July 03, 2011
This entire offseason was full of confident talk from the Edmonton Eskimos' organization about restoring the glory years. Given their remarkably high off-season turnover and significant questions, that wasn't something a lot of pundits (including myself) bought into, and the general consensus was that the Eskimos were likely in for a rebuilding year and a basement finish. Yet, after Sunday's unbelievable 42-28 win over the defending West champion Saskatchewan Roughriders, the one team everyone figured was safe to count out of the predicted three-way dogfight for first place in the West Division is alone at the top of the divisional standings and bringing back memories of better days.
How'd they do it? Well, the Eskimos' offence started clicking. Despite being awful at the start of the 2010 season, they showed some potential down the stretch last year, so this isn't entirely surprising. The offence they displayed Sunday night was far better than anything they showcased even in their best games last season, though, piling up points against a Saskatchewan defence that was supposed to be in good shape under new defensive-minded head coach Greg Marshall and new defensive coordinator Richie Hall (who was fired as the Eskimos' head coach after the season last year).
One crucial change was that veteran quarterback Ricky Ray was not only healthy going into the game, but he was kept upright and given time to throw by his offensive line. Guard Patrick Kabongo, who shed an incredible 76 pounds in the offseason (to get down to 315), displayed his usual force in the interior blocking game, but with much more athleticism. The rest of the line followed suit, dominating the line of scrimmage throughout Sunday's action. The unconventional move to use left tackle (and second-overall 2011 Canadian draft pick Scott Mitchell) as a tight end on several plays, something rarely seen in the CFL, also paid massive dividends. The Riders' defensive front couldn't get to Ray for most of the game, giving him plenty of time to pick apart their secondary. He finished with 21 completions on 27 attempts for 294 yards with three touchdowns and no interceptions.
Ray's receivers deserve tons of credit themselves, though. Jason Barnes (pictured at top celebrating a touchdown catch with Ray), who was cut and then brought back during the offseason, had an incredible game, hauling in five passes for 104 yards and two touchdowns. Adarius Bowman, an off-season acquisition after Winnipeg cut him late last year for dropping too many balls, proved to be in great form in green and gold, making seven catches for 103 yards and a touchdown. Star receiver Fred Stamps was largely focused on by the Saskatchewan defence, but that sprung openings for others, and Stamps still recorded three catches for 34 yards. Andrew Nowacki also got in on the action with two catches for 29 yards, including a spectacular one for a first down near the sideline. The Eskimos' passing game looked to be a strength this year, but I wasn't expecting it to be this good.
Don't start planning parades just yet, though. This is just one game, after all, and individual games are not transitive. Just because Edmonton > Saskatchewan Sunday night and the Eskimos > the rest of the West Division on opening weekend, it doesn't mean those relations will hold through out the year and Edmonton will wind up heading to this year's Grey Cup. There are 17 games still to play, and it's worth noting that Edmonton's questions weren't entirely answered; their defence looked very vulnerable at times, and conceded 28 points overall to the Roughriders. Saskatchewan quarterback Darian Durant still completed 27 of 36 passes for 339 yards and two touchdowns, even if he was picked off three times, and Wes Cates picked up 56 yards on the ground on just 10 carries.
If they want long-term success this year, Edmonton's going to have to address their defensive issues. They're also going to have to try and make this kind of offensive explosiveness sustainable. Still, it's tough to imagine Opening Weekend going much better for them, even if almost no one outside the Green and Gold offices saw it coming.