Landry: Eastern Semi-Final a clash of differing team moods
Loosey-goosey, with nothing to lose, versus grim and determined, with much to prove.
That’s the tale of this year’s Eastern Semi-Final, in a nutshell.
Whatever match-ups and schemes and best-laid plans of both the Edmonton Eskimos and Montreal Alouettes become apparent on Sunday, whatever execution flaws cost dearly at the most inopportune of times, well, those storylines will take over as they should.
Meantime, in the lead-up to this clash it is obvious that we are dealing with two teams with very different feels about them, heading towards kick-off.
That, in itself, gives us a compelling backdrop to whatever drama unfolds on game day.
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You might say it’s embodied in the respective sideline demeanours displayed by each team’s head coach; Montreal’s bouncing, dancing, Led Zeppelin-singing Khari Jones, and Edmonton’s scowling, pacing, occasionally equipment-bashing Jason Maas.
The Eskimos have underachieved, so far. The Alouettes have surpassed expectations. Funny that, considering the immediately visible difference between the two of them is two victories.
There’s more than that, of course.
The Alouettes have been re-born in 2019, rising to the ranks of contenders in the most unusual circumstances; handing the reins over to a rookie head coach just a week before the regular season began, and seeing a young journeyman quarterback come off the scrap heap to finally rise to prominence in what turned out to be an All-Star season.
This was a season that might have been derailed even before it pulled out of the station. Instead, it has become one of gathering momentum; I think I can, I think I can, I think I can.
The Als are already playing with house money, accomplishing plenty, and more than what many would have predicted for them, even with a roster that was well-stocked with good talent.
It’s an attitude that can be spotted in media avails this week, with both quarterback Vernon Adams and Coach Jones shrugging off suggestions of big game pressures.
“We’re that loose team, we’re gonna be like that,” said Adams. “But we know when it’s time to lock in as well.”
It’s exactly the kind of personality that Jones has fostered in his first year as a sideline boss. Fun is at the centre of it all, but not at the expense of attention to detail.
“I wanted that to come out and so I encouraged it,” Jones said during an interview with Dustin Neilson on Edmonton’s TSN 1260 Radio, this week.
“They still work extremely hard,” Jones said of his players. “They still work to be a disciplined group and so I keep the balance there. I wanna make sure that we’re not having so much fun that we’re forgetting some of the other things that we need to do. But I want this to be a good experience.”
Confidence is not something Jones needs to worry about at this point, his Alouettes having it in abundance, it seems. What first began as a little simmer during the summer is now at pretty much a full-on boil at this point. If anything, Jones might need to guard against his team feeling a little too satisfied, with all it has accomplished already.
“I’m lookin’ forward to seeing how they come out against this team and the fire that they bring,” said Jones this week, promising that his Alouettes will play with the same attitude they’ve displayed all year long.
The Eskimos have something to prove in these playoffs, written off by so many as an undisciplined lot, overachieving in few areas this season, one of them being in the category of taking penalties.
With howls of criticism relentlessly pursuing them, they seem to have chips on their shoulders, and the sense that they are being taken too lightly.
“A lot of people don’t believe that we can get past them anyway,” said running back C.J. Gable, rested and ready to go on Sunday. “We really don’t care about that.”
I think they do, though, don’t you?
And that might not be a bad thing. If the Alouettes can be powered by swaggering confidence that allows them to play fast, can their opponents not be equally propelled by a deep desire to get detractors to shut the hell up?
This is an Eskimos team loaded with talent up and down the roster, with abounding abilities on both sides of the ball. The capabilities of going toe-to-toe with any team are definitely there. There’s reason for people to have lowered their stock, however, with seven of their eight wins coming against Ottawa, Toronto and B.C., collectively.
Bristle at that, they might. But wear it, they must, along with the fact that this Eskimos team finished the regular season as the most penalized in the loop, with 197 in total, for an average of 11 yards per. Seventy-five of those penalties came in categories that the league classifies as “preventable,” including 46 for roughing and 8 for objectionable conduct (Winnipeg led the league in that category, taking just one).
But they get a healthy Trevor Harris at quarterback — joking about feeling refreshed after playing just one game in the last two months due to injury — and a similarly healthy Gable, to bolster their fortunes in this game. As well, they make Adams and the vaunted Montreal passing attack go up against the CFL’s tightest aerial defence, statistically speaking (223 yards per game).
“We feel like we’re a good team,” said receiver Greg Ellingson this week, perhaps a little perplexed by the Eskimos’ lack of tangible success against the powers in the West Division. “We’ve felt like that all year.”
With a fresh playoff canvas spread out before them, Ellingson and the Eskies believe they can alter the narrative of their season. The coach does too, although his comments are tinged with a little caution.
“You’re gonna learn lessons throughout the year, in wins and losses,” said Maas. “Whether they’re close or whether by a big margin, you’re gonna learn. And this is the time of year where you put all that together and make it stick.”
“You better learn from what you’ve had, adversity-wise,” he said.
The Als have their own warts. Their pass defence has been vulnerable (allowing a league-worst 316 yards per game) which is precisely the area the Eskimos are sure to try to exploit. Not that they won’t also work to establish Gable as a battering ram, too. The Als have given up an average of 5.4 yards per carry in 2019, tying them for worst in the CFL, along with their Eastern Semi-Final opponent as well as Toronto.
But we’re venturing into matchups and schemes and best-laid plans here. That can wait for Sunday. In the meantime, we can ponder the more abstract concept of the differing psyches of these two teams.
One plays with nothing more to lose than the glorious feeling of winning after being down for so long. “It’s just a confident group over here and they feel good about what they’re doing,” said Jones.
The other plays to prove something, not just to the doubters out there, but surely to themselves as well. “We know what team we are and what team we can be,” said Maas. “And I think all of us believe.”
It’s quite a combination, this clash of motivating factors, of team moods.
One side doesn’t want the feeling to end. Another would be quite fine if it did.