CFL shows the ends justify the means

November 16, 2018 - 10:26am

The ringing may have stopped in Brandon Bridge’s head, but it’s still going on for Rider fans following their elimination at the hands of the Winnipeg Blue Bombers in the western semi-final.

The first indication the Riders season would be over following a 12-6 season came on Saturday night when TSN reported Zach Collaros would not be dressed for the Western Semi Final. This meant the ball was going to be in the hands of Brandon Bridge who took a big step backwards this season after a pretty good season last year coming in relief of Kevin Glenn.

Rider fans may have rationalized that if the team defense and special teams kept up their level of play, then as long as Bridge didn’t turn the ball over and if the team was able to run the ball, then maybe, just maybe, they could advance against Calgary and maybe Collaros would be ready for the western final.

It was nice to dream.

Bridge came out running, which seems to be his default position, and either wildly overthrew his receivers, resulting in two possible touchdown throws not hitting their marks, and an interception that looked like a winged duck corkscrewing into the frozen tundra.

The defense which tied a CFL record for return touchdowns somewhat managed to keep Winnipeg’s offense in check until the second half when Winnipeg’s offensive line began to push the Riders defensive front around and impose their will on the game. But the big stops never happened and the Riders missed defensive tackle Mic’hael Brooks more than what seemed apparent.

The Riders did get the ball back with about 40 seconds left after getting a late touchdown thanks to a couple of interference penalties. The hit by Jackson Jeffcoat on Bridge, which put him out of the game with seconds remaining, forced the Riders to bring in David Watford to try a Hail Mary pass which went for an interception even though the Riders had brought in Drew Tate, the former Stampeder/Redblack quarterback who once upon a time started his career with the Riders as a back-up.

Tate sank the Riders playoff hopes years ago and has/had the type of arm which made an accurate Hail Mary pass at least theoretically possible. What Watford threw up was something I’d expect to see from my cat at 3:30 am. Adding insult to injury, there was no flag for roughing, although whether the 15 extra yards might have changed things up is open to debate.

The CFL responded with an apology for missing the call, apparently the Ref Cam view was blocked and the CFL is unable to make calls from the sky cam. Commissioner Randy Ambrosie then announced an eighth official will be added whose sole purpose is to watch the quarterback and if there is a hit on the quarterback’s head or neck, he will notify the head referee.

Jeffcoat received what was described as a heavy fine, or roughly about half of his game cheque against Saskatchewan. He was joined on the fine list by teammates Patrick Neufeld and Sukh Chung who were also fined for late and unnecessary hits in the Rider game. None of them were suspended for the western final.

The response of the CFL to the Riders losing two quarterbacks to head hits in two consecutive games, was a day late and a dollar short. The NCAA in the US hands out a 15 yard penalty and ejection from the game if the head is targeted.

The problem with the CFL is that it talks a good game about player safety, but is in no position to do anything now, other than talking after the fact. If the CFL was serious about player safety, it would have suspended Jeffcoat for the western final and send a message to the rest of the league that hits like these have consequences.

However, the CFL under Ambrosie has no intention of rocking the boat, at least until a new collective bargaining agreement is negotiated. Whether the players would go along with toughened suspensions for head shots is also an open question.

Make no mistake though – this game was over long before the hit on Bridge and the aborted Hail Mary which ended up in another area code. The Riders did a great job getting to a 12-6 record with a popgun offense and an opportunistic defense and special teams.

The experiment of how far a team can go with no quarterbacking ended up with the result of not far enough. If the Riders were hoping to duplicate the 2001 Baltimore Ravens or the 2003 Tampa Bay Buccaneers - two teams with great defenses but with offenses whose job was not to turn the ball over and get out of the way of their defenses, then they came close.

The Riders now face the prospect of two free agent quarterbacks – Collaros and Bridge – being free agents and also coming off of concussion protocols. Whether Collaros plays again is something that should be left to him and his doctor, but the number of hits and concussions he took this season is a pretty good signal sent by his body that it is time to quit while he still can.

