Roughrider Season Preview
I’ve been working on this for about a week and a half. Unfortunately I haven’t had the time (or the energy) to finish it up until now. But, the regular season hasn’t started yet, so, I’ve still got time. And I’m warning you: it’s long. Let’s start with the positional breakdowns…
Offensive line: The best in the league is back. Gene Makowsky, two-time Offensive Lineman of the Year, is back on right tackle, with the rest of the line still intact from last year. Yes, the Riders’ offence was 7th in the league, but they were 1st overall in the rushing department, thanks mostly to their linemen. Fred Childress is aging, and his health may be a bit of a concern, but Charles Thomas is always a concern because of his knack for taking holding penalties at the most inopportune times (remember the 2004 Western Final?). Rob Lazeo has apparently had an excellent camp, so he will be a good fit when someone goes down. Here’s to eating up turf on the ground game this year.
Running/full backs: So. Corey Holmes is gone. Is this a problem? Yes. Should we be concerned? I would say mildly at this point. Kenton Keith is a game-breaker -when he’s healthy. Dominique Dorsey has real potential. He’s another version of the Pinball himself, Mike Clemons. As for fullbacks, Chris Szarka remains one of the best. With the new offence the Riders will be showing, it sounds as if he’s going to get the ball in his hands a lot more often. This is good news. He’s been underutilized the past few years. Kudos to him for sticking with the team.
Quarterback: You know, I couldn’t help but laugh when I saw highlights of the Montreal/Winnipeg preseason game the other day. There was Nealon Greene, doing what Nealon does – make mistakes. Yes, that’s harsh for me to say. And yes, it was only preseason. But they were his trademark mistakes – mistakes I have seen so many times. Three months ago I thought the Riders were done for this year. But then came the demise of the Renegades and the dispersal draft and – the acquisition of Kerry Joseph. And I could not be happier. He is the whole package – arm strength and running ability. Yeah, he had 20+ interceptions last year. But, Ottawa’s offensive line wasn’t exactly the strongest either. I am excited to see what he’ll do with the best O-line, and one of the best (well, who knows this year) ground attacks in the league. He passed for over 4,000 yards last year, and had over 1,000 yards rushing. He is only the 3rd quarterback in league history to accumulate over 1,000 yards rushing in a season. The others: Damon Allen and Tracy Ham. When is the last time the Riders’ had a QB of his pedigree? It remains to be seen whether Joseph can win the big game when it counts. But with his former offensive co-ordinator Tommy Condell and Danny Barrett coaching, I’m sure he’ll be just fine.
Receivers: Last year the Riders’ offensive hopes were pinned on Matt Dominguez. The re-signing of the offensive standout to a long-term deal in the previous off-season was seen as the beginning of a change in attitude by the organization. Never had the future looked so bright. And then Henry Burris left to try on cowboy hats in Calgary. It was the beginning of the end of the Riders’ season. Two games in, Dominguez blew out his knee. But he’s back – and by all accounts looks to be back in game shape. The drafting of Jason Armstead provides the Riders with 2 deep threats. That hasn’t happened since the Ray Elgaard/Jeff Fairholm days. Too long ago. Elijah Thurmon, the Riders’ top receiver last year, left for Calgary in the off-season, which leaves the Riders with yet another hole to fill. Corey Grant, Jason French, Jamal Richardson and newcomer Andy Fanutz will all be fighting for starting roles. Fantuz may turn out to be the best up and coming young Canadian receiver since Jason Clermont. Roy Shivers has commented on what a great camp he has had – and those words don’t come out of Roy’s mouth very often. The Riders most certainly lack the depth at the receiver position that seemingly every other team in the CFL has. But with Tommy Condell’s new offensive package, a new pivot and George Cortez in the background, you never know what might happen…
Defensive Line: The Riders’ defence was ranked 2nd overall last year, both against the ran and the pass. For the Riders to make progress (read: host a home playoff game) those spectacular defensive numbers will have to remain the status quo. The Riders should be better on offence, thus creating less pressure on the defence, but it’d still be nice for them to be at the top. No slacking off guys. The defensive front line is solid, as long as Nate Davis stays health. The emergence of Fred Perry and Terrell Jurineack (back from a season ending injury) bodes well. Stay healthy boys…
Defensive Secondary: Trevis Smith is no more. Mike McCullough is looking to be the starting middle linebacker. He has had a good camp and should do well this year. Some of the best defensive backs in the league belong to the Riders. Most of last year’s players are back, minus Scott Gordon (traded to Hamilton), and McCalla (sorry – I’m not going to attempt to spell his first name). The safety spot left by Gordon should be easily be filled by Darnell Edwards, who had the starting job until Gordon usurped him. As for McCalla, it’s still up in the air. This group needs to continue to impress.
Special Teams: Here are where most of the question marks remain for the Riders. Walter Spencer was dominant last year, leading the Riders and the league in special teams tackles. Walter Spencer is now in Calgary (does anyone else see a trend developing here?). Neal Hughes will have to step it up. Corey Holmes is missing as well. Jason Armstead – the field is yours. And Paul McCallum left for the rain of BC and the indoor conditions of BC Place. The Riders will continue to search for a replacement kicker/punter. Nothing has been decided yet, and probably won’t be for awhile.
I believe the Riders will finish 11-7. Where that gets them, I don’t know. The amount of parity in the CFL this year is better than any other season I can remember. It will be very difficult to make it into the playoffs in the West. Hamilton will probably occupy the normally guaranteed crossover berth in the East Division, as they will be a much-improved team – they are the wildcard team this year. They dramatically improved their roster over the off-season, and the trade for Corey Holmes will only make them more dangerous. Each team has many interesting storylines that will play out over the season:
BC – Will Dave Dickenson remain healthy? If not, how will the Lions do without Casey Printers?
Edmonton – Can the Eskimos keep the Grey Cup for another year?
Calgary – Can Coach Tom Higgins improve from last year and put the Stamps in Grey Cup contention in what has been one of the shortest rebuilding projects in league history?
Toronto – Will Ricky Williams dominate?
Montreal – Is this Don Matthews’ last chance as Alouette head coach?
Hamilton – How will Jason Maas perform now that he’s an undisputed #1 quarterback?
Winnipeg – Is there finally stability in the Bombers’ organization?
As for the league itself, the tenure of Commissioner Tom Wright is coming to an end. Unfortunately the three owners that seem to run the CFL (those of BC, Edmonton and Montreal) have not embraced Tom Wright’s salary cap message. While there is great parity this year, unless a salary cap comes into place, there will not be parity down the road. It is too bad that the owners refuse to take off their blinders and, beyond the demise of the Renegades, see the good work Wright has done in bringing stable ownership groups to Toronto and Hamilton, increasing television viewership and bringing new sponsors to the table. The Renegades’ problems were not Wright’s fault. He was not the one who brought them back into the league. The league’s constant refusal to let the commissioner act as a central governing figure continues to strangle it. The interests of a few teams are always met, while the others bicker and complain, all the while having to tag along. The lack of a drug policy is also concerning. Further comments from me regarding this issue can be seen on previous blogs.
I believe this will be a good year for the league, as long as the Ricky Williams situation doesn’t get out of control. All of the teams have solid financial situations, and, with the possible exception of Winnipeg and maybe Hamilton, strong rosters. Things get started this Friday night with the Riders here in Vancouver to take on the Lions. GO RIDERS!