When the Riders were say, 3-4 and looking to jettison the aspiring defensive back Duron Carter, it seemed the Rider season was threatening to circle around a drain of despair and disillusionment so profound it would have made Game of Thrones look like a barbecue cooking show.
However after the Riders 35-16 win over the BC Lions to finish at 12-6, not a common record for this team and evening Chris Jones’ record with the Riders at 27-27, the Riders are looking at this weekend from not just the perspective of a team enjoying a final bye week before the playoffs, but tht of a team that could finish in first by 11 pm Saturday night.
That would mean the BC Lions will have beaten the Calgary Stampeders in the season finale at BC Place, and dropped the Stampeders record to 12-6 but then the Riders would claim first for having won the season series 2-1. It’s sparked a lot of discussion whether you would want to have three weeks off before playing perhaps the biggest game of the season to get you into the Grey Cup.
That is an interesting question because history has shown that sometimes in the so-called meaningless games as all but one seem to be, the stupidest things can happen that will affect a team for the rest of the playoffs.
A prime example was in 2013 when Calgary played BC in the last game of the regular season, pretty meaningless because Calgary had clinched and was resting their starters for the playoffs. The problem came when Calgary lost their two starting defensive tackles and even with a week bye, couldn’t come up with anything and the Riders ran through them en route to the 2013 Grey Cup.
When Odel Willis laid out Zach Collaros in the first quarter and sent him to the sidelines for the rest of the game, it occurred while watching Brandon Bridge struggle mightily to complete even a bubble pass, that the Riders suffered an injury at the position critical to making a playoff run.
Then Willie Jefferson stripped Travis Lulay of the football for a fumble recovery and TD by Zach Evans and later on Ed Gainey scored on a pick six to make the case if the Riders are going to contend, their defense and special teams will keep them in and their offense only had to avoid turning it over.
So teams are playing with their lineups with the Ottawa Redblacks indicating Trevor Harris will sit out their final game against Toronto. Expect Matt Nichols to take only a few snaps as Winnipeg goes to Edmonton, while Jon Jennings is expected to see most of the action as BC hosts Calgary in the game all of Saskatchewan will be watching.
This is a no-win situation for teams heading into the playoffs because if they know they have a spot locked up, why lose someone to injury in a game that is meaningless. The problem is with small CFL rosters, the odds are someone is going to be injured on what might be the most innoculous looking of plays.
There is also other kinds of drama around these games. Consider the Toronto-Ottawa game where thanks to the fine reporting from the Toronto Sun, it appears Argo Head Coach Marc Trestman has been dealing with his mother battling cancer this season. That likely does not explain the Argos 4-13 record – the Ricky Ray injury combined with an offensive line that wasn’t there and a defense that forgot how to play likely handled that, but it indicates the Argos will have to show they are ready to move ahead to the future.
It is highly unlikely Ricky Ray is back and this season showed why it is risky to pin a team’s hopes on someone as injury prone as Ray. The Argos trade for James Franklin did not apparently pay off this season as Franklin, highly regarded as a back-up behind Mike Reilly in Edmonton, did not seem all that ready for his close-up in Toronto. Possibly poor work habits seemed to result in limited effectiveness and hopefully Franklin realizes that just having potential isn’t enough, you actually need to work at it.
Work is something the Argos defense definitely needs and if GM Jim Popp and Trestman are given a mulligan for this season, there has to be changes on the defensive side of the ball. It could be argued that Cory Chamblin in choosing to stay in the States to jump start his career screwed the Argos over by leaving them few options to fill his absence, and I would not argue against that.
However that is now in the past and Trestman and Popp have to to decide what kind of defense they want this team to have and who can best run that defense. Chamblin was a good tactician but he can also be a good motivator and that is what the Argos need, a tactician who can light a fire under this teams collective butt when needed.
Ottawa is going to split the game between Dominque Davis and Ed O’Brien at QB while getting as many scrubs in as possible and not giving either Hamilton or BC any hint as to what to expect in the eastern final. It worked for Ottawa at the start of the season when they had a bye in week one and then surprised the Riders 40-17. It should work in the eastern final.
So considering this is a glorified exhibition game with Ottawa’s sole concern of avoiding serious injury to starters, Toronto should win this one 20-14 in what might be one of the more painful games to watch.
On Saturday the triple header starts with Winnipeg at Edmonton. Winnipeg has clinched third, but don’t know if they are going to Calgary or Saskatchewan. Right now the Bombers are ranked number one because they are playing among the best football in the country with a five game winning streak.
Mike O’ Shea has been canvassing his players about their opinions on whether Matt Nichols should be playing, or perhaps for how long. Winnipeg will be trying to avoid major injuries while ensuring their defense continues to operate at a high level.
