‘Wish me luck on that’: Riders’ Craig Dickenson making fewer penalties, better player discipline his ‘personal mandate’ in 2023

Photo: Michael Scraper/3DownNation. All rights reserved.

After a disappointing 2022 season mired in controversy, Saskatchewan Roughriders head coach Craig Dickenson is placing team culture at the forefront heading into 2023.

Speaking to fans as part of the team’s State of the Nation panel on Saturday, Dickenson revealed that personal accountability and ownership of the Roughriders’ historic brand have been as much a point of emphasis early in training camp as any technical skill or offensive install.

“What we really focused on this year, and what we started rookie camp with, is we wanted the guys to understand the tradition of the Saskatchewan Roughriders, so we put up the Saskatchewan Roughrider Football Club logo and then the year 1910 and we explained a little bit about the tradition and the history of this team. And then we talked about some of our core values,” the head coach told the crowd in Saskatoon ahead of his team’s annual Green and White scrimmage.

“We believe in integrity and community and accountability and respect and excellence and we talked a lot about that with the team. And then we also said what does that look like? Because it’s one thing to talk about core values, but what does that look like on your end? What does respect for the organization look like? It was something as simple as cleaning up after yourself when you’re done for the day in your locker room. Something as simple as being polite about how you speak with our training staff and our equipment staff when you’re in a rush or in a hurry. We really hit that hard.”

Despite the high expectation that came with hosting the Grey Cup, Saskatchewan finished with a dismal 6-12 and missed the playoffs last season. While there were plenty of on-field reasons for that disappointment, including an early injury to quarterback Cody Fajardo and a porous offensive line, much of the focus fell on the team’s front office and coaching staff for their handling of several major controversies.

The team was well on its way to a 4-1 start to the season when defensive tackle Garrett Marino laid a late, low hit on Ottawa Redblacks quarterback Jeremiah Masoli in Week 5, resulting in a season-ending injury for the passer and an ejection for the defender. Marino was later issued a record four-game suspension for the hit and alleged racial comments made towards Masoli, but the Roughriders initially stuck by their player. The controversial defensive lineman was eventually released by the club but only after he was allowed to return from suspension, with persistent allegations of dirty play becoming a distraction in the locker room.

Marino was not the only Rider to receive league discipline in 2022 either. Receiver Duke Williams was suspended for one game after throwing his helmet at an opponent in the lead-up to the team’s Touchdown Atlantic game against the Toronto Argonauts. Later in the season, the injured pass catcher became the subject of controversy again for incurring a penalty for a sideline altercation while in street clothes, prompting him to be banned from the sideline while not on the active roster.

Meanwhile, third-string quarterback Jake Dolegala served a one-game, team-issued suspension following an arrest for impaired driving. He was forced to miss training camp on Thursday while standing trial in Regina.

Though he didn’t touch on last year’s incidents, Dickenson stressed that a renewed focus on player accountability would be in place this season, with consequences for poor behaviour.

“We expect our guys to play hard and play fast but to take care of each other. If a player is being reckless in practice and endangering others, we’re gonna pull them and take reps away from them. We have some accountability, where we have certain things we stand for and if those aren’t met, we’re gonna take away playtime or ultimately, if they’re continually not met, they may not be on this team,” the coach explained.

“The idea is this: being on this team, being part of this organization, is a privilege and they need to treat it as such. We’re going to be a good team in a lot of ways, the wins I think will come, but we’re going to take care of the core values, the culture, first. Preach patience and process, and I believe in the end, by doing that the wins will take care of themselves.”

Enforcing team discipline has not been regarded as Dickenson’s forte during his tenure with the Riders, with off-the-field issues being nothing new for the franchise. In 2021, defensive back Loucheiz Purifoy grabbed headlines after he was detained for causing a disturbance at a local restaurant, while defensive end A.C. Leonard was suspended three games for failing to provide a urine sample and verbal abuse of a drug testing official.

Coincidentally, Saskatchewan has finished among the top two most penalized teams in the league every year since Dickenson took the helm in 2019, leading the CFL each of the past two seasons. In 2022, the team drew 173 flags for a total of 1,515 yards lost — a number that the coach insists has to change.

“We’re going to be less penalized. I talked about the goal is to be the least penalized team in the league and I want to make it my personal mandate to make that happen — wish me luck on that, by the way. I’ve already started,” Dickenson laughed.

While some may question his track record of improvement in that area, the fifth-year bench boss believes a simple three-pronged team identity will help take care of all the issues.

“We want to be high football IQ. We want to be a physical team and the physical element includes the effort level; it has to be to our standard and our standard will be defined and reinforced as we watch film with them. And then the third thing is together and that’s it,” he stressed.

“Smart, physical, together. Those three things and our guys are getting it but as you all know raising families, there’ll be some moments where we’re tested but we’re gonna hold true to those values and I think it’s gonna pay off.”

For Dickenson’s own sake, it better. Entering the final year of his contract, he’ll be the one held accountable if a more disciplined team culture fails to generate results.

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.