12 Audibles: Where the Eskimos won by losing, and are ruling the TV roost

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Losing to B.C. Saturday may actually benefit Adarius Bowman (4) and the Eskimos in the long run. (Jonathan Hayward/The Canadian Press.)
Losing to B.C. Saturday may actually benefit Adarius Bowman (4) and the Eskimos in the long run. (Jonathan Hayward/The Canadian Press.)

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 how the Eskimos' loss Saturday really was a victory...

1. How the Eskimos won by losing: Edmonton's 32-25 loss to B.C. may actually be a big boost for their chances of defending the Grey Cup. The 8-8 Eskimos can still finish as high as second in the West (if they win their last two games and B.C. and Winnipeg each lose their last two, Edmonton wins on tiebreakers), but more importantly, their chances of finishing fourth and crossing over to the East are rising. With a Bombers win or tie or an Eskimos' loss or tie, Edmonton is locked into fourth and crossing over. We've mentioned before (point #9 here) how incredibly beneficial that could be, but it's worth looking at that in a little more detail with some math. (If you don't like math, feel free to skip down to point #2: the summary of the following is that the Eskimos are much more likely to win the Grey Cup going through the East.)

Saying that the East is an easier route isn't exactly groundbreaking, as the opponents there are 7-8-1 Ottawa and 7-9 Hamilton, while the West opponents are 15-1-1 Calgary and either Winnipeg or B.C. (both 10-6). How much easier is it, though? Well, let's start with a simple analysis based on winning percentage. If the season ended today, Edmonton would have a .500 mark and play .438 Hamilton and then .438 Ottawa. We can use John A. Richards' formula to calculate head-to-head probability from a fall 2014 Baseball Research Journal article to figure out the chances (by winning percentage) of the Eskimos beating each of those teams, where the formula is P = WPA (1-WPB) / WPA (1-WPB) + WPB (1-WPA).

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It's convenient that the Eskimos' winning percentage right now is .500, as that means a team's expected winning percentage against them by this formula is just its overall winning percentage. Thus, Edmonton would be expected to win at a .562 clip against either Ottawa or Hamilton. The probability of winning both games and advancing to the Grey Cup is simply multiplying those events: 31.6 per cent. By contrast, if the Eskimos stayed in the West, they'd be expected to win at a .375 rate against either Winnipeg or B.C. (winning percentages of .625), and a .118 rate against Calgary (winning percentage of .882), giving them just a 4.4 per cent chance of winning both games and advancing to the Grey Cup. That's an incredible difference.

Of course, that's ignoring home/road effects, and it is still possible (albeit unlikely) for Edmonton to finish second and host a first-round game. However, that still doesn't really help them overall. The only way for the Eskimos to finish second is if all three teams end the year as 10-8, which would give Edmonton a .500 chance by winning percentage against their first-round opponent (which would be Winnipeg in this scenario). That's before you adjust for home-field, but this has been a weak year for home-field advantage in general (all teams in the league are 34-38-1 at home, .466, and that's even worse if you remove Calgary's 9-0 home record to get down to 25-38-1, .391) and for Edmonton at home (their 4-4 mark there's .500, equal to their regular winning percentage). If we presume Edmonton has a .500 chance that first game (no penalty or credit for home-field), they'd still only have a 5.9 per cent chance of reaching the Grey Cup thanks to running into Calgary in the West Final (and that's without giving the Stampeders credit for their home record). Even if you give the Eskimos a home-field boost of say, even .600, they'd only have a 7.0 per cent chance of reaching the Grey Cup through the West.

Winning percentage is far from the only way to evaluate teams' chances, of course. You could use Pythagorean expectation, RPI or SRS, Vegas odds, or a combination of the above, and they'll all produce somewhat different percentages for these scenarios. Something they would all agree on is that the West playoff picture appears harsher, though. Neither Ottawa nor Hamilton can reach the 10 wins B.C. and Winnipeg already have, and they're nowhere close to the 15 wins Calgary has.

There are a few further challenges to going through the East, specifically with the length of the road trip and the adjustment to that time zone (and playing East Division playoff games early in the day makes that particularly difficult), but those don't appear to come anywhere close to the difference in the quality of the opposition. There may be a financial incentive to stay in the West, especially if you host a first-round game, but there's substantial on-field incentive to go East, and thus, from an on-field perspective, it's better to finish fourth than second. 

That's a big problem, and one that could undermine the competitive integrity of late-season CFL games. There's nothing to suggest that the Eskimos have been trying to lose, and they put up a tremendous fight against the Lions, so it doesn't appear that they are rolling over. However, there would be every incentive for them to do so.

