The Riders’ 2011 CFL season came to a merciful end Nov. 4 in Edmonton with a 23-20 loss to the Eskimos. With the playoffs looming, and the Riders facing significant off-season question marks in their quest to return to contention in the CFL West, intrepid commentators Ron Mexico, Cal Corduroy and Earl Camembert are back for one more Fan Forum. One caveat, their opinions were canvassed before the Riders announced on Nov. 9 that Brendan Taman would remain as GM for the final year of his contract in 2012.  

At 5-13, the Riders finished well back in the pack. But all CFL teams struggled at times. Was this a season when everything just seemed to go wrong for the Riders, or do you think major changes are needed for them to become competitive again? Let’s start with management.

RM: I’m not sure whether Brendan Taman deserves another year. My gut says no. On the other hand, here’s a GM who wasn’t allowed to choose his head coach, and then ended up reporting to the head coach. My guess is that lead to him having little input into player personnel. I wonder how many players sat on the practice roster and never saw any time, especially at the end of the season, because of the head coach’s roster decisions.

CC: The indicators were there last year. We lost four out of our last five games, and are 6-17 in our last 23 regular season games, so I would say major changes are needed. Our GM (by his own admission) has only one key contact for recruitment in the U.S., and while he was dealt a tough card with Ken Miller looking over his shoulder he still doesn’t have my confidence in being able to recruit the right talent. As for Jim Hopson, he has done a great job of taking the team from where it was to where it is. However, with his goofy front office organization (coach — GM — VP Football Operations) that I don’t think anyone understood, it’s time to hand the reins over to someone who can take the great work he’s done and build on it.

EC: I don’t think that you could judge Brendan Taman’s body of work given the structure of the front office. Plus, it seems like players were brought in during the season, but they never played. Playing Wes Cates (instead of Brandon West) and Ryan Dinwiddie (instead of Cole Bergquist) in the last game is an example of some at best questionable decisions about playing time.

Who would you like to see the Riders pursue to replace Ken Miller as head coach? Among the current crop of assistants, are there any that you feel strongly about the Riders either retaining or releasing?

RM: I’d like to see the Riders offer the head coaching job to Scott Milanovich, Montreal’s offensive coordinator. He’s always won. He’s always had a good offence. He’s obviously worked well with his QB. He’s worked under a very highly regarded head coach in Marc Trestman. He hasn’t been a longtime Winnipeg, Hamilton or Ottawa loser. In terms of assistants, Craig Dickenson has been good with special teams. However, the head coach should have free rein to pick his assistants.

CC: The only candidate that appears as a potential replacement from our current crop of assistants is Craig Dickinson. He did a fine job of rebuilding our dismal special teams unit into something respectable, although it would be a work in progress to be sure. I don’t think they should consider Richie Hall. Dave Dickinson has got to be a candidate. I would also like to see a conversation with Scott Milanovich and Corey Chamblin. Regarding assistants, we need to get a good Offensive Coordinator and a QB coach. Our offense was the worst in the league in most categories, although the injury bug did hurt us, particularly at wide out. We did not lead in one of 35 offensive categories in 2011, and were last or next-to-last in 14 of the 35. I would like to see a new Defensive Coordinator, but I sense that’s unlikely unless Richie Hall ends up somewhere else. Our defense improved as the year went on, but they were never a “feared” defense — we were in the bottom third of 25 defensive categories 14 times, plus some stats were bolstered by a couple of big games.

Judging from the last few games when they experimented a bit, and the performance of safety Craig Butler and kicker Chris Milo throughout the season, the Riders have a decent core of young talent. If they did a bit of an airlift, they perhaps could return to contention in 2012. But with the Grey Cup in Regina in 2013, should the focus next season not be on a quick fix but rather laying the groundwork for a legit run in 2013?

RM: I don’t think there’s a big difference between what you do to win in 2012 and what you do to win in 2013. I definitely wouldn’t trade the first overall draft pick we have won by our incompetence.

CC: 2012 will be a very difficult year to build a contender. Too many changes at too many spots in the front office, coaching, and on the field. 2012 will be a rebuilding year.

EC: The team has a core of players to build around. Bringing in some new blood in 2012 will in my view lay the ground work for 2013. Playing the young offensive linemen next year is part of this strategy, I think.

Heading into the off-season, what areas on offense and defense do you think the Riders need improvement at?

RM: I think the Riders are probably getting close to the situation they were in after the 1976 Grey Cup loss. Veteran players who’d brought them success like Ron Lancaster, Roger Goree, Cleveland Vann, Ted Provost, Lorne Richardson and Ralph Galloway were on the downside of their careers. Now, it’s players like Barrin Simpson, Sean Lucas, Lance Frazier, Jason Clermont, Gene Makowsky, Dan Goodspeed and Wes Cates.

On offence, we need a better centre and tackles. We also need another deep threat wide receiver. I’m still fine with Darian Durant. Good QBs have bad seasons. Last Sunday, I was watching a NFL game where they were talking about the Chargers’ Phillip Rivers having a bad season. And Anthony Calvillo almost got run out of the league in Hamilton.

The defence needs a major overhaul. Only Keith Shologan, Jerrell Freeman, Craig Butler and James Patrick should be safe. Unfortunately, I think Freeman will be in the NFL next year. Fortunately, I think Chris Graham (linebacker) might be pretty good.

CC: Our O-Line needs to get younger. We need a running game (maybe West is okay, but we have nothing behind him). Cates should either be gone, or relegated to backup next year. If Andy Fantuz returns, that will help our inside receiving game, although that saga is getting tiring. It seems the only person who’s convinced Andy Fantuz is NFL material is Andy Fantuz. It’s clear that he’s going to wait until after February to sign (if he signs), and he’s going to go to the highest bidder — end of story. If it works out, great. But we shouldn’t count on Fantuz being here. Darian Durant is a good QB, but he won’t be a great one until he (a) starts to take more accountability for his actions (b) becomes more consistent and (c) quits giving up the football. It’s apparent we do not have a bona fide back up QB (Henry anyone?).

On defence, Freeman is likely gone to the NFL. Chris Graham looks like a nice player, but it will be tough to replace the CFL’s leading tackler. Simpson should consider retirement, and Sean Lucas’ best years are behind him. So we should expect an entirely new linebacking core. To improve the pass rush, we need (a) a rush end (or two) or (b) an effective blitz. Also, we need one (and maybe two) cornerbacks.

EC: On offense, the Riders need a running game. On defence, they need a pass rush from the defensive line. Freeman will try out for the NFL, I suspect. But he worked out for the Houston Texans last year and never got any interest.

The east semi-final pits the Tiger Cats against the Alouettes in Montreal on Sunday. In the West, it’s the Stampeders against the Eskimos in Edmonton. Who do you like, and how do you see them doing against Winnipeg and B.C. in the division finals on Nov. 20. Finally, who’s your pick to win the Grey Cup in Vancouver on Nov. 27?

RM: In the playoffs I see Montreal beating Hamilton handily and then edging Winnipeg in the East Final. I see Calgary beating Edmonton and then getting beat handily by BC in the West Final. In the Coupe Gris it will be BC by a lot over Montreal … and I hope the Prime Minister does a ceremonial kickoff, even if it’s a dork like Harper.

CC: Montreal goes all the way in the East. BC wins the West and the Grey Cup. They beat Calgary in the west final.

EC: Calgary will beat Edmonton and then lose to BC. Montreal will barely beat Hamilton and lose to Winnipeg. BC at home has the best shot of winning the Grey Cup.