October 29, 2012

Steinberg’s MMQB: It all comes down to this

The best part of Week 18 in the CFL season was how it set up the final four games of the regular season next weekend

Watching the 2012 Canadian Football League season without a horse in the race has been about as entertaining as it gets. The penultimate week of the season saw the results play out in the exact fashion they needed to, in order to allow the maximum amount of possibilities to still exist come Week 19.  

Week 18 Rewind

» Video: Toronto at Saskatchewan Recap
» Argos down Riders, clinch playoff spot
» Video: Edmonton at Montreal Recap
» Als hold off late surge to beat Esks
» Video: Winnipeg at Hamilton Recap
» Ticats send off Ivor Wynne with a W
» Video: BC at Calgary Recap
» Big first half enough to will Stamps to win

Quite honestly, that’s what made Week 18 awesome.

Refresher course

I thought before we get into the meat of what we saw in Week 18, it would be pertinent to break down all the permutations of what could happen in the final week of the season.  We’ll start with the certainties and get those out of the way.  

The BC Lions and Montreal Alouettes will host the Western and Eastern Finals, respectively, on November 18th.  Thanks to their 31-26 win over the Roughriders, Toronto has clinched second in the East Division and will host the Eastern Semi-Final game on November 11th.  

That’s the same day the Calgary Stampeders will host the Western Semi-Final at McMahon Stadium, a date that was secured last week.
The other certainty is that Winnipeg will be on the outside looking in, one year after they represented the East in the 99th Grey Cup.  Their 28-18 loss to Hamilton on Saturday officially eliminated them from playoff contention a whole lot later than most would have thought earlier in the season.  We’ll touch more on them later.
Even though the Argos won on Saturday afternoon, the Tiger-Cats stayed managed to stay alive thanks to two different results.  First, their home win over Winnipeg in the final game at Ivor Wynne Stadium allowed them to fight another day and hope for some help on Sunday afternoon.  

That hope was well placed, because the second result that kept them alive was a 27-25 Eskimos loss in Montreal to conclude the week.  Now, with just one week to go, the Ticats and Esks have no idea if they’ll be playing beyond next weekend, while the Riders have no idea where they’re going to be playing.
Let’s break it down for Hamilton first.  They start Week 19 on Thursday and must beat Toronto on the road to keep their chances alive, as a loss will eliminate them.  

If the Tiger-Cats are victorious, they’ll be tuning in keenly to Saturday night’s game in Edmonton between the Eskimos and the Stampeders.  If Edmonton wins, they will guarantee themselves a better record than Hamilton and secure a crossover playoff spot, at the very least.
The next important clarification addresses how the West Division could shake down depending on certain results.  Let’s say Edmonton clinches their playoff spot, either by a Hamilton loss or their own win over Calgary.  

The question then becomes: who do the Eskimos play on November 11th?  That answer depends on the Saskatchewan Roughriders.
An Eskimos win on Saturday would see them finish with an 8-10 record, and would see them tuning into the final game of the regular season the next afternoon in BC.  A Riders win over the Lions would clinch them third in the West Division and send them to Calgary for the Western Semi-Final.  A loss, however, would put us back into tiebreak mode.
Because Edmonton took two of the three regular season meetings against Saskatchewan, we’d only have to look at priority two of the tiebreaking system.  An Eskimos win and a Riders loss would see Edmonton finish third in the West Division and relegate Saskatchewan to fourth, seeing them crossover to play Toronto in the Eastern Semi-Final.
While that list of what could happen this coming weekend may have made your head spin a tad, I can say with 100 per cent certainty how awesome it was to write.  The fact that three of the four games to finish the season could be huge in determining final playoff seeding speaks to just how awesome 2012 has been.

Immediate impact

I can say with certainty that I can’t remember a single transaction in recent memory that has made as much of an impact on one team as one we saw this past off-season.  

When Edmonton decided to trade Ricky Ray to Toronto in the early winter of 2011, we knew the Argos were going to get an offensive shot in the arm.  To see just how big an impact Ray has had this season certainly caught me off guard, but it reminded me why he’s been an elite quarterback for so long.
Ray has been the most accurate regular quarterback this season, and his 305-yard, four-touchdown performance against Saskatchewan on Saturday showed us why.

