CFL season preview: The Saskatchewan Roughriders

So who needs the NFL? Preseason football has already begun north of the US border, and the CFL kicks 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. This time out, a look at the Saskatchewan Roughriders.

The history: How best to easily summarize a history longer than any pro football franchise aside from the Arizona Cardinals and Toronto Argonauts? How to describe the devotion of Roughriders fans cheering on a team based in what is easily the league’s smallest market?

We’ll attempt to keep it brief by keeping things in modern history: After all, with a history stretching back to 1910, the earliest Regina Roughriders played a brand of football barely speciated from rugby.

In 1958, Roughriders were among the teams in the inaugural season of the Canadian Football League after 20-plus seasons in the Western Interprovincial Football Union. The same year, the legendary Ken Preston was named the team’s general manager and is generally credited for the Riders’ success over the next two decades. From 1960 to 1978, the Riders made the CFL playoffs in 15 of 18 seasons and took their first modern-era Grey Cup in 1966. Coaching that ’66 team was the wonderfully-named Eagle Keys, who’d also lead the ’70 Riders to a CFL record-setting 14-2 mark.

From 1967 to ’76, the Riders enjoyed a run of Minnesota Vikings-like success, appearing in four Grey Cups but losing all four; these Grey Cup games resulted from the team’s unprecedented run of 11 consecutive divisional final appearances. Karmic and/or statistical payback followed with 11 straight seasons *without* a playoff game, also a standing CFL record.

In 1989, the Riders won the Grey Cup again, this time in a wild 43-40 classic (classic especially if you dig on pinball-style offense) – and Saskatchewan wouldn’t hoist the trophy again until 2007. The  ’07 Grey Cup featured  the Riders topping the rival Winnipeg Blue Bombers. Head coach Kent Austin, who’d leave the Riders after the win for a job at the University of Mississippi, had quarterbacked the team to victory in ’89.

Finally, the Roughriders have competed in two of the more memorable Grey Cup games of the past 10 years. In the 2009 final, Riders QB Darian Durant (still the starter in Saskatchewan today) had his team out to a 27-11 fourth-quarter lead over the Montreal Alouettes. After a pair of Montreal touchdowns had cut that to 27-25, placekicker Damon Duval shanked a last-second field goal for a Riders championship – except, d’oh! A flag had been thrown for too many men on the field (!), and Duval was given a second, this time successful, shot.

But redemption was Saskatchewan’s in 2013. Stumbling into the playoffs after going 3-6 in the season’s second half, the Riders survived a scare from the BC Lions in their first playoff game before torching the Calgary Stampeders in the divisional final and the Hamilton Tiger-Cats in the ‘Cup game. The Ticats have been knocking on the door of Grey Cup opportunity ever since, while the Riders, well…

Last season: In analyzing the 2015 Saskatchewan Roughriders season, brevity is perhaps best. We can concisely and confidently state that essentially anything that could go wrong did go wrong for the Riders last season, beginning with the season-ending injury to starting quarterback Darian Durant (formerly of University of North Carolina), continuing through the historical futility of an 0-9 start to former Grey Cup champion coach Corey Chamblin’s dismissal, and the team’s mathematical elimination from the playoffs.

With a win against the East division’s cellar-dwelling Montreal Alouettes in the final week of the season, Saskatchewan finished 3-15, their worst finish since 1999. Depth – especially among the team’s Canadian side – was a particular bugaboo for the Riders in 2015, with many fans blaming the team’s all-in approach in ’13. That Riders team took the Grey Cup, but busted the bank.

The offseason: Chris Jones? Chris Jones! Saskatchewan’s new head coach led the Edmonton Eskimos to a Grey Cup victory in 2015, but as he worked his way up through the CFL coaching ranks, he won three ‘Cups with three different teams between 2002 and 2012.

And bear in mind that Jones may claim the Riders as his own in a way no other CFL head coach can. As part of his hiring, Roughriders brass named Jones to the positions of general manager, vice president of football operations and head coach; he’s also set to handle the defensive coordinator responsibilities as well.

Hired in Saskatchewan within 1½ weeks of the Grey Cup final, Jones immediately went to work remolding staff and roster in his own image. Before the free-agent signing period had opened, Jones had brought over offensive coordinator Stephen McAdoo, special teams coach Craig Dickenson, quarterbacks coach Jarious Jackson, OL coach Mike Scheper and DL coach Ed Philion from Edmonton.

Flexing his GM muscles immediately, Jones cut some *19* players by mid-December among them long-timers and fan favorites such as WR Weston Dressler (U. North Dakota), DE John Chick (Utah State, Jacksonville Jaguars) and DB Macho Harris (Virginia Tech, Philadelphia Eagels). Among those incoming were naturally several of last year’s champion Eskimos, including prospective starters WR Shamawd Chambers (Wilfred Laurier U.), OL Andrew Jones (McMaster U.) and DB Otha Foster (U. West Alabama) plus special teams specialist Kendial Lawrence (U. Missouri, Milan Rhinos).

Despite Jones’s presumed magical powers, however, the offseason and preseason haven’t exactly been smooth sailing for the Riders. WRs Maurice Price and Jeremy Kelley, OT Bruce Campbell, safety Tyron Brackenridge, LB Shea Emry, DT Tearrius George all retired – most in surprising fashion; in fact, Price, Campbell and Kelley were all acquired by the Riders this offseason only to ultimately never suit up for a single Riders practice. Meanwhile, as of this writing, no. 1 overall pick OT Josiah St. John (U. Oklahoma) has yet to sign with the club and has requested a trade.

On top of all this, a intra-roster scrimmage game on Saturday, June 5, had Jones hopping mad at the state of thes Riders. “It makes me want to throw up,’’ Jones began a much-quoted post-practice rant in which all three aspects of the team were held accountable. “When you play like this, you’re not going to win many football games when you have that type of execution.”

In the search to “find the guys who want to do things the right way,’’ Jones stated that “Unfortunately, there are going to be some guys who won’t be with us.’’ Making good on that promise, Jones released another four players on the following Monday. That day’s practice session was, according to local beat writer Murray McCormick, marred by “At least four scraps/skirmishes after plays” which had Jones stopping practice altogether at one point.

Talent and ability to execute aside, Jones certainly has this bunch fired up…

Expectations for 2016: The Roughriders enter the 2016 season with far more question marks than in ’15, but fandom awaits with far more optimism. We’d reckon that West Division mates the Calgary Stampeders and Winnipeg Blue Bombers have improved since last season. And despite Jones and the NFL’s best pillaging efforts, the defending champion Eskimos will probably remain a contender.

So does Saskatchewan get off the playoff bubble in ’16? Much will come down to Jones. By dint of job titles alone, Jones already enjoys greater job security than just about any of his fellow CFL head coaches; many in Jones’s position(s) would be content to steadily build a potential repeat champion – Even the most bullish on the Riders are forecasting a Grey Cup appearance in two years.

On the other hand, wow, that post-scrimmage grousing … the implication, borne out by the man’s résumé, is one of dedication, devotion and impatience.  In his rise from defensive line coach to the all-seeing emperor spot he now occupies, through Montreal and Calagary and Toronto before Edmonton, Jones’s teams have always contended, have always been forward-thinking. The word “rebuilding” just simply isn’t in the man’s vocabulary.

Here’s to thinking that Jones is looking to win with the Roughriders *now*. And who’s gonna tell him to keep patient? The general manager? The vice president of operations?

One thing is for certain about Saskatchewan Roughriders football, 2016 edition: it certainly can’t be worse than last year…

Next: The Ottawa Redblacks