Team-first approach pays off for Riders
Green guys have often defied description during up-and-down season
REGINA — There is a simple response to the burning question about how the Saskatchewan Roughriders are different from last year’s team.
The Riders are a better team than the squad that missed the playoffs in 2011 with a league-worst 5-13 record. The 2012 Riders finished the CFL season with an 8-10 record after Saturday’s 17-6 loss to the B.C. Lions and are back in the playoffs after a one-year hiatus. The Riders open the 2012 post-season on Sunday against the second-place Calgary Stampeders. That playoff berth helps define a team that has often defied definition.
“I told some of the coaches that we are better than we were last year,’’ said Riders head coach Corey Chamblin. “That’s not our goal, because our goal is to see where we rank this year. We have to continue to put our work in to reach our ultimate goal, which is to be tops in this league.’’
The Riders are striving to attain that goal without a star-studded roster. Darian Durant and slotback Weston Dressler are the team’s most recognizable players and rightfully so. Durant is the face of the franchise because he’s the starting quarterback, arguably the highest-profile position in the province (with apologies to Brad Wall). The diminutive Dressler has captured the hearts of a football-mad community with his effort and ability to make big plays.
There are others who have risen to the occasion and assumed major roles. Kory Sheets has emerged as one of the league’s elite running backs and finished second in rushing with 1,277 yards and tied for rushing touchdowns with 11. He has been a pleasant surprise, but few expected him to perform as consistently as he has throughout the season.
Odell Willis is the most recognizable defensive player. Willis has had some strong games this season, but finished the season with six sacks because he sat out Saturday’s game. That’s Willis’s lowest sack total in his five-year CFL career. He had 10 in 2009 when he played with the Calgary Stampeders and Winnipeg Blue Bombers. He had 11 sacks with the Blue Bombers in 2010 and earned a CFL all-star nod in 2011 after finishing in a tie with Justin Hickman of the Hamilton Tiger-Cats with 13.
Terrell Maze should be a star at cornerback, but he’s tested so rarely by the opposition that you rarely hear his name called. Middle linebacker Joe Lobendahn has been a force since joining the Riders in September. He has helped turn around the defence, but he has played only half of a season. Tearrius George’s contributions have been immeasurable along the defensive line. Yet, you won’t hear fans chanting his name during games despite tying Willis for the team’s sack lead.
Brendon LaBatte and Dominic Picard have added an edge to the Riders’ offensive line. Their performances in the trenches are the primary reason why Sheets is performing so well. Still, offensive linemen are only recognized when they make a mistake.
The Riders are a total of their individual parts. General manager Brendan Taman has turned over the roster from a 2011 team that was as bad as its record indicated. It was a good thing they missed the post-season because it created an opportunity for Taman to make some decisive moves for the future of the franchise.
It hasn’t been easy for this team. A three-game winning streak to open the season was a nice start because it helped erase some of the bad taste of the 2011 debacle and was as a sign of the team’s potential. A five-game losing streak was a reminder that the Riders were still developing as a team. They snapped out of those doldrums by winning five of their next six, which helped set them up with a playoff berth.
The Riders have lost four in a row since those heady days and still clinched a playoff berth thanks to the Calgary Stampeders knocking off the Hamilton Tiger-Cats. Calgary helped the Riders even more with Friday’s 30-27 victory over the Edmonton Eskimos. That win clinched third place in the West Division for the Riders.
Still, no team wants to be on a losing streak heading into the playoffs. There isn’t anything the Riders can do about that now.
“That’s so last year,’’ Chamblin said when asked about the losing skid after Saturday’s 17-6 loss to the host B.C. Lions. “We’re into a whole new season now.’’
The Riders are confident that a playoff run will erase memories of what happened down the stretch. George feels the Riders have some momentum heading into the playoffs, despite not having won a game since beating the host 36-10 Toronto Argonauts on Oct. 8
“I know that’s hard for people on the outside to believe,’’ George said. “When we can go to the board and pinpoint the execution problems we had on certain things that allowed other teams to beat us. We have a nice cohesive group and no one is too down or too worried. We all know what we have to do.’’
Follow Murray McCormick on Twitter at https://twitter.com/murraylp
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