This is further proof that the CFL's crossover rule could use a tweak to reward finishing higher. Starting with the first-place team (which would likely decline it given their bye and home-field advantage, but they should have the option too), each team should have the option to stay or go, with the next-highest team taking the spot of anyone who leaves. (Thus, the second-place team would move up to first if the first-place team leaves, the third-place team would move to second if the second-place team leaves, etc.) Finishing further up the standings should reward you with the choice of an easier path, not punish you by having you play the league's toughest team. This would also produce tremendous interest and discussion about if teams should choose to stay or go, and would create great storylines leading into the playoffs. Of course, another potential solution to this is...

2. Eliminating divisions. This always gets talked about when there's East-West disparity, and it was all the rage two years ago when the East was struggling. From this corner, though, this isn't a great solution. For one thing, the divisions are key to the CFL's history, and they actually predate the CFL as initially-separate leagues by 20-plus years. More practically, divisions lead to extra games against nearby opponents, useful for rivalries (which in turn boost attendance and ratings) and for lower travel costs. They also play a key role in the league's all-star and awards setup. Getting rid of them just to solve a playoff problem doesn't seem like the greatest idea, especially as this could be more easily solved just by giving the aforementioned choice of crossing over or not to highly-ranked teams.

It's not like every team in the East has always been terrible, either. There have only been eight crossover teams since the rule was brought in in 1996, and none have ever made the Grey Cup. Only two (Edmonton in 2008 and B.C. in 2009) have even won their first playoff game. From 1996 to present, the East has won eight of the 20 Grey Cups, too, just slightly less than half. The East usually has at least one quite good team, if not two or three. And the Eskimos aren't sure to dominate even if they do cross over; the odds just look better for them. So, from this corner, eliminating divisions is a step too far. But it is true that the current divisional setup strongly favours the Eskimos, or whoever winds up in fourth place in the West. Something else that's looking good for Edmonton is...

3. The TV ratings. The league released a team-by-team breakdown of national ratings recently, and the Eskimos came out on top with an average audience of 649,000. Saskatchewan, who held the top ratings in 2013, 2014 and 2015, placed second this year with 627,000 viewers on average. So there are lots of people tuning in to Edmonton games. Last year's Grey Cup may have helped that; it's interesting that the Eskimos are getting 8.7 per cent more viewers on average this year, the third-biggest increase league wide.

It's also clear that you don't need to be good to put up ratings. The 7-9 Tiger-Cats posted the biggest year-over-year jump with a 10.7 per cent rise, while the 5-12 Argonauts were second with a 10.5 per cent gain. The Argonauts also realized an 18.5 per cent gain in TV audience for their home games, and a 52 per cent boost in the 18-49 demographic in the Toronto extended market for those home games.

Overall, heading into last weekend's games, CFL ratings were up by five per cent overall year-over-year and up by 11 per cent from 2015 in that 18-49 demographic. With a strong finish to the regular season, this could be a nice bounce-back ratings year for the CFL. It's clear the league, or the status of Canadian football players in general, doesn't seem to be on the radar of...

4. The Sporting News, though. That publication ran an article from Alex Marvez Wednesday titled "NFL looks to Canada for more ways to mine talent," which is certainly an interesting premise. However, the article itself seemed curiously unaware of the state of Canadian football talent in the NFL, to say nothing of the CFL's existence. (A faded-out version of the old CFL logo is used in the graphic at the top, but the league isn't mentioned at all in the copy.) The article's based on an interview Marvez had with NFL executive vice president of international Mark Waller, who suggests that the league might look to launch a regional combine in Canada for both Canadian and international players:

"We have regional combines in the U.S.," NFL executive vice president of international Mark Waller told Sporting News in an exclusive interview. “Why not an original combine going into Canada that looks not only at Canadian athletes but potentially extends invitations abroad?”

...Waller said international combines would be "much more geared to finding potential cross-over athletes — athletes who are already developed in, let’s say, rugby and we bring them in.

"We’re looking at skill set transferability and the potential for those athletes to grow into the NFL," he continued. “I think that’s an interesting area of opportunity for us. I think it would be an interesting area of opportunity for the countries that could potentially be interested in that."

The idea of a NFL regional combine in Canada isn't necessarily a terrible one, but it should be noted that many Canadian players already attend NFL regional combines throughout the U.S., and there's a weird conflation here of Canadians and "potential cross-over athletes." Targeting athletes from other sports may make sense for the NFL internationally in countries where there aren't high numbers of football players, but that's not Canada, which already has a massive amount of potential NFL prospects playing high-level football in Canadian and American colleges and universities. 

