What Rough Beast, it’s hour come at last, slouches towards Bethlehem, waiting to be born?
When the poet Yeats penned those lines, I’m not sure he was thinking, or even aware of the Saskatchewan Roughriders or Winnipeg Blue Bombers, but if you ask Darian Durant, quarterback of the Montreal Alouettes, he would probably say the rough beast is definitely Chris Jones.
After Montreal eked out a 17-16 win over the Riders, Durant made a few literary references of his own to the football gods who pushed the final kick by Rider kicker Tyler Crapigna wide and allowed Montreal to get out with a win. He then added his own celebration with a few words towards Jones and well, the post Durant era began more or less as expected. No one proving anything.
When you add the signing of quarterback Drew Willy as a back-up, who previously worked under Durant in 2013, you get the idea that Montreal is going to the Rider 2013 model to try to bridge the gap between a non-playoff team and a contender. That likely means Montreal is in for a longish season.
While the Riders did as expected in a game that had more meaning for Durant, they also did better than expected when measured against their last exhibition game against BC which was an unmitigated disaster. Happy surprises emerging from the Montreal game include the play of Nic Demski, subbing for an injured Rob Bagg, an offensive line that was anything but and a secondary that did not fall apart at a gust of wind.
Where the Riders lived up to the standard set during the Jones era was in a predictable string of penalties and a serious of decisions that raise the disturbing possibility that Jones is predictable in his unpredictability in switching out his quarterbacks for no apparent reason.
So while the Riders emerged as better than expected the question is whether they are ready to play in the big time of the CFL West that seems to have at least four competitive teams this year. The Bombers, slouching into town, provide that litmus test for whether the team is for real, or will have to wait another year to compete.
It’s a question that desperately needs to be answered as Calgary and Ottawa battled to a 31-31 tie while Edmonton showed a lot of resilience in downing BC 30-27.
The other notable surprise was Toronto looking very good in downing Hamilton 32-15 in a game that shouldn’t have been that close. The only disappointing part of that game was the abysmal attendance but given the excitement generated by the slick offense of Marc Trestman, it may be only a matter of time before people check the team out.
The Riders put receiver Ricky Collins on the six game injured list while bringing in offensive tackle Bruce Campell who made headlines last year by retiring after he was traded fromn Toronto to Regina. Campbell is being joined by Crezdon Butler, a defensive back, and Alexandre Gagne, a long snapper.
The Riders offensive line was not the major problem that it was against BC, but the addition of Campbell, assuming he kept in some sort of shape during his year of retirement, provides much needed depth the BC game shows the Riders currently lack on the offensive line.
Besides the undisciplined penalties the Riders took against Montreal, one area of concern was the non-appearance of Duron Carter who led the team with several drops and was most notable for forcing Jones to tell him to focus on the sideline in the second half. Carter has amazing physical talent but that talent is attached to a head and maturity that does not match.
If Jones can get Carter to last the season without either Jones or his teammates killing him, Jones deserves the coach of the year award no matter what the Rider record may be.
So for the home season debut against Winnipeg, the Riders are facing a team that has had two weeks to prepare and come off a tie against Edmonon to go with the tie it had against the Riders in the first exhibition game at new Mosaic Stadium.
The extra time would seem to favor Winnipeg on paper, but having a bye week at the start of the season is not necessarily a good thing for a team unless most of the team is on the injury list and needs rest and rehabilitation. Considering it took teams about a half to get into some sort of rhythm in their first games, the advantage now swings to the Riders.
But before we get to this week’s set of games, a quick look around the league.
Montreal’s signing of Drew Willy makes sense if you ponder that Vernon Adams Jr. was less than overwhelming in his exhibition season appearances and Kavis Reed may be looking to move Adams and maybe get something in return like a draft pick.
Willy’s signing is likely not at the salary he was drawing with Winnipeg and Toronto and it could ge argued it gives Willy a chance to get his career on track after it was beaten into the ground in Winnipeg like so many other Winnipeg dreams since 1990. Hindsight being 20/20, Willy’s signing by Winnipeg put him in the starter’s role but without an offensive line to keep him upright, left him open to grievous bodily harm and prone to second guessing what to do when the ball was snapped.
This signing seems to have the approval of Darian Durant, particularly if it is accompanied by the trade of Adams who was not pleased at being displaced as the starting quarterback in Montreal. The problem with Adams is the comparison that has been made with Nealon Greene, a guy who can run but whose passing savvy is less than impressive.
In Edmonton the big news is the loss of JC Sherritt for the season with an Achilles tendon injury. Sherritt has anchored the linebacking corps of the Eskimos for a number of years but the way the backups seem to have responded against BC indicates that the biggest loss for the Eskimos may not his physical ability but perhaps his leadership.
BC perhaps should have beaten Edmonon but the game was interesting because it harkened to something seen in the BC win over Saskatchewan in the exhibition game. While BC rolled over Saskatchewan’s secondary, their offensive line seemed to have problems with the Rider defensive line and that trend continued against Edmonton who have a bigger and more talented line.
BC was also let down by its special teams play, in particularly kicker Tre Long who was anything but in shanking a couple of convert attempts and is holding down the position until Swayze Waters returns.
Calgary showed it is ready to shoot it out with anyone but it is going to have a problem with its mental focus. Going 15-2-1 is impressive, but maintaining that focus in a post salary management system world is asking for a lot,. Ottawa let Calgary back into the game but many Calgary was too caught up in its thoughts of revenge for blowing the Grey Cup against Ottawa to maybe notice that while Ottawa was missimg some major pieces of their team from last year, they appear to have made up for those absences.
