How could this happen? How could we go from the dominant team in the West Division for the past 4 years running (minus 2008 when dozens of broken fibulae and even more Michael Bishop turnovers ruined our season) to this bad in the blink of an eye? That is the question that fans across Rider Nation (or at least what’s left of it after the mass exodus caused by our losing streak).
Thing is this didn’t happen over night, it’s been 2 years in the making and is only now starting to come to a head.
When Roy Shivers was fired, this organization made a commitment to excellence at every level of the organization not just the mediocrity we’d grown accustom to. And they held true to that commitment. They didn’t just hire a GM, they hired the best GM available. He in turn hired the best coach available and together they assembled some of the best assistant coaches and players you could find. The result was unprecedented success both on and off the field culminating in a Grey Cup win in 2007.
There was a great deal of change following that year but the team held to its commitment to excellence. They hired an excellent coach to replace Austin and the team continued its string of unprecedented success both on and off the field culminating with what should have been another Grey Cup win in 2009. When you look at our roster and coaching staff in 2009 it’s truly amazing what we had managed to build in just 3 short seasons.
This is where things unfortunately start going off the rails. You see our excellent GM got himself in some trouble because he got a little antsy in the pantsy and was forced to resign. Now you would think at this point that we would stick to our commitment and hire an excellent GM as a replacement… well for reason I still don’t understand we inexplicably abandoned our commitment to excellence and hired Brendan Taman who, on his best days (which are few and far between), is nothing more than a borderline mediocre GM (for me that is the closest I will ever come to complimenting him, it may even be the nicest thing I’ve ever written about him).
The hiring of a mediocre GM set the wheels in motion for a steady free fall from excellence. As our once formidable and enviable set of assistant coaches (Lapo, Reed, Wiley) began being lured away to other teams, we began replacing them with coaches who were far from excellent (Jim Daley anybody?). Same thing on the player side. As the Chicks, Baggs, Williams and Davis’s of the world were leaving us, the Willie Byrds, Prechae Rodriguez and Dominique Dorseys of the world were being brought in.
This descent was masked by a pretty successful 2010 season. The Grey Cup run made us all forget how bad this team played down the stretch and how close we were to being eliminated in the West-Semi. Coach Miller managed to draw out the “Rider Magic” we’d grown accustom to one last time and all seemed right in the world. But under the surface our “excellence” had worn so thin that, unbeknownst to the masses, we were very near a breaking point.
Then 2 things happened that ended up being the straws that broke the camel’s back. First our last remaining excellent coach retired from coaching to take on a front office job. While there was little doubt that Miller was an excellent coach, you’d have a hard time convincing me that he qualifies as an “excellent” head of football operations. We yet again neglected our commitment to excellence in favour of an easier route. With the upper echelons of our organization now full of mediocrity it was no surprise that a mediocre coach was hired to replace our excellent one? Some of the brightest minds in both offense and defense were available but we opted for somebody that nobody else wanted. Again we completely ignored our supposed commitment to excellence. The transition from excellence to mediocrity in both the front office and coaching staff was now complete.
The second thing that caused this collapse was the departure of Andy Fantuz. While this was beyond the control of the organization as apparently Fantuz was so desperate to try for the NFL that he would have accepted a Big Mac as a signing bonus, it still had massive affect on us. Our culture of mediocrity had eroded the depth of talent on the team leaving us extremely vulnerable to departures. Obviously things would have turned out differently had Rob Bagg been healthy but if you look beyond that you can see where out failure to strive for excellence at all levels hurt us.
In the 2010 draft, we used the 8th overall selection on Jordan Sisco. We could have used it on the consensus best receiver available in the draft, Shawn Gore, who is now an impact player with the Lions. We could have selected Cory Watson (who has earned a starting role in Winnipeg and looking better each week) or Spencer Watt (who is also starting and has 2 career TDs already) or even Akeem Foster (who has scored a TD in every game this season). But no, we did the mediocre thing and went with Sisco who has had absolutely zero impact so far. This is just one example.
So if you want to know what is wrong with the Riders, the answer is that the organization has forgotten/ignored/turned a blind eye to the commitment it made in 2006 to excellence at all levels of the organization. Everything else is just a by-product of that.
The only way to fix these problems and get back to being the flagship franchise of the CFL is for the people at the highest level of the organization to realize this and re-commit themselves to excellence. Unfortunately this is something that will take time. While I’m not going to write this season off and start debating who we should take first overall in the 2012 draft (I still believe we have hope), I think we are being delusional if we don’t admit that as an organization we have fallen from the ranks’ of the League’s elite.