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EDMONTON — How excited is Mike Reilly to work with Eskimos new head coach Jason Maas? Look no further than last year’s Ottawa REDBLACKS, he says, the team the Eskimos beat 26-20 in the 103rd Grey Cup.
Just starting his first job as a professional football head coach, Maas, a long-time CFL quarterback, is bringing his offence from the nation’s capital to Western Canada. Reilly says the fit couldn’t be better.
“You saw what Ottawa was able to do last year and what we were able to do once we got things rolling and we all started clicking and getting on the same page.”
The Eskimos were one of the best teams offensively last season but the REDBLACKS were the best. Maas was the mastermind of an offence that took Ottawa from worst to first in virtually every category — offence, defence, the East Division standings. You name it: Maas helped make the REDBLACKS respectable. Revered, in a word, a far cry from a 2-16 season in 2014 when it looked like the CFL’s new expansion team, led by an ageing, over-the-hill quarterback, was light years away from competing.
And now, meeting with the media for the first time since winning Grey Cup MVP on that frigid, late November night in Winnipeg, Reilly could proudly say ‘he’s on our side’.
“I’ve always heard about what type of player he was,” said Reilly. “I heard he had a fiery personality and brought a lot of that onto the field, which obviously I think I’m pretty similar in that regard.”
Reilly, 31, pays great attention to detail, especially when it comes to coaches not only in Edmonton but around the league. He said he started asking his teammates about Maas when he first arrived in Edmonton back in 2013 — teammates of Maas’s back when he quarterbacked the Green and Gold. What he heard is that Maas understands how to make a quarterback comfortable during the game — that the game is seen differently on the field than it is from the sideline or on tape. He heard that Maas will push him to be better — that he won’t be afraid to call out mistakes during practice.
“I know he’s going to make me a better quarterback,” said Reilly. “He’s not going to be shy to tell me when I’m screwing things up.”
Better still, the transition should be a simple one for an offence well-equipped for what Maas wants to run. Kenny Stafford and Kendial Lawrence are pending free agents, but outside of that the Green and Gold return the majority of a unit that last season ranked second in the league in net yards and lost only one game all year that Reilly started under centre (that being a season-opening loss to the Argos, in which Reilly was injured in the fourth quarter).
Stephen McAdoo and Maas are both disciples of Argos head coach Scott Milanovich and run similar offences, meaning outside of the terminology, very little has to change. In fact, adding a new perspective, Reilly added, gives the Esks’ offence a chance to grow even more — to potentially take the next step.
“He studied under Milanovich just as McAdoo did, so structurally the offences are similar,” started Reilly. “But what I’ve found is every coach that learns in that system takes things that they like and adds in other things of their own that they design, and they all end up being fairly different even though the terminology is very similar.
“The structures can be quite a bit different.”
Still, the essence of the offence is that it puts a lot of burden on the quarterback to know where to throw the football, Reilly added — yet it doesn’t force him to do anything he’s not capable of.
“It’s not an offence that makes you be superman,” he said. “You just have to know where to get the ball and let your guys do the work and we have great wide receivers, once they get the ball in their hands they do some special things with it.
“I think that’s what made Henry so successful last year: He trusted the offence, trusted the system and let his playmakers make plays.”
I think that’s what made Henry so successful last year: He trusted the offence, trusted the system and let his playmakers make plays.
For nervous Esks fans, Reilly’s endorsement of Maas should be a breath of fresh air nearly two months after the departure of Chris Jones. Jones played a major role in building up both the Esks’ depth and their overall level of compete, helping transform Edmonton from a four-win team in 2013 to Grey Cup Champion in 2015. His specialities are system and structure, things he helped GM Ed Hervey make so sound in Edmonton that the Esks appeared poised to contend for a long time coming.
While Hervey remains the man in charge, Jones up and left the Eskimos in the weeks following the Grey Cup and took most of his coaching staff with him. But with Maas now replacing him, Reilly isn’t going back on his word that his team is built to win many more Grey Cups than just last year’s, something he asserted at the podium following last November’s victory.
“Not at all,” Reilly answered the question. “I feel just as strongly that we’re built to win multiple Grey Cups. We have the core group of players that we need and losing your entire staff is never a good situation, but the staff we have replaced them with is something that I’m extremely excited about and I have a ton of confidence in.
“I’m more excited and more confident about what we’re going to be able to do this year than I was two months ago.”
The REDBLACKS gave the Eskimos everything they had in a Grey Cup fight to the end, one that wasn’t decided until the final minute of the game when Reilly was able to run out the clock and keep Henry Burris and the Ottawa offence standing on the sideline for the game’s final whistle. When he wasn’t on the field helping his team win, Reilly paid close attention to what Maas, Burris and the REDBLACKS were able to accomplish in 2015.
Some say with the departure of some free agents and a totally new coaching staff, a decline is on tap in the City of Champions. The success of last year’s REDBLACKS says otherwise.
“There’s no debate about whether he can do it, and now it’s on the players to go out there and execute the plays that are being called,” Reilly said of Maas. “We have confidence in our locker-room that we have the right guys to make that happen.”