The Good, the Bad, the Ugly as CFL winds up 2018

December 22, 2018 - 8:58am

As 2018 winds to its conclusion, the CFL has been doing a better job of staying in the headlines, for mostly good reasons, but then again, there are signs this is a league that tends to operate off the cuff than having a coherent long-term vision.

First off the CFL released their 2019 schedule on Thursday and here is what the Riders are facing this year (times listed are Saskatchewan):

Preseason

Friday May 31 – Saskatchewan at Calgary 7 pm (no TV announced as yet)

Thursday June 6 – Winnipeg at Saskatchewan 7 pm (no TV announced as yet)

Regular Season

Thursday June 13 – Saskatchewan at Hamilton 5:30 pm TSN

Thursday June 20 – Saskatchewan at Ottawa 5:30 pm TSN

Monday July 1 – Toronto at Saskatchewan  5 pm TSN

Saturday July 6 – Calgary at Saskatchewan 8 pm TSN

Saturday July 20 – BC at Saskatchewan 5 pm TSN

Saturday July 27 – Saskatchewan at BC 5 pm TSN

Thursday August 1 – Hamlton at Saskatchewan 7:30 pm TSN

Friday August 9 – Saskatchewan at Montreal  5 pm TSN

Saturday August 24 – Ottawa at Saskatchewan 5 pm TSN

Sunday September 1 – Winnipeg at Saskatchewan 1 pm TSN

Saturday September 7 – Saskatchewan at Winnipeg 2 pm TSN

Saturday September 14 – Montreal at Saskatchewan 5 pm TSN

Saturday September 28 – Saskatchewan at Toronto 5 pm TSN

Saturday October 5 – Winnipeg at Saskatchewan 5 pm TSN

Friday October 11 – Saskatchewan at Calgary 7:30 pm TSN

Friday October 18 – Saskatchewan at BC 8 pm TSN

Saturday October 26 – Saskatchewan at Edmonton 5 pm  TSN

Saturday November 2 – Edmonton at Saskatchewan 2 pm TSN

So a few things at first glance – The Riders home schedule is front-loaded and the team  plays four of their last six games on the road, so a strong start at home is an imperative, especially for a team with no idea who is going to line up at quarterback. The August 1 game will be interesting because it takes place the week of the Regina Exhibition which means parking will be at a premium.

Another note is the Riders extended absence in October means Mosaic Stadium is available for an NHL Outdoor Game in what should be relatively nice temperatures – either that or a majior concert tour, but I would put my money on the NHL comng to town when the Riders are away. There will be a game in Atlantic Canada, but again, the Riders are the victims of being the top draw in the league and no team wants to give up its Saskatchewan game so we get Montreal and Toronto. Interestingly enough, there is no game in Mexico.

With the schedule out, it almost seems like a good start to the new season, but there have been changes all over the league. DeVone Claybrooks did sign as head coach with BC and his staff includes former Rider QB Drew Tate as quarterback coach, Rich Stubler as defensive coordinator, Brian Chiu as offensive line coach, Nik Lewis as running back coach, Markus Howell as receivers coach, Chris Ellis as defensive line coach, Ryan Phillips as defensive back coach, Keith Stokes as special teams and offensive assistant, Taylor Altilio was named special teams coach and Jarious Jackson was retained as offensive coordinator.

Cory Chamblin returned to Toronto as head coach after walking away last year to try to get a foothold in the NFL or NCAA.  The hiring was generally greeted warmly by Argonaut players, but then Ryan Dinwiddie decided not to move on from Calgary as quarterback coach to become either a QB coach or offensive coordinator with the Argos. Not sure if the Argos lose anything with that with Tommy Condell still listed as offensive coordinator and the wild card being whether Ricky Ray returns as quarterback after a serious neck injury.

A healthy Ray combined with Chamblin getting the defense back to snuff would make the Argos a contender in the East again, but Ray has to wonder if his neck inury is a sign to hang up his cleats for the sake of his own health.

The Argos made an interesting signing with Noel Picton, the leader passer in U Sports history at the University of Regina. Picton may be a bit small for the CFL, but he knows how to pass and his signing is a pretty good sign that Canadian quarterbacks will count against the ratio in the next collective bargaining agreement.

