The 2016 CFL season comes down to its conclusion Sunday as the Calgary Stampeders and Ottawa Redblacks battle for the Grey Cup.
However in Riderville, it is already the post season and the embargo on all non-Cup stories will break after the game and promise to make this season interesting and perhaps a bit stressful for Rider fans.
The big news is/was whether Darian Durant will be re-signed as quarterback. As the Riders finished off garbage bag day where they emptied their lockers, Durant said talks seemed to be at an impasse. Rider GM/Head Coach Chris Jones speaking afterwards said he thought Durant was moderately successful here in Saskatchewan winning one Grey Cup.
So then the rumor train left the station stating James Franklin was the Riders first option in quarterbacks and if the Riders could not trade for Franklin, they would then look to sign Durant. The Riders want Durant to take a further haircut on his salary, based on injury history, and use the savings to bolster the team in other areas. Durant points out he has already taken a haircut on his salary for the team.
Franklin is a free agent after next season for the Eskimos, but the question has to be asked; if the Eskimos traded him, why would they trade to the Riders and what would they get for them. A part of that puzzle fell into place when Derel Walker indicated he would moving on after the season.
That would seem to indicate the Riders would offer Naaman Roosevelt, along with Josiah St. John and the Riders first round pick this year. Then the news came out that Duron Carter, former Montreal star receiver and general malcontent, had narrowed his pick of teams to Calgary, Edmonton and Saskatchewan.
There is a lot of hot stove talk going on and some people’s general anxiety level has been rising because of the lack of commitment to Durant and the impression the Riders may be willing to move on. Even George Reed threw in his two cents saying the Riders should re-sign Durant.
I would think the Riders would look at a trade for Franklin, but only if it made sense for their plan of building a base of Canadian talent with back-ups and cost effective American players. After stripping and blowing up the 2015 roster, the Riders neverending training camp provided some pieces of the puzzle and continuing question marks around their Canadian talent level.
The success of whomever lines up at quarterback will depend on who the Riders have lined up on their offensive line. After a four game winning streak, the Riders last three regular season games showed an offensive line that failed to provide protection.
It could be argued that the injuries to Chris Best and Brendon LaBatte played a major role in the regression of the offensive line which also denied players like St. John the ability to be mentored in instead of being thrown in action on short notice. The insertion of American offensive linemen may have been intended to provide some stability to the offensive line but the results were mixed. To meet the ratio demands would require Canadian offensive linemen with appropriate back-ups and those take time to develop.
So trading St. John, who was the first overall pick in 2016, seems a bit premature and defeating the purpose of the rebuild, at least as far as can be ascertained from afar.
While LaBatte has resigned for next year and Best’s situation is tenuous, at least until he demonstrates he can get back on the field and make a regular contribution, the Riders are thin on Canadian offensive talent to establish at least a baseline for starting Canadians.
There is the school of thought that Edmonton would not trade Franklin to the Riders because of the way the Edmonton coaching staff left that city for Saskatchewan after last season. However the Riders and Eskimos have done a few deals in 2016 that indicate when it comes to self interest, both sides seem to be willing to do a deal.
The wild card in all of this would appear to be the Toronto Argonauts who, despite trading for Drew Willy, may be in the market for a better quarterback this offseason.
The Argos may be looking for a new head coach after Scott Milanovich said his farewells after the Argo season was complete. The Argos fumbled their season of hosting the Grey Cup and making an ill-advised trade for Willy just pointed out the Argos problem of not having a quarterback who can either step in for Ricky Ray or replace him.
Ray’s injury history is arguably more serious than Durant’s and Ray may find himself in the position of playing back-up mentor like Travis Lulay. If Milanovich is released, then the Argos may look to build interest in their team by swinging a trade with Edmonton for Franklin. This helps the Eskimos avoid looking like they helped a team their fans hate, and Edmonton could maybe pry from the Argos some assets that would help alleviate some pending free agent departures.
Toronto will be looking at rebuilding, to a degree, and while it looks like Jim Barker is going to remain as the Argo GM, it does open the door for speculation who the Argo head coach may be. From a branding perspective, Franklin as the new young gun under the tutelage of Ray, could well pique the interest of potential Argo fans and if say Marc Trestman comes back to the CFL, that could spark some interest in that club.
So while the thought of Duron Carter signing in Saskatchewan sounds tentatively promising, Edmonton is a far likelier destination for him. Ed Hervey likes the outlaws like Odell Willis and Carter would be another good bookend to line up opposite Adarius Bowman.
One fallout of a potential head coaching move in Toronto is whether or not Jones reaches out to Milanovich and brings him to Saskatchewan. Jones was impressed with Milanovich when they were both in Toronto if bringing in Gary Etcheverry as a consultant was any indication, Jones would bring in Milanovich to try to make the Riders offense a better weapon.
I could see that happening, especially since Milanovich has been known to have a bit of a deft touch in developing quarterbacks. Regardless of what happens to Durant, the Riders need a succession plan at quarterback and a successor or two who can show they have the ability to run the offense and win games.
So while the prospect of Duran Carter is both appealing and frightening, the Riders need to focus on their bottom line which is developing Canadian talent and getting good starters and back ups. St. John is here for three years so unless the Riders make some major free agent signings, there is no need to move him right away. The high draft pick in what is expected to be a thin draft year could well pay off, especially if the pick is an offensive lineman.
If the system Jones has put in along with John Murphy has paid off, then the Riders may be able to find a prospect or two outside of the radar in either the NCAA or U Sport, formerly the CIS. Toronto has an offensive lineman or two who are impending free agents and may be agreeable in following their former head coach to Saskatchewan.
