Winning Ugly New Theme of CFL Stretch Drive

October 11, 2018 - 8:17am

Thanksgiving Weekend served up a number of turkeys on a several  fronts, and judging from the lists of TSN/CFL sponsors being compiled in Edmonton by Schmoe fans for potential boycotts, there seem to be seconds for everyone.

Some playoff clinching and eliminations have taken place with the Grey Cup hangover now becoming official in Toronto as the Argonauts were eliminated with a 26-23 loss to BC; Montreal was eliminated in 12-6 snoozer loss to Calgary, while the Riders apparently clinched with a 19-12 win over Deadmonton and Winnipeg seems to have gotten it’s groove back with a 40-32 overtime win against Ottawa.

So let’s start with Winnipeg, which was staring at the possibility that it’s season was going to go down the drain if it lost in Ottawa. What went off the rails for Winnipeg during its four game losing streak was the offense disappeared in some dark hole underneath Dollarama Stadium.

To be more precise, what seemed to have happened and is continuing to some extent, is that Winnipeg’s American receivers are not worth a damn, their Canadian receivers are showing some promise and so Winnipeg is relying on Andrew Harris to run the ball and their defense to hold other teams to a reasonable level.

Whether that is a result of poor recruiting or coaching, or perhaps Winnipeg is really close to the salary cap and therefore couldn’t bring in some vets like Bakari Grant to give Matt Nichols some comfort is something that may be better known once the season is over.  A defining win against a sinking Edmonton team combined with the win against an inconsistent Ottawa team has set up Saturday’s third match against the Riders as a chance to move within two points of second and separate themselves further from the western pack.

For Ottawa, the question of consistency once again enters into the conversation. When Ottawa is good, they are very good, but they are not very good for very long whether it is between games or even within games where they sleep-walked for the first three quarters and 10 minutes only to come alive in the last five minutes of the game.

Ottawa is still holding onto to first place in the east, but losing the time of possession big time against the Bombers, in addition to taking 12 penalties, points to a team that lacks the mental discipline to demonstrate the consistency a team needs to win the Grey Cup. Ottawa may win one playoff game, maybe two, but they haven’t shown they have the discipline or ability to win three games in the only three game winning streak that will matter this year.

Winnipeg’s win puts them ahead of Edmonton and BC, although BC still have a game in hand to play around with, although they have two games left against first place Calgary. Winnipeg’s strength for the rest of the season will be their defense and where their fortunes may rise or fall is whether their offense is up to the challenge of meeting the standard the defense is setting on the field.

BC’s 26-23 win over Toronto not just eliminated the Argos, but also resulted in some fault-lines being exposed on the BC sideline and also a potential franchise defining move on the Argo sideline. The story heading into the game was how BC GM Ed Hervey questioned the work ethic of quarterback Jonathon Jennings who has gone 3-1 since replacing an injured Travis Lulay.

Hervey said compared to some of the quarterbacks he has been around, like Mike Reilly and Ricky Ray and even Jason Maas, Jennings does not appear to spend the same time with his coordinators and watching film that those players did. Jennings kept quiet but his agent shot back with a great line that Hervey doesn’t know anything about Jenning’s habits since he is the last guy in the Lions facility each day.

Whether it is Jenning’s work habits, or whether it is due to a lack of confidence since coming back from a shoulder injury, Jennings career seems to have followed the trajectory of Cory Printers, a quarterback who once came on the scene like a supernova, only to burn out through a combination of injury and relying too much on an ability to improvise.

With the Lions back in the playoff race, but as mentioned, now facing Calgary twice in the upcoming weeks, the Lions have decided to see if Lulay’s shoulder has fully recovered enough to provide the leadership a playoff push requires. That vote of non-confidence in Jennings, never mind the precarious state of Lulay’s health, makes it clear that Jennings won’t likely play a role in BC’s plans next year, expected to be the first year of the post-Wally Buono era.

Lulay is not the only reinforcement the Lions are bringing with them to Calgary. Tyrell Sutton, the reliable running back obtained from Montreal for a bag of magical beans, will likely start in place of Jeremiah Johnson who has seemed to be serviceable when called upon, but hasn’t been called upon that much.

