maybe work to be a reason for people to show up and if they are entertained, maybe they will come back, and maybe in that process, the CFL can also address the issue of developing Canadian players so that you can have Canadian quarterbacks playing and even starting and if teams have an opportunity to develop Canadian quarterbacks, in say an Arena like format, they will do so especially if having a Canadian quarterback counting as a starter allows you to start an American somewhere else.

So what does this have to do with the Saskatchewan Roughriders? Well, they, along with the Calgary Stampeders, have Canadian quarter backs on their rosters and Brandon Bridge saw significant playing time last year and if he can take the next step, can perhaps be a starter in 2018 or 2019.

Bridge signed a one year contract extension with the Riders which significantly takes him to the expiration of the current CBA and the question of whether a starting Canadian quarterback will now count towards to the ratio. If the league and players association agree that a Canadian quarterback does count, then Bridge’s value goes up after the next CBA and other teams will start looking at which other Canadian quarterbacks are there and if they can play and how teams can potentially develop them.

While Bridge recognizes there is an opportunity, he will also have to take the next steps towards showing he is deserving of such a chance. What made Bridge’s appearances successful is that stylistically he was different from Kevin Glenn, who is a pocket and rhythm passer. When Glenn has time to get into a groove, he is difficult to beat, but when he is place behind an offensive line as inconsistent as the Riders, it didn’t take long for him to get pulled both for his own health and to put someone who was able to extend plays by running around.

A couple of years ago during a Riders Pros and Joes Night where you could have snacks with Rider players and tour the facilities, I sat at a table with offensive lineman Chris Best and asked about playing with then quarterback Brett Smith. Smith came in and ran around and sometimes he made plays, sometimes he didn’t, and Best said he prefered playing with a quarterback who stayed in the pocket because he knew where the quarterback was and knew as a lineman he had to block for a number of seconds before the ball was away instead of looking around and trying to hook onto someone to stop them chasing down an elusive quarterback.

Bridge made some pretty impressive plays and almost brought the Riders back in a number of games, but also did not play consistently by making the right reads and throws. That comes with experience and coaching and with the Riders losing quarterback coach Jarious Jackson who has become the offensive coordinator with the BC Lions, who the Riders bring in to now work with Bridge will be crucial to not just Bridge’s development, but perhaps whether he stays with the Riders after next season.

BC released offensive coordinator Khari Jones, who used to be the quarterback coach with the Riders in 2013, and would perhaps be logical choice to fill that role again. Then again there is Kevin Glenn who wants to come back and get that elusive Grey Cup ring, but is facing the problem of playing behind the Riders offensive line.

While the Riders made it to the Eastern Final, only to lose to the eventual Grey Cup Champion Toronto Argonauts, their future success is tied to whether or not their offensive line can give their quarterbacks enough time to operate effectively. The Riders big free agency signing of 2017,  offensive lineman Derek Dennis, has his flaws exposed in the first game the Riders played against Calgary and injuries hampered his effectiveness for the season.

The Riders also have the question of whether Josiah St. John, the #1 overall draft pick of 2016, can move into a starting position and contribute. While St. John was drafted #1, he did not really get a lot of playing time at Oklahoma and even lost his job as a starter in his senior year.

St. John was drafted on potential and Rider fans can only hope he has wisely spent the last two years learning to build up his body and hone his technique and is prepared to make his mark in his third year. By comparison, Dariusz Bladek, a 2017 draft pick, saw more playing time, but then again, he is older and had played more NCAA football. Which again points toward the need for a development league like an arena football league for the CFL.

The signing of Bridge becomes interesting because the quarterback everyone assumes the Riders would want, James Franklin, got traded from Edmonton to Toronto. Franklin came into the CFL in Edmonton when Chris Jones was head coach and Jones is familiar with him.

Whether Franklin will sign with Toronto, especially with Ricky Ray as the starter there is an open question. Franklin did not want to continue backing up Mike Reilly in Edmonton and the opportunity for starting jobs lie elsewhere, like Saskatchewan and Montreal and potentially Toronto if Ray retires or moves on in free agency back to say, Edmonton.

Franklin apparently may want to try his NFL options and while NFL teams are realizing having two quarterbacks who can play may be essential to a successful team, trying to find two quarterbacks capable of starting is harder than it looks and Franklin doesn’t have much film to go on. If Franklin signs with Toronto or goes elsewhere, Jones needs to have options in place and Bridge is one of those options.

The Riders also have quarterback Marquisse Williams and David Watford and when free agent camps reopen in two weeks, there may be others on the horizon. The Riders also have Penn State quarterback Trace McSorley on their negotiation list who did well in the Fiesta Bowl win but may be considered too short for the NFL at 6’1”. One of Chris Jones priorities is developing a franchise quarterback, but then again, to win in either the CFL or NFL, you need two quarterbacks capable of starting and if Plan A was going after Franklin and he isn’t available, then the Riders need to have Plan B on a parallel track and work on developing what they have.

The Riders have resigned punt returner Christian Jones, defensive back Jovan Johnson, offensive lineman Thaddeus Coleman, and Canadian receiver Mitchell Picton, Canadian linebacker Alexandre Chevrier, Canadian linebacker Alexandre Gagne and Canadian offensive lineman Danny Sprukulis. Gagne is also a long-snapper and depth is always important there, and the others were draft picks who had college eligibility remaining and went back to get more playing time.

I think CFL Free Agency starts February 15 so while we can excuse the Christmas-New Years break for lack of news (but then again, if the CFL would make public teams negotiation lists, it would make for interesting viewing of the various US Bowl Games for CFL fans to see where their potential stars could be coming from) there should be news coming out in January as to who is coming back and how the Riders will fill out their coaching staff.

The Riders have the 5th, 10th, 14th, 36th, 45th and 63rd draft picks coming up in the draft and while they have tended to draft best athlete available, or guessed which was the best athlete because their first pick Cameron Judge in 2017 was a bit of loose cannon with his wild Twitter feeds, the Riders extensive scouting and looking for players in any and all circumstances should perhaps focus on areas of the greatest need, like either offensive line or perhaps defensive line.

The Riders were a game away from the Grey Cup in 2017 even though they had to cross over to do so.  Chris Jones would probably agree the team did not play up to its potential at times and consistency is something the team needs if it is going to make it to and win the Grey Cup.

So both the CFL and the Riders are facing their challenges for 2017, but there are signs that perhaps the fortunes of both organizations are getting set to change. With a league that seems ready to respond to change and perhaps bring an expansion team into the fold by 2020, there is a lot to get excited about for CFL fans in 2018.

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