My first thought was that Scott Milanovich is a calmer Jason Maas.
It’s inevitable that there will be comparisons between the two. He’s an offensive guru with a shining reputation for his work with quarterbacks and early reactions indicate that his players tend to love him. Ricky Ray himself called Milanovich the best coach he ever played for.
Public consensus in Edmonton is that it’s as good as the Esks could have hoped for having fired Maas, with Milanovich bringing a combination of winning pedigree and youthful energy.
General manager Brock Sunderland deserves credit for moving maybe not mountains, but decent sized hills to court “the right guy” away from an NFL staff and back to Canada to lead his team.
The timing was great for all involved with impending changes in Jacksonville and a vacancy in Edmonton, but sometimes when you want something you just have to go and get it.
We won’t look at too many Maas/Milanovich items, but one very curious note is their win-loss records in their first CFL head coaching job. Maas guided the Eskimos to 10-8; 12-6; 9-9; and 8-10 in his four seasons in Edmonton, so a 39-33 total. Milanovich’s Argonauts went 9-9; 11-7; 8-10; and 10-8 from 2012-2015 for a nearly identical total of 38-34. The only difference is a 12-6 versus an 11-7.
Milanovich was still Argos coach for their 5-13 season in 2016 that got general manager Jim Barker fired which makes things look a little less pleasant, but they actually started that year 4-2 and Ricky Ray got hurt in game five, playing in only nine games.
It’s not the easiest situation when your quarterbacks are Dan LeFevour and Logan Kilgore for half a season. Also, the only two receivers to get over 600 yards were a young Diontae Spencer and Kenny Shaw. Lack of experienced talent can be difficult for any coach to get past (late 2019 Calgary, for example) but that shouldn’t be an issue for the Esks in 2020 with names like Trevor Harris, Greg Ellingson, and Ricky Collins locked in.
This is the first time since Don Matthews in 1999 that the #Esks have hired a head coach with previous CFL head coaching experience. (Higgins, Maciocia, Hall, Reed, Jones, Maas)
— Reid Wilkins (@ReidWilkins) December 12, 2019
For the first time in a very long time, the Esks are handing the reins to someone who’s been there before. They had results all over the spectrum with the above group, but this time they’ll be hoping for quicker off the hop, someone who can help them win right now as well as in the long run.
Happy Quarterback, Happy Life (or something like that)
It works out very nicely that Harris really broke into the league under Milanovich in 2015 after being recruited to Toronto by him. The two have experience together, which certainly played into both Sunderland and Milanovich’s decisions. With Harris having vehemently defended Maas as the 2019 season wound down, it’s encouraging to see him so optimistic about what comes next.
Just got off the phone with a very elated Trevor Harris. Says Milanovich has a great understanding of X's and O's, he understands the culture of a team, and says he's able to stay a step ahead of the opponent. "I don't know if I could be any happier." #Eskimos #CFL
— Dave Campbell (@Dave_CHED) December 12, 2019
Taking a look at Ray’s numbers under Milanovich, a couple reasons for optimism stand out. The biggest one for an Esks team coming off an infamous season of red zone struggles is his touchdowns. He was already elite in Edmonton, pretty much always getting into the 20’s in touchdown passes, but with Milanovich he averaged an 18-game pace of around 29 touchdowns.
Add in Ray’s record-setting 21-to-2 touchdown-to-interception ratio in 2013 and you’re cooking with fire. It’s also somewhat astonishing to look at 2015 when pseudo-rookie Harris led the league in touchdown passes with 33 in his first season of action, a number Ray never actually got that close to (peaking at 28, primarily due to injuries). And now Harris has four extra years under his belt.
Harris: "It's that extra kick of motivation to be like, here we go. We got our guy. If I could have hand picked a guy across North America, (Milanovich) would have been the guy."
— Reid Wilkins (@ReidWilkins) December 13, 2019
Of course that kind of job is a whole lot easier with a Hall of Fame quarterback at your disposal, but he did a lot more than alright with it. Going further back than Toronto, Milanovich oversaw some of Anthony Calvillo’s best seasons in Montreal between 2007 and 2011 (first as a quarterbacks coach and then as offensive co-ordinator as well.)
Including a preposterous 43 touchdowns in 2008, a number bested only by Doug Flutie (three times) and Khari Jones (once). Again, much of his success is from working with an elite quarterback, but you need only think back to Mike Reilly’s 2019 to see that even the best quarterbacks need a strong surrounding environment to have success.
On your marks, get set…
It’s still December, but every team has a handful of guys they re-sign in the few weeks between the Grey Cup and New Year’s. Obviously it’s harder for a player to be comfortable with that when they don’t know who the coach will be, but now that the head man is in place, it’s reasonable to expect to see a few names announced in the not-too-distant future.
— Dave Campbell (@Dave_CHED) December 12, 2019
The other guys
As Milanovich said in his conference this weekend, with him finishing the NFL season with the Jacksonville Jaguars it is tough to meet with potential coaching staff members. He mentioned that there are guys he’s worked with before where he wouldn’t need to go through as thorough a process but in general you want to have some good conversation before bringing someone aboard. Despite that, he said he’s doing well putting together his crew.
Of note, defensive co-ordinator Phillip Lolley is the only 2019 Esks coach under contract for 2020, though whether he will in fact return is not set in stone. On the flip side, there are members from last year’s staff who would be good candidates to bring back. Special teams man A.J. Gass and O-line and D-line coaches Mike Gibson and Demetrious Maxie are three who put together strong units last season.
The other stats
It’s hard to find detailed CFL numbers beyond a few years old, but a couple Argos highlights include a league-leading 71 percent red zone offence in 2015 (second place was Ottawa at 59 percent) and fourth place 58 percent in 2016 despite their team troubles (league-leading Montreal was 61 percent). You may be interested to know that Milanovich’s teams have been both top half and bottom half in penalties, with no discernible trends.
One spot to keep an eye on is rushing touchdowns, which appear to have suffered in favour of the passing game.
In it for the long haul
A four-year contract certainly indicates a high level of confidence on the part of Brock Sunderland. And Milanovich, too, seems fully committed.
Another thing he mentioned in his conference is that he hasn’t gotten to watch too much CFL action but he did catch the East Semi-Final this year (Harris’s record-setting performance) and that he’s having Esks game film brought in to Florida so he can start breaking down his green and gold roster in his spare time. Half-jokingly he said he can go without sleep for a couple weeks as he balances his outgoing and incoming jobs.
Milanovich was asked a few times about things he’s learned from his time in the NFL and what he can bring to his CFL post that’s different from when he left in 2016.
He was guarded with his answers, but his comments indicated a growth mindset – ideas like ‘I know things that worked well before, but I’ve learned other things too that I think we can apply with success now’. The best coaches need to be able to adapt as the opposition does, and in that respect the first signs are that he’ll be better than his predecessor.
There are a lot of reasons for Edmonton to be pleased with their new head coach – it’s hard to find anyone who thinks this signing is anything but a major accomplishment for the Eskimos organization. We still have a while to wait before we see if that translates into results on the field.