Fans are still searching for answers after the Saskatchewan Roughriders’ disappointing 2022 season, but veteran safety Mike Edem believes he knows where it all went wrong.
In an appearance on 620 CKRM‘s The SportsCage this week, the 33-year-old identified the turning point in the team’s season as the moment they lost controversial defensive lineman Garrett Marino.
“I can’t speak for the offence, all I can do is speak for our defence and the situation that I was involved in. I do know when you lose a guy like Marino, the presence he commands as a disruptive nose tackle in terms of accounting for double teams and triple teams, that allowed [Anthony] Lanier, Pete [Robertson] and A.C. [Leonard] to get a lot of one-on-ones,” Edem said.
“You look at the sack numbers while he was in there, we were playing great defence and I think once Marino was out of the picture, it kind of forced us to dribble the ball with our left hand and play defence the rest of the way with that left hand.”
The Riders opened the season with a 4-1 record before Marino changed the narrative around the team with his late hit on quarterback Jeremiah Masoli late in the dying moments of a win over the Ottawa Redblacks. The hit earned an ejection and Marino was later issued a record four-game suspension by the CFL for the play and his surrounding behaviour, including allegations of racist remarks made towards his victim.
Marino ultimately returned and played three more games following his suspension, but was released after persistent allegations of illegal play became a distraction for the team. He was barred from signing with another CFL team and is currently under contract with the USFL’s Michigan Panthers.
The Riders went 2-11 in the aftermath of the controversy and the production of their vaunted defensive line, which got off to a blazing hot start, dried up as the season progressed. While both players also missed significant time with injury, star rush ends Robertson and Leonard did not record a sack in a game where Marino was not dressed, finishing with nine and three on the season, respectively.
“Kudos to the guys because they made adjustments and some guys had to carry more on their shoulders, but we were a competitive defence,” Edem said. “Not once did a team come out and blow us out. We played good defence.”
“I think a few changes here or there maybe impact a game or two and we get into playoffs. We can sit here and say we’re talking about what could have been but in reality, we just have to be better all around.”
While losing Marino to controversy had a meaningful impact on the Riders’ chances, it wasn’t the only high-profile challenge the team faced. Saskatchewan was forced to play with a skeleton crew in a Week 7 loss to Toronto due to a COVID outbreak and were ravaged by stomach flu in a Banjo Bowl blowout against Winnipeg.
“People don’t really understand what we went through over the course of that season,” Edem noted. “Being in Winnipeg with that virus, seeing guys go down, walking through the hallway in the hotel and hearing guys throw up. Before the game, guys trying to squeeze an IV into their teammates to kind of get them going. I think about the toll on the team — guys flying in from Saskatchewan to fill the roster and guys coming in sick, trying to find a way to help us play — and then we’re going out there and expected to play at a high level.”
“We did our best and it didn’t turn out well. We had that and we had the COVID situation, it was just one of those years. One thing after the other just kept on happening and we just couldn’t stop the bleeding.”
Those compounding factors made the 2022 team appear worse than it was, but Edem is not yet certain if he can be part of the solution going forward. The former Calgary Dino would like to play at least one more year before retiring but is set to hit free agency following his fifth season as a Rider.
As of yet, there has been no indication as to whether the team would like to re-sign their starting safety. Given the failures of last season, Edem understands there may be changes coming.
“GMs and coaches are held to a standard and they have to come up with a plan that shows the fan base that they’re still trying to win games. I think that’s what they’re going through right now is that process, just coming up with a plan and executing that plan,” he said.
“As a player, you just hope you’re part of that plan. You can’t cry over spilled milk; you wipe it up, go to the store to buy a new one and keep moving.”