Ottawa looked to have some major question marks heading into their first game, but the replacements stepped into place and you sense if Ottawa can remain healthy, some continuity may very well put the team back into the Grey Cup this year.
It’s a little premature to say the eastern conference is a two way race, but one team that could stand between Ottawa and its dream of realizing a repeat before its home fans are the Toronto Argonauts.
Toronto was another great unknown with Marc Trestman coming on board after the draft and free agency. Trestman is known as a quarterback whisperer who gets themost of the position and the offense he unveiled with Ricky Ray resulted in over 500 passing yhards agsinst a Hamilton defense that seemed dazed and confused – a not unknown state of affairs in a Jeff Reinbold defense.
The big surprise was the play of the Toronto defense that was aggressive and had a spirited pass rush. Considering it was former Rider Head Coach Cory Chamblin who was in charge, it was not something that was expected by westen observers.
Just as it is ridiculous to make educated guesses from teams off of exhibition games, unless you observe something like BC’s poor offensive line play, it is also premature to make generalizations from just one regular season game. But Toronto fans should feel upbeat about their team and maybe be motivated enough to tell a friend or two and maybe show up again this week.
So this week we have the rematch of the rematch with Ottawa going to Calgary. Ottawa did not take advantage of its opportunities to bury Calgary, a sign the team is still finding its killer instinct. Calgary also blew a chance to to win and that may be due to focusing too much on last year instead of the task at hand.
With two teams feeling they should have won and neither being afraid of the other, you would think the advantage goes to Calgary and whatever homecourt advantage they may enjoy in returning to the stable that is McMahon Stadium. Having shown it can play with Calgary and is not afraid, if Ottawa can keep its focus they can make this game very interesting.
So let’s go on the line and take a tip from the Winnipeg Blue Bombers who tied twice in two exhibition games. Calgary should win this win but they should have won the first one and let’s not let last years 15-2-1 record fool people. Calgary is a talented team, but the rest of the team has also upped its talent and this will be a very competitive league. Ottawa 28-Calgary 28.
BC goes to Toronto and there are dozens of Argo fans pinching themselves hoping what they saw against Hamilton was real and not just a glorious dream.
The good news for Argo fans, and I have actually met some, is that the performance against Hamilton was not a mirage. It’s interesting to see what the difference coaching can do for a team and a balanced offense where it is difficult to defend one receiver at the risk of leaving three others open means teams need to pressure Toronto to have a hope of slowing them down.
BC’s early season Achille’s Heel, their offensive line, will be the focus of this game as Toronto will attempt to use their pressure defense and disrupt the timing of BC’s passing game. BC’s defensive secondary will be looking to respond but not has the prospect of facing a team with a much better passing game than Edmonton but not a more mobile passer.
The Lions probably wanted to compensate for their offensive line problems by having Jonathon Jennings run free and throw deep from amazing angles. That may still be the thinking against Toronto but if you have a good defensive secondary and an excellent pass rush, Jennings is not as effective as he normally is against, say, Saskatchewan.
This is a good coaching match-up but unfortunately for BC, a weak offensive line two games in a row indicates they are hoping this line can grow and mature together to be a force later on in the season. Now if BC can stunt and blitz Ray to throw off the rhythm of his passing game (which bears a lot of resemblance to when Trestman had Anthony Calvillo in Montreal) they couold come out with their first win of the season in a must win game. However I like Toronto 31-26.
Montreal brings its roadshow to Edmonton but this time redemption is not for Darian Durant but for Kavis Reed and Jacques Chapdelaine, two former adherents to the Eskimo Way.
The Eskimos showed great resiliency and balance in beating BC, especially with a defense that lost Sherrit for the season. Edmonton seems to have balanced its passing game similiarly to Toronto and while John Henry White anchors the rushing game, his durability may come into question late on in the season.
Durant may have called on the football gods to avenge him against Chris Jones, but it was less Durant’s play and more Saskatchewan miscues that got him his win. That means trouble because Montreal’s offense except in pass coverage breakdowns was less than impressive.
Montreal’s defense seems to be rebuilding nicely with some good defensive backs and linebackers learning on the job and providing them with some aggressive defense. The problem is that Montreal was so underwhelming against Saskatchewan that when faced with an Edmonton team that went into BC and won rather nicely, to have to like Edmonton to win in what may be a closer than expected contest 23-22.
Finally we have the spectacle of what Yeats wrote about with the centre no longer being able to hold and all is chaos as the Winnipeg Blue Bombers begin their 27th annual journey to try to reclaim the Grey Cup. Having mastered the trick of two ties in two games in the exhibition season, Winnipeg is looking to spoil the opening of the stadium by bringing some their Dollarama Field magic.
The problem for Winnipeg is they have been playing with nobody but themselves for the last two weeks while the Riders got the cobwebs out of their system by playing Montreal. The Riders will face problems with presnap penalties and other discipline problems which seem to be a Chris Jones trademark in Saskatchewan, but Winnipeg will be facing up to the fact their defense will not get as many turnovers in as many favorable locations as they did last year.
It will take Winnipeg at least a half to find some sort of rhythm while the Riders will be looking to prove desperately to their fans they deserve to be taken seriously. The Riders last game in Taylor Field was a slap in the face to fans who haven’t forgot and the Riders need to prove they have made progress since then on and off the field. The off the field progress is easy to see, on the field see the Riders take this one 27-17.
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