Two games into an 18 game season is hardly the time to make an assessment of the CFL thus far, but that is the direction I am headed this week. It is brash and foolish territory that smarter people would avoid like the plague.
The biggest surprise of the early season has to be the Edmonton Eskimos. Eric Tillman is famous for his ability to gut a team and produce a contender in a hurry. His 2007 Grey Cup year in Saskatchewan was the result of a big house cleaning that began with incompetent head coach Danny Barrett and trickled down to expensive deadwood on the roster.
Tillman came to Edmonton with the same philosophy: he identified the team weaknesses and brought out a sturdy push broom. The biggest weakness was the offensive line and Canadian content in the Igloo, and Tillman went right after these problems.
It is a simple formula when you have a great quarterback like Ricky Ray: you protect your biggest asset like he was a human embodiment of Fort Knox. Tillman was quick to add import talent to his O-line to do the job.
Ray is a guided missile when he has time to throw the ball, and his re-discovered accuracy came as a big surprise for skeptical Eskimo fans who felt that his under-talented and over-rated 2010 backup (Zabransky) was a better pivot. The delusions have abated since Big Z got quickly unemployed by Tillman for his lack of talent.
The other part of the equation was the addition of defensive guru Rich Stubler to the coaches’ staff. Stubler is arguably one of the best defensive coaches to ever construct mayhem for opponents’ offences.
He believes in a very aggressive attack-style defense that plays within a very disciplined system. Stubler can make a player better than his credentials if the player is willing to buy into the system. The early season results indicate that the Eskimo defense is buying into Stubler like he was a Costco store with a big sale.
The other side of the equation has been the surprisingly poor play of the Saskatchewan Roughriders in the early season. They have been annihilated in both games by a soft defence and a misfiring offence.
I have never been a fan of a Richie Hall defence. He seems to favor a soft zone cover game that ensures that rival offensive players are likely to be top candidates for player of the week honors.
His return to Saskatchewan was more of a warm and fuzzy moment because he is such a nice guy. It’s too bad that we all know where nice guys finish in the violent game of football.
But at least Richie has a balanced attack of no quarterback pressure and soft cover in the secondary. His previous tenure as the ’Rider defensive coordinator was a little unbalanced because he had one facet that actually worked in his defence.
This year his defence will get lit up more than Times Square on New Year’s Eve if present trends continue to plague the team. Present trends also include an inconsistent ’Rider offence that cannot assist a porous defence. You do not want to go two-and-out against people like Calvillo and Ray; they will punish your defence.
Ultimately it is a long season and early season success or failure is not an accurate barometer of the teams. But they do indicate some trends for the new season.
Jim Sutherland is a weekly contributor for the Red Deer Advocate during the CFL season. He may be reached at Jim@mystarcollectorcar.com