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Tillman’s departure from Eskimos adds intrigue to playoff matchup

Eventually, talk will turn to how the Edmonton Eskimos and Toronto Argonauts match up in the East Division semi-final. But that's for later in the week.

Today's most intriguing chat topic in the CFL has to do with the Eskimos giving their general manager the boot on the heels of their regular-season finale. On a weekend when Calgary Stampeders' Jon Cornish set a single-season rushing record by a Canadian, and Edmonton linebacker J.C. Sherritt set a record for tackles, it was the unscheduled drop-kick of Eric Tillman that had the CFL buzzing like only it can.

Why now? Did the ill-fated trade that sent former Eskimo quarterback Ricky Ray to Toronto scuttle its architect? Is Tillman himself now bound for the Argos?

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Eskimos president and CEO Len Rhodes met with local media Saturday and said he had received approval from the team's board of directors on Oct. 25 to fire Tillman, who has a year remaining on his contract. There wasn't one reason for the dismissal, explained Rhodes. In essence, there were many: the Eskimos' win-less September and a 2-8 record in their last 10 games; the fact season-ticket renewals are expected to take a hit given the level of fan dissatisfaction; the departure of several key people from a front office described as "completely dysfunctional."

Firing the GM won't fix all those problems, at least not immediately, but it did take Tillman out of the picture as the Eskimos prepare to play Ray and the Argos this Sunday in Toronto. That's some relief for a team that has been has hounded by the trade since the day it was made.

With Ray erased from the lineup, the Eskimos opted to go with Steven Jyles, the quarterback acquired in the Ray trade who couldn't get things done consistently. The offence was a scrambled mess, a consultant was brought in, the offensive co-ordinator was demoted and the No. 1 quarterback switched from Jyles to Kerry Joseph to Matt Nichols, sometimes through injury, sometimes by choice.

Added to that was Tillman's admission on Edmonton's CHED radio he emotionally regretted making the Ray trade. Shortly after those words were out of his mouth, Tillman had to go back and express his confidence in Jyles, who was blindsided by his own GM.

Those were some of the football-related gaffes that did in Tillman, but there were other issues. That the Eskimos gave Tillman his first job after he pleaded guilty to the sexual assault of a 16-year-old babysitter did not sit well with everyone. Being a community-owned team, the Eskimos heard from the community and not all of it was complimentary.

It was also pointed out by his critics that Tillman never moved his wife and children to Edmonton, never truly immersed himself in the city. Instead, the family remained in Regina, where Tillman last served as GM of the Saskatchewan Roughriders. Tillman said his family had been threatened by hostile callers and that it was safer for them to stay in Saskatchewan. Oddly enough, while Tillman spent a lot of his free time in Regina visiting with his family, he rarely travelled with the Eskimos. The one exception was the Aug. 25 game in Toronto.

That trip ties in with the conspiratorial suggestion made in the Edmonton Sun, which reported former Eskimos president Rick LeLacheur told Rhodes shortly after the Ray trade there were rumblings Tillman was interested in running the Argos some day. Those rumblings will only get louder, especially with Toronto GM Jim Barker about to enter the final year of his contract in 2013 and facing an uncertain future.

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So why did the Eskimos fire their GM now instead of later? Because the timing was suitable. They had nothing to lose and closure to gain. Head scout Ed Hervey will take on added duties and assist Reed, the likely choice to be named GM and head coach for next season. Did the Ray trade scuttle the man who negotiated it? For sure, it was a significant factor. It became the inescapable link to all that was wrong with the team and its season, and now that Grey Cup-winning link plays for the other side.

It should make for a compelling matchup, one worth talking about. Shortly.

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