Riders end year on a high note, but is Chris Jones leaving?

December 31, 2018 - 5:32pm

As we usher out 2018 and welcome 2019, the 30th anniversary of the greatest Grey Cup ever featuring the Riders and Hamilton Tiger-Cats, the Riders made a move at the end of the year which bodes well for the team heading into the new year.

ThreeDownNation reported Paul Jones, the player personnel guru for the Edmonton Eskimos has agreed to become an assistant GM with the Saskatchewan Roughriders, likely in charge of scouting. Jones started with Winnipeg as director of player personnel in 1988 and was later promoted to assistant general manager. After nine years in Winnipeg he went to the Minnesota Vikings as a scouting consultant before joining the Toronto Argonauts as an assistant general manager for the 1998 season.

Paul Jones brought Chris Jones into the CFL as a guest coach when Don Matthews was coaching the Eskimos, so the linkage is pretty long. Add to this the departure of John Murphy, who once upon a time did player personnel for Calgary before coming to the Riders and with the new cap rules on spending for football administration, this is an unexpected and welcome development.

Paul Jones is a pretty low-key guy and will likely be based in the States as he was in Edmonton. The upside of this is with the Riders forced to release a number of scouts, Jones will be invaluable for identifying prospects in the United States, something that is needed more than ever considering the competition from the Alliance of American Football, set to start in February, and the XFL to start next year.

Paul Jones had a pretty good track record of identifying talent for Edmonton and the Riders will be looking to Jones to jumpstart their search for a franchise quarterback who can be developed – unless they sign or trade for a new quarterback. In the meantime, the Riders are monitoring their negotiation list quarterbacks and Paul Jones may have some ideas of his own who the Riders should pursue.

And then ThreeDownNation passed along a story that two NFL teams were doing in depth studies of Chris Jones as maybe someone whose thinking outside the box might be enticing enough to bring him down for a look.

It’s not a bad idea since the NFL is looking for new coaches bringing in new ideas. The success of Sean McVey in Los Angeles and Doug Pedersen in Philadelphia have brought to the fore in the NFL of the potential success in looking at what teams can do in football differently and succeed.

Jones is not the first CFL head coach to have his name tossed around south of the border. Dave Dickenson has been suggested as a possible head coach for teams looking to think outside of the box. Now considering as I write this it is Black Monday in the NFL when teams not making the playoffs usually axe their coaches and turn their thoughts to who could change over their fortunes, the discovery by American football reporters there is a league other than the NFL with some pretty interesting defensive and offensive minds is something to smile about, but maybe not worry about just yet.

If I were Vegas and handicapping the odds of Jones going south next year, hence why no contract extension has yet to be announced between Jones and the Riders depending on who you are listening to, I would think it is not likely this year, but probably more so next year. The NFL in looking for new blood will first consider the NCAA coaching ranks whose offensive stylings have found their way to the NFL.

But many NCAA coaches are in a situation that pay is just as good as the NFL while job security is better in most cases. So if few NCAA coaches make the leap to the NFL this year, then next year depending on how the Riders and Stampeders do, there could be two coaches making their way south. If Dickenson loses Mitchell to the NFL but manages to find and nurture another quarterback, he will definitely be snatched up by an NFL team looking for a quarterback whisperer to bring along a young relatively high draft pick.

By the same token, if Chris Jones manages to build and enhance the Rider defense, which basically carried the team last year, that would be an interesting proposition for an NFL team looking for someone who might have a new way to blunt the wide open passing going on in the NFL. As a side note, Jones has made no secret he has gotten mentorship from Bill Parcells, who won two Super Bowls with the New York Giants and coached the New York Jets, New England Patriots and Dallas Cowboys.

Dickenson as a coach, or offensive coordinator, would make more than he would in Calgary, and Jones as a defensive coordinator would also do better financially in the NFL. If the CFL loses those two coaches, and say Bo Levi Mitchell and Mike Reilly, then maybe the league should revisit its football administration cap and make it easier for young coaches to get started and get exposure in the CFL.

