Around week six or seven of the CFL season, I took a look at how I thought the Saskatchewan Roughrider season would turn out, and felt that I couldn’t have been more wrong. But after sitting through yesterday’s loss to the B.C. Lions, to a team that was starting its third string quarterback (the third consecutive time the Riders lost to a team starting its back-up quarterback) well … let’s just say Elliot does the Told You So dance better than me.
That is, if I felt like dancing. After Sunday’s game, I didn’t feel like doing anything except having a shower. The game was as dull as any match I’ve seen there, and it brought me back to the 1990s when I would turn my Walkman from the radio to my cassette about halfway through the third quarter and listen to the Tragically Hip play “Emergency” (‘Until it’s no longer fun/until it’s no longer relevant …’), which typified much of the Al Ford era Roughriders. And these Roughriders in their last six games.
What’s the matter?
They lost their most valuable player, for one. Ever since Chris Best was injured, the offensive line has not been able to consistently block for the run, nor can they provide adequate pass protection. Nobody can quarterback when they’re running for his life or flat on his back. Offensive line is a combination of talent and consistency that comes from working together. Without Best, the Riders are … not at their best.
The best way to beat the Riders is to clog the middle of the defensive field (about five to 20 yards straight ahead of the line of scrimmage) because that’s where Durant makes his first reads. Durant ALWAYS looks first (does his checks) to the side of the field where the most receivers are, and defenses have adjusted, playing variations on zone defense where more of the defensive secondary is concentrated on where the offensive receivers are. By design of offensive co-ordinator George Cortez or Durant’s instinct, he’s looking for someone on a fly or a flag pattern over the middle as his first read, and defenses have learned to take that away.
After that, Cortez and Durant got nothin.’ Nothin’. Most of the offensive output in Sunday’s game consisted of Durant either running for his life or becoming Captain Checkdown: and the relief valve was a guy on the far side of the field. Durant would heave a ball 50 yards, but most of it was to the sidelines for a three- or four-yard gain, and in the CFL defensive secondaries will take this all day. Combine this with a running game that’s little more than a rumour, and it’s not surprising the Riders lost: it’s surprising that they kept the score as close as it was.
You can’t blame Darian Durant for an offensive line that’s forgotten how to block, Kory Sheets getting injured, or an offensive game plan that requires receivers to run wide and outside. He’s looking around for help – and he’s not seeing it. But from Sunday’s game it’s pretty clear he’s lost confidence in his teammates and the offensive plan, and his teammates have lost confidence in him. If I were Montreal or Hamilton, I’m thinking of putting together a trade package to take Durant off The Riders’ hands this off-season.
The second breakdown is the Riders defense. It reminds me of one of my father’s Massey Ferguson tractors: looks nice but when the real crunch comes, the damn thing will blow up. And that’s what happened with the defense on the game’s last 50 seconds, in which the Lions’ third-string quarterback/clipboard holder (Thomas DeMarco, which I had to look up) looked like John Elway doing the drive that killed the Cleveland Browns.
Instead of blitzing the quarterback and seeing if he makes the good or bad split-second decision, the Riders hung back and rushed three, but DeMarco was able to find open receivers, leading to the game-winning field goal.
Special teams also were miserable. Chris Milo hit two posts on field goal attempts, and after the Riders scored their go-ahead touchdown, the ensuing kickoff was a squib kick, which game no hang time for the down-field kick covering team to, you know, cover. Instead, the Lions got better field position. Dunno what coach called that. But it was a bad call, the kind that gets coaches fired. The type of call that White Zombie, also known as Jim Daley, used to make all the time.
The big difference between me and Rod Petersen is that I don’t see the Riders coming out of this funk. They didn’t last year, when Chamblin coached this team, and the Riders to me look like a team that’s built for the mile run, not for a marathon. They also look like a group of individuals, albeit highly-talented individuals, rather than a team. Calgary, much as I hate to say it, is a team (they also possess a much better scouting system than the Riders). Toronto is a team, not a collection of individuals. And those are the two teams we’ll see this November at Grey Cup 101. The Riders might win a game or two more, but they are a third-place team in the CFL West who will return meekly to the sidelines after losing to these Lions in the semi-final in Vancouver.
But the kind of things I bitched about at the beginning of this season are still the problems facing the Riders (most of them anyway. Geroy Simon may be only a one-year-wonder – at 38 you can’t expect any more – but what a year.). Dwight Anderson (whom I misidentified, confusing him with a Rider journeyman wide receiver of yesteryear) is still, in my opinion, more trouble than he’s worth. The team’s starters are fine, but overall team depth is still far below that of Calgary or Toronto. If the Riders aren’t making a sincere effort at upgrading their scouting, it certainly isn’t because of a lack of money. But when the Riders suffer injuries – as every team will, it’s a contact sport – they don’t so much go downhill as plummet like a 16-ton weight.
The Riders don’t have the depth, the coaching or the ability to compete this year. At the end of the year there may be a ritual sacrifice to appease the gods of Rider Pride – Durant will be traded, maybe an assistant coach will be tossed (not Richie Hall), but Chamblin will be back for another year, Taman will get an extension, and we can tune into 2014 and see the same thing. Maybe with … different uniforms! After all, if you buy into the way the Riders are playing now, you’ll buy anything.