Riders are the monkey house of the CFL – Throw everything against the wall and see if what sticks

August 9, 2018 - 3:10pm

The Saskatchewan Roughriders are into their final bye week of the regular season contemplating how they can somehow regain relevance in the CFL playoff race following a 26-19 loss to Edmonton. The loss dropped the Riders to 3-4 and at this point, the Riders only realistic playoff hope is as a crossover to the Eastern Conference.

The Riders show flashes, they have a defense that hasn’t been seen since say, 1976, but while the team is a collection of great athletes, they lack the discipline and cohesion that would distinguish them as a Grey Cup contender. Which mean they have the ability to go on a run and perhaps make a drive to a Grey Cup, they lack the mental discipline to make any such run no more that a two or maybe three game affair.

For a team with a great defense, it is saddled with an offense that fell off the rails early and may be led by a quarterback with a glass jaw and an offensive line that is outclassed by a hemorrhoid in the ability to block anything that comes at it. The problem comes with this being the third year of a program that had the mandate of building sustained success.

Part of that process was building a scouting system which featured a tryout camp a week during the offseason in the United States and Canada, hiring enough quality control coaches to try to exploit the new world of the IPad Playbook. There is also the swinging big in the CFL draft, going for prospects that may in the short term be headed to the NFL but who may come back and when they do, the Riders would hold their rights.

This is somewhat exemplified by Josiah St. John, Chris Jones’ first draft pick who sounded good when you mentioned he played at Oklahoma, but should have raised alarm bells when you add the phrase, lost his starting position his senior year. St. John was the first of what Chris Jones defenders would characterize as examining every possibility and his detractors might argue is a tendency to be blinded by BCAA pedigree and/or NFL ties.

St. John would be followed by Vince Young, Trent Richardson and perhaps Tyrell Owens. There are other intriguing possibilities like Tre Mason, the former St. Louis/LA Ram who might be characterized as a free spirit and then again, there is the example of Duron Carter, who when he is engaged, is very good, but when he isn’t, has the potential of an IED.

When Jones got control of the Rider operation, he had an opportunity to implement his vision of what he felt was needed to build a winning organization. Much like the Khymer Rouge did when it took over Cambodia in the 1970s, Jones got rid of people who either were judged too expensive or perhaps too tied to an image of what the Riders were before Jones took over.

Jones wanted to rebuild the Riders in his image, loyal to him, and in the first year stretched the rules to run what was essentially an 18 game training camp including two exhibition games. What might have thrown Jones off was whether Darian Durant fitted into the picture and when he stepped away from the Riders final game of the 2016 season, it was obvious the Riders would have to rethink the quarterback position.

The Riders came within two plays of playing in the 2017 Grey Cup with Kevin Glenn and Brandon Bridge at quarterback with Glenn doing the mentor/placeholder role. Jones though believed he needed to have a “franchise” quarterback, who would be someone along the line of Mike Reilly who pulled the trigger for Jones’ first Grey Cup as a head coach.

That turned out to be Zach Collaros coming off an 0-8 season before being replaced by Jeremiah Masoli. Collaros also has an injury history which helped explain why he missed three games so far this season. In not being upfront with a concussion apparently suffered in the preseason, Collaros exposed himself and the team to potential problems and demonstrated a lack of judgement that is a bit disconcerting.

So now the Riders hopes of making the playoffs now realistically rest in making the cross-over berth in the east riding a shaky offense and a hot defense. Jones referred to the 2001 Baltimore Ravens as a team with a great defense and a mediocre offense as a potential template for this team, which might be possible, but suffers from the Riders lack of discipline and inability to rise to the occasion.

So the Riders trying out Owens may be seen as nothing more than a ploy for attention or a distraction from the fact the Riders offense suffers from a lousy offensive line that has not improved in three years and has drafted maybe one Canadian offensive lineman who can make a difference. Add to this Jones cutting Rob Bagg, Chad Owens and Bakari Grant because of age/injury issues and if Owens turns out to be anything more than a tryout, the Riders are well and truly disconnected from reality.

