The good, the bad and the dumb of the 2021 Riders

Photo courtesy: CFL

The dust has settled on the 2021 CFL season, one that will be remembered for all kinds of reasons.

The Bombers are back-to-back champions, the league returned after missing a year due to a worldwide pandemic and got through it relatively scot-free. That feels especially true right now as the newest and worst COVID-19 variant yet starts to take over as the dominant strain.

But how will the 2021 Saskatchewan Roughriders be remembered? Here’s the good, the bad, and the dumb of the year that was in Riderville.

The Good

This year’s edition of the Riders was quite strong in two-thirds of the game.

Their defence and special teams were both pretty solid. Though maybe not necessarily the best in the league at either, they were certainly good enough to win a title if all three phases were clicking.

Despite a barrage of injuries before training camp even began, defensive coordinator Jason Shivers was able to put together what turned out to be a pretty good front seven. The unit struggled against the likes of Ka’Deem Carey and Andrew Harris, but definitely made life miserable for opposing quarterbacks.

The Riders’ defence was actually built around a secondary that was essentially the same unit they rolled out in 2019. When you go after the quarterback, you often leave your secondary on an island, and this unit did their job most of the season. Loucheiz Purifoy, Nick Marshall and Ed Gainey were particularly strong.

Before the season began, there were a lot of questions surrounding the Riders’ ability to get after the quarterback following the departure of veteran Charleston Hughes. I didn’t think they’d miss the future Hall of Fame pass-rusher and they didn’t, finishing second in the league with 47 sacks.

Rush end A.C. Leonard was ready to be the star and clearly the Riders scouting staff is able to find talent at the position, with the likes of Johnathan Woodard stepping up. It’s also a testament to Shivers’ system that it’s more or less plug and play, rather than built around specific players.

Every team has tweaks to make every year, for the Riders’ defence, they’ll have to figure out how to deal with strong running games in Calgary and Winnipeg, but the defence should still remain a strong foundation for the team.

The Bad

It’s safe to say that, like most of the league in 2021, the offence left a lot to be desired in Saskatchewan.

It’s extremely strange to say that the Riders’ offence peaked in the first half of their first game of the year, but that’s what happened. The Cody Fajardo-led unit came out of the gate strong, scoring 32 points in the first 30 minutes of the season.

And then it was all downhill from there.

While it may be easy to point fingers at Fajardo or offensive coordinator Jason Maas — and they definitely had their flaws this season — it basically came down to the offensive line. The unit was a strength of the team in 2019 and it became their biggest problem in 2021.

Future Hall of Fame guard Brendon LaBatte decided not to play the shortened campaign and left tackle Terran Vaughn was forced to undergo surgery in training camp, which set the unit back early.

That will have to be addressed in the off-season, and I’m confident that general manager Jeremy O’Day will do that.

There’s no need for an overreaction here. Fajardo and Maas should both be brought back in 2022 and I would expect them to be better after a year together and, hopefully, a normal off-season and training camp.

That isn’t to say that there won’t be pressure on them next season. With what should be an improved offensive line, there won’t be any excuses for the offence. It’ll be put up or shut up for both Fajardo and Maas.

Oh, and the Grey Cup is scheduled to be played in Regina in November if they needed a little extra wrinkle.

If we see much of the same, something will have to give.

The Dumb

I think it’s fair to say the entire Riders season was kind of dumb.

If you went back and re-watched all of the games without any knowledge of what happened and without scores, you’d probably wouldn’t suspect the Riders were as good as the second or third best team in the league that most thought they were for much of the season.

But they were and deserve credit for it.

They didn’t shoot the lights out, they didn’t really get a bunch of splashy scoring defensive plays like they did in the Chris Jones era, and their special teams didn’t add a bunch of majors to the board either.

At the end of the day though, all that matters is notches in the win column and this team found ways to do that. They were scrappy and difficult to play against. Other than perhaps the Labour Day Classic in Regina, they were in basically every game. Even the first half of the Banjo Bowl was a fight until an actual fight and some injuries decimated the Riders’ roster to a point where the game was over.

Is this kind of style sustainable? Probably not. But, with a below-average offensive line and a new offence to learn without a traditional off-season and training camp with pre-season games, the Riders made it work for a year.

While some may feel the team didn’t get over the hump by beating the Bombers in the West Final, and that might be true, it was still a strong season for the team. Especially when you consider many had this team missing the playoffs or finishing last in the West following the losses along the offensive line and the defence before the start of the season.

In that context, it was a pretty good year. Of course, the goal is always to win a championship, so in that regard, they came up short, but there was still plenty for the team to hang their hat on and use to build toward a home Grey Cup in 2022.

Joel Gasson is a Regina-based sports writer, broadcaster and football fanatic. He is also a beer aficionado.