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No defence for Eskimos' lack of offence

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EDMONTON — Don’t panic, Eskimos fans, there’s always the crossover.

Still plenty of time for your basement dwelling heroes to score a touchdown in both halves of a football game. Plenty of time for the offensive line to block somebody. Anybody. Plenty of time to get it together and earn an Eastern Conference playoff berth. In fact, 17 games from now this will probably be just an ugly footnote on the 2010 Canadian Football League season. Probably.

But for now it stands out as the single worst performance of the opening week. Hands down. Because the Eskimos obviously missed the memo, the one that suggested offences were so far ahead of defences coming out of camp that scoreboards were going to explode all over the country. Right.

The Eskimos offence generated 10 points against the B.C. Lions in Sunday’s home opener at Commonwealth Stadium. One touchdown. One field goal. There wasn’t even a rouge to put on this pig of a performance. The only thing that flattered them was the 25-10 score.

“We will never win playing like that,” said baffled Edmonton receiver Fred Stamps. “We just didn’t look like the Eskimos were supposed to be. We need to get better. The Grey Cup is here this year. We’ve got to get ready.”

This offence, the one that is supposed to use motion and misdirection and the vertical speed of burner Kelly Campbell to rip open opposing defences for the big gain, was laugh-out-loud lousy. From a porous offensive line that allowed five sacks to the hit-and-miss delivery of starting quarterback Ricky Ray, whose longest pass went for a pedestrian 21 yards, they were only capable of beating themselves. Head coach Richie Hall said they were their own worst enemies and it was hard to argue, given the sacks and errant throws.

“It’s never pleasant when Ricky is on his back. Never, never pleasant,” said offensive lineman Patrick Kabongo.

The sight was only slightly more palatable when Ray was upright. And you have to wonder how long it will take for the league’s best receiving corps – that’s what they think of themselves – to impose its will on a defence. I know their cumulative performance is tied to protection from the offensive line and the blocking of the backs and the accuracy and timing of the pivot. It is the ultimate team game, after all.

But there was nothing going on downfield at Commonwealth Stadium whenever the Eskimos had the ball. Not a darn thing. Campbell led the way with 75 yards and missed a potential touchdown grab on the first drive because he was interfered with in the end zone, but he never got close again. He was obviously hampered throughout the second half by back spasms, and if he was as questionable health-wise as everyone was led to believe this week, he shouldn’t have played.

To compound matters, they sat Jason Barnes to get Campbell into the game. Barnes had apparently been the best, most consistent receiver in camp, the guy whose chemistry with Ray was unrivalled. It’s hard to exploit that with only one of them in uniform.

As a group, the offence didn’t exactly take a bold step out of their luxurious new digs, onto the luxurious new turf. Everything new looked pretty old again as soon as the air attack went from vertical to horizontal and never back again.

“We never got a rhythm,” said Stamps. “We couldn’t get a rhythm with the vertical attack. We feel we have one of the best receiving corps in the league. We can’t start like that.”

They need to find a rhythm, protect the quarterback and employ more weapons. Andrew Nowacki never got a ball. Neither did Andre Talbot. Running back Calvin McCarty, who was allegedly going to figure prominently in the attack on Sunday, was little more than an afterthought. He touched the ball four times – two rushes and two passes – and contributed a grand total of 19 yards. And how about Jared Zabransky? With Ray wilting under the constant pressure from the Lions’ front, Zabransky came into the game. For one play. A handoff to McCarty.

Hall said he thought about plunking Ray down on the sidelines but never got around to following through. It seemed advisable, if only to shake the offence out of its funk. But even the head coach was making mistakes on Sunday.

“It just takes one guy to break down and right now that’s what we’re doing. We’ve got to execute better,” said Ray, who was good on 27 of 40 attempts for only 229 yards. He threw neither a pick nor a touchdown but coughed up two fumbles and his 8.5-yard average completion isn’t exactly going to scare anybody. It will instead remind people of Eskimo offences gone by, the ones that put dink-and-dunk into the local lexicon.

This was supposed to be different. Offensive co-ordinator Kevin Strasser’s innovation and demand for perfection was going to instil in this offence a go-for-the-jugular mentality. Hey, it will probably happen, given that they may have experienced the absolute worst day they will have this season as a group. The more Ray works with Campbell and Stamps in practice, the more likely they are to develop the relationship a team needs to have between the quarterback and his most potent weapons. Campbell and Stamps just didn’t get enough reps in camp.

There is plenty of time for that to happen too, of course. But they have already lost a home game and they have stumbled out of the gate in a year that will end with the Grey Cup championship played on this field. It is slightly harder today to envision them in it than it was just one game ago.

dbarnes@thejournal.canwest.com