The Edmonton Eskimos are having a lousy year. Their 52-5 loss to their provincial rivals down the road in Calgary Monday was just the latest nail in their coffin, but one that led to renewed questions about the job of head coach Richie Hall and a post-game parking lot meeting between team president and CEO Rick LeLacheur and interim co-general managers Ed Hervey and Dan McKinnon. Hall commented today that "A high-school team could have beaten us", which is a bit of an exaggeration, but sadly for Edmonton, uncomfortably close to the truth; it's tough to win when you have more turnovers (six) than total yards rushing (five).
It's not just the one loss that's weighing down the Eskimos, though. They've had personnel issues all year (and really, for the last several years). No solution to those appears in sight, as they still haven't found a permanent general manager to replace the fired Danny Maciocia, although they are apparently in discussions with former Saskatchewan Roughriders general manager Eric Tillman. Tillman has proven to be a brilliant personnel mind over the years, but his hiring might stir up some controversy, given that he left Regina after pleading guilty to the sexual assault of his 16-year old babysitter (and receiving an absolute discharge).
Speaking of public relations controversies, the Eskimos ran into another one this week. You expect personnel changes after a 52-5 massacre, but even their attempt at that this week didn't go well. The team wound up cutting offensive tackle Calvin Armstrong an hour before his wife gave birth via C-section, which doesn't give them the best image.
What's interesting, though, is that the sense of despair is so much stronger around the Eskimos than the other 2-7 CFL teams, B.C. and Winnipeg. As Mario Annicchiarico of The Edmonton Journal points out, one of the three teams is certain to make the playoffs. Their win-loss record may be the same, but each team has had a very different year, and it's worth examining how they got to this point and where they're likely to go from here.
Edmonton's right at the bottom. The Eskimos are the only team to score less than 200 points so far (they have 167), and they're also the only team to concede over 300 points (they've given up 305). They're the only team to have made a major front-office change as well (the firing of Maciocia). They're doing very little on defence, and are seventh in the league with 16 sacks. They're also the worst in the league by far at winning the turnover battle; they're -16 on the year, while second-worst Winnipeg is -6. There's not a lot to be optimistic about in the "City of Champions", especially considering their injury list: receiver Kelly Campbell (pictured above against B.C. on July 30) got banged up against Calgary, as did running back Arkee Whitlock, quarterback Ricky Ray, linebacker Javy Glatt and fullback Chris Ciezki. Star receiver Fred Stamps is still dealing with a dislocated shoulder as well, making the Eskimos look more like a MASH unit than a football team.
Winnipeg appears in the middle of the 2-7 pack. They've scored 247 points, best of the three basement-dwelling teams, but have also conceded 271. They have a strong running game led by Mississippi State product Fred Reid, who's fourth in the league in rushing yards with 658 on 106 carries (and has a yards-per-carry average of 6.2, best among the top five backs). Their passing game has more questions, though; Buck Pierce has been reasonably effective when healthy and is , but dislocated his throwing elbow Sunday against Saskatchewan and may be gone for months. He's hoping to return later this season, but that may be a difficult task. The Bombers do have a pretty decent second option in Steven Jyles, but his CFL career so far has been equal parts brilliance and struggles, so starting him is far from a sure recipe for success. Three of Winnipeg's seven losses have been by five points or less, though, so with a few breaks, they could make a run.
B.C. may have the most cause for optimism. They snapped a seven-game losing streak this week with a 38-17 win over the reigning Grey Cup champion Montreal Alouettes. Granted, Montreal was forced to give Chris Leak his first CFL start at quarterback thanks to Anthony Calvillo's injury, and that didn't turn out anywhere near as well as his NCAA career. Still, the Alouettes are one of the strongest teams in the league, and a win over them on the road is a great milestone for a 1-7 team, even if they suffered some crucial injuries in the process.
It's more than just the win that leads to the sense that things may be turning around for the Lions. Unlike Edmonton and Winnipeg, their struggles this year haven't primarily been due to a lack of talent; B.C.'s had plenty of talent, but just keeps finding ways to lose close games. Four of their losses have come by five points or less, and they've put up 208 points on the year while allowing 244. Those numbers may not be great, but they're a lot prettier than Edmonton's statistics.
B.C.'s also finally starting to get some quarterback consistency thanks to Casey Printers' return from injury, they're getting better play from their receiving corps and they may pick up some reinforcements from NFL cuts; FB Rolly Lumbala, late of the Miami Dolphins, is reportedly expected at the team's Surrey training complex today. The team has also been in talks with defensive linemen Ricky Foley (cut by Seattle, then New York) and Stevie Baggs (cut by Indianapolis). The defensive line may not be their biggest issue, though, as they're third in the CFL with 23 sacks (one behind both Calgary and Hamilton). B.C. still has problems, and they're not too likely to dominate the league from this point forward, but they seem the best candidate of the three 2-7 teams to make the playoffs.
Anything can still happen down the stretch run, but the Lions have a lot of factors working in their favour. The above picture, of B.C. defensive back Davis Sanchez taking out Edmonton's Kelly Campbell on July 30, may represent the teams' differing fortunes at this point: Edmonton's doing a nose-dive, while B.C.'s getting up off the ground. It may yet turn into an acceptable year for CFL fans in Vancouver, which is more than can be said for their counterparts in Edmonton or Winnipeg at this point.