The more physical Sutton may be more useful for the Lions against a Calgary defensive line which is fast emerging as the strength of that unit to compensate for the rash of injuries that have devastated the Calgary receiving corps. The Lions are hoping for the return of Manny Arceneaux at receiver and maybe Solomon Elimimian to reinforce the team for a playoff run, but it seems Wally and company are relying on the leadership skills of their veterans to make a difference.

It’s a formula that seems to have worked on the BC defense, which may be looking at the decimated Calgary receiving corps, even if Calgary does activate former Rookie of the Year Chris Matthews, as one less headache on Saturday. Watching the Stampeders against Montreal on Monday and Bo Levi Mitchell’s mostly miss performance with his receiving corps, it seems obvious Calgary has not come up with replacements for DaVaris Daniels (out for likely the season with a broken collarbone), Kemar Jordan (out of the season with knee injuries) and Reggie Beggleton (out for the year with a broken arm), or Mitchell just needs to work more with the replacements over these last few games to get ready for the playoffs.

BC released running back Travon Van, a former Eskimo who Hervey brought in originally with Edmonton, to make room with Sutton. While Hervey can be very off-putting, he has made a number of moves to fill in the gaps of the BC Lions and get them somewhat in shape to make the playoffs. Contrast that with the seemingly lack of activity elsewhere and the antics of Kavis Reed, and you have to be impressed BC is still swinging at this stage of the season.

As mentioned earlier, either Calgary really knows how to have a good time in Montreal, or maybe the injuries to Calgary’s receiving corps have weakened the consistency of the Calgary offensive attack and perhaps made them vulnerable, if not now, then definitely in the playoffs. What kept Calgary afloat against Montreal was the Calgary defensive line and defense as a whole who managed to sack Johnny Manziel five times.

While Calgary has all but clinched first place, where in previous years Calgary has gone through a bit of complacency at this time in the schedule, there is still an element of uncertainty facing the Stampeders in the last part of the schedule. The Stampeders have a home and home with BC, a home date against the Riders and a visit to the Bombers – all teams looking to to not just make the playoffs, but also try to get the best possible position before the November to Remember gets underway.

Calgary has a two game lead on the Riders with a game in hand, but dropping a couple of games and if the Riders can surge, can make what seemed like a sure thing anything less than. Injuries have made Calgary’s offense a bit more vulnerable to a good defense, and in November, defenses tend to win championships.

Montreal’s loss eliminated it and made the team a potential seller on the free agent marketplace. Johnny Manziel has looked better with more experience, but Montreal’s offensive line have given up 60 sacks this season, 26 sacks more than the next team in line. Running around maybe Manziel’s forte, but with no help, he would probably be better off playing street football somewhere and run less risk of injury.

When the cameras on him, Manziel is saying the right things about working harder as a quarterback and as a team, so perhaps he can continue the NFL that he has turned the corner from the spoiled drunken fool he was in Cleveland. He has one more year on his CFL contract and Kavis Reed must be praying to the Dark Lords for some kind of miracle to plop a team around Manziel and convince him to stay.

Montreal could be looking to move John Bowman, who has been a class act on the Montreal defensive line and deserves to wind up his career better than this. Montreal is another of those teams that seems to be running into salary cap problems and a lack of draft picks, so something needs to give here. It also seems that Kavis is on tap for another year as the Wetenhall owners seem determined to show how stubborn they are to prove they know what they are doing.

Another player who might be gone is Adarius Bowman who has gone from Edmonton to Winnipeg to Montreal but who could be a cheaper addition to an injury wracked receiving corps somewhere in the league.

Then we have Deadmonton, where the flames from the latest tire fire have illuminated what may have been unthinkable a couple of months ago – this might be Mike Reilly’s last year in Edmonton. Whether or not you think the hit on Reilly which preceeded  the Willy Jefferson pick six touchdown to win the game for the Riders was roughing the passer or not, Mass’ comments about Reilly throwing the pick six are not the way to make your quarterback feel  like he should sign a new contract in the off-season.

Consider this scenario – Mike Reilly has announced he will not sign a new contract until the off-season and maybe waiting to see what the  new collective bargaining agreement might have in store. With Hervey, his former GM seeming to throw Jennings under the bus and signing the praises of Reilly for working with coordinators on game plans, let’s say the Lions sign Paul La Police in the offseason as the new coach, then sign Reilly and pair him with his good friend Travis Lulay. The move would bring Reilly closer to his home in Washington State and BC looks better to the local marketplace as a legit Grey Cup contender.

