It should all be so neat and orderly: the B.C. Lions finishing atop the West Division, with the Calgary Stampeders challenging and the Saskatchewan Roughriders chasing. It’s what odds makers, pundits and most fans see happening this CFL season.
But what to make of the Edmonton Eskimos? They’re either poised for one of the greatest face plants in franchise history or will end up the surprise of 2012. There just isn’t any middle ground when it comes to a team assembled by general manager Eric Tillman and coached by Kavis Reed, who defied skeptics last year by advancing all the way to the West final.
The difference this time around is at quarterback. The venerable Ricky Ray was traded to the Toronto Argonauts in exchange for a package that included the Eskimos’ new starter, Steven Jyles, now with his fourth team in three years. That the two quarterbacks in their new jerseys clash Saturday at Commonwealth Stadium is a lovely bit of irony and a chance to see what the Eskimos look like – good, bad, bewildering or all of the above.
“We’re the Bermuda Triangle,” Reed said with a laugh. “No one’s sure what it really is and what to expect when they get there.”
So what are the Eskimos, in the coach’s view?
“We’re a blue-collar group that has to work hard. We’re not going to blow people out and hopefully we don’t get blown out. We have some stars but it’s not like we’re saying to them, ‘You’re the face of the franchise. You lead us.’ Everyone has to pick up a shovel and dig in.”
In the CFL, the quarterbacks who dig best usually win the most. The truth for the Eskimos is they’ll likely have to play both their quarterbacks to generate the offence needed. Jyles will start against Toronto, but his backup, another former Argonaut, Kerry Joseph, is expected to see action, too.
The knock on Jyles is his consistency; he’s not been a proven winner. Last year in Toronto, he turned the ball over 16 times in limited playing time and never established himself. Joseph, at 38, threw just 31 passes for Edmonton last season and was used mostly as a short-yardage specialist. The encouraging news is that Jyles and Joseph are not being asked to win games by themselves. What Reed and offensive co-ordinator Marcus Crandell want from their quarterbacks is similar to what they asked of Ray – manage the game plan and distribute the ball without a lot of interceptions and fumbles.
“Our group has been very secure in its confidence [through training camp and preseason] and that’s important because every game is going to be a tough one,” Reed said. “There’s more parity in the league now because of the movement of quarterbacks [Ray to Toronto, Henry Burris to the Hamilton Tiger-Cats]. That’s why we have to play it smart.”
As rivals, the Lions are deep and athletic and boast the league’s most outstanding player and 2011 Grey Cup MVP in quarterback Travis Lulay. He knows B.C.’s “expectation level is high” yet is convinced the team can “pick up where we left off and progress from there.” That’s a scary thought for the rest of the league.
The Stampeders have appointed Drew Tate as their No. 1 quarterback, and having a full training camp to work with the offence has aided his development. (“I just feel more confident now,” he explained.) In Saskatchewan, the Riders are counting on a bounceback showing from Darian Durant, who was bothered by a broken bone in his foot until he packed it in.
Given their quarterbacking situation, the Eskimos are equally dependent on a remodeled running attack and a merciless defence to overcome any deficiencies at the game’s most vital position. If one of those areas should falter, Edmonton’s season will be no mystery. It will go from disorderly to missing and fast.
“We won’t be flashy,” Reed said. “But we do expect to compete.”