When Chris Jones pulled out of town for the Cleveland Browns, the Saskatchewan Roughriders were facing a problem of their own making – how do they replace a guy who filled four positions?
Last week the Riders solved one problem when Jeremy O’Day was named the new general manager and vice-president of football operations. O’Day’s first job was hiring a coach, but to no one’s surprise, Winnipeg and Ottawa refused permission to allow Day to interview offensive coordinators Paul La Police and Jamie Elizondo respectively.
The stated reason was the Riders request was too late in the football off-season cycle, even though there appears to have been until this season an unspoken agreement that teams would not stand in the way of assistant coaches who might get an opportunity for a promotion. The reality of the situation was that Winnipeg and Ottawa saw an opportunity to stick it to the Riders and they took it.
Part of this might have stemmed from the Riders poaching of former head coach Chris Jones and almost all of his staff three years ago from the Edmonton Eskimos. Ever since then, Jones has pushed the borders of what teams can do to be competitive and the CFL pushed back by bringing in a salary and quantity cap on the number of coaches and football administration personnel – although the stated reason was to provide cost certainty to teams and perhaps to pre-empt the CFL Players Association from bringing up spending on coaching and football administration during the Collective Bargaining Agreement negotiations.
So while the message to coaches in Ottawa and Winnipeg is that their respective teams will not allow them to improve themselves, it seemed like the Riders would have to settle for coaching choices not of their choosing. So Friday’s announcement of Craig Dickenson being named head coach seemed to be a case of the Riders going for Plan B or C.
When looking at internal candidates for the head coaching position, it seemed Dickenson was a leading contender along with offensive coordinator and assistant head coach Stephen McAdoo. With the title of assistant head coach under Chris Jones, it seemed McAdoo was being groomed to replace Jones at some point, while Dickenson as a special teams’ coach was seen as perhaps an interesting if untried option.
So how O’ Day approached this hiring would give a glimpse into his vision for the Riders. O’Day had worked as interim GM in 2015 when the Riders fired GM Brendan Taman and Head Coach Cory Chamblin and his first move was elevating then special teams’ coordinator Bob Dyce to replace Chamblin.
The idea then was to have a coach who dealt with both offensive and defensive players and try to build a locker room culture where the players could rely on each other. Now faced with replacing Jones, O’Day was looking for someone who could project the confidence of someone who could deal with all players like Jones did.
What may have helped cinch it for Dickenson was the play of the special teams. Special teams and defensive team play for the Riders were amongst the leaders in the CFL while the Rider offense, which struck for 35 touchdown passes in 2017, dropped to 11 touchdown passes last year.
Special teams are made up of players from both offense and defense and special teams coordinators have to be aware of the game situation at all times since they may have to either punt, or go for a blocked kick or even set up a return on a punt or a kick.
That situational awareness will likely stand in contrast to Jones’ who built an impressive defense but seemed willing to leave the special teams and offense in others hands. Jones’ may have had the broad strokes of an offensive philosophy, but his handling of the quarterbacks after starter Zach Collaros went down stands as an example of how not to develop a quarterback’s confidence.
Given a choice between Dickenson and McAdoo, most Rider fans would likely choose to go with Dickenson, considering how fans felt the offensive game planning was less than impressive last season. That assessment may be unfair to McAdoo but as the offensive coordinator, he is paid to get the offense on track and the drop-off in place by the offense from 2017 to 2018 and the play of Brandon Bridge at quarterback floundering quicker than the Andrea Doria did little to instill confidence in Rider fans.
As a further vote of confidence in Dickenson, he was given a three-year contract which effectively ties his job future to that of O’Day. The Rider may have lost some of the swagger they had under Jones, but in exchange the Riders will likely be very well prepared to handle whatever the situation is in a reflection of how Dickenson coached his special teams.
Dickenson was announced as head coach on Friday afternoon and he struck the right notes in talking about the football tradition in Saskatchewan, how the team matters to everyone in the province and how that makes this a fun place to ply one’s trade. That seemed to be in stark contrast to Jones who spent his seasons here in a hotel and then went on the road when the season was over, holding free agent camps every weekend.
Jones would never be forgiven for cutting favorites Weston Dressler, John Chick, Chris Getzlaf and trading Darian Durant, and Dickenson noting the history of the Riders and how much they meant to the province, seemed to show he got the feeling the fans had for the team. It turns out Jones was right in his assessment of those players and their salaries versus the ability of the Riders to rebuild under a salary cap, but it was probably the lack of opportunity for those players to renegotiate their contracts before being released that struck fans as being unfair and turned them off.