The CFL also got conversation going with a partial release of each team’s Negotiation List and the Riders list as revealed contains players like Mason Fine (quarterback North Texas Mean Machine), Ian Book (quarter back Notre Dame), JIoe Burrow (quarterback LSU), Trace McSorley (quarterback Penn State), Nate Orchard (defensve end Utah), Terry Swanson (RB Toledo), David Talley (Linebacker Gran Valley State), Lenard Tillery (Running back), Sahwun Lurry (DB Northern Illinois), Jylan Ware (offensive tackle Alabama State).

Rider fans got an abbreviated look last week at Fine as North Texas was in the New Mexico Bowl, but Fine went out with a severely strained hamstring and was pulled from the game that North Texas lost. Fine will enter next season as the leading active passer in the Football Bowl Subdivision, and the only thing really holding him out of the NFL might be his size at 5’10 although that doesn’t seem to be stopping players like Baker Mayfield. If Fine makes it up to the Riders, he could well be the Rider starting QB in 2020 or 2021.

Meanwhile the great CFL player audition roadshow continues with Bo Levi Mitchell trying out for the New York Giants with interestingly enough, Jordan Williams-Lambert working out as well. A lot of people have asked how is this possible and Justin Dunk of ThreeDown Nation let it out that Williams-Lambert won a grievance against the CFL and got an NFL audition window. If he doesn’t sign, he comes back to Saskatchewan to finish out his contract.

So this mysterious bit of off-field maneuvers was matched, kind of, by the on-again, off-again saga of Josh Gordon. The former wide receiver of the New England Patriots was facing an indefinite suspension for violating terms of his reinstatement under the NFL substance abuse policy and had announced he was stepping away from football to concentrate on his mental health.

So with a potential suspension, Gordon, who was on the Riders negotiation list, was off it, and then on it again. Perhaps it is not surprising considering the Riders had worked with a year and a half with Duron Carter, noted weed expert. If Gordon’s substance abuse is grass, and grass is now legal in Canada, then Gordon can cross the border, blaze away and use his talent on Chris Jones’ team for wayward football players.

The problem is the NFL suspension, or potential suspension. It is perhaps no coincidence that the NFL is looking at removing grass from the list of substance abuse items considering it is now legal in a number of US states. For the Riders, until there is a suspension, and considering by all reports Gordon is a good guy, he just really likes his weed, and considering Gordon claimed time out to work on his mental health, I kind of think the NFL may not suspend him, the Patriots will release him, and the Riders may well pick him up and he may stay here until the NFL CBA is changed.

So with that potential addition, and to be honest, a lot of dominos have to fall in the right order to pull that off, the Riders may be looking at losng Tobi Antigha to the NFL as he conducts a tour. What is interesting is that Chris Jones seems to be setting up these potential workouts for the players, which tells the players Jones wants to help them out and if things don’t work out, they are more likely to return to the Riders.

The potential losses of Antigha, Sam Equaveon and perhaps Willie Jefferson may seem like the team is taking a step back, but the Riders extended Zach Evans, the Canadian defensive tackle, to a four year deal that essentially will see Evans retire a Rider. Evans is a Regina kid who played junior football and when picked by Ottawa in the expansion draft in one of the great mismanagement moves by the Riders, went on to win another Grey Cup before returning home.

The addition of Evans means the Riders interior defensive line should be strong and then the Riders extended Louchiez Purifoy for another season. When the Riders picked him up, I was a bit hesitant because he had taken some stupid penalties while with Ottawa, but when he started returning kicks for the Riders, he showed the ability to rebound after fumbling a kick to return the next one by a healthy margin. It could be argued he was the most effective offensive players for the Riders in their semi final loss to Winnipeg.

The Riders signing of Patrick Lavoie was also a welcome surprise considering he was a free agent and may have wanted to go back east. Lavoie is an effective blocker and more importantly, he is a good receive who can relieve pressure for a quarterback. If Jake Harty recovers from his training camp inury, the Riders may have an interesting Canadian receiving corps in 2019.

