‘We haven’t gotten much better’: ‘frustrated’ Riders eye tight playoff race

Photo courtesy: Saskatchewan Roughriders

A lot can change in two weeks.

Rewind the clock to September 24 and the Saskatchewan Roughriders were sitting pretty in the standings, the undisputed second seed in the West after coming from behind to beat the B.C. Lions. As a 5-2 football team whose only losses came against the top-ranked Winnipeg Blue Bombers, a home playoff game seemed a relative certainty.

Now, as people across the country gather to give thanks, everything about that situation has changed, except for their place in the standings.

After two tight losses to Calgary, the Riders are now a vulnerable 5-4 football team with two four-win clubs in the Stamps and Lions nipping at their heels entering the bye week.

“It’s frustrating. We wanted to win two out of three and if we win two out of three we put Calgary on the outside looking in. Now it’s the opposite, they’re right there on our tail now and it’s going to make every game that much more important coming down the stretch,” head coach Craig Dickenson said after Rene Paredes hit a walk-off field goal to hand the Stamps the season series.

“That group’s frustrated in there and our coaches are a little frustrated too. We worked hard this week, felt like we had a good plan, just didn’t play well enough to win the game — credit to Calgary.”

The ramifications of the past two games are sure to be felt for the remainder of the shortened CFL season, a fact that quarterback Cody Fajardo readily admits. Fortunately, Saskatchewan had their fast start to the season to fall back on, meaning the tough losses to divisional opponents have not yet been fatal.

“The West just got so much tighter, other than Winnipeg. It’s really tight between us, Calgary and B.C. So you’re going to have to win games down the stretch and that’s why I stressed so much early on in the year that it’s important to get wins, because if we don’t get off to that 3-0 start, we’re a little bit lower in the standings,” he said.

Both of the Riders’ losses to Calgary came by less than a touchdown in games where the Stampeders had plenty of their own problems to dissect, including the continued struggles of quarterback Bo Levi Mitchell. While that might provide some consolation to the Rider fanbase, it doesn’t for Dickenson, who sees one major difference between the two clubs.

“We haven’t, I don’t believe, gotten much better,” he admitted frankly to the Regina media. “Maybe we’ve regressed a little bit in some ways, I hope not. Calgary’s much improved, they’re getting better each week and we just kinda stay the same, but I still like the team.”

That type of admission from a head coach should deliver a serious wake-up call to the Saskatchewan locker room as they prepare for a nail-biting sprint to the finish, but Fajardo isn’t ready to raise similar alarm bells quite yet. His team may have stagnated temporarily, but they aren’t yet behind the eight ball.

“We’re still in a good spot here where if we continue to win games, we have five games remaining and a good bye week to get healthy. If we can get hot at the right time, I’ve seen some of the not best teams of the year get hot late and give themselves a chance and make it to the Grey Cup,” he explained.

“That’s just how the CFL goes, if you get hot at the right time I think anything is possible. I would rather trade this in and get hot late going into the playoffs. We just gotta punch our ticket and win games to get ourselves in that situation.”

Fittingly, that process will begin two weeks after Paredes field goal changed the narrative around this Riders team, when they return from the bye to face Calgary for a third and final time.

J.C. Abbott is a University of British Columbia graduate and high school football coach. He covers the CFL, B.C. Lions, CFL Draft and the three-down league's Global initiative.