The Dickenson hiring may well bring back fans who felt alienated from the team by the way Jones operated, even though Jones in person was approachable and seemed to enjoy interacting with fans on a one to one basis. However, Jones’ absence from the team in the off-season, when Riders are great drawing cards for sports dinners across the province and people are hungry for news on the team and some idea of what to expect for the coming season, gave the green light for fans to perhaps drift away from what seemed like a more mercenary approach by the team and its’ head coach/general manager/vice president of football operations/defensive coordinator.
The news Jones had left Saskatchewan for Cleveland had a number of fans wondering if this season should be considered a bit of a write-off until the Riders found their footing again. The Riders were already looking at trying to fill the hole at quarterback with no apparent options in place so going further and having a vacancy on the sideline seemed to make matters worse.
However, the quick appointment of O’Day and then Dickenson a week later, is lending credence to the idea the Riders seem to have their act together and should be followed by fans this year. If the overriding goal is sustained success as outlined by Rider President Craig Reynolds three years ago, then the Riders changing of the guard and succession plan by relying on internal candidates who already are familiar with the challenges and culture would represent a promising step towards realizing that goal.
Dickenson at his press conference showed the combination of humility and quiet confidence that will appeal to Rider fans. Some eyebrows were raised at the length of the contract – said to be three years – but the length of the contract is the same as O’Day’s and represents the team investment in the new team that will pick up the torch laid down by Jones.
There are now two immediate questions on the Riders for the upcoming season. One is at quarterback and the other is at defensive coordinator. The defensive coordinator position will be filled sooner and there are two ways Dickenson can proceed.
One would be an internal hire with Jason Shivers being the leading contender. This was fueled by reports that Jones said Shivers had called the defensive signals in a few games last year. Hiring Shivers would be a bit of a bet on the unknown, but it would also be a vote of confidence in the ability of young coaches to move up and assume more responsibilities if they are able.
Shivers has been with Jones for awhile and serves as the defensive backfield coach. If Shivers does understand the Jones system and has called defensive signals during a game, then he would seem to be ready to take on more responsibility. No one can argue that Jones had built probably one of the best defenses ever seen in Rider colors so someone on staff who can understood that defense and can build on it would be worth a defensive coordinator position.
The other option for the Riders would be to hire a defensive coordinator with previous CFL experience. Former BC Lions Head Coach and Edmonton Eskimo Defensive Coordinator Mike Benevedes interviewed for the head coaching position and reports surfaced he did impress O’Day. Benevedes could assume the defensive coordinator position or perhaps a defensive position coach and offer some advice to Shivers if necessary.
My two cents on the subject are that Benevedes was no great shakes as a BC head coach and the Edmonton defense resembled a donut with a big hole in the middle. Part of the lack of success in Edmonton was due to massive injuries two years ago and to some extent last season, but Benevedes was deemed responsible and released this off-season.
Giving the defensive coordinator reins to Shivers would be a bit of a leap in the unknown, but if the Riders believe in their coaching staff, then if Shivers is ready, he should be given the opportunity to take over. The new coaching gap is now placing a greater priority on internal hires as opposed to external hires and the rules, seemingly aimed at the Riders large coaching staff, will now be exercised by the Riders as they fill out their coaching staff.
So now with two weeks, more of less, until free agency, the Riders almost have their act together. If the last month serves as a guide, the Riders will likely name their defensive coordinator new Friday and make the final moves on their coaching staff. In the press conference Friday, Dickenson noted the Rider coaching staff is about 80 per cent complete which may indicate there might be some changes coming up.
One of the interesting moments came when Dickenson talked about his connections to Edmonton quarterback Mike Reilly. When Jones was still with the Riders, it seemed the Jones would be using his previous connection to Reilly to outline how the Riders with Reilly would win a Grey Cup.
When Jones left, it seemed there would be no plausible way the Riders could continue to pursue Reilly, but seeing how Reilly grew up in Montana and Dickenson knows the family, then what was seen as a longshot a few weeks now seem possible, especially if you include Travis Lulay as a back-up quarterback.
Not sure if that is plausible, but if the Riders are refusing to play the victim role assigned to them by fans of other teams, then what looked like a season on hold may become something worth celebrating.
So given lemons, the Riders are making lemonade, and that might not go down too well in Winnipeg and Ottawa.
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