 Ray threw just six incomplete passes at Mosaic Stadium and did what he does best: make the weapons around him better.  He doesn’t have the raw arm strength of Anthony Calvillo or Henry Burris, nor does he have the elusiveness of Travis Lulay.  

What Ray does have, however, is a football IQ that is at least on par with every other pivot in this league.
Take, for instance, Toronto’s Week 18 win over the Riders.  Maurice Mann was not the primary receiver on close to a handful of his seven receptions.  Instead, Mann was the guy who saw the ball as much as he did because names like Chad Owens and Andre Durie were well covered between the 20s.  Ray goes through his progressions so seamlessly because he identifies coverage at such a high level.  Finding an open Mann (excuse the pun) is easier for him than many other quarterbacks thanks to how quickly he recognizes when to cycle his options.
Oh, and it’s no coincidence that Owens is having a career year in his first season with Ray at the helm.  He’s almost doubled his receiving total from one year ago and has six more touchdowns.  Owens has always had the tools to be one of the most electrifying players in the CFL, and all Ray does is allow for that to happen.
One season ago, the Argos had an offence that couldn’t move the ball consistently and averaged under 21 points a game.  This year, they’re averaging more than 26 points in games where Ray has taken the majority of snaps.  Adding almost five points a game isn’t an easy thing to do…except when you add one of the most consistent quarterbacks in league history to your roster.

Now what?

With their 28-18 loss to Hamilton on Saturday, the Winnipeg Blue Bombers were officially eliminated from playoff contention.  It’s frustrating enough to miss the playoffs one year after contesting the Grey Cup.

I would have to imagine that frustration was made worse with the constant quarterback uncertainty the Bombers faced throughout the season. Now, with their sights focused on 2013, Winnipeg has to make sure that uncertainty is eradicated.
I’m a huge Buck Pierce fan, and I always have been. I believe he has the physical tools and the understanding of the game to be a top end quarterback in this league.  Unfortunately, being a top-notch pivot in football is impossible if you’re not playing the majority of your team’s snaps.  

He only attempted 113 passes this year, and while he was accurate in the times he passed the ball, the fact is he just didn’t do it enough.
It was Joey Elliott who ended up with the most passing attempts this season, yet he wasn’t the guy at the top of the depth chart when Pierce was deemed okay to play.  That type of situation is usually fine in football.  We saw it work without any issue in Toronto when Ricky Ray missed almost four games.  

Backup pivo
t Jarious Jackson went in, did the job as best he could, and gave way to Ray when he returned from a knee injury.
The difference in this case is frequency.  On three separate occasions in the second half of the season, Elliott missed a start when Buck Pierce was ready to go. Inevitably, Pierce would get hurt and a change would have to be made and Elliott would be the starter again. 
This all happened in a span of about 10 weeks.  It’s too much uncertainty for a team that already had myriad other issues not related to the quarterback position.
To make a change due to injury is one thing.  To keep changing things week in and week out is another, and it hurt the Bombers this season.  The first team offence is working with different guys in practice each week, and that can really throw off a team’s sync.  Not only did it hinder Elliott getting into a groove with his offence, it also messed with Pierce when he got back in.
The unfortunate thing is that there doesn’t seem to be any evidence of this pattern stopping with Pierce in the picture.  The cold, hard, fact of the matter, though, is that it has to.  I don’t believe the Bombers can go forward with Pierce as their quarterback.  

The constant juggling is something that needs to be avoided where possible, and not having Pierce in the fold is the best way to make sure that happens.    
I’m not even saying Winnipeg needs to hand the reins to the 26-year-old Elliott.  I think he’s shown some nice traits, and I think there’s a chance he might be able to have some success in this league.  But whether it’s him, Alex Brink, or someone else we haven’t thought of, the Bombers need to give that quarterback a chance to actually play without wondering if he’s going to be sitting the next week.
I really, really hope Pierce can find a way to stay on the field a whole lot more.  When he’s playing, he’s more than just an effective quarterback; he’s explosive.  He completed more than 60 per cent of his passes this year, something he’s done every single year since entering the league in 2005.  But with where Winnipeg is right now, they can’t be relying on a whole lot of “what ifs”.  

They need to put stock in something more concrete in the hopes of rebounding in 2013.