For the Saskatchewan Roughriders, the 2014 season got off to a strong start. After winning the 2013 Grey Cup, the team sought to ride the success of the previous year – but without accounting for the loss of key personnel. The biggest loss for the team was the signing of Kory Sheets by the NFL’s Oakland Raiders. Other notable losses included Craig Butler, who signed as a free agent with the Hamilton Tiger Cats, Weston Dressler, who tried out with the NFL’s Kansas City Chiefs, and Keith Shologan, who was picked up by the Ottawa RODBLACKS in the expansion draft. And the list went on.
However, while a number of key players were no longer with the Riders during the 2014 season, the season actually veered off course due to a significant injury suffered by arguably the team’s most important player – QB Darian Durant. After Durant’s injury, the team’s offensive output plummeted – even though it was already rather lacking – and the Riders’ season ended with a loss to the Schmoes. In that game, the Riders sought to summon the spirit of 2007 Kerry Joseph. What they got instead was a QB long past his prime who threw 5 interceptions in one half of football.
Not content to dismiss the 2014 season as an aberration (thank goodness), the Riders set about making wholesale changes during the off-season. While the veteran core of the team remains intact, major changes to its coaching staff and the addition of a few key veterans, as well as what appears so far to be a much better recruitment effort, looks to put the Roughriders back in contention for first place in the CFL’s West Division.
The biggest changes for the Roughriders during the off-season were the parting of ways with Offensive Coordinator George Cortez and Defensive Coordinator Richie Hall. The departure of Cortez was a welcome development for the majority of Rider Nation and not exactly unexpected given the team’s dismal offensive showing, particularly during the last half of the season. While the ineptitude of the offense was not completely Cortez’s fault (look what QBs he had to work with after DD went down), his inability to move away from schemes that obviously weren’t working and a refusal to adapt the offence to the strengths of his backup quarterbacks – even if there were few – showed a stubbornness and a lack of creativity that ultimately led to his dismissal.
Seeking to go in a different direction, the Riders hired former BC Lions Offensive Coordinator Jacques Chapdelaine. Notoriously known for his elaborate hand signals, Chapdelaine was not most fans’ first choice, particularly given the rumour that he tends to rub players the wrong way (see his affinity for hand signals). Even though he’s not known as being much of a players’ coach, Chapdelaine was brought on board. So, gone are the days of knowing with 100% certainty that there’ll be a running play on first down. Even though the Riders have only played two pre-season games to date, it’s plain to see that this offence will be much more dynamic and better suited to the players’ strengths, which was sorely lacking under Cortez’s direction. The running game will no longer be the focus of the offence, and the offence is probably more suited to Durant’s gun slinging (according to him) abilities. He will no longer be looked at as a point guard; rather, he will be the catalyst for the offence and be called upon to make plays.
On the defensive side of the ball it was somewhat surprising to see Coach Chamblin go in a different direction because it’s not as if the defence struggled in 2014. The defensive line had a solid year led by John Chick, and the secondary was one of the best in the league, despite Coach Hall’s 10 yard cushions. The main issue was in the middle – the line backing corps was undersized and untested. However, this was not due to Hall’s coaching; this was a recruitment issue. However, Coach Chamblin has always been known for wanting aggressive defences. In this vein, he sought out former Montréal Alouettes assistant Greg Quick. Not much is known about Quick, as this is his first Defensive Coordinator position in the CFL. It will be interesting to see if the defence improves under his watch, or if it remains relatively on par with last year’s team. Regardless, hopefully the days of opposing teams converting “2nd and Balgonie” are gone.
Darian Durant remains the key to the Riders’ success. But in 2014, it became very apparent that the Riders had no (pardon the pun) backup plan. When Durant went down with an elbow injury, it was left to Tino Sunseri and Seth Doege to pick up the slack. You know, the Riders may even have actually been better off with Reggie Slack – the 1997 playoff version as opposed to the addicted to painkillers version. (“We couldn’t win a football game – the QB was high…”). Sadly, both Sunseri and Doege showed to be woefully unprepared and under developed, although a certain partner’s son would say otherwise about Tino.
While George Cortez’s schemes didn’t help either youngster, neither had the ability to make plays when things broke down. This showed in the Riders’ abysmal offensive displays during the second half of the season.
Enter Kevin Glenn.