In Edmonton the pot is being stirred by Arash Madani who says Edmonton is looking to talk to various assistant coaches across the CFL to determine their interest in taking the top job in Edmonton. Well first off, that is tampering while the season is ongoing and second, the jury may still be out as to whether coaching or structure is responsible for the Eskimos fumbling their opportunity to play in a home Grey Cup.
A lot has been said, and Jebus knows I am in this number, about Jason Maas and his displays of temper on the sidelines. It is no coincidence the Eskimos are among the league leaders in penalty yardage since the tone seems set from the top down.
Now to be fair to Maas, and this is something I didn’t know until this week, but his father was a police officer killed in Arizona when Maas was young and that desire to prove himself, while not having something of a governor on his emotions, may explain the displays on the sideline and perhaps how he has recognized that and tried to dial that back in the second half of the season.
One of the possibilities that should be looked at is relieving Maas of the responsibilities of offensive coordinator, because quite frankly, there some strange calls made by Maas that perhaps someone who didn’t have responsibility for the total team performance might have decided differently. If Maas stepped back from his offensive play calling duties and tried to coach as a coach, not as a quarterback reliving past glories under centre, somewhat like Kent Austin, then maybe Edmonton is not that far off.
It may be how Maas handles himself during this game will go a long way to determining his future in Edmonton, and perhaps Mike Reilly’s as well. Reilly is a free agent at the end of this season and it is said the structure of the Eskimos may have him consider returning to BC, where he started and just across the border from his home, or maybe Saskatchewan under his old head coach Chris Jones, or maybe even Calgary if Bo Levi Mitchell heads south to the NFL.
It’s nice to have options and even though Reilly is 34 years old, the leadership qualities he brings a team would be tremendous for a team looking to get and win a Grey Cup. If Maas gets canned, he could well end up in BC under his old boss Ed Hervey, and that might well indicate where Reilly is headed. For a BC team trying to re-establish itself on the left coast, Reilly would give them a shot of credibility in the post-Wally world.
Edmonton GM Brock Sutherland has said this game represents the start of next season and anyone who doesn’t show up to play will be gone. Winnipeg doesn’t really care if it wins or not, it just wants to get this game uninjured. Edmonton on the other hand is looking for some self-respect after a disappointing season.
For that reason, take the Eskimos in this one. Winnipeg would like the win, but then again, their season continues next week and they will be saving their ammunition for the westen final. Edmonton will be playing to probably prove to Mike Reilly there is a future there and he could win another Grey Cup. An Edmonton loss and that might be the last game Mike Reilly plays as an Eskimo. Esks win this one 31-30.
We then have Montreal at Hamilton in what might be yet another painful game to watch. Johnny Manziel got his first win as a quarterback, but the funnier thing of this past week was Montreal signing up all but Drew Willy in their quarterback stable. There is nothing but individual moments to play for for Montreal, including John Bowman who may or may return next year, and the emergence of William Stanback at running back.
Hamilton will be resting their starters in preparation for BC, while Montreal will divide the playing time among the available quarterbacks and then go from there. For Hamilton, the biggest thing will be trying to get some momentum back after blowing two games against Ottawa and then needing to fill the selfish shoes of Brandon Banks who felt he should have been the team’s most outstanding player instead of Jeremiah Masoli. That type of selfish attitude is not new, especially when you recall the 2014 Grey Cup.
Hamilton should win an ugly game 23-19 as they give perhaps courtesy touches to their starters before raiding the bench for players. Montreal will take solace in that they played it close and try to come to some idea as to whether Johnny Manziel is for real or just a fad.
Finally we come to the season finale as Calgary goes to BC to try to clinch first place while the Lions attempt to rebound from last week’s loss to the Riders and try to win one for Wally in his final regular season game at BC Place.
BC has no real motivation other than that to try to win one for Wally and they will likely use a lot of Jon Jennings who looks like he will be auditioning for a spot somewhere next season. He will be facing a Calgary defense which has somehow managed to wilt when the Stamps offense has failed to move the ball and suddenly what should have been a cakewalk to first place has raised the real possibility that even if Calgary wins first place, it is anyone’s race in the west.
The big question in Calgary is whether the team can manage to cobble together an effective passing attack in time for the playoffs. Having the ability to move the ball would take pressure off the Calgary defense who showed well in the first half against Winnipeg, but the longer they were on the field, the more suspectible they got in the second half.
Common sense says that Calgary does not lose four games in a row and give up first place but the problems in Calgary may be deeper than originally suspected, If Bo Levi Mitchell is heading to the NFL after this season, he will likely not use film from the last three weeks.
And there is this, BC is 7-1 at home this season, which is a major reason why they are in the playoffs and Edmonton isn’t. And so, just for the heck of it, let’s say BC 28-24 over Calgary and BC fans can go home with their Wally bobblehead dolls and wonder what the future holds.
And somehow the Riders end up in first place…
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