CFL season preview: The Edmonton Eskimos

So who needs the NFL? Football begins in under a month north of the border, with the CFL kicking off its 2016 season on June 23. Before then, Os Davis presents previews for each of the Canadian Football League’s nine teams right here on The Grueling Truth. The series starts with an obvious choice, the defending champion Edmonton Eskimos.

The history: Even the most fanatically devoted of NFL fans is probably aware of Warren Moon’s football career in Canada with the Eskimos prior to his nearly-as-storied time in the big league. The Eskimos string of five consecutive championships in Moon’s first five professional seasons from 1978 to 1982 is clearly the franchise’s highlight. The Esks have taken six titles intermittently since then, with last year’s Grey Cup win the team’s first in 10 years.

Last season: After losing to the Toronto Argonauts on opening week, the Eskimos won five of their next six to get them to the top of the West Division standings until meeting the East’s Hamilton Tiger-Cats, who asserted themselves in a crazy-dominant 49-20 win. One may give some credit to the subsequent injury to Ticats quarterback (and, at midseason, the league’s prospective Most Outstanding Player) Zach Callaros for the Eskimos’ ascendancy to the West title and ultimately the championship, but Edmonton too overcame QB issues while constructing epitome of bend-don’t-break defense.

What was that about quarterback issues? After missing literally half the season due to an injury, Mike Reilly (formerly of Central Washington U.) reentered in week 11 with a loss – the last time the Eskimos would lose for the remainder of 2015 in whipping off 10 consecutive games on the way to the championship. No matter who was quarterbacking, Adarius Bowman (Oklahoma State) and Derel Walker (Texas A&M, Omaha Mammoths) were catching everything, nearly unstoppable in going 1-2 in the CFL in receptions with 93 and 89, respectively; Bowman was additionally no. 2 in the league in receiving yardage with 1,304.

On the defensive side, the Eskimos’ leading tackler was Dexter McCoil (formerly of University of Tulsa, Oakland Raiders, Los Angeles Kiss), ranked 10th in the league with 76 in 18 games. Odell Willis (U. West Georgia, Spokane Shock) was the team’s defensive MOP, contributing nine sacks and, let this CFL fan tell ya, basically being everywhere. John Ojo (Florida A&M) was also notable for his league second-high five interceptions in his rookie season, but the key stat in the Eskimos’ 2015 season was 431. As in points allowed, fewest in the CFL. The Eskimos’ depth, particularly on the defensive side, was the envy of Canadian football last season; as to whether they’ll match it in ’16, read on.

The offseason: The offseason was not particularly kind to the Eskimos, as the fate of a Canadian champion is often to be picked apart by NFL or fellow CFL teams. The problem was exacerbated for the Eskimos this season, as established genius head coach Chris Jones – think a Canadian version of Bill Belichick – departed Edmonton for Saskatchewan, wooing starters RB KendialLawrence (U. Missouri, Milan Rhinos), WR Shamawd Chambers (Wilfred Laurier U.), OL Andrew Jones (McMaster U.) and DB Otha Foster (U. West Alabama). Jones didn’t merely attract players to Saskatoon, either, divesting Edmonton of offensive coordinator Stephen McAdoo, special teams coach Craig Dickenson, quarterbacks coach Jarious Jackson, OL coach Mike Scheper and DL coach Ed Philion.

Meanwhile, two key members of the secondary are gone to the NFL, with McCoil signed by the San Diego Chargers in the offseason and Aaron Grymes (U. Idaho)by the Philadelphia Eagles. Starting DL Willie Jefferson (Stephen F. Austin, Houston Texans) will get a shot in Washington in 2015.

On the plus side, Eskimos fans may enjoy a little turnabout in their team snagging Chris Getzlaf from the Roughriders. And the Esks may arguably have gotten the two most athletic draftees inwith their first two picks in the CFL Draft in WR Tevaun Smith (U. Iowa) and DB Arjen Colquhoun (Michigan State) – great acquisitions if, ironically, they don’t make it onto NFL rosters this offseason.

Expectations for 2016: With eight players from the Grey Cup-winning starting lineup and half the coaching staff gone, can first-time head coach Jason Maas recreate the miracle he helped foster as offensive coordinator for the Ottawa Redblacks, Cinderella team of 2015?

While few can realistically hope for a repeat championship bid for the Eskimos in 2016, the West appears extremely difficult to judge before the preseason with at least three teams (Saskatchewan, BC Lions, Winnipeg Blue Bombers) riddled with question marks. One thing’s for certain about these Eskimos, though: With an offense-first guy helming Reilly, Bowman and Walker joined by Getzlaf, this team threatens to run up points like something out of Golden State…

Next: The Calgary Stampeders