Ironically it was just after I received an email asking about a number of Rider game worn jerseys I was putting up for sale that I got word about Chris Jones leaving the Riders for the Cleveland Browns.
I was looking to let go of some jerseys and Chris Jones decided to let go of his position as Vice-President of Football Operations, General Manager, Head Coach and Defensive Coordinator in favor of becoming a defensive specialist with the Browns. Coming a week after signing an extension, the extension did have a clause allowing Jones to jump for opportunities in either the NFL or NCAA.
As it turns out, Jones, a master networker, had landed the Browns job thanks to his acquaintance of newly hired Cleveland coach Freddie Kitchens Jr. through both of them being at the University of Alabama – Jones as a graduate coach and Kitchens as the Alabama quarterback.
When you look at how Jones abandoned the Edmonton Eskimos after winning the Grey Cup in 2015 and brought almost his entire staff to the Riders, Jones cutting loose of the Riders should not have come as a surprise. In the mercenary world of coaching, where you could lose your job at a moment’s notice, any chance to move up to the more lucrative world of NFL or NCAA coaching should be embraced – especially in the face of the CFL’s latest effort to shoot itself in the foot – the coaching numbers and football operations cap.
Of course the mandate that Jones had when he came to Saskatchewan – to build a sustainable and successful operation – will be put to the test now that he is gone and the Riders have to figure out how to work the Jenga puzzle that is their coaching staff with contracts for 2019 and finding a coach to fill two roles since Jones was both defensive coordinator and head coach.
The table seems to have been set for the Riders first move with Jeremy O’Day taking over as the General Manager. O’Day has served as interim manager before and for the last three years has been working with Jones, so if there is anything that O’Day has learned, this is a good time to put it into effect. The hiring of Paul Jones means the Riders should not lose much in terms of finding players, and how Jones’ contract will affect the football administration cap may dictate how the Riders proceed from here in either bringing in another assistant general manager, or dealing with their coaching situation.
Since Jones had filled out his coaching staff with him taking on two roles – coach and defensive coordinator – the Riders will be looking at finding a coach who could fill two positions. One name that has risen to the fore is Craig Dickenson who has been the Special Teams coordinator and who has been interviewed for the BC Lions job.
Dickenson would be a smart hire because special teams’ coaches deal with players from both offensive and defensive units and so the entire team will have an idea of how Dickenson will treat players. That would leave only a defensive coordinator to hire to keep within the parameters of the coaching limits being placed on the Riders.
The problem at this time of year is most coaching staffs have been settled for the upcoming year and so finding a coordinator may be harder than it looks. Hiring internally for a defensive coordinator may be an option – Jason Shivers is the defensive backfield coach whose secondary tied a CFL record for interceptions; Merritt Bowman is the guy with the 1970s hair who sent in defensive signals alongside Jones; and Cam Robinson is the linebacker coach. Giving one of them the reins to the defense may establish a bit of continuity, but it might be a bit much to ask coaches with just a bit of experience. However, it’s a leap of faith that works both ways, especially if one of them has ideas about the defense that keep the unpredictability of the Jones defense.
The timing of the move leaves the Riders without leadership heading into free agency and the CFL draft combine. The Riders under Jones were expected to made a strong play for Mike Reilly, based on the prior relationship between the two and with the understanding that the key for Reilly was a plan on how the team would win the Grey Cup and how Reilly would be a factor.
If the tipping point in that move would be the relationship between Jones and Reilly, the move by Jones effectively leaves the Riders as a very long shot unless say, Marc Trestman takes over. Or maybe Stephen McAdoo, the Riders offensive coordinator. In addition, the loyalty to Jones would have kept players like Willie Jefferson around as he said he would not be doing auditions for NFL teams because there is enough film on him.
With receiver Jordan Williams-Lambert signing with the Chicago Bears, Sam Eguavoen signing with Miami and then Jones going to Cleveland, expect to see Willie Jefferson signing with Cleveland as Jones knows what Jefferson can do. The Riders now have 35 year old Charleston Hughes at one defensive end, then Zac Evans at defensive tackle and a whole bunch of questions as to how the Riders defense will proceed into 2019.
If the Riders decide to pursue Marc Trestman, that still raises the question of who will be the defensive coordinator and who will have to assume two duties to keep the Riders within the limits of the football operations cap. Trestman would be a good chip to attract a free agent quarterback, possibly Reilly, but if the Riders can’t find a competent or credible defensive coordinator, the chances of the team building on their 12-6 record are not the best.
McAdoo came under fire last season for his offense and he is the assistant Head Coach and if he is hired, then the Riders only need to find one defensive coordinator. The Riders went from leading the CFL in touchdown passes in 2017 to not leading in 2018 as the Riders went with a rookie receiving corps with an experienced quarterback. The problem was Zach Collaros has a glass jaw and Brandon Bridge’s development took a step backward.
