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O’Leary: Jones couldn’t turn down dream opportunity

It was just over a week ago that I sat down with Chris Jones in Mont-Tremblant, Que. It was late afternoon and as he sat down he told me that he’d been up since about 2:30 that morning.

He said he worked out, drove to the airport and flew from his hometown of South Pittsburg, Tenn. to Nashville, to Laguardia in New York and then to Montreal before the 90-minute drive out to the mountain resort where team presidents and GMs were meeting.

The ink was still drying on the contract extension he’d signed, which had been announced while he was on his multi-stop trip. The news was supposed to provide a sigh of relief to Riders fans, who were under the cloud of the news that broke prior to the signing that NFL teams were inquiring about Jones.

“I have not spoken to the NFL personally,” Jones said that day, but figured there might be three to four teams checking in with past colleagues throughout his career.

That has to feel pretty good, I said to him. That they’re noticing you in the NFL.

His answer to that has stuck with me the rest of the day on Tuesday, hours after @CFL_News broke the biggest story of the off-season.

“I’m no different than any of the players — I grew up watching the Pittsburgh Steelers and Dallas Cowboys, they were my two teams and I liked Atlanta because they were close,” said Jones. “You grow up wanting to coach at the highest level of football.”

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As the inevitable hot takes roll through Twitter on Jones using the out clause in a contract that was exactly a week old, ask yourself this: what would you do?

What would you do if you were diligently working away at your current job — like Jones was on Saturday and your phone rings, with someone opening a door on a dream job? The answer that you gave when you were a kid and your teachers and your parents asked you what you wanted to be when you grew up?

Chris Jones was right. He isn’t different from the players in the CFL that explore NFL options, some of them after every one of their contracts expire. We’ve seen players leave starting roles in the CFL for NFL contracts with no signing bonuses. When your dream job, or a pathway to it presents itself, why wouldn’t you go after it?

Things change so fast in the CFL. We saw Marc Trestman return to the league in 2017, be named coach of the year and win a Grey Cup. Then he was fired when his team could only manage four wins a year later. Around this time a year ago, he was considered for an offensive coordinator job with the Seattle Seahawks. You can’t count on opportunities coming at a specific time. You just have to decide whether or not to go through the door when it opens to you.   

Jones went through his door and into the NFL on Tuesday, reuniting with one of his first coaching connections, in Freddie Kitchens. Behind him is the staff he assembled and a hat rack that will look very empty. Jones was the Riders VP of football ops, GM, head coach and defensive coordinator. Jeremy O’Day is reportedly the man to slide into the two higher-up roles as VP and GM but the team will have to scramble to find a wearer of those other two hats.

 

The football ops cap could have the team looking for a head coach that could be a defensive coordinator as well. Or, they could promote from within to fill each void. If it’s not a mess, there will be some reshuffling needed in Jones’ sudden absence.

There’s also the matter of a quickly-approaching free agency period. The consensus had been that the biggest fish in the water would wait until there was a new CBA in place. Then, a few hours before Jones’ news would rock the league, Adam Bighill signed a three-year deal with Winnipeg. Regardless of who wears which hats, the Riders’ No. 1 need will still be at quarterback. Who’s in charge, particularly at head coach, will matter to whoever they pitch about playing in front of the league’s most rabid fan base.

A Trestman, for example, would be a lot different than a Mike Benevides. Even with internal promotion, if assistant head coach and offensive coordinator Steve McAdoo took the step up, the team has a different feel than if the other two Rider coaches discussed, special teams coordinator Craig Dickenson or defensive backs coach Jason Shivers, get a promotion.

Probably reeling from this sudden move, the Riders staff that Chris Jones shaped over the last three years will have to move quickly without him. His team was probably a quarterback away from being at the doorstep of a Grey Cup. It all seemed a lot easier a week ago.