CFL season drama can only go up from here
VANCOUVER -- And so the Canadian Football League limps into the playoffs, all of its plausible contenders carefully conserving their resources, playing only as hard as they have to, with hardly anything to gain and only a little to lose on the final regular-season weekend.
Try not to get anyone hurt. Save the quarterback for later. Rest that owwie.
Or, in the case of the Toronto Argonauts, rest 10 starters (or was it 11?) including Ricky Ray, and win anyway -- surely a grotesque demonstration of just how many holes there are in the defence of the team they knocked out of the playoffs, the Hamilton Tiger-Cats.
Not exactly the momentum-building showcase the CFL might have hoped for at the end of the regular season. To wit:
Calgary's outstanding player nominee Jon Cornish inching toward the foregone conclusion that was Normie Kwong's rushing record by a Canadian back -- a yard here, a loss there, a couple of yards here, another loss, and television relentlessly beating it to death until finally, mercifully, Cornish reached the magic number.
Ditto Edmonton's terrific linebacker J.C. Sherritt, going for Calvin Tiggle's record for most tackles in a season, surpassing it near the end of Game 18. Mobbed by Eskimo teammates on the record-tying tackle ... 12 yards downfield, having failed to prevent a Calgary first down in a game Edmonton was still in a position to win.
Priorities, boys, priorities ...
But the Eskimos back into the playoffs anyway, crossing over to the East thanks to the woeful Ticats and Winnipeg Blue Bombers -- and promptly fire their general manager, Eric Tillman.
Saturday night at B.C. Place, the Lions managed to get defending league MOP Travis Lulay through a quarter plus one offensive series without further injury to his throwing shoulder -- though he absorbed a couple of cringe-inducing hits -- which rates as a rare positive in an otherwise pretty dreadful exhibition against the Saskatchewan Roughriders.
The visitors bit the bullet and played Drew Willy at quarterback, and eventually J.T. O'Sullivan (No. 0 in your program and ... oh, never mind), surely knowing they weren't going to beat this B.C. defence with someone other than Darian Durant at the controls. And maybe not even then.
But so what? Win or lose -- and lose it was, a tepid 17-6 in a game featuring no touchdown passes -- the Riders were guaranteed to play the West semifinal in Calgary next week, so why waste the bullets?
The net result of the Eskimos' loss, meanwhile, is that they avoid having to go into the deep freeze in Calgary against what may be the league's hottest team and instead, enter the climate-controlled comfort of the Rogers Centre against their longtime QB Ray, whose trade to the Argos last winter greased the skids for Tillman.
Not that the club's president and CEO, Len Rhodes, didn't OK the deal at the time, and admitted it Saturday. But the chain of events the trade set in motion added up to so much negativity around the club that firing Tillman -- who arrived carrying enough baggage without having a wildly unpopular trade and amateur hour at the quarterback position for most of the season -- may well have been an act of mercy.
For the Lions, the season ends on a down note, performance-wise, after looking all year like the CFL's one great team in a vast sea of mediocrity; a season in which all four Eastern teams surrendered more points than they scored and the table looked all set for B.C. to defend its Grey Cup title.
Suddenly, though, the Stampeders have found their game, just as the Lions have lost some of their mojo, partly because of Lulay's absence, partly through lack of motivation -- and now, after a couple of duds to end the regular schedule, little pieces of their puzzle look worryingly out of sync, and they are no lock to win the Western final in two weeks.
Playing at home will help, of course. So will having Lulay back full-time, with all due respect to Mike Reilly and third-stringer Thomas DeMarco, each of whom made some terrific throws during their relief stretches Saturday.
If Paul McCallum finds his punting stroke again -- when did the high spiral with hang-time go out of style? -- that wouldn't be a bad thing, either.
Anyway, they had just enough players dinged up during Saturday's snoozefest to give them a few headaches during the bye week, just enough gaps in their game to give them a working list of needed corrections.
The good news is that the CFL's eight-team turtle derby to the finish line is over and the second season, the one that ends with the 100th Grey Cup game, is about to commence. Not a moment too soon.
You may even recognize some of the people throwing passes from here on in.
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