There is also something to be said for Chris Jones keeping Collaros out of the western semi-final. It may be easy for some fans to demonize Jones, especially after releasing former fan favorites Weston Dressler, John Chick and Chris Getzlaf and then trading Darian Durant, but in putting Collaros’ health ahead of perhaps winning can’t help but strike players that Jones is first and foremost determined concerned with his players well-being.

So that leaves a donut hole in the middle of the Rider offense for 2019. Which is interesting for Chris Jones who managed to build the Rider defense from a last place unit in 2015 to leading the league in many categories in 2018.

The Rider offense went from ground level in 2016 to an interesting if uneven unit in 2017 with Kevin Glenn and Brandon Bridge and an all star cast of receivers, to Collaros surrounded by a rookie crew of receivers. The cost of signing Collaros was releasing players like Bakari Grant, Rob Bagg and leading to the release of Duron Carter, while hoping the receivers would step up as the season progressed.

That happened to an extent, but when Collaros was out with an injury, Bridge looked like he took a serious step back and was exposed as a guy who could run around, but was unable to throw a spiral pass or recognize a defense if his life depended on it.

So with a new CBA yet to be negotiated and a number of quarterbacks becoming free agents this year, the Riders are going to have to decide if they can or should pursue a free agent quarterback, or rely on a suddenly reduced number of free agent camps in the United States to find and perhaps develop a quarterback for the future.

The reduction is a result of the CFL governors deciding to cap the football administration costs of each team, including setting a number for coaches. The reductions are likely intended to demonstrate to the CFL Players Association teams are dedicated to reducing expenses in all aspects of team operations to ensure cost certainty, something that seems important in places like BC, Toronto or Montreal – all of which have ownership which ranges from meddling to utterly disinterested in all locations.

So for the Riders, the third highest selling sports merchandise team in Canada, the result is a pair of handcuffs on the team’s ability to find new players, something which helped the Riders build back up into contention. While the Riders have free agent camps scheduled before the new year, which is when presumably the new cap takes effect, it doesn’t stretch into the new year – which puts pressure on the Riders to find players when the new American Alliance of Football league gets underway and competition for players gets more intense.

The Riders also released a number of what are called quality control coaches from the current staff, including taking a 10 per cent salary cup and stopping bonus payments to fit under the new cap. Quality control coaches do things like self-scouting the Riders, to breaking down film on future opponents and to some degree, being able to see when a play should be challenged or not and get word of that to a coach.

They are also important as the rules change and players need to learn not to tackle or hit with the head leading or on the head. American players play organized football at an early age and are told or congratulated for making big hits. However as greater awareness of the impact of head shots grows, players need to learn new ways of how to tackle or make hits without injuring themselves or their opponents.

One of the things that needs to be determined is whether football operations includes the training staff, which makes it ironic that while the CFL has added an additional official to monitor hits on quarterbacks, they enact a cap which cannot help but reduce the number of staff dedicated to player health and safety.

The 2019 Saskatchewan Roughriders will look different from 2018 perhaps starting in the coaching ranks where Craig Dickenson, special team coordinator, is being interviewed for the head job of the BC Lions. Whether BC is serious about this or whether they are looking to offer Dickenson an assistant coaches job is a bit unclear, but anytime you can poach off of a rival, it’s a good day.

The Riders will likely lose defensive end Willie Jefferson to an NFL try-out in addition to linebacker Samuel Equavoen whose play may at least get him onto an NFL special team squad. The Riders have an interesting base of young players to work with, but competition with new leagues, with a revived XFL coming on stream, means the Riders may not be first choice for players looking to have a professional career.

After news of charges of refusing a breath sample, Charleston Hughes came back from his one game suspension and for the most part was not much of a factor. While this might be understandable considering his legal situation, Hughes needs to demonstrate that age has not slowed him down, which might have prompted Calgary to trade him last season.

The Riders seem relatively set on the inside with Zach Evans providing a much needed Canadian content along with Makana Henry and Eddie Steele. However the Riders could use a return to form by Mic’hael Brooks and perhaps someone else who can show they can tie up offensive linemen and clog the middle against running attacks.

