Eskimos’ GM Brock Sunderland provides reasons for decision to fire Jason Maas

Wednesday morning the Edmonton Eskimos made the final decision that Jason Maas would be relieved of his head coach duties.

The move doesn’t come as a surprise to most outside Edmonton, but in the city there was close to a 50-50 vibe as to whether or not he would or should be retained for the final year of his contract in 2020. 

General manager Brock Sunderland explained the decision during a press conference at the facility. 

Let’s break down the presser and the move.

Why?

Ultimately, I felt the past few seasons we underachieved as a team… I felt we did have talent and that we underachieved as an organization.

I’ve been open about sharing that sentiment. Since a very good 2017 season with a 12-6 record and West Final loss to Calgary, the Eskimos have struggled to be ‘great’ rather than ‘good’. Three playoff wins in four seasons is a fine result, but 17 total regular season wins in two years is very disappointing for a team led by Mike Reilly and then Trevor Harris, among many others.

The big quote

I didn’t want to make a long-term decision on short-term emotion, whether that was the excitement of winning in Montreal or the disappointment of the 2-7 finish and the Hamilton loss.

Sunderland had nothing but good words for Maas about his professionalism and character. Very clearly it wasn’t an easy decision nor one he took lightly. Now, 10 days after their season ended, the Eskimos and Jason Maas part ways.

The perfect quote

Jason has a linebacker mentality as a quarterback. I think Trevor Harris put it the most elegant way, is [Maas] orders vegetables aggressively.

You couldn’t possibly sum up Maas’s time in Edmonton better, both as a player and as a coach.

The players

Trevor Harris got some press during the playoffs for his comment that there were 46 players in the locker room who would run through a brick wall for Maas. There’s no doubt that Maas was a players’ coach, but ultimately Sunderland was left to make a tough decision in the best interest of the team and the organization.

Linebacker Don Unamba had a previously scheduled appearance with Rod Pederson on Wednesday where he said the move was a bit of a surprise, and further indicated support for the now-former coach.

When asked if the decision might result in a large amount of player movement, Sunderland pointed out that nowadays that happens anyways and major roster turnover is very common.

Discipline

Instead of temper, I often use the word passion.

The biggest, longest story line surrounding Maas was discipline.

Whether that’s sideline antics or penalties. Regarding sideline behaviour, ironically that might be the area he grew the most as a coach. He reached a point midway through the 2018 season where he decided he had to set a better example for his players, and he did so; not a single headset was thrown after that day.

I am among those who believe TSN did no favours to the narrative, providing lots of airtime for him to do something relative to other coaches. The only memorable story from 2019 was throwing his challenge flag in the garbage after a pass interference challenge loss, but it’s hard to blame him when it was – not exaggerating – the worst review in the history of football.

As for penalties, the final 2019 numbers do not tell the whole story. While the Eskimos inarguably had a dreadful start to the year, averaging around 140 yards through three games, the ‘growth’ mindset becomes evident when we eliminate those games. It’s a bit arbitrary, but it still leaves a long and continuous sample.

Weeks 4 through 17, the Esks were right in the middle of the pack in penalty yards per game, with a 77.6 average that was only about two yards behind second place Calgary. (Winnipeg was the far and away league leader at 61.2). They finished with a conveniently spot on 77 per game in the Saskatchewan double before dropping to 30 and 50 against Montreal and Hamilton in the playoffs.

That doesn’t cover type or timing of penalties but it’s a much more accurate summary of the 2019 season at least, although four years is a significantly larger sample. We won’t get a fifth season to verify whether that represented legitimate progress.

He had his issues, no question, but he was also a very bright, if inconsistent, offensive mind. What you need to see is improvement – too little, too late, perhaps.

The second halves

Over the last nine games of each of the 2018 and 2019 seasons, the Eskimos were a combined 5-13. Sunderland alluded to that being a major issue (see “The big quote”) and the fact that it happened twice in a row (3-6 in 2018, 2-7 in 2019) seems like it was a big factor in letting Maas go.

Mass’s biggest flaw as a coach was that he always counted on and trusted in the best-case scenario, allowing little margin for error. He was stubborn, and with that did come some ignoring of issues.

Who’s next?

The person who gives us the best opportunity to compete for a Grey Cup.

Sunderland acknowledged the vagueness of that comment, but it goes back to the idea of underachieving. One of the hallmarks of the best coaches is getting the most out of their players. It’s generally agreed that Maas was able to do that with his quarterbacks in particular, but less so with the team as a whole.

Rick Campbell’s name has obviously been brought up, as well as former Redblack offensive co-ordinator Jamie Elizondo. Paul LaPolice will surely be under consideration. Sunderland declined to give a timeline, saying that of course the sooner the better but not at the expense of finding the right person, and that they will cast a wide net to do so.

He added that defensive co-ordinator Philip Lolley is the only coach signed through 2020, and the rest of the staff will be up to the new head coach.

Meanwhile, there was instant speculation about Maas becoming offensive co-ordinator in B.C. as part of a Ed Hervey/Campbell/Maas/Reilly quartet. A bit of a heart-wrenching idea for Esks supporters. 

As a final note, Ron Lancaster (1991-1997) was the last Eskimos head coach to last longer than four seasons.

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