In a full circle moment, Glenn returns to the Riders after nearly 15 years in the league, mostly as a journeyman backup quarterback. Throughout the preseason, Glenn has shown that he can still play. If anything, Glenn might even have a stronger arm this year. The strikes he’s thrown across the middle have been impressive and provide the Riders with the comfort of having a QB that can step into Chapdelaine’s offense if Durant goes down with an injury again. Glenn did not have a successful season with the Lions last year, which was odd considering the number of weapons on that team. However, this was likely due to the Lions’ offensive line issues more than Glenn himself. Glenn is likely looking to redeem himself given last year’s poor showing.
The most important attribute that Glenn brings to the team is quiet leadership. He will not disrupt the locker room, as he knows that this is Durant’s team. He is here to be a team player, to win a Grey Cup and cement his legacy as the best CFL backup quarterback of all time. And while that may not be every QB’s dream legacy, he enters the season only 500 and some yards shy of passing Matt Dunigan for seventh all-time in CFL passing yards. To accomplish this while mostly being a second stringer is rather astounding.
Now for the main event. We all know that Darian Durant is recovering from an elbow injury.
Chapdelaine’s offense will be a good challenge for Durant. But it may also provide him with some of the best statistical numbers of his career – if all goes well.
Chapdelaine’s offenses are known for their high offensive output, so expect to see a lot of passing. Of course with more passing comes more chances for interceptions. Hopefully Durant will be able to keep those to a minimum. While Durant has nothing left to prove to most fans, there are no doubt naysayers out there that will be clamouring for Glenn at the first sign of trouble and whom Durant would love to silence with a career year.
The only issue with the Riders’ top two quarterbacks are their ages. Durant is now 32 and Kevin Glenn is 36. The age of many starting quarterbacks across really is now under 30 years old: Bo Levi Mitchell is 25 and Drew Willy is 28 (older than I thought), while that Sad Sack Collaros is 26. While Durant is by no means near the end of his career – besides, Henry Burris is still playing at the age of 40 (and maybe he shouldn’t be) – the Riders do need to start developing some younger quarterback talent. Having only one young quarterback on the roster is concerning and the Riders will need to improve their depth at this position.
If I’m Weston Dressler, Rob Bagg or Chris Getzlaf, I am salivating at the prospect of having a big season. If you look at the numbers of Geroy Simon during his time as a player under Jacques Chapdelaine’s offence, you’ll note that he had some of his most productive years. This bodes well for this veteran receiving corps. Look for these receivers have a much more productive 2015 than they did in 2014 – although really, last year couldn’t have been much worse.
The running back merry-go-round of 2014 will likely continue into 2015. The Riders still have Jerome Messam and Anthony Allen on the roster. Neither running back ran away with (I know – *groan*) the starting position last year, and based on the pre-season, the Riders may just continue to use them both. This is not necessarily a bad thing as each back brings different skills to the table. While Messam is more of a fullback type with a bulldozer mentality, Allen is more of a finesse back, using spins and shiftiness to evade opponents. Unlike the Cortez offense though, neither running back will be the featured offensive weapon. While a running game is necessary in the CFL, especially come playoff time, the emphasis will be more on the passing game, with the running game used as a change of pace instead of vice versa. Look for both backs to be used as blockers as well, as the emphasis on the passing game will require the quarterback to be especially protected. The better blocker may end up winning the starting position.
4. Offensive line
2014 was a disappointing season for the Riders’ offensive line. The Riders spent a lot of money the previous year locking up Canadian talent such as Brendan Labatte and Dominic Picard and both underperformed in 2014. The offensive line is undergoing some change this season with the departure of right tackle Ben Heenan to the NFL. The Riders also released Dominic Picard and now need a new centre. After the pre-season, it appears that Dan Clark has won that job. Brendan Labatte remains at guard, as does Chris Best. The two major question marks are at left and right tackle. The Riders have been playing an import at left tackle for a while, using Xavier Fulton in that spot. After a stellar 2013 season, Fulton struggled last year, but he wasn’t alone in that. Levy Adcock has been brought in to play right tackle. The real issue is whether the Riders can afford to play two imports on their offensive line. If the Riders are going to go this route, both of their import tackles need to be worth the ratio shuffle. Thus far, it doesn’t appear that either has made a strong case. Yet the Riders may have no choice, as their back up offensive linemen require more development. Or they’ve been CUT (do you see a pattern?).