Most of those players are already well on the NFL's radar, including those who play in Canadian U Sports (formerly CIS; see note #9 here) competition. Look at the huge numbers of U Sports and Canadian NCAA players at the NFL's national combine and other regional events in 2015 and 2016. Look at how many NFL scouts showed up for pro days for Manitoba's David Onyemata (who was eventually drafted in the fourth round by the New Orleans Saints and remains on their roster) and Calgary's Rashaun Simonise (who was signed by the Cincinnati Bengals, released, and is now playing junior football thanks to a weird CFL eligibility quirk) this year. If the NFL wants to hold a regional combine in Canada to see a lot of U Sports players in one place, great; that could provide more opportunities, and it might produce NFL looks for some extra guys from Canadian universities. If they want to use that combine to also bring in some selected "cross-over athletes" from other countries as well, great. But the discussion here seems to focus on Canada as some untapped market where all the football talent's playing other sports, and that's just not the case. Consider the

There were 14 Canadians on NFL rosters at the start of this regular season, and a few more have signed since. There's an incredible amount of Canadian talent out there, perhaps the highest it's ever been if you include players in both the NFL and the CFL, and guys are not only shining at Canadian schools, but also at some of the biggest NCAA powerhouses. There are also plenty of Canadian players who star in the CFL and then go on to the NFL. Sure, none of that means that a Canadian regional combine's a bad idea, but this article doesn't seem to really get the state of Canadian talent and the NFL. That wouldn't be a big deal if it was just an opinion piece (most American reporters and columnists don't have much of an idea about the CFL and/or Canadian talent, and that's fine; it's not their beat), but you'd hope the NFL's EVP of international would know more about what's actually going on with respect to Canada.

Waller also says "At the moment, we don’t have enough inventory (of international games) to commit to going back to Canada, which we probably should be doing," which seems to disregard how poorly playing NFL games in Canada actually went. He then ends with "We’ve got a fan base there and a hugely popular sport," and Marvez concludes with "A sport that could become even more popular if Canadian athletes dotted NFL rosters." Well, they do dot NFL rosters, and they'll continue to, with or without a new regional combine in Canada.

This isn't a huge deal overall, but it is a bit disappointing to see that an important NFL official doesn't really seem to get what's going on with Canadian talent and just lumps it in with "international cross-over athletes." The NFL as a whole has shown its appreciation for Canadian talent in general and for the CFL in particular, and there are useful and growing ties between the leagues (such as this year's cross-border officiating training), so it's not like Waller's opinion is the only one here; there are certainly people in the NFL who recognize the value of Canadian players and the CFL. Keep in mind that we're only reading Waller's transcribed responses, too; maybe he meant to distinguish more between Canadian players and international athletes from other sports, but that didn't show up in the final piece. Still, it would be nice to see more awareness of what's actually going on with Canadian football talent. One Canadian player who is finding some NFL success is...

5. Tevaun Smith. Smith, who shone at Iowa, was first in the CFL's September and December prospect rankings last year and second in the April rankings. He went undrafted by the NFL but signed an undrafted free agent deal with Indianapolis; he was still taken in the first round of the CFL draft (eighth overall by Edmonton), though. Smith was cut by the Colts after the preseason, but signed to their practice squad, and he was just activated from the practice squad last week. So, he likely won't be joining the Eskimos this year, and if he performs in games, he may be in the NFL for years to come. It will be interesting to watch and see how he does, and which league his future's in. Getting back to Edmonton, let's move to...

6. Awards conversation. The most interesting awards season showdown this year may be the battle for the West Division's Most Outstanding Player, as whoever takes that is likely to win the overall MOP award against the East nominee. At the moment, Calgary quarterback Bo Levi Mitchell may well be the favourite: he leads the league with 5,385 passing yards and 32 touchdowns, he has a 68.0 per cent completion rate, he only has eight interceptions, and voters often include team success in awards (even though they really shouldn't). However, Edmonton quarterback Mike Reilly may put up a challenge. Reilly isn't far back with 5,315 passing yards and 26 touchdowns, he has the better completion percentage (71.4 per cent), and he has 379 rushing yards (the tenth-highest total in the league) and eight touchdowns on 96 carries. 

The rushing stats deserve a bit of discussion, as there is a disclaimer here. Mitchell has 60 yards and no touchdowns on 14 carries, but has less opportunities, as the Stampeders typically use Andrew Buckley in short-yardage situations. Buckley has 46 yards and eight touchdowns on 24 carries. So, Reilly's touchdowns there don't necessarily give him a huge edge over Mitchell; Mitchell could have rushing touchdowns if the Stampeders used him that way. However, Reilly's yards there are important, and they help boost his overall value.

