January 05, 2011
The worst-kept secret in the CFL is no more, thanks to today's news that the Saskatchewan Roughriders have officially hired Hamilton Tiger-Cats defensive coordinator Greg Marshall (again, not the Western coach) as their new head coach. It was widely reported last week that they had offered Marshall (pictured at centre above with vice-president of football operations Ken Miller at left and general manager Brendan Taman at right) the job, and it seemed inconceivable that he wouldn't take it, so this doesn't exactly come as a surprise.
Marshall seemed like one of the top candidates for the job from the start, even if his connections to the current Riders were more distant than other candidates like Richie Hall or Doug Berry. He has a strong body of work as a defensive coordinator in Saskatchewan, Edmonton, Ottawa, Winnipeg and Hamilton, and has been considered as a strong head coaching candidate for years. He's not really an unconventional hire, and he should slot nicely into the ranks of older, experienced CFL coaches despite not having a head job before this.
Marshall may be in place, but that doesn't mean the Roughriders' offseason plan is set, however. The biggest questions in the coming weeks are going to be about his coaching staff, and that's far more than an afterthought. Football is such a complicated game that the head coach can't possibly handle all aspects of the team; successful coaches tend to be skilled managers who can rely on their coordinators and position coaches and synthesize it all into a cohesive approach. Thus, it tends to be important who's handling those lower jobs, and it's particularly important that they be on the same page as the head man.
The overarching question is if Marshall will opt for stability, decide to shake things up or do some of both. There would be some significant advantages to the stability approach, as this is a team that made it all the way to the Grey Cup for the second consecutive season and only lost by three points. That's particularly true on offence, where Doug Berry has one year remaining on his contract as offensive coordinator. Berry is very well-respected across the league, has a strong relationship with quarterback Darian Durant (who threw for a league-leading 5,542 yards this season in Berry's system) and has worked with Marshall before; Marshall was the defensive coordinator in Winnipeg when Berry was the head coach there.
Some fans have been critical of Berry's approach at times, and there certainly have been some less-than-stellar moments, but that's true with every coordinator. By and large, Berry's track record in Regina is quite solid, so if the two of them can get along and if Berry can accept working under Marshall, it's quite easy to see him being retained. It also helps that there aren't exactly a ton of successful offensive guys with CFL experience floating around at the moment. Furthermore, the Riders' most likely potential replacement for Berry, former Saskatchewan pivot and quarterbacks coach Marcus Crandell, has already been snapped up as Edmonton's OC.
Stability in other departments may be less likely. Both Gary Etcheverry's defence and Jim Daley's special teams took plenty of lumps from the fans and occasionally the media this year thanks to a four-game losing skid that saw their units make some crucial mistakes. Both units recovered and had big moments down the stretch, with Daley's special teams recovering some crucial onside kicks in the playoff drive and generally doing a solid job on punt and kick coverage and Etcheverry's defence largely shutting down the high-flying offences of both Calgary and Montreal in the conference final and Grey Cup match.
Still, kick returns continued to be an area of weakness for the Riders, and their rushing defence had significant issues over the course of the year. There also are prominent candidates out there who could replace them, including former Eskimos' HC and Riders' HC candidate Richie Hall and Stampeders' defensive backs coach Corey Chamblin, who was also considered for the Riders' top job. That doesn't mean Daley and Etcheverry are certainly gone, but their departure strikes me as more likely than Berry's.
One factor that may lead to more stability than usual is the timing of Marshall's hiring, though. It came in early January, as the Riders originally planned from the moment Miller announced he was moving upstairs, but that proved to be long after Kavis Reed's hiring in Edmonton. Reed's own staffing moves came almost immediately, and most of the positions elsewhere around the league have also been filled; one remaining vacancy was filled today with the news that the Tiger-Cats had promoted Khari Jones to offensive coordinator. There simply aren't a lot of capable candidates floating around without jobs at the moment, so it might make sense for Marshall to make a few minor changes this offseason, see how 2011 unfolds and perhaps revamp the staff next offseason if things don't work out. We'll see how his plans unfold over the next few weeks.