1. Defensive line
The Riders had a relatively productive defensive line in 2015. John Chick led the league in sacks with 15 and was helped by fellow defensive end Ricky Foley and interior lineman Terrarius George. Ricky Foley was traded to the Arblows in the off-season, leaving the Riders to find a new lineman to anchor the line from the rush end position. To that end (teehee), the Riders signed former Bumbler yet all-star (I know – it’s weird that a Bumbler was an all-star, but as they say, even a blind squirrel finds a nut once in a while) Alex Hall. Hall joined the Riders for their 2013 Grey Cup run, but was not all that noticeable. The Riders will look to him to have a better 2015.
The interior of the defensive line continues to be anchored by Terrarius George, who’s become a star tackle. Highly underrated, he continues to be a force in the middle. The question is who will line up beside him. Regardless, the Riders will likely continue to rotate defensive linemen in order to keep them fresh and ready to rush opposing teams. The best defensive line continues to be that of the Schmoes, painful as it is to admit, but the Riders will try and give them a run for their money this year.
Ever since I can remember, Roughrider fans have complained about the team’s lack of a solid middle linebacker. Last year was no exception. Knowing that they needed to upgrade at that position going into this season, particularly given how opposing offences seemingly ran over the Riders at will last year, the Riders traded for former Alouette and Rider enemy #1, Shea Emry. (He couldn’t be worse than Dwight Anderson, could he?) But despite my prejudice, Emry is not only a quality linebacker; he is also a Canadian and a ratio changer. The only issue with this strategy is that the Riders do not have an adequate Canadian back up middle linebacker ready to play if Emry is hurt. While the Riders appeared to have found another quality linebacker in Brian Peters, he decided to try his luck in the NFL and left the team. But Telvion Clark and Jeff Knox Jr. had very strong camps, helping to shore up the other linebacker positions. After a few years of struggling to recruit quality linebackers, the Riders appear to have stumbled upon a few players that appear to have the makings of full-time starters. If the Riders want to keep pace in the West Division, their line backing corps will need to step up to the likes of Jon Cornish, Andrew Harris and whomever the Bumblers and Schmoes decide to put in that position.
This group continues to be one of the Riders’ strengths. Led by Tyron Brackenridge at safety, Terrell Maze, Weldon Brown, Tristan Jackson and Macho Harris at defensive back, this group continues to excel. The biggest challenge the secondary faces going into the 2015 season is the new illegal contact rule. This will be a challenge for all defensive secondaries, but given Coach Chamblin’s desire for aggressive defensive back play, this will this will be a particular challenge for the Riders’ secondary.
Besides Grandpa Kerry Joseph’s 5 interceptions in the West Semi-Final, what else sunk the Riders that day? Ah yes – an STD or STI, also known as a Special Teams Disaster/Special Teams Implosion.
(Get your minds out of the gutter, people. This is a family-friendly blog. Besides – I did not come up with the name or acronym.)
Place kicker Chris Milo had a rough year, hitting more goal posts than Les Canadiens hit during their series against the Lightning (teehee). Aussie transplant/Rod Black’s favourite player, Josh Bartel, was awful. His punting almost made me wish the Riders still had Jamie Boreham. He couldn’t punt, either, but he did make some excellent hits!
This year, it looks like Milo has a bunch of new tattoos on his left arm, so he’s clearly going to be better. The Riders punted (heh) Hobokicker (Hugh O’Neill, whose nickname I unfortunately cannot take credit for) and signed Ray Early, an import whose booming kicks remind me of the fun-loving Eddie Johnson and one-game wonder Louie Sakoda (2009 Grey Cup – see his punt in the dying minutes of the game). The Riders are going to win the field position battle more often than not with this guy.
Why Bob Dyce, the Riders’ Special Teams Coordinator, continues to be employed by the Riders remains a mystery to me. I swear he’s blackmailing someone. But the good news is that his assistant, Cory McDiarmid, is back this season (although he’s still listed as a linebackers coach on the Bumblers’ website. Silly Bumblers). McDiarmid helped the Riders’ special teams become one of the most solid units in 2013, and that solid play helped the Riders win the Grey Cup. The fact that the Riders re-hired him after last year’s atrocities shows that Bob Dyce needs help. The next step would be to promote McDiarmid to *actual Coordinator*, but I guess it’s one step at a time.
In conclusion, this year’s Riders are already better on paper than the team that took the field in 2014. I expect a solid offence that may take awhile to get going given the new offensive scheme, a very good defence that will go through a few ups and downs getting used to the new illegal contact rules, and a special teams unit that doesn’t have to do much to improve on last year’s disaster.
Prediction: 3rd in the West