12 Audibles: Where, after protest, the Eskimos are finally miked up

Andrew Bucholtz
After initial protests and a fine from the league, it appears Edmonton head coach Jason Maas will don a microphone for this week's game. (John Lucas/Edmonton Journal.)

Welcome to another week of 12 Audibles, our regular look at storylines from around the CFL. This time around, we start with an examination of the Eskimos' microphone controversy.

1. Edmonton wearing microphones: One of this year's silliest storylines was Eskimos' coach Jason Maas and quarterback Mike Reilly deciding on game day on Oct. 10 not to wear microphones, nullifying all the promotion TSN had done of their live mic game. That led to CFL commissioner Jeffrey Orridge fining the team $20,000 and fining Maas $15,000, and promising that any further rebellion against a live mic game would lead to a suspension for Maas. The league set Saturday's Edmonton-Toronto game as a live mic game, and after some initial delays, the Eskimos have agreed to it, meaning that we hopefully won't see Maas suspended for the postseason over this.

Should a live mic game create this much controversy? Of course not. It's a broadcasting feature that really shouldn't be a big deal. However, it's Maas and the Eskimos that made this a big deal with their initial rebellion, and the league office's forceful action is understandable and commendable. It shows that it's the central office running this league (with the support of the board of governors), not any individual team, and that's a good thing for the CFL. Teams and coaches cannot defy league office directives (especially ones that their board of governors representative initially signed off on) if the league is going to work.

The concerns from the Eskimos' players and coaches also appear to be misplaced. The main thing that's been cited is worries about opponents stealing signals. For one thing, that's highly avoidable (either by using different signals in the live mic game or changing them afterwards), and for another, the amount of useable information that can be gained from that seems pretty minimal. In fact, smart teams could even call a signal they used in a live mic game and have it mean something else, throwing off a defence that did attempt to steal signals.

Coaches are often paranoid of information of any sort getting out (as we've seen with clampdowns on who's attending practice and what they can say), but the value of that information's far from clear; it's just another part of the "clearly I can not drink the goblet in front of me" chess game, and the best response to that isn't overthinking it the way Vizzini did, but changing the variables as Westley did. In football terms, it's far more important to know what you're doing and execute it well than to worry about if your opponent knows what's coming.

Even if we presume that there are good reasons for Edmonton's concerns (which there don't appear to be), the biggest counterpoint against them is that (with Toronto being miked up here) every single team will have done this. If so much can really be learned from a miked-up game, the Eskimos will have the opportunity to do that themselves by studying tape of whoever they face in the postseason.

Ironically, it was Edmonton's refusal to wear mikes that had far more potential to create a competitive imbalance than actually wearing mikes. As mentioned above, there isn't solid evidence that wearing mikes provides any useful ammunition for opponents, but it is a possibility, and if the Eskimos didn't have to do it and everyone else did, that's not particularly fair. The CFL's taking the right approach here by making Edmonton do this, and it's good to see that the Eskimos apparently aren't inclined to fight it any further. It's also good to see league-wide interests and the desire to grow the game win out over individual football operations departments and their desire for secrecy. That leads us to...

2. The value of live mikes: Are these mikes actually valuable, and are they going to stick around for future seasons? Well, the CFL cites a 17 per cent boost in the audience for live mike games so far compared to the average audience for non-live mike games. That's not necessarily completely indicative, as there are other factors involved in determining each game's audience (the matchup, the playoff significance, the date and time, what other sports are on TV at the time, etc), but it does suggest that these games have been generally well-received so far, and that the league is smart to keep trying them. The question is if they'll continue to find an increased audience, or if this apparent boost is from the novelty factor and will die off if these games become more regular.

From a broadcast criticism standpoint, the value of live mikes so far to viewers has been mixed. There have been some great moments with them, particularly when they capture quarterbacks or coaches in conversation with other team members, but there's also been a lot of jargon that isn't necessarily adding anything and is in fact getting in the way of the play-by-play announcers and analysts. This is still early days for this idea, and all of that could improve with time; we could see changes in who's miked up (linemen or defensive backs and receivers might be interesting), we could see level adjustments so the mikes are loud when there's something useful and quieter when there isn't, and we could see more discussion of what the jargon means. We could also see changes so the mikes are highlighted later with clips from when a player says something interesting (something that's done in some other sports) rather than continuous live mikes.

So far, the live mikes haven't been a clear "this should be done all the time" success, but they've been an interesting change of pace, and one with some potential. They also do appear to be finding success with viewers, at least to this point, and that's a valuable goal; the more the CFL can boost its TV ratings, the better. We'll see where live-mike broadcasts go from here, but for now, they appear to be worth further experimentation at the very least. Speaking of TV ratings...

