Corey Mace checks all the boxes.
Being head coach of the Saskatchewan Roughriders is a unique position. It’s the CFL’s version of coaching the Toronto Maple Leafs or New York Yankees. It’s the league’s most passionate market where football reigns supreme and it’s not just the city of Regina. It’s the entire province. There’s not another job quite like it in this league.
And, for so many reasons, I can’t think of a better fit than Mace.
First and foremost, we’re talking about a coach who’s been climbing the ladder since finishing his playing career in 2015. Mace made the transition from playing directly into coaching when he joined the Calgary Stampeders’ staff as defensive line coach for the 2016 season.
That led to the natural next step when he moved to Toronto as defensive coordinator for 2022. Going back to his time as a player starting in 2007, that’s 15 years of Mace paying his professional football dues.
But it’s not like we’re just talking about a guy who’s put the time in. Mace has also been extremely successful in his coaching stops leading to this. In Mace’s five years as defensive line coach, Calgary twice led the league in sacks, finished second another year and never ranked outside the top five.
Things got better upon Mace taking over as defensive coordinator with the Argos. 2022 saw Toronto’s defence build throughout the year, culminating in a masterclass performance in a 109th Grey Cup win over Winnipeg. And, well, this past season was just ridiculous. The Argonauts’ defence ranked No. 1 overall in turnovers, interceptions, sacks and rushing yards against.
What’s remarkable is that Mace has done all this and is still just 37 years old. Mace, who turns 38 later this month, looks like he could still strap on the pads and lineup at defensive tackle right now. This is the type of person who can relate to players on their level right now because he’s not that far removed from being one at a high level.
Mace’s credentials also command respect and when he talks, people listen. For American players, Mace has suited up in NFL and NCAA games. For Canadian products, he’s won a pair of Grey Cup rings as a coach and another as player. Mace can talk the talk, but he’s also walked the walk. That goes a long way these days.
I think that will resonate in the local market, too. In fact, when looking at the response to his first day of media in Regina, I think it already has. Mace is intense and passionate when it comes to football. He’s committed, he cares and more than anything, he knows full well what it means to be part of Rider Nation.
The Roughriders had a great group of candidates to choose from when searching for their next head coach. But when it comes to everything that goes into being head coach in Saskatchewan, I think this is an absolute home run.
The cost of winning
For a second straight off-season, the team I’m going to be most fascinated by in free agency is the Winnipeg Blue Bombers. The Bombers have ran it back after each of their last three appearances in the Grey Cup, including after 2022’s heartbreaking loss to Toronto.
But after November’s loss to Montreal in the 110th Grey Cup, their fourth consecutive appearance, it feels like bringing the whole gang back might be a little more challenging. I say that for two main reasons: Brady Oliveira and Dalton Schoen.
That’s not to say there’s a hard decision for Winnipeg, either. If either player has a desire to be back in 2024, the Bombers should absolutely make them top retention priorities. But in doing so, Winnipeg will almost certainly be losing some of the cap flexibility Schoen and Oliveira have provided them the last couple years.
Why? Because both players have given the Blue Bombers incredible value the last two seasons. And both players are due for significant raises.
Schoen signed a two-year contract with Winnipeg as a relatively unknown undrafted free agent prior to the 2022 season. While the Bombers were excited about the Kansas State product, I don’t think anyone expected Schoen to explode the way he did.
Schoen led the CFL with 1,441 receiving yards and 16 touchdowns in his first season en route to being named a league All-Star and 2022’s Most Outstanding Rookie. He followed that up with 1,222 yards and a league-leading 10 touchdown catches as a sophomore while taking home his second straight CFL All-Star nod.
Schoen has a strong argument as the league’s best receiver and, for the first time in his career, is going to be paid in that same neighbourhood.
Oliveira’s situation is similar, albeit to a slightly lesser degree. The local product signed a two-year extension with his hometown team prior to the 2022 campaign when Winnipeg opted to move on from Andrew Harris and installed Oliveira as their No. 1 back.
Oliveira’s salary was reportedly in the top-10 for tailbacks on his last deal. But, after two straight seasons leading the league in rushing yards, that number will almost certainly go up. Oliveira just finished the league’s best rushing season in a decade and at the age of 26, seems like there’s still plenty left for him to accomplish.
Having elite players on good value contracts is one of the best ways to win in a salary cap world. That’s exactly what Winnipeg has had in Oliveira and Schoen the last two years, and it’s allowed them incredible cap flexibility as a result.
With some of that flexibility about to disappear, assuming both choose to stay with the Bombers, I’m fascinated to see how general manager Kyle Walters goes about his business this winter.