The Roughriders’ Season in Rats Alley

The Saskatchewan Roughrider season isn’t so much over as it is in Rats’ Alley, where the dead men lose their bones. Forty-eight hours after Winnipeg journalist and Canadian Football Hall of Fame member Gary Lawless reported that head coach Cory Chamblin would be relieved of his coaching duties at the end of next week, the Rider brain trust said nada. Not a sausage. Bugger all.

Chamblin, whose manic-depressive coaching career in Riderland has gone from carrying the Grey Cup out of Mosaic Stadium in 2013 to winning two games in the 15 games since Darian Durant suffered his first season-ending injury last season, was left as the obligatory sacrificial virgin, to be thrown down the volcano to appease the Gods of Rider Pride. Maybe not today but sooner rather than later.

On the holiday Monday — after Lawless first made the report, which was picked up by TSN – general manager Brendan Taman said Chamblin is not going to get fired. Then he said Chamblin has more talent at his disposal than Greg Marshall did in the 2011 season (where he was canned before Labour Day, in his first and only season as head coach). Which brings a whole lot of questions.

If the Riders have more talent than they did in 2011, then why are the Riders not winning? Is it because the Riders are making the same kind of mistakes over and over, leading to broken plays and penalties? Isn’t that a coaching problem? And why didn’t the president and CEO of the club, Craig Reynolds, attend the press conference? Could it be that just as Taman has his meat shield (Chamblin), Reynolds has his (Taman)?

Even with the loss of Durant during the first half of the first game of the season, the Riders could have Macgyvered two or possibly three wins in the five games before Kevin Glenn went on the six-game injury list. The fact they couldn’t displays two things. Chamblin can’t make the most of the talent he has available, and general manager Brendan Taman hasn’t done a very good job of assembling that talent.

First, to Chamblin. For someone who prides himself as a defensive guru (he is both head coach and defensive co-ordinator), he has been unable to deal with many of the problems on the Rider defense, which has led to the 0-6 start (they played a little better in the most recent game against the Edmonton Eskimos). The secondary plays as soft and as (expletive)ly as used three-ply Charmain. The linebacking crew is merely average, and Alex Hall has pretty much disappeared, allowing opposing offensive lines to concentrate on John Chick.

The Riders’ best hope for a victory before Labour Day comes Saturday night in Toronto against an injury-depleted Argos squad. But the Argos are still four-point favourites,

But even with a good coach, there’s only so far this current group of players could go this season. Taman’s managing style has been exposed: Pay to the point of overpaying for veterans and free agents, eschewing scouting and neglecting the Canadian college draft. The end result is that the Riders spend most of the $5.05 million maximum in the CFL salary cap to pay about two-thirds of the starters, and the rest of the roster is made up of people making close to the CFL minimum. The Roughriders may have some of the most talented players in the league at some positions (quarterback, receiver in Weston Dressler), but overall the Riders aren’t as talented as other CFL teams, even before the injury bug bites.

The end result is a team that is old, slow, and, in the salary cap era, always on the verge of falling apart like an over-ripe fruit, and often for the same reason. Sure, CFL teams have won titles with the Taman management style, in which a large bankroll has bailed out a team with poor coaching or the inability to scout for better talent. That’s how the Edmonton Eskimos won Grey Cups throughout the 1990s and the first part of the 2000s: by spending a dollar and a half to two dollars on players salaries that other teams would spend a dollar on. But you can’t do that in the salary cap era.

Frankly I don’t believe a word of what’s being said publicly about the future of Cory Chamblin by Taman or anybody else in Riderland. Unless Lawless was deliberately stirring the pot or was in a psychotic trance, that story came from somewhere. In all likelihood either someone on the Riders’ board of directors spoke before the board and/or Taman backtracked, or Taman told the board he wanted to fire Chamblin, but the board said no, wait until the end of the season and you’re likely gone, too (it’s also possible, though not probable, that the source spoke before the rest of the board found out that the most likely candidates to take over at head coach – Mike Benevidies and Paul LaPolice – wouldn’t want the job).

The Roughriders’ board probably don’t want to fire anyone right now, and who could blame them? On a cash flow basis, the Riders have Mosaic Stadium well-sold for the rest of the season. If Chamblin and/or Taman are fired, then the Riders have to pay out their salaries for the next two and a half years (they signed four-year contracts after the 2013 Grey Cup – an unheard of length in the CFL). And they won’t get anyone better until the season ends.

The best thing that can happen now is for the Riders to limp through this horrible season, taking their lumps like cows caught in a hailstorm on the bald prairie. There’s nowhere to hide, and they can’t make it stop. As soon as the season is over, Chamblin and Taman are both cashiered, and the Rider management looks for a GM with excellent scouting connections. The Riders like to remind us that they now have more money than God, at least in CFL dollars, and the salary management system prevents the Riders from ‘overpaying’ their players. Unlike the Al Ford years, the Saskatchewan Roughriders can’t cry poor and have a built-in excuse as to why they can’t find the best players available.

But like Al Ford, Brendan Taman is a local Good Old Boy (he’s from Saskatoon) and in Regina business circles, they protect their own. Much like Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment, the Roughriders have amassed not only a massive financial war chest but also a business operation that will provide a bulwark to protect them during lean times on the field, and a loyal and massive (in CFL terms, anyway) fan base that will purchase anything remotely connected with the color green and the letter S.
Though Taman is the weak spot for the organization, he’s their guy.

One can see whether Taman has any life expectancy in Riderville by analyzing what he does for the rest of the season. Scour the CFL waiver wires for players cut for being to old and/or expensive for other teams? Signing former NFL first-rounders that flashed out of that league? Trade the team’s positions in the Canadian college draft for ‘proven players’ who are nearing the end of their careers? Taman did all that when he was the Winnipeg Blue Bombers’ general manager last decade: the Bombers are still paying the price for his roster decisions. And if Taman isn’t doing that for the remainder of this season in Riderville, it’s because the board won’t let him, and that’s because they want the pantry to be ready for the next GM.

The Saskatchewan Roughriders have gone from Camelot to smithereens. There will be no quick fixes to put this team together, no matter how many horses and how many king’s men all called to put this Humpty Dumpty back together again. Whether the people involved know how bad the situation has become, and whether they can fix this organization to win in 2016, remains to be seen.

Author: Stephen LaRose

2006 winner of the Canadian Association of University Teachers's Award of Excellence in Journalism for a bunch of prairie dog stuff. Invited into the best homes in Regina. Once.