Eskimos make the most bizarre move of this CFL season, firing GM Eric Tillman before playoffs

Eric Tillman's been at the centre of the two most bizarre CFL moves over the last 12 months. As Edmonton's general manager, he traded star quarterback Ricky Ray to the Toronto Argonauts for a hill of beans last December, prompting endless questions and conspiracy theories. That move had a rationale, even if it was a bad one, though, so it pales by comparison with Saturday's decision by Eskimos management to axe Tillman. Firing the general manager a week before the team's first playoff game, one with an easier matchup they're perfectly set up for? Now that's going to be difficult to explain.

When you look at Tillman's tenure in Edmonton (fall 2010 to now), the Ray trade certainly stands out as a negative, and it's not hard to envision that being the primary reason he's now been fired. The Eskimos do have plenty of issues, but their quarterbacking situation has been the biggest one; Steven Jyles and Kerry Joseph haven't come anywhere close to Ray's typical level of performance. Heading into this week, Edmonton was last in the league in total offensive yards, total first downs, passing first downs and passes completed; they were also second-last in total points, total passing yards and completion percentage. That's certainly a mark against Tillman.

However, in almost every other area, Tillman has made substantial progress. Keep in mind that the Eskimos were a terrible team when he took them over in 2010, not long after a 52-5 loss to Calgary that some thought might have been the low point in franchise history. From there, they made an impressive 2011 turnaround and went all the way to the West Final. This year also hasn't necessarily been as bad as it's seemed; sure, the Eskimos are 7-11, but they have an impressive amount of talent, and they're facing a Toronto team with plenty of question marks of its own in the first round. If they get past that test, all that stands between them and the Grey Cup is a Montreal team defined by inconsistency this year. Why not at least wait and see how things play out before axing Tillman?

What stands out most about Tillman's tenure is the talent he's located, something he's always been known for. From grabbing CFL spare parts like Jerome Messam and Hugh Charles and turning them into stars to acquiring former NFLers like Joe Burnett to brilliantly drafting talented guys who can make an instant impact like Shamawd Chambers to finding overlooked street free agents like J.C. Sherritt, who just set a CFL record for tackles in a season and has a case to be the league's most outstanding player, not merely its top defender, Tillman's moves have made the Eskimos' roster look a heck of a lot more impressive than it was before he took over. Yes, that hasn't led to spectacular on-field results, but general managers can really only be judged on the talent they grab; it's then up to the coach to put that talent into workable schemes, and it's interesting that few are questioning head coach Kavis Reed given how this season's played out.

Really, if a scapegoat was going to be found here, it's curious that Reed has been passed over. Consider the evidence: despite a plethora of talent, the Eskimos' defence has become quite bad by many metrics (heading into this week, they were last in passing yards allowed, rushing yards allowed, gain per rush and opponents' completion percentage). Look at the offseason move there, with Rich Stubler leaving the club to run B.C.'s defence (which has been historically good), and Reed, not Tillman, quoted in the statement; there was plenty of talk at the time that Reed wanted the then-elite defence to take different tacks, and how's that worked out? Not so well. Similarly on offence, Tillman has provided Reed with a plethora of weapons, including Charles, Messam, Cory Boyd, Chambers, Cary Koch and others; Reed has been spectacularly unsuccessful at forming them into a cohesive, effective unit. Some of that's on the poor quarterback play, sure, but it's interesting that Matt Nichols looked so good for Edmonton Friday night. Why didn't he get more of a look earlier during the struggles of Jyles and Joseph? On most teams, that's something you'd ask the coach...

Of course, that's not to say that Reed should have been fired now either. Firing anyone at this point in the season is incredibly silly; wait and see how things play out. The Eskimos still have everything to play for, and unlikely as it may be, even the Grey Cup isn't out of the question. Opting to axe their GM before they see the final result of his work is like firing Michelangelo halfway through the painting of the Sistine Chapel; the early brushstrokes might not dazzle, but you've got to see the whole thing to really judge it. When you look at the Eskimos' issues, though, most of them seem to be problems of execution rather than talent (as opposed to, say, Winnipeg). That's why it's remarkably curious that they fired the guy responsible for finding the talent, not the one responsible for utilizing it, and the timing makes this even more curious. It's hard to see a major organizational change like this helping their playoff chances, and it's easy to see it hindering them. There could always be more to this story, but from what's come out so far, it sure looks like Edmonton may be the laughingstock of the CFL for a while following this move, impressive when you consider the struggles of the Bombers and Tiger-Cats.

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