It’s a bit ironic because the Schmoes fired their special teams coordinator after getting thumped by Winnipeg at home and except for a major hit on a punt return, there seemed to be nothing exceptional or improved about Edmonton’s special teams. The problem in Edmonton lies with their offensive line which gave up enough pressure to force Reilly to make throws he couldn’t and an offensive philosophy that seems to rely on hitting the big play instead of maybe being more open to say a balanced attack and taking what the defense is giving you.

Which would suggest that Maas maybe fired the wrong coordinator, but since he is also the offensive coordinator, then maybe that particular option is not yet in the cards. The fan forums in Edmonton have been in arms over this latest flagrant assault on the Empire with lists being compiled of league and television sponsors to be boycotted because of the blatant favortism shown towards the Riders and everyone else not wearing an EE.

God bless those Edmonton fans. Not even here in Riderville where there are more conspiracy theories about the proclivities of every reffing crew than Fox News has time to air during an episode of Fox and Friends, has anyone suggested boycotting league and television sponsors. Here we talk about not buying Rider merchandise, which for the third biggest selling sports franchise in Canada, would be more a financial hit.

Edmonton has now managed to go nine quarters without scoring a touchdown, which considering this team was widely thought to be the second most talented team in the league, is quite something and goes to the point of not believing everything you read. The approach of the Eskimos to hosting the Grey Cup, which seemed to assume they were already there and the experience they had would be enough to out them over the top, seems to have them in danger of watching this from the outside and sparking a massive Grey Cup ticket dump which could well benefit Rider fans.

Ah Rider fans, what does all this mean? Let’s be honest about the Thanksgiving Game – it was a dog, saved only in the last minute and notable for the way the ball bounced off of receiver Kenny Shaw’s head when he was wide open, Brent Lauther missing two field goals and the seemingly endless wait for a call on whether there would be a roughing the passer call on Reilly on the pick six.

Rider fans can shake their heads in how many close games the Riders have been involved in and can debate whether it means the team is ready for its Grey Cup moment. Well consider that every team has a weak spot and no one, not even  Calgary, should be regarded as a lock for the Grey Cup, never mind a spot in the game.

For the Riders, their offense is a work in progress, with the receiving corps being basically blown up at the start of the season and put together with promising and cheaper parts to help pay for Zach Collaros’ contract. Whether or not he has delivered on what he is being paid is an open book until after the playoffs. If you pay someone big money, they better deliver a champsionship.

Speaking of which, the Riders swung a trade with Montreal, sending Canadian receiver Joshua Sanford to Montreal in exchange for offensive lineman Philip Blake and receiver Patrick Lavoie. Apparently Dan Clark of the Riders is injured and the Riders have to shift Brendan LaBatte over to cover for that and hence the trade with Montreal.

The Riders also display a tendency to play to the level of their opponents, with maybe the exception of Ottawa who managed to thwart Chris Jones defensive schemes and more importantly, make the offense look even more basic than what it is.

With a short week, the Riders head to Winnipeg to complete their trilogy with the Bombers who are smacking their toothless gums at the prospect of getting within two points of the Riders. The Riders seem to be doing all this with a kind of smoke and mirrors approach that doesn’t suggest sustained success in the playoffs, but in the playoffs in colder weather, you tend to win by not turning the ball over and making the other team turn it over. So looking at it from that perspective, the Riders have just a good a shot as anyone else.

So this week we have a Hamilton visit Toronto for a Friday game and a late breaking rumor on Wednesday had former receiver Terrell Sinkfield express interest in rejoining the team after trying the NFL the last few seasons. The problem may come down to dollars and sense whether Sinkfield will be more than just a rental player for the stretch drive. And then Sinkfield signs, a big addition for the Cats.

The sinking of the Good Ship Argo after a Grey Cup win last season makes one wonder if last season was smoke and mirrors, or if the Argos will make a move and get rid of coach Marc Trestman or GM Jim Popp or both. Part of the problem with the Argos is MLSE, who owns them, treats them as nothing but a tax writeoff, starting with the appointment of TFC president Bill Manning as the Argo President.

MLSE has managed to create cult audiences of the Maple Leafs, Raptors and TFC, and is maybe trying with the Argos, although some simple competence would go a long way. Manning doesn’t seem to know anything about the CFL and having a philosophy other than signing the most high profile free agent or miscreant that the other MLSE properties seem to operate under would go some way to trying to maintain consistency.

