Edmonton Eskimos look to spark sporadic return game with Stafford trade
What do you call special teams that aren’t very special?
Unfortunately, the Edmonton Eskimos found themselves the butt of the joke last week against the Calgary Stampeders.
A third-quarter collapse in what ended up being a 24-18 loss in the Battle of Alberta erased a defensive effort that allowed just 220 net yards of offence, while the Eskimos’ own offence simply ran out of time with a last-second jump ball in the end zone fell harmlessly to the turf.
“We have to be better. First and foremost,” said Eskimos general manager Brock Sunderland, who traded veteran receiver Kenny Stafford to the Saskatchewan Roughriders for return man Christion Jones in a deal announced Monday. “Our return game has to be better and we think Christion is a player that can do that, he’s proven he can both at Alabama and in the CFL.”
Trade talks began on what was no doubt a long and quiet ride back up the QE2, after a tied game early in the second half quickly took a turn in Calgary’s favour with three straight strikes against Edmonton’s special teams.
Following a 103-yard kickoff return by Calgary’s Terry Williams, Eskimos kicker Sean Whyte missed a 35-yard field goal on their next possession, before Martese Jackson followed up by fumbling away a punt return that led to the Stampeders’ lone offensive touchdown
“Martese is hurt and we’re not sure of the extent,” Sunderland said. “But there’s the potential it could be a longer-term injury.”
Stafford is currently tied for 10th overall with 366 receiving yards, which has the 29-year-old native of Columbus, Ohio, on pace for a career high 940 receiving yards this season.
“I think it was difficult for him, I think he likes it here, he’s been here for quite a while,” Sunderland said. “We think the world of Kenny, both as a person and as a player. Unfortunately, it’s a great game but a bad business at times and we made a move that we felt was what we had to do at this time.”
“He has been a good player. In order to get value, you have to give value. The thing about that is we have a lot of depth at international receiver right now. (Greg) Ellingson’s going to be back this week, most likely. DaVaris Daniels, if not this week, most likely next at the latest. Josh Stangby’s back, and Ricky Collings and the crew, so we feel we have the depth to do that.”
Of course, it left Trevor Harris without his third biggest target – behind Collins and Ellingson – at practice Tuesday.
“Yeah, any time you lose one of your guys, I’m close with Kenny too, and so it’s part of the business, it’s tough,” the Eskimos quarterback said. “It’s not fun, it’s the worst part of it, but it is what it is. You take where you’re at and you press forward and he’s going to do the same thing out there in Saskatchewan, he’ll do a great job.
“But as for us bringing in Christion, hopefully he does a great job sparking us. Hopefully Martese can get his rehab on and we’ll look forward to getting him back and making the team as strong as we can get it.”
Returns have been anything but a strength for the Eskimos, who are one of three teams with less than double digits when it comes to running back punts, and sit dead last with 17.7 yards per kickoff return. They are the only team without multiple big-play returns and one of two teams without a return touchdown.
“Yeah, they struggled, which I already knew coming here,” said Jones, who has three kick return touchdowns in his three CFL seasons so far. “They’ve struggled in the return game and haven’t had one since, like, 2013, maybe? But none of that’s my concern.
“The least of my worries. My main focus is getting on the field, being healthy and I’m just glad I came to a team like Edmonton, man. They have so much drive and they want to be good. So much attention to detail, so much focus here.”
And you can bet the spotlight will be squarely on Jones and the return game when the Ottawa Redblacks visit Commonwealth Stadium on Friday (8 p.m. TSN, 630 CHED).
But the five-foot-11, 190-pound Alabama product is sticking with a straightforward approach.
“The biggest thing is he gets north-south quickly,” Sunderland said. “A lot of your good returns come when you’re getting upfield quicker rather than trying to bounce it outside all the time.”
On Twitter: @GerryModdejonge