Saskatchewan Roughriders Embody Chaos Theory in Action

August 1, 2018 - 12:59pm

The Riders are not that good and not that bad as they showed in their 34-22 defeat at the hands of the Calgary Stampeders.

The Riders are not that good in coughing up the ball for four fumbles, two of which helped to fuel Calgary to a 24-0 first quarter lead they easily held onto for the rest of the game.

The Riders are not that bad as the defense managed to play good enough to win for three quarters, even pitching in a touchdown, and showed they have the ability to win games solely on perhaps the best defense seen in Saskatchewan in uh, 42 years?

Rider GM/Coach Chris Jones demonstrated his stubbornness by stating the Riders would continue to pursue a small ball offensive strategy, which is run a lot, short passes and try to compensate for a lack of offensive punch by holding onto the ball as long as possible without turning it over. In other words, Jones seems determined to turn the Riders into the 2001 Baltimore Ravens who had an all world defense and a minor league offense.

Then in the days following the game, the Riders released running back Jerome Messam after being charged with Voyeurism and then announced quarterback Zach Collaros would be back for the Edmonton game Thursday and perhaps defensive back Nick Marshall, which would then have the Riders switch Duron Carter back to the offense where the need for him is probably greater.

Collaros did not make many friends by stating he was injured in the preseason game against Calgary, but didn’t say anything until Ottawa beat him a gong, forcing the Riders to enter the Brandon Bridge experience as a starting QB – which at least resulted in two wins over the team Bridge seems able to beat – Hamilton. Apparently both quarterbacks will play against Edmonton, which the Riders hope will stop the apparent slide of the team in a very competitive western conference.

There are two schools of thought regarding Bridge – one is he isn’t getting the offense or coaching he needs to be an effective quarterback and two – he has reached his potential and is a good change of pace quarterback coming off the bench, but lacks the ability to go through his reads and become effective in a Stephen McAdoo offense.

Watching him live against Calgary, it is difficult to blame him for the two fumbles that put the Riders into an early hole, but when Bridge had a change to make throws, they were wild pitches that were off the mark. The Riders seemed to try to compensate for Bridge being unable to make reads by relying on the running game by committee that was the Riders offensive backfield and very short passes.

When Bridge was pressured, or when the play was designed, he did run, sometimes effectively, sometimes not. If the Riders offensive line was better talented, then rolling Bridge out so he could avoid the rush and at the same time limit the field he could throw/run in, might have taken better advantage of his talents.

What the Rider play-calling demonstrated was Bridge was trying to be the quarterback their system needs – someone who plays in the pocket, making their reads rapidly and delivering the ball – and failing on two of the three requirements. However, the Riders are also handicapped with a receiving corps that was not entirely helpful in helping their quarterback by making catches or moving around to try to get open.

If the fans ran the team, the McAdoo would have gotten his walking papers after the game, but that move alone will not help this team. The return of Collaros, who said he kept his condition from the coaching staff after the Calgary exhibition game, does not inspire confidence in his good sense.

Without a doubt Collaros is facing pressure after his Hamilton experience ended on a prolonged down note while the size of his contract means he needs to deliver or else his days of healthy paydays are gone. Consider also the legacy issue quarterbacks face and after a brilliant start to his career, his 13 game losing streak is not the note he wants his CFL career to be remembered for.

So with his return from the injury list, maybe at full strength, maybe not, the debate has ranged amongst Rider fans whether signing Collaros with his injury history and perhaps the cumulative effect of his injuries means his career is about to end. His return may mean a semblance of a normal offense for the Riders, along with the addition of Carter, but that may depend on the performance of the offensive line.

Then if the Riders situation couldn’t get any more fluid, defensive line coach Ed Philion who left the staff to deal with a family situation and is not expected back this season. This kind of throws a curve ball at one of the units of the team that is performing as hoped but Merritt Bowden appears to be likely to step in.

This is Bowden’s second season with the Riders after working in 2016 with special teams. He has worked as a football coached at Auburn and Jacksonville State and also worked as a visiting coach with the Edmonton Eskimos during 2015 when it won the Grey Cup.

So with all of this swirling around the Riders, the question is where is this team and is it going to be more than a team with a great defense and a mediocre offense? The initial signs are like the Riders performance this season – mixed.

Collaros may be able to play the Kevin Glenn role, able to sit in the pocket and deliver the ball, but unable to run very well. So if Edmonton is able to put a decent rush on Collaros and he can’t respond, it may bring Bridge back into the game sooner than expected.

The Riders running game now appears to be Tre Mason and Marcus Thigpen, but the loss of Messam will be most acutely felt on the Canadian ratio. Messam provided the Riders with some flexibility and the Riders may have to bring on their Canadian linebackers on the injury list – Brandyn Bartlett or Kevin Francis, ironically both of which were supplemental draft picks.