On the other hand, the Riders seem to be reacting to the Nick Marshall injury which prompted the signing of Louchiez Purifoy who was cut by the Ottawa Redblacks. Purifoy was let go if you listen to the rumblings in Ottawa, was because he was not a good locker room presence who tended to pout when the play didn’t go his way on the field.

So yeah, Chris Jones’ School of Wayward Football Players is again taking applicants. And then the news came out of Philadelphia that the Eagles cut Canadian tight end Adam Zaruba, who is better known as a Rugby 7’s player.

Zaruba is on the Riders negotiation list and while there is some shuffling in Philadelphia, he will likely end up in Riders camp before the end of the season. Not sure where his talent level is at the moment, but if you believe in omens, as Rider fans tend to do, Zaruba as a rugby player may bring back memories of Ray Elgaard who was also once upon a time was also a rugby player, but again, this may mean nothing because Zaruba is likely another project if he shows up.

The bottom line is the Riders are somewhat responding to fan concerns by appearing to do something, but underlying all of this is if all the free agent camps held came up with one starting defensive back, what exactly was achieved in a cost-benefit analysis?

Likewise, if the Riders are relying on other teams cast-offs for quarterback and not developing their own, does this not point to some problems with the scouting system implemented? The Riders seem content to announce signings, or have them announced on social media and well, maybe they work out, mostly they don’t. In other words, throw enough stuff at the wall and eventually something has to stick seems to be the working philosophy.

So this week there are three games with Edmonton going to BC to kick things off. BC has been playing relatively solid with Travis Lulay at the controls, but BC had its problems against Calgary who beat them 27-18 with Calgary doing no more than required to beat BC.

BC will be starting their fourth running back of the season, Travon Van, formerly of Edmonton, who is filling in for Brandon Rutley, who was injured and replaced by Jeremiah Johnson, who was injured and replaced by Chris Rainey, who goes back to running back punts.

If Edmonton has a weakness, it is in defending against the run, and Van as a former Eskimo would seem to be motivated, the problem with BC is that there are so many new, if veteran parts, that continuity might be a problem. What is more likely is that BC’s veteran players may help stem a bit of the inevitable tide against them, but in the end, while BC may put up a fight, they will find out their defensive line is outmatched against the larger and more vicious Edmonton offensive line. Edmonton wins this one 30-22

Then Hamilton goes to Winnipeg where dreams go to die. That seems apropos of Hamilton who burst the balloon that was Johnny Manziel’s CFL debut but in beating Montreal didn’t really prove anything. Hamilton beat Winnipeg earlier this season, but that was when Chris (The Shriveler) Shreveler was quarterbacking.

This time it is Matt Nichols and Hamilton is looking at filling some short term vacancies which may or may not hurt them on defense. So let’s say it does hurt Hamilton’s defense while Winnipeg makes a run for the August Grey Cup. Winnipeg will likely use as much misdirection as possible because the more trick plays they show off, the more other teams have to prepare for them.

Winnipeg wins this one 28-23.

Finally we have Montreal at Ottawa and Johnny Manziel. Manziel got thrown to the wolves against Hamilton in what had to have been a marketing ploy since the Als play is not doing the job. To no one’s surprise, especially those in Cleveland, Manziel showed flashes, but also showed that someone with a wekk to study the playbook is not going to work wonders.

Throw into the mix that Manziel doesn’t seem to be the type to spend time on a playbook, believing his legs and imagination are all a team needs to achieve victory, and the question has to be now not if Manziel has what it takes to succeed in the CFL but if he will last out the year.

Ottawa for its part took part in one of the great chokes this team is sometimes notorious for against Toronto and now gets to regroup against Montreal. Ottawa’s defense will be as restless as a man sending back soup in a deli.

The game is in Ottawa, and with Vernon Adams Jr.’s foot seemingly in a cast, the question has to be asked how soon will Gerry Datillio be summoned for a comeback, or maybe Vince Ferragamo? Ottawa wins this tune-up 30-13.

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