Inside the CFL: Eskimos give Maas one more try
With the Edmonton-Calgary rivalry, one-upmanship is the name of the game, even when it’s a negative. The Stampeders lost 13 starters from their Grey Cup team? “That’s nothing,” I can hear Eskimo coach Jason Maas saying, “We’ll have at least 14 new faces at the top of our depth chart, maybe more.”
In contrast to the Stamps’ championship season, Edmonton finished last in the West with a mark of 9-9. The Eskimos have only missed the playoffs six times in their 70 -ear existence. Because the fans who pay the freight are extremely intolerant of failure, many were surprised Maas kept his job. Instead of firing him, general manager Brock Sunderland spent more money on free agents than any other team. His message to Maas is clear: win or you’re gone.
Off-season signings included quarterback Trevor Harris, receiver Greg Ellingson, and offensive lineman SirVincent Rogers from Ottawa; linebackers Larry Dean and Don Unamba from Hamilton; receiver DaVaris Daniels from Calgary; receiver Ricky Collins from Saskatchewan; cornerback Anthony Orange from B.C.; and linebacker Jovan Santos-Knox from Winnipeg. Unfortunately Rogers, expected to anchor the O-line, is out indefinitely with a torn left tricep.
The biggest change in the Igloo is the departure of Mike Reilly, the latest in a long line of great quarterbacks who have donned the green and gold. Although his team finished last, it would have been much worse for the Eskimos if he hadn’t been there.
Harris is a good quarterback, not great. Maas must run a different offence for him. Last year, Reilly ran 120 times for 595 yards, about seven times a game. He ran for 13 touchdowns. He was 10th in the league in rushing. Harris ran for 117 yards on 27 carries, less than twice a game. He scored no touchdowns. Even with Reilly running so much, the Eskimos still allowed the third most sacks. Clearly Maas must dramatically upgrade the offensive line to give Harris time to throw. He won’t run out of trouble. Others have to replace all those majors Reilly scored.
The 2019 offensive line from left to right should include Tommie Draheim, Travis Bond, David Beard, Matt O’Donnell and Colin Kelly, all CFL veterans. Despite the departure of receivers Duke Williams, Derek Walker and Bryant Mitchell, Harris still has the outstanding Ellingson, Daniels and Kenny Stafford. Collins has shown occasional signs of brilliance. Mitchell, returned from a failed NFL tryout, may still wind up back in Edmonton. Keep an eye on Tevaun Smith, drafted by Edmonton in 2016. He’s been wandering the NFL the past three years but has finally reported for duty in Canada. C.J. Gable will likely be the running back. The ageless Calvin McCarty returns for his 13th season at fullback.
With Reilly and sure-handed receivers, offence hasn’t been the problem. Statistically, the Esks have been in the top third in every category. The defence has been in the bottom half most of Maas’ reign. Gone is the unlamented coordinator Mike Benevedes, replaced by former Hamilton DC Phillip Lolley, in his sixth year on a CFL sideline. He believes in the KISS (keep it simple, stupid) principle.
Gone is the great middle linebacker J.C. Sherritt, retired and coaching in Calgary. His backer mate Adam Konar and DB Aaron Grymes signed with the Lions. They should still be strong at linebacker with veteran newcomers Larry Dean, Don Unamba plus holdover Nick Taylor. The line should be one of the best with Kwaku Boatemng and Alex Bazzie on the ends with six-time CFL all-star Almondo Sewell and Mike Moore at tackle. Newcomers to the secondary Arjen Colquhoun, Jovan Santos-Knox and Anthony Orange along with returnees Forrest Hightower and Jordan Hoover. The defence will be much improved.
Last year Edmonton’s return game was the worst in the league. Newcomers Jordan Robinson and Josh Stangby returned punts for 106 and 74 yards respectively in pre-season action Sunday’s 22-7 win over B.C. Placekicker Sean Whyte and punter Hugh O’Neill are average.
While the offence won’t be as good as 2018, defence and special teams will be better.
Over the past two seasons, the Eskimos have been undisciplined and sloppy. They’ve taken a lot of penalties and they’ve had long losing and winning streaks. Coaching really needs to improve.
Graham Kelly has covered the CFL for the Medicine Hat News for 47 years. Feedback for this column can be emailed to firstname.lastname@example.org.