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Naylor: What's happened to the Edmonton Eskimos lately?

Dave Naylor
9/19/2012 11:20:40 AM
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Oh, how quickly things can turn in the CFL.

Three weeks ago, the Edmonton Eskimos were 5-3, vying for first place in the CFL's West Division and the great outcry about the trade that sent Ricky Ray to Toronto was but a murmur.

Now the Eskimos' quarterbacks weren't putting up great statistics from week to week, but a decent running game and a more than decent defence had Edmonton on the winning track.

But three short weeks later, the Esks are now 5-6 for the season with B.C. and Calgary - the league's two hottest teams right now - ahead on their schedule.

And not surprisingly, after a game in which Kerry Joseph, Steven Jyles and Matt Nichols all took turns under centre, the snickers have returned regarding the decision to trade Ricky Ray last off-season.

First, here's a little perspective on the Eskimos' recent freefall. Edmonton lost back-to-back games to Calgary when potential game-winning kicks failed to go through the uprights. Then on Saturday against Hamilton, they actually led the game with 1:55 to play in the first half before the walls came crashing down around them in what wound up as a 51-8 loss.

And while quarterback play is always going to be the lightning rod for criticism - especially in Edmonton given the context - the Eskimos' stumbles appear to have less to do with what's going on under centre than elsewhere on the field.

Over the past losses during which Kerry Joseph has handled most of the snaps, Edmonton's quarterbacks have completed roughly 65 per cent of their passes, amassing an average of well over three hundred yards per game with four touchdown passes and two interceptions.

Most teams would take those stats and most would win with them (Oddly enough, Joseph has statistically outplayed Ricky Ray the past three games, even though Ray has led Toronto to consecutive wins over Hamilton and a narrow loss to B.C.).

The problem for Edmonton is its defence hasn't performed nearly as well as it did during the first six weeks of the season - when they were regularly limiting opponents to fewer than 20 points per game. A slew of injuries along the defensive line have a large part to do with this, a weakness the Tiger-Cats managed to exploit on Saturday.

But the biggest factor in Edmonton's recent struggles is the absence of a good running game, ironic for a team that boasts three elite backs on its roster in Cory Boyd, Hugh Charles and Jerome Messam.

Edmonton's running backs have failed to combine for more than 50 yards in any of the past three games which is partly because the Esks have handed the ball off just 13, 11 and 10 times the past three weeks.

The fact that Edmonton yesterday added offensive advisor David Kelly to the mix is intriguing, to say the least. Kelly, a longtime NCAA coach, was a guest coach during training camp after being recommended by Montreal head coach Marc Trestman. We can assume he's not there to cut the grass on the practice field, so the Esks clearly feel something is missing from their offensive game plan.

All of which suggests there's some pressure around an offence that ranks ahead only of Winnipeg in most key offensive categories.

With Joseph out due to injury, the pressure is now squarely on Jyles - who will make his first start in four weeks against the Lions on Saturday night having only played sparingly since leaving a game in Toronto on Aug. 27.

Jyles is 5-3 as a starter, compared to Joseph who is 0-3. But Jyles is the only quarterback in the league this season besides Winnipeg's Joey Elliott and Alex Brink who is completing fewer than 60 per cent of his passes.

With a new offensive guru on the sidelines, a three-game winning streak to snap and tough opponents in B.C. and Calgary ahead on the schedule, if Jyles is going to prove worthy of grabbing the quarterback role in Edmonton for the future, it best be about now.

--

The return of linebacker Solomon Elimimian to the B.C. Lions marks the end of the CFL era in which players were allowed to test the NFL headed into the option of year of their CFL contracts.

The arrangement began as part of a deal the CFL made back in the late 1990s when the NFL loaned it money to keep from going into bankruptcy. However, once the load was repaid, the CFL decided to maintain the policy, believing it was actually good for the league when it came to attracting players. The thinking was that if American players knew there was a way to get out of their contracts early to pursue an NFL opportunity, the CFL would be able to attract more good players.