Popp seems inclined to go with the bigger PR splashes while Trestman would prefer to go the lower key route with players who care for each enough to help the team get the inevitable troughs they would endure during a season. The injury of Ricky Ray threw a spanner in the mix and forced Trestman to try to figure out whether James Franklin or McLeod Bethel-Thompson had what it took to be a quarterback in this option.

Throw into this the inability of the Toronto offensive line to block anyone and how the Argos got here is not a mystery. The question of where do they go from here and Friday night will see if James Franklin will have what it takes to lead the team into the future assuming Ray will announce his retirement after the season.

So this is the start of a prolonged training camp for the Argos with an audience expected to be made up of mostly Hamilton fans. Hamilton has more at stake in this game than the Argos do, but a competitive game may prove to upper management that Trestman was the victim of bad lucky more than anything else this season.  Hamilton wins this one 30-23.

On Saturday is a triple header with the first game featuring the Riders and the Bombers in a game Bomber fans are salivating over because hey, the Grey Cup dream still lives! Both teams are an ironic mirror image with a good, maybe great defense on both sides, but with an offense that shows the precision of a drunk trying to walk a straight line during a roadside check.

While it is a short week for the Riders, the Bombers will have some uncertainty around their own roster, including Weston Dressler who left practice early Wednesday and came back but didn’t play. The secret for the Bombers to winning will be to rely on Andrew Harris running over the Riders while keeping the turnovers to a minimum.

The Bomber defense will likely get physical with the Riders kiddie corps receiving corps not really fearing any receive to break anything open and focusing on stopping the running game to keep the Riders one dimensional. The Bombers will feel, justifiably that being physical with the Rider receivers will prevent them from hitting the patterns that might break them free as opposed to relying on natural speed and no one fears Collaros’ arm strength.

The Riders have won seven of eight and actually are pretty good on the road with a 5-2 record while the Bombers have a 4-3 home record. The law of averages and perhaps the way the Riders have been winning suggest the string of narrow victories cannot continue until the end of November and to be honest, a loss here doesn’t hurt the Riders since the Riders already have the season series.

 The Riders have made a habit of surprising me, but there are certain times on the schedule when it seems the Riders are fated for a loss. This looks like one of them – Bombers 28-25.

Ottawa goes to Edmonton and watching the Eskimos has all the morbid appeal of driving past an accident. Whether it is coaching or whether it is the offensive line, the Eskimos have the defense to be a good team, especially how they pushed the Riders offensive line around and stuffed their running game, but their offense can be had with the key provided by Winnipeg of blitz now, blitz often.

Ottawa is the champion of inconsistency and betting on the Redblacks is tempered by trying to imagine which team will show up. The Eskimos not scoring a touchdown in nine quarters is maybe an indication this team should wake up in front of their home fans in what is a must win type of game.

But then again, the moves out of Edmonton suggest a team that is reflecting the character of its head coach and flailing about looking for a scapegoat. Noel Thorpe is a believer in pressure and after watching Edmonton’s last two games against Winnipeg and Saskatchewan will make the natural assumption that you might as well continue to pressure Edmonton until they can show they can actually block a defensive blitz.

This should be one of the better games, probably from trying to figure out which teams will show up. Ottawa will be looking to trying to hang on to top spot, especially considering that Hamilton will be coming in for a home and home series which will likely settle the matter and Ottawa already has a game up on Hamilton in that series.

Edmonton will be playing for their playoff lives, which is ironic since they are hosting the Grey Cup this year and had designs on playing in the game in front of their fans. Expect Edmonton to come up with a better offensive effort  and to pull out the stops to try to stuff Ottawa’s offense, but in the end, it will not be enough as Ottawa beats Edmonton 28-27.

Finally we have BC at Calgary and this will be an interesting game with Lulay starting for BC, BC’s bad road record, Calgary’s decimated receiving corps and Calgary’s outstanding defensive line. For BC, this is a chance to separate itself from Edmonton and make a move up the western conference standings while Calgary will look to try to rebound from an awful offensive performance against Montreal.

For Calgary the key will be trying to find some kind of rhythm with their passing game while BC will do everything to affect the timing. It should be an interesting game with a playoff atmosphere and Calgary should win this one 28-21.

 

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