3. Riders overtake Eskimos: We noted last week that the Eskimos were leading the league in TV ratings, but that's now changed. Buoyed by big numbers for last week's final game at Mosaic Stadium at Taylor Field (779,000 average viewers), the Saskatchewan Roughriders have now passed Edmonton, averaging 628,000 on the year to the Eskimos' 626,000. That could still change, though; we know the Riders' final game against B.C. doesn't matter for them (although it could be important for the Lions), while the Eskimos' finale against Toronto could well influence their playoff spot. Given how close those season averages are, a strong Edmonton-Toronto number might bump the Eskimos back into first. If it did, that would be the first season since 2013 that Saskatchewan hasn't led these ratings. That's remarkable considering the Riders' 2014 and 2015 struggles, and it shows how important even a down Saskatchewan team is to the national TV ratings.Speaking of the Riders...

4. What's Darian Durant's future? There's a lot of talk this week about Saskatchewan quarterback Darian Durant and his expiring contract. Durant won't play in the team's final game, as they're looking to give backups Mitchell Gale, G.J. Kinne and Brandon Bridge some more reps. That makes lots of sense; the team needs to see what it has in those guys, and figure out which of them are worth keeping around for next year. Playing Durant in a meaningless game isn't as valuable; Saskatchewan knows what they have in him. The question is if they'll still have him when free agency rolls around, though.

On a lot of levels, a new deal in Saskatchewan would seem to make sense for both the Riders and Durant. Durant's made it clear that he loves playing in Regina, and there don't appear to be many other landing spots for him. It's possible that Toronto or Montreal could make a play for him, but both of those teams would seem to be equally far or further from contention than Saskatchewan. They'd probably have to offer significantly more than the Riders to land Durant, and it's not clear that either would do that.Similarly, bringing back Durant would seem logical for Saskatchewan; he's a fan favourite, he's found success there, and there doesn't appear to be a better easily-attainable quarterback option out there for them. Durant's certainly a better option (for at least the short term, and the team does appear to be trying to win next year) than the other quarterbacks they currently have, and he would seem likely to be a better option than anyone else who might hit the market.

The question then becomes about the price tag. Durant is 34, has battled some injuries, and the stats he put up in 2016 (330 completions on 496 attempts, 66.5 per cent, for 3,839 yards with 14 touchdowns and seven interceptions) are more solid than spectacular. He certainly would deserve a good mid-range starter contract, but if he wants to be paid with the league's top quarterbacks, that could be a tougher sell. This also could be an interesting decision from the team's standpoint; any money Chris Jones spends on a starting quarterback is money he doesn't have for the rest of the roster, and there's an argument for trying to find value at QB to boost your team elsewhere. For now, it looks like Durant returning to Regina is the most likely option, but there's definitely a possibility of the sides being apart on price and some other team offering him more.

Speaking of veteran CFL players, how about...

5. Paul McCallum's return to the Lions. B.C.'s signing of the 46-year-old McCallum, who retired this past offseason after spending 2015 with Saskatchewan, was certainly an interesting move. It's McCallum's fourth stint with the team, and the last one didn't end well; they released him in June 2015 in favour of RIchie Leone after he refused to retire. McCallum did sign a one-day contract to retire as a Lion earlier this year, though, and Lions' head coach and general manager Wally Buono clearly sees some value in McCallum that he didn't last June. (Buono also now knows that Leone wasn't able to completely fill McCallum's shoes, and he probably got McCallum at a lower cap hit now than he would have back in June 2015.)

Signing McCallum seems to make some sense. Leone has struggled on field goals this year, hitting just 68.6 per cent of his attempts, and McCallum posted an incredible 90.5 per cent mark for the Lions in 2014. The Lions' plan appears to be to have both active, and to have Leone handle punts, kickoffs and longer field goals while relying on McCallum's accuracy in closer. We'll see what McCallum has left, though, as his success rate dropped to 80.6 per cent in Saskatchewan last year, and he was deactivated late in the year in favour of Tyler Crapigna. Still, even 80.6 per cent is substantially better than what Leone's done this year or overall; his CFL career success rate is just 72.2 per cent. In a season where CFL kickers have been historically good, Leone hasn't been performing at the level needed. Bringing McCallum back is a bit of a gamble, but if he still has some of the accuracy he's shown over his career, it's one that could pay off for the Lions.

 If he gets into a game, McCallum will become the second-oldest player to play in the CFL (after Bob Cameron, who was 48 in his final season), and he could still provide some value. He has the second-most field goals in CFL history (717, behind only Lui Passaglia's 875) and two of the top seven most accurate seasons (in 2011 and 2014). We'll see what he has left.

Also on the special teams front, let's look at...

6. Justin Medlock. Winnipeg's Medlock has had a great season, and he's tied with Calgary's Rene Paredes for the most successful field goals this year with 56. Because the Stampeders have played all their games and are off this week, Medlock could take the sole lead with just one field goal when the Bombers play the Redblacks Friday. Tying or breaking Dave Ridgway's single-season record for field goals made (59 in 1990) is also in play. We'll see if Medlock can do it. Regardless of if he gets there or not, he's been a key part of Winnipeg's success this year. Another special teams race to watch is...