That thinking changed under commissioner Mark Cohon when the option-year NFL window was not included in the league's latest CBA with its players, signed during the summer of 2010.

The question some are asking, however, is - should the league bring it back?

There may be no more hotly debated topic among CFL executives these days as several general managers argue passionately for its reinstatement, arguing that the league is missing out on so many good players who would be playing in the CFL were it not for the demand that they commit two full seasons.

While fans and teams understandably don't want a league of players who are in the CFL and then gone a year later, the counter argument says that great players will eventually find their way to the NFL anyway, and the number who would actually be one-and-done in the CFL would be relatively small.

And that right now it is harder to get some existing CFL players to sign contract extensions because without the NFL window in their deals, players are determined to play out their options in order to have a chance of getting a shot down south.

It's a debate that isn't going away anytime soon.

--

When the Winnipeg Blue Bombers fired head coach Paul LaPolice last month, it was explained largely as a move to address a situation in which the players did not respect or fear the head coach, thus leading to a series of breakdowns on and off the field.

That sentiment was echoed by some of the Bomber players and others around the club, suggesting there was something to it.

But given what's transpired the past three weeks - three Bomber losses, including being outscored a combined 96-3 in two road games – it sure looks as those the issue may be among the players and not necessarily with the former head coach.

If players don't respect as coach, that's because of one of two things: either the coach is incapable of commanding respect or you've got a bunch of players who aren't ready to be professionals.

The Bombers certainly appear to be in the latter category right now with players who want to play pro football but aren't necessarily committed to doing what it takes to win on a weekly basis. They have the talent, which explains why they can lose to B.C. and Saskatchewan each by a last-second field goal over the past month, but no consistency - which is why they've followed up each of those narrow losses with blowouts.

Going young in the CFL is usually a good way to go, but you've either got to have the kinds of players that can play to a high personal standard or have enough veterans to create that kind of standard for younger players. The Bombers appear to have neither right now.

--

The Eskimos wound up one for two in their pursuit of Canadian offensive linemen Austin Pasztor and Matt O'Donnell. Pasztor, the fourth overall selection in last spring's CFL draft was in Edmonton two weeks ago for the their rematch with Calgary. But on Monday, he agreed to join the Jacksonville Jaguars after spending training camp with Minnesota. O'Donnell, who played collegiate football at Queen's and spent last season on the Bengals practice squad, signed Monday with Edmonton.

--

The CFL's potential return to Ottawa in 2014 remains still up in the air as the group behind that effort works to get construction under way on a rebuilt stadium at Lansdowne Park.

While site preparation work has been going on for months, shovels aren't expected in the ground until next month. So where does that leave Ottawa and the CFL?

Well, on the football side, things are moving full steam ahead with scouting consultant Rich Worman continuing to assemble information in preparation for a 2014 return. But sometime around the end of October, a decision must be made about whether the stadium can realistically be ready in time for two seasons from now. If it can't, then Ottawa's return date will simply slide to 2015.

But there's a large incentive for the Ottawa group to have the stadium ready for 2014, which has to do with the Women's World Cup of Soccer coming to Canada in 2015. In order to qualify as a host city for that event, Ottawa must be ready to host some of the FIFA Women's Under-20 tournament that's being held in Canada in 2014. Miss the opportunity in 2014 and there will be no Women's World Cup games for Ottawa.

--

It's been an impressive opening couple of weeks for former CFL players in the National Football League.

During Week 1, two former CFL players, Indianapolis linebacker Jerrell Freeman (Saskatchewan) and Miami returner Marcus Thigpen (Hamilton), both scored touchdowns.

A third, Cincinnati receiver Andrew Hawkins (Montreal) almost scored during the first Monday nighter of the year against Baltimore. On the defensive side of the ball, New York Jet linebacker Garrett McIntyre (Hamilton) had a pair of sacks against the Pittsburgh Steelers, while Seattle's Brandon Browner (Calgary) ranks third in tackle among Seahawks through two games.




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