At the moment, Mitchell would likely beat out Reilly for the West nomination, and deservedly so. He has the better yardage, the better touchdown numbers, and less interceptions (eight versus Reilly's 12). That might change a lot in the final weeks, though; Edmonton has two games left versus Calgary's one, and they still have something to play for at least this week (as mentioned above, they might be better off losing and finishing fourth, but it's unlikely the team will think that way), while the Stampeders have nothing to play for (apart from the best record in modern CFL history), and have already said they're likely to play backup Drew Tate for at least a half. Thus, it's quite possible Reilly could put up way more stats in the last two weeks and make a stronger case for himself. It still might not be enough to best Mitchell, but if Reilly gets over 6,000 yards, there's at least an interesting discussion there. And the possible third man in could be B.C. linebacker...

7. Solomon Elimimian. Elimimian became the first defence-only player to win MOP in 2014, and he's having another outstanding year, posting 118 tackles (second only to Montreal's Bear Woods with 119), six sacks, a pick and a forced fumble so far. While Lions' quarterback Jon Jennings has been good (4,678 yards, 22 touchdowns against 13 interceptions, a 67.4 per cent completion percentage), there's a real chance Elimimian wins the team nomination for MOP as well as top defensive player. With two games left, he likely won't break the tackle record of 143 he posted in 2014, but he might get close to it. He probably also won't win the West's MOP nomination over these two outstanding quarterbacks (he'll likely get the top defensive player nomination, but even that's not assured; other candidates include sack leader Charleston Hughes (15, plus three forced fumbles) from Calgary and interception co-leader Maurice Leggett (7) from Winnipeg), but if Elimimian does win B.C.'s team nomination, he may draw some votes away from Reilly, Mitchell or both. Speaking of Hughes, how about some...

8. #Details. SportsCentre anchor Derek Taylor has a great knack for statistical breakdowns of the CFL that go beyond the box score, and in addition to his regular video segments, he posts numerous interesting infographics each week on his Twitter account with the #Details hashtag. One this week featured Hughes and the number of pressures he creates in addition to his sacks:

There's definitely a case for Hughes as the West's top defensive player, and those pressures (and how far they are beyond his nearest competitor) illustrate just how valuable he's been to Calgary. Another interesting name on that list is...

9. John Chick. The Saskatchewan Roughriders' decision to cut Chick this offseason keeps looking worse and worse. It sparked substantial fan backlash at the time, and was certainly questionable then given the 15 sacks Chick put up in 2014 and the 11 he had last year, but the case for that move was that Chick was 33 and highly-paid, and Saskatchewan general manager and head coach Chris Jones thought his production might decline and he could do better with others. Wrong. Chick has had another dominant campaign with Hamilton, and is third in the league with 13 sacks, plus second with those 37 pressures. (Meanwhile, Shawn Lemon, who the Riders signed to replace Chick and then benched and traded to Toronto, is second in the league with 14 sacks and has 33 pressures. Saskatchewan as a team is last in the league with 23 sacks, less than Lemon and Chick have combined, and six of those came this past week.) Heading East has certainly worked out for him. The Riders' pass rush has gotten better in recent games, and the signing of Willie Jefferson upon his return from the NFL is a nice one, but cutting Chick this offseason definitely looks like the wrong call for them in retrospect.

Moving on to former CFL players, let's consider...

10.Tony Golab. Golab passed away earlier this month at the age of 97, and Tom Hawthorn wrote a superb obituary for him in The Globe and Mail. Hawthorn covers how Golab, a five-time all-star known as "The Golden Boy," started off as a skilled fullback as well as a punishing tackler and a talented punter, won a Grey Cup with the Ottawa Rough Riders in 1940 (beating Toronto's Balmy Beach in the only two-game total points Grey Cup series ever played), then enlisted in the RCAF, played a shortened season with Ottawa in 1941, won the Big Four's Most Outstanding Player award that year and narrowly lost the Grey Cup (while pulling off one of the best touchdowns in CFL history; he punted the ball, recovered it himself (as you can do in Canadian football), and raced in for a TD), played for an RCAF team in 1942 that beat the Rough Riders for the Ottawa city title, flew overseas missions and was shot down twice (picking up significant injuries along the way), and then came back to play in the CFL again (and was dubbed "The Golden Bomber" this time). The part about his escape from behind enemy lines and return to the CFL is particularly good:

His aircraft had been struck behind the cockpit by German anti-aircraft fire and he was once again forced to parachute to safety, this time with shrapnel wounds in his arms and legs. He landed behind enemy lines [in Sicily], further injuring a knee when he landed in a ditch, as he told the Ottawa Citizen in 2004. He soon after encountered a civilian.

