Upon Further Review: Edmonton Eskimos
When the Edmonton Eskimos began the 2019 off-season, there were endless questions.
Most, if not all of them revolved around wondering if their franchise quarterback, Mike Reilly, would stay put or up and leave for somewhere he found more desirable.
Reilly left. It could’ve been a disaster. Esks general manager Brock Sunderland could have had a tough time in his first year recruiting talent through free agency and drafting players that fit Jason Maas’ coaching staff scheme.
Instead, Sunderland backfilled the roster in one of the more memorable recent days of CFL player movement. He scooped up Trevor Harris, Greg Ellingson, Larry Dean, Don Unamba and SirVincent Rogers among others.
Winning off-season transactions is a positive, but none of it matters unless in-season wins follow. For the 2019 Eskimos, it was an up and down — at times injury-laden — season that they salvaged into a crossover playoff win before falling to the Ticats in Hamilton.
So who were the 2019 Eskimos? A group of thrown together individuals forced to find their way on the fly? Did they underperform based on the talent acquired last February or overachieve based on their road playoff victory?
That’s all a matter of perspective. What I do know is how the team’s offensive attack took on a new identity with Harris brought in to lead the Green and Gold in place of Reilly.
In 2019, the Eskimos had a far less aggressive and explosive passing attack, but as a result, they were much more efficient and limited turnovers in the passing game. They took on the expected identity of a Maas-Harris led football team and in many ways reverted to the 2018 REDBLACKS, which Harris led to a Grey Cup berth.
What were the differences between Harris’ last year in Ottawa and first in Edmonton?
Lower first down pass efficiency, more overall run/pass balance – especially on second down, almost identical yards-in-air tendencies and a marginally more explosive pass attack as the ghosts of Reilly’s gun-slinging past lingered around Commonwealth just long enough to influence Harris.
In both 2018 and 2019, C.J. Gable was undoubtedly the rock of Edmonton’s offence as Maas ran him over and over again, especially on first down, where Gable had the second-most carries in the 2019 CFL season behind only Andrew Harris.
The Esks were also a team defined by football geography in 2019. Inside their own 30-yard-line, Harris was a surgeon, using his big offensive line and efficient early-down pass attack to lead the CFL’s most productive offence when backed up and trying to avoiding conceding points.
The problem came when Edmonton reached the score zone — or inside their opponent’s 30-yard-line. There, the offence sputtered as Edmonton tried to stay ahead of the CFL’s worst score zone team, Harris’ old REDBLACKS.
The narrative around Harris this past season in Edmonton was the same as nearly everywhere he has been in the CFL. He’s a masterfully effective quarterback who takes a far more conservative approach than the average CFL quarterback with him anywhere he goes. But is that true?
First a look at his 2019 attempt throw zones.
Does that ‘check down zone’ sitting at 14.3% look much higher than average? Yes, but in reality, Harris’ massive throwing workload appears to be skewing the way fans think of him.
Harris doesn’t throw behind the line of scrimmage everywhere more than anybody else. What he does is attack certain parts of the field at a much higher rate. See for yourself from his 2019 season compared to CFL averages.
On throws under 10 yards in the air, Harris only attacks five of a possible 10 ‘underneath’ zones above league average but did he ever love the slip screen and bubble to his strong side in 2019 (+2.16%).
Here are his completion percentages when attacking those same throw zones.
So was Harris attempting a higher percentage of his passes ‘conservatively’ as everyone seems to perceive? He’s actually middle of the pack on throws attempted five yards or under and throws attempted at or behind the line of scrimmage by 2019 CFL quarterbacks with at least 100 attempts.
It’s as if we can’t believe the efficiency he plays with so we convince ourselves he must be taking all easy throws or refusing to throw the ball vertically. But the numbers suggest otherwise.
With that being said, when the playoffs rolled around, Harris and the Eskimos designed a ball-control passing attack for what would be Jason Maas’ final games coaching Edmonton. That stood in stark contrast to other playoff teams through the CFL divisional semi-finals and finals.
As a result, Harris put on one of the more calculated clinics in CFL playoff history on the road in Montreal, which looked like this:
The next week, Edmonton lost to Hamilton, setting off a chain of events that has Harris motivated and ready to storm the 2020 season with new Head Coach Scott Milanovich, a healthy arm and a variety of new teammates.
If the 2020 Eskimos can harness Harris’ natural efficiency and maximize timely aggressive shots as Milanovich did with Ricky Ray in Toronto, Edmonton football fans will have themselves a playoff team — and perhaps much more.