Decades have come and gone since Ron Lancaster was patrolling the field as quarterback of the Saskatchewan Roughriders, and later as head coach.
While the “Little General” left us in September of 2008, a comment of his in a television documentary on the CFL always stuck with me. Lancaster was discussing how no matter where he went, whether it be the grocery store, a coffee shop or a local gymnasium, people approached him to discuss the Green & White.
Ronnie chuckled to the camera that he often felt like saying “Can we talk about something else please?”
Of course, we can’t.
So it comes as no surprise that the off-season moves of the Roughriders in the winter of 2013 are a white-hot topic on the streets and on coffee-row across the Wheat Province. What am I hearing? That Rider fans are giving the thumbs-up to the acquisition of Geroy Simon, Dwight Anderson, Tristan Black, Weldon Brown and Ricky Foley.
But it comes with a hitch.
Anderson, a veteran defensive back of the league with a 2008 Grey Cup ring from the Stampeders, and Foley, a ferocious defensive end with two Grey Cup rings (2006 with BC and 2012 with Toronto), both come with checkered pasts. Some fans have wondered aloud if the Riders are going back to the Shivers/Barrett era when the team employed some serious bad actors. However, this is different.
A lot different. Although Anderson and Foley have ruffled feathers with their on-field antics over the years, there are no reports of them ever getting into trouble off the field. It’s pointless to name names from a decade or so ago, but it’s worth noting that these new players don’t figure to cast a dim light on this proud franchise.
Rider Assistant GM Jeremy O’Day said last week that the Roughriders have worked hard to field a team of solid citizens and they’re proud of the image they have across the league and within their own province. It’s clear they would not have signed these players without doing some serious background checks.
“Dwight Anderson is one of the best cover guys in the league,” O’Day told 620 CKRM. “That’s the way we evaluated him and (head coach ) Corey Chamblin has a history with him so he knows what we’re getting involved with. And Dwight has had a history with the Riders and we’ve had some interesting games against him. But we’ve done our homework.
“It’s interesting how the attitude of free agents toward Saskatchewan has changed. I know that when I first got here (in 1999) people were asking ‘why would you sign with the Roughriders?’ and ‘why would you come here?’ but now they want to come here. Free agents call us and when players get released, they call us. It’s a good situation and Dwight wanted to be here. Obviously we understood his history and we wouldn’t have signed him if we thought it would be a huge problem in the locker room. We do feel like we have a good locker room that does minimimize those issues. Hopefully he plays hard and is a shutdown guy for us.”
O’Day continued with his reasoning for going against the grain with this winter’s free agent signings.
“As for Ricky Foley, I can honestly say he’d be a prime candidate for ‘don’t judge a book by its cover’. Looking at him, you’d think he’s something different than what he is but when you hear him talk, you wonder if you’re talking to the same person. I’ve never had a conversation with him until we had an opportunity to sign him as a free agent. He’s quite different than what I would have thought and I think people will like him. We did our homework on him too. It’s a small league so you can find out pretty much information on players you want.”
That’s good enough for me.
It’s also worth noting that, so far, Saskatchewan has taken a vastly different approach to its recruiting from a year ago. In the winter of 2012 the team was sending out news releases almost daily about the raft of players they had signed who were former NFL draft picks.
Once camp rolled around there were almost 20 new players with NFL backgrounds. However this year the club is going with more-established veterans of the league who boast championship experience.
“Last year we changed two-thirds of the roster and we went from one of the oldest teams to one of the youngest,” O’Day explained.
“We saw after 2011 that we needed to upgrade our roster. We can’t go totally younger because then you’ll be in trouble and you’ll be taken advantage of but we did go younger with the former NFL guys. This year we picked up some vets via free agency but we’re not gonna stop there. We’ll have some signings coming forward and we feel like we have some good ones.”
Although buried in a myriad of meetings and also piles of paper and player video auditions, O’Day is still visible enough in the community that he gets asked these questions too while out and about. The salary questions come up a lot.
“It’s surprising how often you get asked,” O’Day admitted. “Everyone knows there’s a cap and you have to stick to it. For us it’s something we’re aware of and we know where our limits are. It’s just budgeting.
“That’s our job and that’s what we do on a daily basis. Our job in football ops is to give the coaches as many tools as possible to win. With the ratio, the kicking game, so they can make the best decisions and put the best team on the field. That’s what it’s all about.”
So, as we trudge our way through the off-season and count down the days to training camp in Saskatoon, we continue to field hundreds of questions about our football team. It goes with the territory.
And as Lancaster admitted in that TV interview from years ago, “Once you leave, you kind of miss it.”