Sam Hurl is a free agent at linebacker, but while Hurl has become a student of the game, former number one draft pick Cameron Judge stepped up this past year to take on more responsibility. Derrick Moncrief spent some time on the injury list, but did perform when asked to. The Riders will be looking for a likely replacement for Equavoen and additional depth and it may be time for players like Brandyn Bartlett, a supplemental draft pick in 2017, to step up and make their mark.

On the Rider offensive line, the trade for lineman Philip Blake helped to solidify the Riders line and provide options after Dan Clark went down with injury and forced Brendon LaBatte to go to centre and we finally saw Josiah St. John, former number one overall pick, get onto the offensive line when Dariusz Bladek went down with a knee injury.

 It is St. John’s last year so what he did on film may dictate if he gets a contract offer, or if the Riders decide to go in another direction. The Riders have options here, but considering the beating that Collaros took and Bridge to a certain extent, the pressure is on the offensive line, whoever is on it, to block better and ensure the Riders are somewhat successful on offense.

The Riders have already resigned running back Marcus Thigpen and will no doubt monitor the progress of Tre Mason as he attempts to recover from a knee injury late in the season. The Riders relied on their running game to try to take the pressure off their quarterback and with a new quarterback likely in 2019, the running game will take on added importance. The way Winnipeg managed to stuff the Rider running game will put even more pressure on the offensive line and who comes in for running back to be better able to make the tough yards inside.

So as the playoffs continue, featuring the Dirty Winnipeg Blue Thugs and the Calgary Entitlers in the western final while Hamilton goes to Ottawa to plead their case in the eastern final. Let’s start with the early game.

Hamilton blew the doors off the Wally Buono farewell tour with a 48-8 win that showed the BC Lions, once they lost to the Riders and lollygagged at home against Calgary, had checked out of this season, seemingly content with just making the playoffs for Wally. Hamilton though is facing a team it has not beaten for three games this season and while it is difficult for a team to dominate another for three games, it is not impossible.

When it comes to four games, that might be a different story. Hamilton has been forced to rebuild its’ once potent receiving corps and with back-ups now in place have a different, younger, maybe even faster look to it. This will be interesting for Noel Thorpe who has given Ottawa a more aggressive approach on defense.

What will be interesting as well is how Hamilton’s defense can handle Ottawa’s offense, especially with running back William Powell. While Ottawa managed to come up with a winning record this year, Ottawa seemed to veer from win to loss with all the flair of Ontario Premier Doug Ford at a buffet table.

There is a school of thought that winning the division title and getting a bye to the final game both helps and hurts teams. It helps because if there are injuries, it gives time for recovery and integrating new parts if needed into the offense and defense.

It hurts because assuming you get through the semi-final in good shape, you are still mentally sharp and it is easier to focus on the next game as opposed to taking time off and then trying to gear up for the final stretch.

Hamilton’s domination of BC was merely a reflection of how BC players had checked out of this season. But contained in that were signs that Hamilton appeared to have rebuilt their receiving corps and will mount a better attack than what they did in their two game series with Ottawa to wrap up the season.

So therefore go with Hamilton to win 27-25 over Ottawa to move onto the Grey Cup. It maybe here that Jeremiah Masoli shows why he is the better most outstanding player candidate in the east than Trevor Harris.

Meanwhile in the west, Winnipeg brings their gong show to Calgary looking at a variation of a theme. While Saskatchewan had a hole in their offense with no effective quarterback, Calgary has no real surrounding cast around Bo Levi Mitchell who may be off to the NFL.

Like Saskatchewan, the Stampeders have a leading defense which may pose some real problems for Winnipeg if they continue to concentrate on the ground and pound approach they enjoyed against the Riders.

The difference in this game is that Calgary has a triggerman who can actually hit a target, it’s just unclear whether the targets can get on the same page. This is where a week off helps, especially if Mitchell insisted the receivers work with him on timing issues that plagued them the last few games.

Will it work? Winnipeg may never have a better chance of making the Grey Cup, Calgary is looking at it’s window of Grey Cup appearances closing. When you are playing for a potential NFL contract, that seems to be a pretty good motivation. Calgary wins 26-25.

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