The signing of Lavoie resulted in the Riders trading Spencer Moore to Montreal for conditional draft picks in 2020. Moore was a solid special teams in Saskatchewan and apparently a capable blocker, but just used enough, effectively or perhaps blocking and tackling was all he could do well in Saskatchewan.

What can’t be denied is Moore was great in the community and the addition of Lavoie meant the Riders no longer needed Moore, and traded him to where he could continue his career.

The question continues of course, who will be throwing the ball in Saskatchewan in 2019? With Mitchell all but certain to get an NFL offer, and Mike Reilly may even get an NFL bit for a team desperate for leadership at quarterback, the Riders hopes of making a big splash following the misadventures of Zach Collaros have suddenly diminished and the Riders have to face the question of how do they get consistent starting and back up quarterbacking?

The early leader in the clubhouse could be Jon Jennings of BC who is choosing free agency after essentially being run out of town by GM Ed Hervey. Jennings has seemed to be following the career trajetory of Casey Printers who won an outstanding player award and then flamed out once teams had film on him and could better defend him.

Jennings could be a one-trick pony with a great debut with the Lions, but injuries and a lack of confidence have taken a lot of lustre off his resume. The question is whether Jennings is just a one trick pony or whether he just lost confidence and needs to find a new location to start again.

If Collaros doesn’t get any bids for his services at the $434,000 mark, then the Riders might make an offer that is lower, but laden with incentives. Collaros has a glass jaw and was prone to head injuries so his ability to deliver consistently is in question. The other question is how good or effective he was in mentoring his back up. Brandon Bridge was intriguing in 2017 but crashed and burned big time in 2018, probably dooming him from ever being taken seriously as a starter.

Interestingly Bridge did better under Kevin Glenn but Jones released Glenn after feeling that Glenn just didn’t have the ability to work through a determined pass rush and Bridge at least offered some mobility. Glenn is also a free agent and if the Riders are looking to bring up someone like Mason Fine in 2020, then reducing the salary hit at quarterback is a first step to maybe affording someone like Jeff Gordon. A Collaros-Glenn combination would combine the talents of two quarterbacks who are good in halves of football, but have trouble lasting for an entire game.

Such a combination would then be a placeholder until such time as Fine completes his last season of football and presumably comes north. Then a year of apprenticeship while learning the league will likely see him assume the starters’ position in 2021, the likely year the Riders host the Grey Cup if Hamilton manages to win the bid for 2020.

Of course there are probably other quarterbacks on the Rider negotiation list and other options, but a Collaros-Glenn combination is not without precedent if those of us with long memories recall when John Hufnagel and Joe Barnes teamed up for the Riders in 1981 and became known as  JJ Barnagel.

There are a lot of options out there, but there is no quarterback likely to become available that will command a half million dollar salary, especially if Reilly and Mitchell go south. If the Riders can bring back most of their defense, and perhaps Tre Mason and either Marcus Thigpen or Cam Marshall, the Rider offense may approach average and that may be enough for the Riders to make it to the Grey Cup in Calgary and vanquish the demons of 2009.

The winds of change are blowing through the CFL with Calgary Assistant GM Mike Petrie done there, much like John Murphy in Saskatchewan. AJ Gass will likely be the new special teams coach in Edmonton and Phillip Lolley may be the new defensive coordinator in Edmonton, his second go-around after being there under Chris Jones.

Brent Monson is the new defensive coordinator in Calgary and with Dinwiddie returning, Calgary won’t be losing as many of their coaches as it seemed when Claybrooks was named head coach in BC. However Monson won’t likely have Alex Singleton and perhaps even Micah Johnson if they get NFL offers.

So as we approach the new year, it appears the next stage is waiting to see what happens in February with free agency, if anything is done before a new CBA is negotiated. The new American league kicks off in February and there will a lot of eyes seeing if this league joins the many that have sprung and folded since the World Football League in the 1970s.

So even with no CFL week this year, people will be watching to see what happens in Halifax with the Schooners, who already have 6,000 people committing to season tickets. The big question is where the stadium will go and how it will be financed.

So 2018 goes out with a feeling there will tremendous change in the league coming up, but no one knows exactly how that will take place. Which makes 2019 an interesting time for the CFL and its fans.

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