I remember at the start of the 2017 season, after watching the Riders absolutely suck in an exhibition game loss against the BC Lions, that this team would be lucky to make it to another 5-13 season.
Then when the Riders went to BC and went down 30-0 before getting two late touchdowns, I was filled with “righteous wrath and furious anger” as Pulp Fiction put it as the Riders fell to 2-4. Then BC came to town, the Riders won 41-8, and stranger things started to unfold.
The results of the season long training camp in 2016 seemed to pay off as the Riders seemed to stick with a more regular lineup and made changes based on injury rather than player evaluation. Although hey, if that happened as well, what the hell.
The Riders finished 10-8, good enough for fourth and an eastern crossover. Playing the “what-if” game, I looked at the 2017 schedule at the games the Riders lose by a touchdown or less. So if Tyler Crapigna makes a field goal in the first and second games of the year, and if Brandon Bridge leads the Riders to a come from behind win against Calgary in their visit here, and if the Riders didn’t fold in the fourth quarter against Ottawa, their record could very well have been 14-4, which would have been good enough for first in the west.
That is how close the Riders came from worst to first, although indulging in such speculation strikes me as somewhat similar to Winnipeg GM Kyle Walters whining about the playoff structure and how Winnipeg was penalized for playing a good team in Edmonton in the western semi-final. I preferred how Chris Jones put it – they didn’t make enough plays during the stretch and it was on him.
The Rider defense played well during the eastern final, but penalties, a lack of discipline and an absolute lack of blocking from the left side of the offensive line helped demonstrate that in the eastern final, the Riders were not yet the better team.
So now with Calgary and Toronto in the 105th Grey Cup, the interesting stuff is happening around the margins in the CFL. DeVone Claybrooks, Calgary’s defensive coordinator, was apparently interviewed for the Montreal head coaching job. Apparently on the list are Khari Jones, Mark Washington, Marcel Bellefeuille.
Meanwhile in Ottawa, apparently receivers coach Travis Moore and offensive line coach Bryan Chiu will no longer be with the club, although this news will not be official until after Grey Cup week because there is a moratorium on announcements not Grey Cup related.
In Montreal I would think Claybrooks interview is just to give him experience. Working with Kavis Reed is not something that inspires confidence and neither does announcing this during Grey Cup week. Kavis may be wanting to pull off a Chris Jones style heist from Calgary with nabbing their defensive coordinator, but Claybrooks has the talent and a stable working situation in Calgary
As far as the Riders are concerned, they apparently will have Willie Jefferson back next season, but I would expect he would try the NFL after that. Duron Carter is a free agent and his being a good citizen in Riderville, combined with playing receiver and defensive back, makes him an interesting choice for NFL teams.
I would expect Carter to get an NFL shot and if for some reason it doesn’t work out, he would probably be welcomed back to Riderville. The interesting stuff will be happening at quarterback with Jones saying he wants Kevin Glenn back next season. Brandon Bridge has apparently had his agent provide the Riders with a contract proposal and the elephant in the room is the James Franklin sweepstakes as the Edmonton Eskimo back up quarterback becomes a free agent in February.
Jones has worked with Franklin before so you think there might be a possibility. The eastern final showed the Riders their two quarterback system is good up to a point. Consistency was never Kevin Glenn’s strong suit, but a two quarterback system where Glenn starts and if the Riders offensive line can keep him clean and if not, Bridge is a change-up pitcher, is not bad and not unheard of in these parts. This humble scribe remembers J.J. Barnagel – the combination of John Hufnagel and Joe Barnes in 1981 who had some surprising success for the Riders and then there was Kent Austin and Tom Burgess.
But in the move from 5-13 to 10-8, the Riders see how far they are from reaching the next level, which is what Calgary and Toronto are doing this weekend. That starts with consistent quarterbacking. Bridge looked good in relief, but he has a tendency to throw into coverage, looking to make the laser throw, and while he can scramble, making reads quickly is something I would like to see him do, again on a consistent basis, before making him the starter.
The point of all of this is that Bridge, along with Vernon Adams and say James Franklin, will need playing time in order to develop. Competition will determine who is best capable of doing the job, so passing the torch and having Glenn come in when necessary is likely the scenario developing for next year, which means anything and everything is probably on the table.
The Riders do need help on their offensive line, which did not handle Toronto very well until Bridge started stretching the field. While offensive linemen like their quarterbacks to stay where they are so blocking is easier, the offensive linemen could help their quarterback (s) by not getting beat by opposing defensive linemen. If they did that, then maybe the quarterback would not have to run so much and create such frustration for offensive linemen.