With all of these pieces potentially in play, the Riders offensive line is the area that needs the most help. It doesn’t matter if Franklin or Durant is quarterbacking the Riders, if the offensive line is not upgraded, any quarterback will be sacked repeatedly behind that line. The Riders need to determine if any of the quarterbacks they have stashed are worth continuing to develop, and then see if a quarterback like BJ Daniels is willing to finally look north after trying to make it in the NFL.
The clock is ticking on Darian Durant, either in the space of a few months or one or two more contracts. The cost of having Durant come back or retire as a Rider has to be balanced on whether the team can find traction and move ahead or whether it has gone as far as it can under Durant. Letting Durant go would cause a firestorm, especially if he left for say, Winnipeg, but this is where the Riders have to decide if they have identified where they need to add pieces and whether they have learned from their mistakes.
This all makes for an entertaining off season, and I haven’t touched on the CFL Fan Experience in Regina March 20-26. CFL Week will bring together fans from across the country, offering front-of-the-line access to the league's premier players and coaches. Highlights include: an interactive Fan Fest, the 2017 National Combine, and a Gala Dinner announcing the 2017 Class of Canadian Football Hall of Fame inductees.
The combine will be held March 23. 24 and 25 and for amateur football players across Saskatchewan, it will be an invaluable occasion to see what the pro scouts are looking for from potential players. There will be a kiddies combine, player question and answer panels, photo and autograph opportunities and various interactive booths.
It’s the first time the event will be held in Saskatchewan and the immersion in football at the Regina Exhibition Grounds will be an eyeopener for many fans. Tickets are not as yet available for this event, but watch the Rider and CFL website for more information and make your football plans accordingly.
So tonight is the CFL Player awards and here are my humble picks.
For rookie of the year it is Calgary WR DaVaris Daniels v. Ottawa OL Jason Lauzon-Seguin and I am going with Daniels because he got me a whack of fantasy pool points and you have to admire how he came in unheralded and took a leadership position.
Most Outstanding Special Teams Player: Hamilton Returner Brandon Banks v. Winnipeg K/P Justin Medlock – Justin Medlock set a record for field goals, and I say that reluctantly because he beat Dave Ridgway to set that record, but you have to respect how he kept the Bombers rolling this year. Medlock.
Most Outstanding O-Lineman: Calgary OL Derek Dennis v. Ottawa OL Jon Gott and this is interesting because the Stampeders had a number of players injured on the offensive line and Dennis came through to be a leader so I would pick him as the poster child of resilience and winner of this award.
Most Outstanding Canadian: Calgary RB Jerome Messam v. Hamilton WR Andy Fantuz – two former Riders going at it in this category. Messam should have been nominated and won last year for his efforts, but all things considered, this year was probably more satisfying. Messam wins this one for being the one still standing and delivering the big hits.
Most Outstanding Defensive Player: BC Lions LB Solomon Elimimiam v. Montreal LB Bear Woods – two years ago I was standing with a bunch of other Rider fans in former Rider GM Brendan Taman’s office as he asked who we thought the Riders should go after or trade for. I said Elimimiam and considering he came back from major knee surgery, I still stand by my choice and this will be sweet redemption for him when he wins this category.
Most Outstanding Player: Calgary QB Bo Levi Mitchell v. Ottawa WR Ernest Jackson – this is a mismatch, Bo wins this one.
CFL Coach of the Year: Calgary HC Dave Dickenson v. Ottawa Coach Rick Campbell – Dickenson goes 15-2-1 but perhaps more impressively rallies his team after Mylan Hicks was shot and killed. Being able to focus a team in the face of tragedy is probably more impressive than an amazing rookie head coach record so Dickenson gets this one easily.
So what of the Grey Cup itself? This week I kept think of 2001 and when the 14-4 Winnipeg Blue Bombers faced off against the Calgary Stampeders led by the plucky Marcus Crandall. Winnipeg was an overwhelming favorite and yet when push came to shove, Winnipeg folded despite having the most outstanding player, Khari Jones.
Calgary handily beat BC who on paper should have provided the biggest roadbump between Calgary and the Grey Cup while Ottawa benefited from the weather gods in sending Edmonton to the sidelines. Calgary is anywhere from a 10-14 point favorite, but this season has been consistently inconsistent and considering there has been at least one surprise each weekend, it would not be inconceivable to see the Ottawa Redblacks get off to an early lead aided by some big plays and unleashing a surprising running game.
Calgary will spot the early Ottawa lead to make it close at half-time and the question is who can make the best half-time adjustments. Ottawa will have to blitz Mitchell and hope the secondary play close, but not too close, to frustrate Mitchell and make him force the ball into potential turnovers. In terms of offense, Ottawa will suffer under the curse of Henry Burris. When he is on, he is pretty good, but if he gets off his game and starts to whine and force the issue, he can be taken advantage of repeatedly.
So the question is whether the Ottawa defense can throw enough twists at Calgary to allow Burris to run the offense and not hiccup. At this time it doesn’t appear weather is going to be a factor, but while the last redemption of Henry Burris has an undeniable ring to it, the Grey Cup will be won by the ability of the Ottawa defense to confound Bo Levi Mitchell with a combination of physical play and different looks.
If they do their part, and I think they will, then it will be up to Henry Burris to not throw the game away. I am going to go with how inconsistent the CFL has been this year and defy common sense and pick Ottawa to win this one 30-17.
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