“I had my revolver ready to shoot my way out of the place like it was the Wild West,” he told the Citizen. Instead, the man guided him past a German outpost and safely through the front lines to rejoin Allied forces. “They got me back to the hospital and I was there for three weeks recovering and driving all the nurses and doctors nuts because I could see the war was going on.”

...The recuperating pilot was posted as an instructor in Egypt, returning home after the war to rejoin the Rough Riders in time for the 1945 campaign.

“Anthony Golab looked as terrific as ever,” the columnist Jim Coleman wrote about his comeback game against the Argos. “It was unfortunate that he chose the Air Force as his service, because the Army certainly could have used him as a high-speed tank.”

Mr. Golab scored a career-high nine touchdowns in the 1948 season, earning all-star honours as a flying wing (flanker). The Rough Riders lost the Grey Cup game to the Calgary Stampeders by 12-7. It was his fourth and final Canadian championship game.

Golab went on to coach with the Hamilton Panthers and the Royal Military College, and then spent two years as the Montreal Alouettes' general manager in the late 1960s. He also re-enlisted in the RCAF, retiring as a wing commander, and later worked as a school vice-principal and an insurance salesman. He was inducted into the Canadian Football Hall of Fame in 1964, and was also named to Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame (1975), the Windsor/Essex County Sports Hall of Fame (1981), the Canadian Armed Forces Sports Hall of Fame (1994) and the Ontario Sports Hall of Fame (1997), as well as invested as a member of the Order of Canada in 1986. That's quite the life. In further farewells, and returning to the present day, let's talk about...

11. Mosaic Stadium. Well, really it's only a farewell to the building rather than the name, as the Saskatchewan Roughriders' new field will have the same name, but Saturday night marks the Roughriders' (and their predecessors') 713th and final game at the old Mosaic Stadium at Taylor Field. Those games date all the way back to 1910, and the CFL has pulled some remarkable stats from them; 610 were regular-season professional home games (where the Riders put up a 329-268-13 record) since 1936 in the Western Interprovincial Football Union (the West Division's predecessor) and the CFL, 51 were games from the amateur days in the Western Canada Rugby Football Union (1910-35), and there have also been 50 Riders' playoff games there since 1936, plus the 2013 Grey Cup. (The stadium also hosted Grey Cups in 1995 and 2003, but the Riders weren't in either; it's also hosted numerous Regina Rams games over the years and other events, including concerts by The Rolling Stones, AC/DC and Bon Jovi.)

The Riders' new stadium should be great, but it's worth recognizing the history of the old one, and there are a lot of people who have been through there. Since CFL verifiable attendance has been tracked (1958), the total attendancce for all Riders' home games there exceeds 11.6 million fans. Jamie Nye wrote a nice remembrance of the stadium and what it meant to fans for CFL.ca:

The stadium endeared itself to Rider Nation.

It wasn’t the rust or the semi-functional bathrooms or the bench seating that was only made bearable with a cushion or blanket.

It was the experience.

For that’s what it is about Mosaic Stadium/Taylor Field that kept us Saskatchewanians coming back for more. The wave of Rider green you see now at Mosaic wasn’t always that way but the fans’ passion for their team has never wavered.

Strangers weren’t strangers when sitting next to each other at Rider games. You became brethren instantly and likely were on a first name basis by halftime, and if the game was crazy enough you may have hugged on a game-winning play.

The term Rider Nation is the best way to describe the team’s fan base. Spread from coast to coast, from continent to continent. We are everywhere. It’s true.

And we’re all tied together from experiencing game day in Saskatchewan.

It's great that the Riders are getting a nice new facility, but it's also worth looking back at the old one. They close it out Saturday at 7 p.m. Eastern (TSN/ESPN3) against B.C., and that's a game that has motivation for both sides; the Lions would probably love to move towards second in the West (although, as aforementioned, fourth might be better), while Saskatchewan would love to close the old building on a high note. That should be fun. Another game that stands out this week is...

12. Edmonton-Hamilton. The Ticats host the Eskimos at 7 p.m. Eastern Friday (TSN/ESPN3), and they have a lot on the line. They've clinched at least second in the East, but last week's win over Ottawa gives them a chance at first. They just need to be one point better than the Redblacks over the final two games. Meanwhile, while it might be to the Eskimos' advantage to roll over and play dead, it seems unlikely they'll actually do that. This could be a great game, especially with Zach Collaros returning for Hamilton, and a foreshadowing of a potential playoff matchup. It should be fun.

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!


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