7. Return yards. Montreal's Stefan Logan leads with 2,300 combined return yards, but B.C.'s Chris Rainey is close behind with 2,289. Rainey leads in kickoff return yards with 1,310, while Hamilton's Brandon Banks (returning from suspension this week) has 1,205. Calgary's Roy Finch leads with 993 punt return yards, but Logan (987) will likely pass him this week. The battle for the league's most outstanding special teams player will be interesting, as Rainey, Medlock, Paredes, Banks and Logan all won their team nominations, and all have good cases. Everyone except Paredes has a chance to bolster their case this week.Speaking of awards, how about...

8. Most Outstanding Defensive Player. There are lots of interesting team nominees, including B.C. linebacker Solomon Elimimian, Calgary defensive end Charleston Hughes, Winnipeg linebacker Maurice Leggett, Toronto defensive end Shawn Lemon, Hamilton defensive end John Chick and Montreal linebacker Bear Woods. Everyone except Hughes can add to their totals this week. Elimimian leads in defensive tackles with 128, while Woods has 123, Hughes leads in sacks with 16, but Lemon and Chick are close behind with 14 each, and Leggett is tied with teammate T.J. Heath for the interception lead with seven. Lemon also is second with five forced fumbles, and could potentially move past Edmonton's J.C. Sherritt (six) with a strong showing. This week may play a big role in determining who wins the award. What about...

9. Most Outstanding Player. The frontrunner appears to be Calgary's Bo Levi Mitchell, and he's off. However, two other strong contenders are in action. Montreal's Woods is one, and while it's unlikely he'll win MOP, if he turns in a dominant performance and passes Elimimian in total tackles, that could at least help him become the East nominee. Another interesting candidate is Edmonton's Mike Reilly, who leads the league with 5,554 passing yards (Mitchell finished with 5,385). Mitchell has the edge over Reilly for now, especially when you throw in touchdowns to interceptions (Mitchell has 32 against eight, Reilly has 28 against 12), but Reilly has the better completion percentage (70.8 per cent to 68.0 per cent), and a dominant performance that gets him over 6,000 yards or close to it might lead to some MOP support for him. Mitchell's still likely to win it, especially considering how important he's been to the Stampeders' dominance and that he didn't play in Calgary's final game, but Reilly can make a case for himself with a strong showing here. We'll see how he does in...

10. Toronto-Edmonton: The Eskimos' clash against the Argonauts Saturday is interesting, as it could determine where they wind up in the playoffs, and their incentive may be not to win. As mentioned last week, Edmonton's chances of reaching the Grey Cup appear to be more than 25 per cent better if they cross over to the East. However, the team's still likely to try to at least somewhat play to win. They're reportedly planning to rest several veterans, and even Reilly may not play the full game (he's listed as the starter, but the Eskimos gave James Franklin the majority of the reps in practice this week), but competitive pride (and the desire to turn in a good performance heading into the postseason) means the players who are in are likely to at least give a solid showing.

That may not matter; if Winnipeg wins or ties Friday night, Edmonton's crossing over regardless. However, if the Bombers lose, an Eskimos' win keeps them in the West and sends them to B.C. instead of Hamilton in the first round. Facing the Lions and Stampeders seems much tougher than taking on the Ticats and Redblacks; we'll see if Edmonton has to do that. This is further proof of the problem with the current crossover system not giving higher-seeded teams an option. The Eskimos are incentivized not to play to win here; we'll see if they do. Speaking of...

11. Winnipeg-Ottawa. While the Bombers could also take that Eastern path with a loss and an Edmonton win, they have a little more incentive to play to beat the Redblacks Friday. If they win and B.C. loses, that means they're hosting the Lions in the West semifinal instead of travelling to play against them. A home playoff game's a nice incentive for teams, and it's one they'd probably strive for even over what looks like an easier route through the East. The question is if the Bombers can pull it off, though; they lost 23-10 to Ottawa last week and didn't look particularly impressive. A big issue for them is...

12. Turnover ratio. The Bombers' once-stellar turnover ratio took a hit last week. Matt Nichols has been great at avoiding interceptions for much of the year, but he threw three picks against the Redblacks. Meanwhile, the Winnipeg defence has led the league in interceptions for much of the season, but came up with just one last week. For the Bombers to win in the playoffs, they're going to need Nichols to return to his normal turnover-avoidance, and they're going to need their secondary to start ball-hawking again. We'll see if there are any signs of that this week.

Thanks for reading 12 Audibles! Stay tuned to 55-Yard Line for CFL coverage all week long, and come back here next week for the next installment of this column. You can also contact me with feedback on Twitter or via e-mail. Enjoy the games this week!