There's a crisis of confidence in the "City of Champions" these days, but the Eskimos may have found the man they think can straighten it out. As I mentioned last week, rumours that they were going to bring in Eric Tillman (pictured above at his farewell press conference in Regina this January) as their new general manager have been circulating for a while, but it looks like that story may have gone from rumor to reality.
Mario Annicchiarico of The Edmonton Journal is reporting that two sources have told him the Eskimos are expected to announce Tillman as their new GM within the week. The Eskimos refused to confirm or deny on the record that a decision has been made, but the non-denial denial is suggestive all by itself. However, they announced that the team would announce their new general manager when they had worked out a deal with him, which does appear to indicate that this isn't entirely locked up yet.
If he does choose to sign with Edmonton, Tillman will be walking into a mess. The Eskimos haven't had an official general manager since firing Danny Maciocia after their first win of the season in Week Five; chief scout Ed Hervey, manager of football operations and Canadian scouting Dan McKinnon and assistant general manager and director of player personnel Paul Jones have been running the show on an interim basis. The team hit a new low Labour Day with a 52-5 loss to their provincial rivals from Calgary, which sparked a post-game parking lot meeting between Hervey, McKinnon and team president and CEO Rick LeLacheur. They played better at home in this week's rematch, but still fell 36-20 to the Stampeders.
Moreover, Edmonton's bottom-feeding rivals made large strides forward this week. I wrote last week that Eskimos' fans had less room for optimism than their counterparts in Winnipeg and B.C., the other two franchises that were 2-7 heading into this week. This weekend's events confirmed that impression; the Lions won their second-straight game yesterday with a 37-16 thumping of Toronto, while the Blue Bombers avenged last week's 27-23 loss to Saskatchewan with a 31-2 demolition of the Roughriders in today's Banjo Bowl. With both of those teams improving to 3-7, Edmonton is on the outside of the playoff picture looking in.
The Eskimos' troubles go beyond their win-loss record as well. They've allowed 341 points against, the worst mark in the league, and have also only scored 187 points, also worst in the league. By comparison, no other CFL team has allowed over 300 points or scored less than 200. Moreover, Edmonton had to place running backs Arkee Whitlock and Chris Ciezki on the nine-game injured list this week, which means their seasons are likely essentially over. Ciezki has been a solid special-teams player, but Whitlock is an even bigger loss. He's currently fourth in the league in rushing with 689 yards on 118 carries (an average of 5.8 yards per carry) and has arguably been the Eskimos' best offensive weapon so far. Without him, things will get even tougher in Edmonton.
If Tillman is indeed the Eskimos' new GM, the hire may involve some controversy. Tillman's most recent CFL job was with the Saskatchewan Roughriders, where he was the architect of their 2007 Grey Cup championship team. He left that job under a cloud, though, thanks to charges of sexual assault against a 16-year-old babysitter that he eventually pleaded guilty to. There are some unusual factors in that case: the Crown proceeded with a summary charge rather than indicting Tillman, the court heard that Tillman was under the influence of sleep aids and muscle relaxants at the time and the alleged assault only involved pulling the girl towards him, Tillman received an absolute discharge (which the prosecution indicated it wasn't opposed to), and the victim and her family both publicly forgave him. Still, the case resulted in Tillman formally leaving the Riders earlier this year.
There may be some people opposed to Tillman's hiring because of his past, but from this corner, this looks like a good move by Edmonton. Tillman has been a successful football executive at the NFL, CFL, and NFL Europe levels, and has been involved with three Grey Cup-winning teams (B.C. in 1994, Toronto in 1997 and Saskatchewan in 2007). He's worked well with head coach Richie Hall before (Hall was Saskatchewan's defensive coordinator during Tillman's stint there), so that relationship could bear fruit again, but Tillman has also demonstrated a history of making tough decisions, so it's unlikely he'd be afraid to make a coaching change if he felt one was necessary. Tillman also knows what it takes to put together a winning team at this level, and the Eskimos are in dire straits. They need the best man they can find. The specific circumstances surrounding Tillman's case also suggest that he's a low risk to reoffend. The CFL is a league that offers second chances to many players, so it would seem apropos to extend one to an executive as well.