How much is due to Bridge resting on his accomplishments and how much is due to an inability to tailor the offense around what Bridge can do is something only the Rider brain-trust and Bridge can answer. It appears the CFL will be letting a Canadian quarterback on the field count for the ratio which means if you can get a competent Canadian quarterback, you have the opportunity to play an American, or Mexican elsewhere.
The fans will want LaPolice or Trestman, perhaps Scott Milanovich who once upon a time interviewed for the Riders head coaching job but lost out to Cory Chamblin. Milanovich who survived the last season in Jacksonville will now apparently lose his offensive coordinator job to John DiFillipo. Whether Milanovich is retained as a quarterback whisperer is an open question in Jacksonville.
If I was going to lay odds on who will be the next coach it will be McAdoo. This will be a big test for the staff that were well-regarded with Chris Jones in Edmonton, but now get a chance to write their own resumes instead of lining up behind Jones. From a professional standpoint, if this crew has its act together and can keep and mold a football team, then maybe the Riders dodge a bullet and buy a year to figure out how best to proceed in the post-Chris Jones era. This will be a season long audition for this staff for their futures and it will be interesting to watch them proceed.
The more excitable portions of the football press may say the Riders were caught off guard by the Captain Chaos approach of Chris Jones, who never lived in Regina other than a hotel room and who changed teams every three to four years. The moves by the Riders to get their coaching staff in place and the addition of Paul Jones as the de facto player personnel head means the Riders were not totally left in the lurch.
There will be some continuity for the Riders this season and the opportunity for the team to see if the Jones approach, without Jones, will actually work and provide the sustained success that Rider President Craig Reynolds wanted when he rolled the dice and hired Jones three years ago.
Another coaching candidate might be Paul LaPolice, the offensive coordinator of the Saskatchewan Roughriders who was an early candidate three years ago to be the Riders coach before Reynolds went with Jones. LaPolice has run the Winnipeg offense and would be a good quarterback whisperer to whoever the Riders bring in at quarterback, but he would be constrained by having the current staff in place for this year and being unable to bring in his choices for assistant until next year when the contracts of the current staff expire.
So the question of who will quarterback the Riders has been replaced by who will coach and lead the Riders – and within the constraints of the ridiculous CFL football operations cap. The best case scenario would be an internal hire, or Trestman being hired with someone on the current staff rising to the challenge of being the defensive coordinator and managing to carry on the standard that Jones has established.
The flip side of this is if you draw a comparison between countries and football teams – those who have a charismatic strongman as leader will appear to have a purpose and direction, but if the strong man leaves – the team or country then tends to drift.
So with Jones leaving, the thought of the Riders drifting at this time is not a great idea, especially if the team lands the 2020 Grey Cup. The Riders identity will be changing and how much it changes may either cause players to drift away at the first opportunity or keep a nucleus here that could well deliver sustained success.
The Jones departure overshadowed other events in the CFL, starting with Adam Bighill signing a three- year contract with the Winnipeg Blue Bombers and the still unusual sight of the CFL holding a Mexican Draft. Looking back at it, having Jeremy O’Day and Stephen McAdoo represent the team and select three Mexicans may be seen as a bit of foreshadowing for how the Riders will operate in the future.
The draft was a result of an agreement between the CFL and the Mexican League to have a draft, perhaps a two-way pipeline of players that in addition to Mexican players coming to the CFL, there might be Canadian players with an opportunity to head south and get some experience playing.
This sort of opportunity was something the league had in mind to get those Canadians who might require more playing experience to crack a CFL squad an opportunity to play elsewhere. The CFL is also looking at similar agreements with football leagues in Europe.
These leagues are not quite what people might think – they seem to be like beer leagues where players play for beer money. However, if there are local players who might make it to the CFL the door might open to TV opportunities for the CFL which means more money for players.
The Riders went with Rene Francisco Brassea Valenzuela, OL of Fundidores in the first round; then Carlos Sebastián Olvera Rivas, WR Aztecas UDLAP in the second round, and Francisco Javier García Ramírez, CB of Fundidores in the third round.
Where these guys will rank or how the pipeline will provide borderline Canadian players with the playing time they need is still up in the air. Canadian players may well be wondering what is going on here and one wonders that the CFL had to have gotten some money from the Mexicans to come down and hold this draft.
It’s funny how a week ago a cogent argument could be made how Jones could convince Mike Reilly to come to Saskatchewan by showing him the blueprint of how a Grey Cup contender would be built. Players like Willie Jefferson would stay one more year to cap off their CFL career and win a Grey Cup. Now the Riders have a gigantic hole in the middle that needs to be filled and for Chris Jones who leaves with a record of 27-27 in the regular season and 1-2 in the playoffs, he can be said to have been moderately successful and a gamble that did not quite pay off for the Riders.
If the Riders come away from this with a more diverse organizational structure, apply the needed things Jones brought to the organization, and build a culture of improvement and achievement, then maybe future fans will look back at this and say it started here.
For the moment as Edmonton chuckles and Winnipeg expresses its relief, the question is where do the Riders go from here? The clock is ticking…
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