In terms of actually running the ball, the Riders might be better suited with Mason and Thigpen because a three person running game tends to feel a bit diffused than if two backs were allowed to try to establish a rhythm while carrying the ball. The loss of Messam may seem to indicate the Riders receiving corps will have a more Canadian content, but with this will come the growing pains of young receivers receiving playing time and learning how to perform.

An interesting scenario will be the emergence of draft pick Josiah St. John on the offensive line from the injury list where he has been languishing. The Riders have been rolling the dice in a number of areas this year, arguably from signing Collaros to having Carter start at defensive back and have enjoyed varying results as a result. St. John might rank as the first and perhaps biggest roll of the dice as an overall number one draft pick and if he can actually play to expectations the Riders may be in good shape.

But in the meantime, the Riders have the look at great defence, but barely confident offense which may have the ability to improve over the season if they can enjoy some continuity. And they are not the only team suffering the same problem.

The CFL week starts on Thursday with Ottawa going to Toronto as Ottawa somehow finds itself in first place in the east and Toronto is discovering that Marc Trestman may be a great quarterback whisperer with an experienced quarterback but perhaps not so effective with a less experienced quarterback.

Toronto will be starting McLeod Bethel-Thompson ahead of James Franklin, who has looked somewhat underwhelming and had been in a dogfight with James Franklin for the back-up position behind Ricky Ray. With Ray seemingly out for the season, Franklin has struggled and his troubles can be shared equally amongst the offense and defense.

So while Trestman says the character is there in the locker room to pull the team out of a 1-5 hole, but the Argos are burdened with underperforming athletes like James Wilder Jr. who caused a scene in the off-season by demanding a raise and how poorly he was treated and has responded by being completely underwhelming.

More troublesome for the Argos might be the play of the defense which seemed to be headed for problems when Cory Chamblin, defensive coordinator a year ago, decided not to come back for this season. The Argos seem to be trying to find their identity on defense, but so far their identity seems to be a tendency to back up and eventually give up.

Ottawa for its part seems to be feeling better about itself after surviving a boring slugfest with Hamilton which was enlivened in the last two minutes when a football game broke out. So while Ottawa has been capitalizing the last two weeks on underperforming teams, the odds seem to be in their favor to make it three weeks in a row against a Toronto team that is seeing its season slowly slip out of reach. Ottawa wins this one 26-18 because when Ottawa wins, it is usually by a close score.

The Riders go to Edmonton where Rider fans will again help Edmonton establish the largest crowd in the CFL this season. The Riders are coming off their first quarter meltdown against Calgary feeling fairly good about themselves, especially with the return of Zach Collaros.

The reason for the Rider confidence is not so much the return of Zach Collaros, although that will help, but the play of the Rider defense. The Rider defense did not bad for three quarters against Calgary, but then again, they didn’t stop Calgary much in the first quarter.

Edmonton has an all-star offense that can go deep, but has a defense that again has its problems, but which is facing the Riders small ball offense. This should be a tight game, based solely on the play of the Rider defense, and while the return of Collaros should help, Edmonton should win this game 27-23 as the Riders yet again play close, but no cigar.

Then we have Hamilton at Montreal on Friday which features the debut of Johnny Manziel, finally, as a CFL starter. The problem is Manziel is facing his former team, Hamilton, who have a pretty good idea of what Johnny does well, and what parts of the CFL game gives him problems.

Manziel starting is basically an effort by Montreal GM Kavis Reed to salvage his season and keep his team somewhat relevant in the Montreal marketplace. Manziel is known as an improviser and he is expected to try to use that for his benefit, but he has gone a couple of years without seeing any live action, and the team he is facing has a pretty good book on how he operates.

Montreal’s problems are deeper than just quarterback and it will take awhile for this team to get its act together. The team is better coached than what it was under Reed, but the results should be the same – Hamilton ends its losing streak and comes away with a 27-19 win over Montreal.

On Saturday the BC Lions go to Calgary with the addition of Shawn Lemon to try to give their defensive line a better look to it. Calgary is coming off their showdown with the Riders feeling pretty good about themselves, and the only thing that may give them pause is the appearance of Travis Lulay as BC quarterback.

BC’s defense has the feeling of a badly stitched response to opposing offenses, but BC seems to feel that having older pass rushers may give their defense a better shot at disrupting offenses as long as they are rotated. It’s a formula that might work out in the short term, but the question is whether BC will able to hang around in October and November the final playoff spots are determined.

Calgary is on a roll, it’s at home, and BC may be improved, but not improved enough. Calgary wins 29-16.

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