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Three-Down Theatre: The Edmonton Eskimos, the horror, the horror

Eric Tillman (L) and Colonel Kurtz have both been accused of unsound methods.

Rolling forward with our Three-Down Theatre series of season previews, here's a look at the Edmonton Eskimos, who are trying to move on without the long-time face of the franchise.

Film: Apocalypse Now (warning: there's mature language and violence in some of the linked clips)

We'll see if it's Apocalypse Now in Edmonton this year.Francis Ford Coppola's famed Vietnam War epic (a modernization of Joseph Conrad's novel Heart Of Darkness, which is set in colonial Africa) is the story of the search for the renegade Colonel Kurtz (Marlon Brando), a man widely considered to be a military genius, but one the U.S. military wants taken out thanks to his problematic methods. That sounds familiar, as Edmonton general manager Eric Tillman's widely regarded as a CFL genius thanks to his impressive resume, but much of the populace has been questioning if his methods are unsound following his bizarre decision to trade franchise quarterback Ricky Ray to Toronto for a bag of spare parts (quarterback Steven Jyles, kicker Grant Shaw and a first-round draft pick).

Tillman has maintained that the trade was more about getting rid of Ray's massive salary and moving on with the rebuilding process than it was about the actual return he got, but the trade looks bad enough for the Eskimos that it's even spawned some conspiracy theories that the league put pressure on Tillman to help the Argonauts. I don't buy that; that would be a massive scandal if it ever came out, and this league administration is too smart to risk something like that, plus, it's hard to see Tillman taking orders from anyone outside the Eskimos' offices). Still, though, having this subject even debated shows just how unpopular Tillman's trade has been, and having similarities to Kurtz puts him in some less-than-stellar company.

It's worth noting that while Tillman's methods are highly questionable, he, like decorated special forces operative Kurtz, has a past history of success. While in Saskatchewan, Tillman famously traded his starting quarterback and the CFL's reigning Most Outstanding Player (Kerry Joseph) to Toronto after winning the 2007 Grey Cup, and last year in Edmonton, he slashed-and-burned his roster (fortunately, only metaphorically severing heads, unlike Kurtz) and pulled off a remarkable turnaround. However, Joseph's 2007 campaign wasn't as good as Ray's 2011 statistically, and Tillman arguably got more in return for him; moreover, it's Edmonton's impressive 2011 campaign that makes this even more curious. The Eskimos looked like a contender last season, but following the Ray trade and Jerome Messam's departure for the NFL, it looks like this might be a much more difficult campaign for them. Of course, Tillman's succeeded against the odds before, as did Kurtz; Kurtz's reign eventually came to an end, though, and while it seems unlikely that will happen to Tillman any time soon, this doesn't look like the most promising season for him.

Tillman has one very impressive asset up his sleeve, though; head coach Kavis Reed. Reed, a rookie head coach in 2011, turned in one of the year's most impressive coaching performances, leading the Eskimos to an 11-7 record and a berth in the West Final. Reed's motivational speeches might be up there with those delivered by Lieutenant-Colonel Bill Kilgore (Robert Duvall), and although it's unclear what his views on surfing or the smell of napalm are, he's shown he can lead impressive attacks. Now, if he can just start blasting The Ride Of The Valkyries in the Edmonton locker room...

The Eskimos have some capable players, too. In particular, star slotback Fred Stamps is reminiscent of Apocalypse Now's main character, Captain Benjamin Willard (Martin Sheen): both have been through a lot (nightmarish battles for Willard, nightmarish seasons and horrifying injuries for Stamps), but both are talented warriors who can accomplish even impossible-seeming goals. Stamps is a much more unambiguously positive character (for Edmonton fans, at least) than Willard (interestingly enough, Sheen's played a similar victory-at-all-costs type recently, but in a different medium), and he's not trying to bring down Tillman, but if the Eskimos are going to accomplish incredibly difficult missions this year, he'll have a vital role to play.

Another notable character in Apocalypse Now is Tyrone "Mr. Clean" Miller (played by Laurence Fishburne, long before his days as a philosophical rebel leader), the young soldier who's part of the crew on the river patrol boat Willard's travelling into the jungle on. The closest analogue on this year's Eskimos roster might be Shamawd Chambers, the 23-year-old Laurier receiver drafted sixth overall. Chambers has the speed and football IQ to make a major impact for this team despite his youth, and the Eskimos' attempts to focus on their young core could see him rise to prominence. There are always hazards lurking to take out young players, though.

It's going to be an interesting year for Edmonton. There are talented players on this roster, but whether new quarterback Steven Jyles can actually be an effective part of their mission or is reduced to a less-helpful character like Dennis Hopper's mad photographer is a key question. We'll also have to see who's tabbed to take over the void Messam left at running back. One advantage Tillman has over Kurtz is that supposedly-unsound methods aren't quite the handicap in the CFL that they are in the army; there's nothing inherently wrong with trading Ray if he's able to make it work. However, even his reputation as a brilliant CFL man won't save him forever if the team doesn't win. While the end probably won't come this season even if the Eskimos struggle, a continued lack of success over the next several years might just lead to "The horror, the horror."

Prediction: 5-13, last in West.

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Sandy Annunziata, Ian Denomme