EDMONTON — Given all the twists and turns, it was fitting Richie Hall emerged from the Edmonton Eskimos dressing room on garbage bag day Monday and characterized his first season as a CFL head coach as a roller-coaster ride.
With a revamped defence, the mid-season firing of offensive co-ordinator Rick Worman and a timely two-game winning streak that got the 9-9 Eskimos into the playoffs, it was a ride that ended in a 24-21 loss to the Calgary Stampeders in the West Division semi-final Sunday.
“What was consistent about our offence and our football team was our inconsistency,” Hall said. “Whether it was early in the year or late in the year, we seemed to be kind of on a roller-coaster.”
After 15 seasons with the Saskatchewan Roughriders, including the last eight as defensive co-ordinator, Hall’s first season as the man calling the shots in Edmonton was a mixed bag from start to finish.
“It’s discouraging but it’s encouraging because we did fight until the very end,” Hall said.
“I’m very proud of them. They have nothing to hang their heads about. They made it a fun year for me. Within that fun, there was adverse situations we had to overcome, but, at the end of the day, I look back and I’m very thankful for the opportunity.”
With the Esks coming off a 10-8 record and a crossover playoff berth in 2008 under Danny Maciocia, Hall won his CFL debut as the Eskimos edged Winnipeg 19-17 at Commonwealth Stadium.
The win was costly, however, as running back Jesse Lumsden, Edmonton’s big off-season acquisition, suffered a shoulder injury 14 minutes into the game that would require surgery and end his season.
“I’ve made a promise to myself that I’m going to be back on the field next year better than I’ve ever been before,” Lumsden said.
“I’m going to do whatever it takes. That’s the only way I can really put it into words. It’s so frustrating when you invest in something you love so much and it’s just out of reach for you to be a part of it.”
Even without Lumsden and fielding a defence with eight new starters, the Eskimos got off to a 5-4 start. Then, during a stretch in which Worman was fired and replaced by Kevin Strasser, the Esks went on a 2-5 slide before beating Toronto and B.C. to earn a ticket to the West semi-final against the Stampeders.
“Offensively, we just weren’t consistent enough throughout the year,” said quarterback Ricky Ray. “We had a few games where we just didn’t play well, didn’t make the plays we needed to make.”
Ray led the CFL with 4,916 passing yards and threw for 22 touchdowns. Fred Stamps led the league with 1,402 yards on 85 receptions and was the only Edmonton receiver to crack the 1,000-yard plateau.
Stamps, offensive lineman Calvin Armstrong and defensive lineman Dario Romero were named to the West Division all-star team.
“We have a lot of good players and good coaches in this locker-room,” Ray said. “Hopefully, we can have a lot of them back.
“There’s always change. Everybody is getting evaluated. There’s going to be some spots where coaches and management thinks there needs to be upgrades. With that said, it’s always nice to have a sore group of guys coming back and being the leaders.”
Rookie Arkee Whitlock overcame a nightmarish debut in Montreal July 9 — he dropped two passes in the end zone, fumbled once and had a pass bounce off him for an interception in a 50-16 drubbing by the Alouettes — to finish third in rushing with 1,293 yards as a fill-in for Lumsden.
“I’m proud of the team for sticking together. We’ve been through at lot this year,” said Whitlock. “We had coaching changes and things like that and everybody stuck together as a team.
“Hopefully, we get a lot of guys coming back. We have a purpose. I’m proud of what happened and proud to be an Eskimo.”
As is the case when every season ends, the team that packed up and said its goodbyes Monday will look different when training camp opens next season. That, the record aside, is inevitable.
“There’s always going to be changes,” Hall said. “Whether we were Grey Cup champions or bowed out in the first round, there’s going to be changes.
“What the changes are, I can’t speculate at this time. We have to sit down and evaluate, starting today, how we can be better next year. We have to be better next year.”