One question is where Derek Dennis lines up. He was the big free agent signing but was taken to school by his former Calgary teammates in the first Rider-Calgary game and when he got back into the lineup, seemed to do OK until the Toronto game when he and Thaddeus Coleman were green turnstiles.
Another question on the offensive line is Josiah St. John, the once upon a time number one draft pick. This year Dariusz Bladek saw more reps after being drafted, which is not surprising since Bladek actually played more US College ball than St. John. The line I have heard is it takes Canadian offensive linemen about three years to start contributing, so here is hoping St. John has been working on his strength, footwork and hand fighting to actually make a contribution in 2018.
Running back will be interesting with Trent Richardson, Cameron Marshall and Marcus Thigpen providing some interesting competition. The Riders went into this season maybe considering a Kienan LaFrance-Greg Morris combo and while LaFrance had some moments, I’m not sure of his value, although maybe special teams could be a factor. With this current set-up, you can almost imagine a kind of rotational system with the Riders mixing and matching running backs depending on the kind of defenses they might be facing.
The receiving corps will likely take a hit with Duron Carter going south for an NFL look. That pretty much seems to write itself and it will be up to Carter to make the most of it. While I kind of wondered when Carter was signed here, considering what stories were circulating about him in Montreal, he has been a good citizen here and in the last home game he want into Pilsener Place to high five fans after the team’s introduction and taking fans to the movies the Saturday before the eastern final was a great touch.
It will be interesting to see who the Riders mix and match, but I would expect to see Mitch Picton in the lineup next year. Rumor has it Chris Getzlaf may retire and go to Edmonton as a receivers coach, but then again who really knows what is going on in Edmonton? Nic Demski is going to be a free agent and he may go to Winnipeg.
On the defensive line, Willie Jefferson has re-upped for one more year. Expect him to try the NFL after next season if things work out. The Riders need more oomph on their defensive line, particularly from the other end position, but then again, Chris Jones confounded expectations by not going all out blitz, dropping more people into coverage and forcing teams to pick their spots down the field. A healthy Nick James who plugged up the middle of the defensive line would be a great addition, but so would another lineman to spread the pain as it were on the defensive line.
Jovan Johnson is going to be 35 next year and while he did a great job on corner, the Riders might look at a maybe younger corner, but then again, someone with some kind of experience would be prefered. The Riders have draft pick Elie Bouka who came up after NFL tryouts and will likely try the NFL after 2018. It would be nice to see if Bouka has anything to offer the defensive backfield.
Another question mark is Cameron Judge, the #2 overall draft pick who came up from UCLA, got injured and then had a Twitter meltdown during the season while rehabbing his shoulder. The nature of the meltdown raises questions about Judge’s ability to contribute to the team and if you put this past year down to growing pains, Judge will have to step forward to show he is something more than just perhaps a wasted draft pick.
The Riders will have to make some sort of decision regarding their kicking game. Quinn Van Gylswyk was draft two years ago and this year saw some action as a punter/kicker. The problem is Rob Bartel did a pretty good job of punting this year and his Australian Rules Football style of kicking which has a wicked backspin on the ball, is another weapon on special teams. This will be interesting to see how the Riders decide to go.
It will be an interesting off-season, but there is one more game. Calgary versus Toronto.
Calgary rebounded thanks to a brain cramp by Jason (No) Maas to win the western final while Toronto, well, you know the story. So while Calgary swept Toronto, the Argos have come together nicely under Marc Trestman with a running game keyed by James Wilder and SJ Green and former Rider Armanti Edwards at receiver.
The weather has rain on Saturday and +7 then dropping to -3 on Sunday. That might make it a slippery proposition and favor the team that can more effectively run. I would expect more of an eastern final style defensive struggle as Toronto goes to a zone blitz to confound Bo Levi Mitchell while Calgary looks to launch an all out rush to knock Ricky Ray out.
So while Calgary are heavy favorites, the field conditions will even things out and the game could be entertaining. I’ve got Calgary winning 27-23, unless Cory Chamblin manages to pull out another defensive gem out of his hat and shut down Calgary with a defense that gets turnovers. But I’m guessing Toronto’s string of miracles ran out last week.
So look for Jerome Messam to take the Grey Cup MVP while Alex Singleton take the Canadian honours. In the CFL Awards category, Mike Reilly will take most outstanding player, Alex Singleton takes Top Defensive Player, Andrew Harris takes Top Canadian, Stanley Bryant takes top offensive lineman, James Wilder Jr. takes Rookie of the Year, Roy Finch takes Special teams player and Marc Trestman takes coach of the year. Alex Mateas takes the Jake Gaudaur trophy while Emmanuel Arceneaux takes the Tom Pate Trophy.
And in case you were looking for a U Sports fix, Laval will take the Vanier Cup over Western, who should probably have banked some of those 81 points for this week.
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