Craig Dickenson ‘hopeful’ he won’t have to defend coaching job to Riders’ leadership after failing to meet own expectations

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After all the preseason hype surrounding their shot at a home Grey Cup victory, the Saskatchewan Roughriders could be one loss away from being officially eliminated from playoff contention.

The Hamilton Tiger-Cats have held the executioner’s axe over the Riders since their 18-14 victory last week and can bar any hope of a crossover by running the table to end the season. Following the Ticats’ thrilling win over Calgary on Friday, that margin of error has shrunk even more, as a Riders’ loss to the Stamps in Week 20 paired with a Hamilton win over Ottawa could seal Saskatchewan’s fate as early as next Saturday.

Firmly on the hot seat heading into the final two regular-season contests, Riders’ head coach Craig Dickenson addressed his own situation during a bye week appearance on The Sportscage.

“16 games in, we haven’t had the year we wanted and so there’s no easy answer to that,” Dickenson admitted. “Have I done as good a job as I had hoped? No, because ultimately my job is to get that team to play above and beyond maybe what they think they’re capable of and the reality is, we haven’t. We’ve underachieved this year.”

The Riders roared to a hot start out of the gate in 2022, going 4-1 to open the season, but have faltered since. At 6-10, the franchise has lost nine of their last 11 and five straight at home, leading to out-cry from fans and a public acknowledgement of disappointment from team president Craig Reynolds.

Dickenson has made his own honest assessment of the team during their losing skid, drawing the ire of several players on social media in the process. While many believe his time in Regina is coming to a close, the 51-year-old remains optimistic that his superiors will see beyond the win-loss record.

“As far as defending my job, I hopefully won’t have to do that,” Dickenson shared. “I believe personally that you earn your keep on a day-to-day basis and I think I’ve been around Craig and [general manager Jeremy O’Day] enough over the last four years that, hopefully, they see the work that we put in as a staff, they see the camaraderie in the locker room, they see for the most part a pretty good group of men.”

“There’s not a lot of off-the-field stuff. We had a blip here and there, but for the most part, they’re gentlemen and they’re good community people. The season just didn’t go as we planned.”

Those few blips, notably the behaviour of former defensive tackle Garrett Marino and hot-headed receiver Duke Williams, caused notable distractions for the team and, in some cases, contributed to losses. However, the current situation in Riderville has often felt like an anomaly compared to the coach’s two previous seasons, with Dickenson unfairly hung out to dry.

The long-time CFL special teams coordinator took the reins in 2019 and posted a 22-10 record over his first two campaigns, losing narrowly in the West Final both years to the eventual champion Winnipeg Blue Bombers. 2022 was supposed to be the moment everything came together but, despite Dickenson’s best efforts, it hasn’t panned out that way.

“It’s going to sound crazy but this year, I think our practices have been better than ever. I think we’ve finally found a formula that works for us. The correct number of plays, the correct number of competitive plays where we go ones against ones, the length of practice; I really think we’ve hit on it,” Dickenson noted sadly.

“I just think we’ve failed in a couple of key areas, I really do. I think we put a lot of eggs in some baskets and it just hasn’t worked out.”

Quarterback Cody Fajardo appears to have plateaued as a starter, though he’s been held back by early-season injuries and a historically porous offensive line. Meanwhile, the defensive line — which began the year as the team’s greatest strength — has been decimated by injuries and absences inside. The Riders have simply been unable to adapt.

“I think that as a coaching staff, one thing we probably need to focus on is how can we get a little more creative when we maybe don’t have the horses on the D-line that we’d like to have or when we can’t protect the quarterback as well as we’d like to,” Dickenson said.

“How can we get a little more creative and still generate pressure on their quarterback, and still protect our quarterback and still be able to run the offence? That’s something for the coordinators to dive into, that’s something for me to visit with them about, but I think that’s where it’s fallen off the rails this year.”

While the coach is quick to point out that the season is not yet over and the Riders still have a chance to achieve the improbable, their playoff odds have never been dimmer than during this timely week off.

One way or another, changes will be coming to the roster and the football operations department over the next several months, but Dickenson believes he and his staff have made a case to stay over the course of their three seasons on the prairies.

“I hope that Craig and JO see a coach and a coaching staff that really did everything they could, tried their very best, put in a lot of hours, to try to turn this thing around,” he said.

“We’re going to do some things we need to do, make some changes that we need to make in order to try to create a spark and hopefully they feel like these coaches did everything they could, everything that was in their power, to try to turn the season around and they feel like we’re worth having there.”