Vanstone: Roughriders will finish second in the West
This grizzled gargoyle of the media was poised to be a purveyor of pessimism until the wisdom of an alternative perspective suddenly became apparent.
Yes, the Saskatchewan Roughriders have the same starting quarterback (Zach Collaros) and offensive co-ordinator (Stephen McAdoo) as last season, when the Groan and White erupted for a CFL-worst 11 touchdown passes.
Adherence to the status quo at those all-important positions was the principal reason why the initial inclination was to bury Saskatchewan at the bottom of the West Division standings when the time arrived to make predictions.
But then came the reminder that, despite the offensive travails of 2018, the Roughriders nonetheless posted a 12-6 record and staged a home playoff game.
The Roughriders advanced as far as they did on the strength of their defence, which should continue to be formidable.
So if the formula — as unconventional as it was in the traditionally wide-open CFL — worked rather well for Saskatchewan last season, who’s to say that the success cannot be repeated?
Although the Roughriders lost defensive end Willie Jefferson (to the Winnipeg Blue Bombers) and linebacker Sam Eguavoen (to the NFL’s Miami Dolphins), a highly reputable core is still in place.
TSN’s top-50 list includes five Roughriders defensive players — defensive tackle Micah Johnson (fourth), defensive end Charleston Hughes (14th), halfback Ed Gainey (20th), injured middle linebacker Solomon Elimimian (39th) and cornerback Nick Marshall (42nd).
Of course, there is the unavoidable matter of the Roughriders’ offence, but that facet of the team should improve — at least incrementally — once the regular-season schedule begins Thursday in Hamilton against the Tiger-Cats.
The free-agent signing of William Powell, who rushed for 1,362 yards in 16 games with the Ottawa Redblacks last season, gives Saskatchewan a running attack that commands respect.
If Powell produces at his accustomed level and the Roughriders can be passable through the air, some of the pressure on the Green and White’s defence should be alleviated.
Saskatchewan is also well-positioned to win field-position battles now that Jon Ryan is handling the punting. Ryan is capable of launching NASA-calibre punts or, as the situation dictates, angling the ball out of bounds.
Ryan will also be the holder for 2018 West Division all-star placekicker Brett Lauther, whose uncanny reliability from as far away as midfield allows the Roughriders to extract points from unremarkable possessions.
Saskatchewan’s return game can also be impactful. The Roughriders boast three players — Christion Jones, Kyran Moore and Marcus Thigpen — who combined for four punt- or kickoff-return touchdowns last season.
The special teams were a difference-maker under the tutelage of Craig Dickenson, who now doubles as the head coach following the departure of Chris Jones to the NFL’s Cleveland Browns.
Jones, the CFL’s reigning coach of the year, benefited the Roughriders most noticeably as the defensive co-ordinator — a role that is now held by Jason Shivers.
As a head coach, Jones was, well, moderately successful.
He made some forehead-slapping decisions, such as needlessly putting Collaros in harm’s way in a pre-season game and indefensibly using an elite receiver (Duron Carter) as a cornerback at a time when the offence desperately needed a game-breaker.
Jones’ inattention to the offence could not have benefited McAdoo, whereas Dickenson seems more amenable to putting the incumbent play-caller in a better position to succeed.
A second-place finish would constitute success, especially in light of the widespread predictions of doom.
So here, without further introduction, are one scribbler’s predictions …
West Division: 1. Calgary Stampeders; 2. Saskatchewan Roughriders; 3. Winnipeg Blue Bombers; 4. B.C. Lions; 5. Edmonton Eskimos.
East Division: 1. Hamilton Tiger-Cats; 2. Toronto Argonauts; 3. Ottawa Redblacks; 4. Atlantic Schooners; 5. Montreal Alouettes.