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They ride into the 2017 CFL season looking for something they might never have imagined needing: redemption.
Chris Jones’s coaching staff with the Roughriders knew only winning when it came with him to Saskatchewan a year ago, coming off a Grey Cup victory while the group was still in Edmonton.
And they were following a leader – Jones came to Saskatchewan to be the head coach, GM and VP, football operations – that had never missed the playoffs in his 14 years in the CFL.
Then 2016 fell on Jones, his staff and all of Rider Nation like an undercut offensive lineman. They lost 10 of their first 11 games and finished 5-13, well out of a playoff spot.
The losses took their toll on Jones and his staff. A unit that had coached its way to a 26-10 record in Edmonton had to very quickly surrender its view from the top of the mountain.
At the end of last season, Jones admitted to the Regina Leader-Post’s Rob Vanstone that he lost sleep over all of the losses.
It’s like losing the Grey Cup, but it’s even worse because you didn’t give yourself a chance. At least if you play in the Grey Cup, you gave yourself a chance to win the Grey Cup.”
At the Riders’ recent mini-camp, his coaching colleagues talked about those feelings trickling down to a proud staff.
“I just know from losing, period,” said offensive coordinator and assistant head coach Stephen McAdoo. “It doesn’t matter if you win 12 games and lose six, you’re still pissed as coaches because…you’re trying to figure out a way you can put your guys in a better position to win those six.
“It was very disappointing. That’s not what we wanted to bring to the fans of Saskatchewan. We came here to win a championship and that’s our ultimate goal. Every decision that we make is to win a Grey Cup and everybody is all-in for that.”
Special teams coordinator Craig Dickenson called it a frustrating year. Especially for Jones.
“He’s as competitive as anybody you’ll find,” Dickenson said of Jones. “To not be in the hunt there at the end killed him. It killed all of us, but I think especially Chris.
“Chris works as hard as anyone I’ve ever worked for. He motivates us. We’ve all been in the game long enough to know when you struggle a little bit that honestly the only way you can get out of it is to just keep working.”
Like Jones, last year was the first time in Jarious Jackson’s CFL career — eight years as a player and three as a quarterbacks coach — that he had missed the playoffs.
“It was very tough,” said Jackson, who is also the Riders’ passing game coordinator. “At the same time we came in we knew it was going to be at least 50, 75 per cent overhaul on the team, so in that sense it’s all about when you can come in and jell and how fast you can get (everyone) to buy into what’s going on and be able to go out on the field and execute it.”
There were many factors in those losses, including injuries tallying 249 man-games, along with, as Jackson pointed out, many new faces learning to work together under a brand-new coaching staff. When the o-line got healthier, Jackson said, the results gave the team a four-game win streak late in the season.
“But when that line rotation kept changing at the drop of a hat, you’ve got mixups sometimes, you’ve got o-linemen letting down on defensive linemen and quarterbacks getting hit on walking throws or one-step drops,” Jackson said.
“From there it wasn’t as great as we wanted it to be or expected. We’re expecting bigger and better things this year. At least the nucleus of the guys know what to expect coming in and hopefully we can find guys (from mini-camp and open tryouts) and go into training camp rolling.”
May and June are always the most optimistic months of the CFL season, but the Riders coaches feel like they’ve got some things to build on from all of the suffering that came from 2016.
If you look back to that Eskimos team that Jones and his staff took control of in 2014, they were coming off of a four-win season with many close losses. The returning players built on that failure and morphed into a contender. The coaches sense the potential for a similar turnaround in Saskatchewan.
“It takes time to learn how to win. The Riders have struggled for a little while since that Grey Cup year in 2013,” Dickenson said.
“I think we’ve got the right guys. Guys that are used to winning, guys that are used to working. We’re really emphasizing work this year, putting in the time it takes to win. Don’t take anything for granted when you show up, because there’s going to be competition at every position out there. I think our guys are going to embrace it, I really do.”
“The guys are hungry. They see what’s right there,” McAdoo said. “They see it right in their grasp and that’s the worst thing you can do for an athlete because he’s coming back 10 times (stronger).”
“It was disappointing last year, nobody can say that it wasn’t. But there were some bright spots. We got to see some things from some guys that are going to help us this year that will make us better.”