Mind you that would mean the Riders would be spending money more sensibly than what they do now. The Riders have to reach a balance between being fiscally responsible and yet spending in areas that are needed to get a Grey Cup champion.

The biggest question is who will be the Riders starting quarterback in 2019 and there are a number of options - all of which have their own problems. Jon Jennings is at the top of most people’s lists, notwithstanding the fact his performance since being injured has been mixed at best. Jennings left BC after being called out by GM Ed Hervey who said Jennings didn’t spend the time working on his craft as he should have.

Jennings career trajectory reminds me of Casey Printers, who broke into the league, became the most outstanding player, then went to the States and came back a shadow of his former self. Travis Lulay is also a free agent and while he too has had injury problems, he has come back from them but will likely need an awesome offensive line to keep him clean and it’s far from certain he will find it in Saskatchewan. However, I like Lulay because of his intelligence and ability to lead a team.

The big fish are Bo Levi Mitchell, who is doing a tour of NFL tryout camps looking for a place to call his own. It may be unlikely that Mitchell would be a starter right away in the NFL, but as a backup, he would make enough coin to make holding a clipboard worthwhile.

Another choice would be Mike Reilly of Edmonton who has played under Chris Jones when Jones was coaching Edmonton. However, Reilly is likely to go to BC where he has family connections and he hails from Washington State if he goes anywhere but Edmonton.

Another item came up this last week of 2018 which is the death of former Rider Ted Urness, 81. Ted was an offensive lineman who played from 1961-1970, getting all star nods at centre for the last six years. He was inducted into the CFL Hall of Fame in 1989 and served on the Riders management team and got a second Grey Cup ring with the 1989 team.

Ted’s father, Al Urness, played for the Riders for seven years and starting in 1928 took part in five consecutive Grey Cups. Al’s brother, Harold Urness, played for the Riders in 1930 and 1931. Fred Goodman, Ted’s uncle, played for the Riders from 1929-1933. Jack Urness, Ted’s brother, was a quarterback for the Riders from 1958-1959.

To cap it all, Mark Urness, Ted’s son, played for the Riders in 1989 winning the Grey Cup and giving the Riders their first father-son combination to win a Grey Cup. The Urness family left a legacy of excellence to the Riders and condolences go out to the family.

Speaking of former Riders, Kent Austin has moved on from Hamilton to take on the co-coordinator role with Liberty College in the US. For Austin, who turned over the head coaching duties to June Jones last year as it seemed he lost the locker room, the move now allows him to get back to coaching, and with college students his approach may work better than it did in Hamilton.

Another former Rider, Drew Willy, was released by the Montreal Alouettes and may provide yet another option for the Green and White. Willy started his career with the Riders before going to Winnipeg and becoming the starter there, and also became the subject in how much abuse a quarterback could take behind a paper Mache offensive line.

The answer it turns out is not much and Willy lost his job to Matt Nichols, got traded to Toronto where another Swiss Cheese line doomed him to failure, and he ended up in Montreal where he found himself lost in the shuffle when Johnny Manziel came to town.

While Willy’s confidence may be shot, and see Jon Jennings for further examples of lost confidence, he might do as a capable back-up if the Riders find a young college quarterback who they can mold. However, that is an option may might take place closer to training camp if the Riders can’t hit the free agent search for a new savior.

The pace of workouts for Rider players has been pretty steady with Sam Equavoen and Jordan Williams-Lambert tipping the balance away from just needing a player or two to compete next year. Equavoen seems more likely to leave the Riders for an NFL opportunity while Williams-Lambert may see his name get exposure and could very well return to the Riders next season.

There are other Rider players like Willie Jefferson who have decided to not go the workout route and just wait for teams to contact him because he feels his work on the field speaks for itself. However it works out, it will be fascinating to watch it unfold.

So with free agency beckoning in February and a collective bargaining agreement yet to be agreed to, the momentum of the CFL off-season will likely pick up, especially once after the NFL season is over. Each NFL team’s needs are different and how they proceed will likely have an impact on how the CFL and the Riders unfold in 2019.

Especially if Chris Jones heads south.

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