GM Jeremy O’Day betting his Rider future on ‘high-character’ roster

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Saskatchewan general manager Jeremy O’Day is staring down twin barrels, locked and loaded, heading into the stretch run of the 2023 CFL season: a three-game losing skid and an expiring contract.

However, the architect of the 6-8 Riders is choosing to keep the faith as his team looks to turn it all around.

“It’s been an up-and-down season. We started out well, I think we won three out of four to start off the season, and then lost three, then we won three out of four, and now we’re back where we’ve lost three in a row,” O’Day told the media earlier this week.

“We’ve shown flashes of being a good team and we’ve beaten some good teams that are up there in the standings. We’ve shown that we can play with those teams and there are also some games that we haven’t played well. The challenge is to be consistent and play better. ”

Following last week’s loss to the Ottawa Redblacks, who sit in the CFL basement at 4-10, head coach Craig Dickenson urged fans to “stick with” the organization, citing a different vibe in the locker room as opposed to the late season collapse in 2022. That year’s team missed the playoffs and wasted an opportunity to compete for the Grey Cup at home, leaving a lasting impression in Riderville that has already translated into dropping attendance and plummeting ratings as the green and white faithful experience deja vu.

Much like Dickenson, O’Day feels a different energy coming from this year’s team based on the changes that he and his staff made in the offseason.

“The biggest difference I could see from last year to this year is I just feel like the players are a lot closer. I think that they hold each other accountable but they don’t point fingers, and there’s a difference between the two. They know it’s important for each other but really, it’s the character in the locker room right now,” he explained.

“I think they’re just high-character guys. You can tell when you don’t have the character in the locker room when you get guys pointing fingers and they start arguing and fighting. There are a lot of alphas in our locker room and it’s not easy to hold your tongue when you’re mad, and so there’s always going to be frustration but the frustration hasn’t been at each other. The frustration hasn’t been turned to the coaches, and vice versa. The coaches haven’t pointed fingers at the players as well. That’s different now. Is that gonna mean the outcome is gonna be different? I don’t know. But I certainly know that the guys are working hard and they care about each other and it means a lot to them.”

While people within the organization have played coy with the issue, addressing character concerns was clearly a priority to avoid a repeat collapse. The 2022 Riders were plagued by discipline issues, beginning with defensive tackle Garrett Marino’s high-profile illegal hit on Ottawa’s Jeremiah Masoli and receiver Duke Williams’ infamous helmet toss at Touchdown Atlantic. Those two players, along with a host of others, are long since gone but the results to this point in the season have not improved, with Saskatchewan boasting the worst point differential in the CFL.

Both Dickenson and O’Day have a particularly vested interest in turning things around, as each man’s contract is set to expire after the season. O’Day says that no conversations have taken place with team president Craig Reynolds about a possible extension, though he suggested that was by design.

“I don’t think now would be the time to have that conversation. I know what you guys are getting at with that conversation and why you want to talk to me, but I think what we need to understand is I’m just not someone that’s real comfortable with talking about that,” he insisted.

“We have half of our players that are on a one-year contract and probably 90 percent of our coaches are on one-year contracts. For me to sit up here and talk about my own situation, I don’t think that’s fair to anyone in the building. I know you’re not going to believe it, but it’s not really something that I think about. We are so enthralled in the season and trying to do things right and win football games and find answers that it’s not something that we really talk about.”

While the Riders’ remain in the driver’s seat for the final playoff spot in the West, that is far from a foregone conclusion. If the team can’t secure wins over the final few weeks, the door to Reynolds’ office may stay closed for good.

That pressure is felt by the team, but this year’s team is able to withstand it.

“I don’t want to say that we had bad guys last year, but we certainly have a group of high-character guys and I think we added some guys that have high character,” O’Day stressed.

“They’re disappointed after you lose a game but eventually, they turn the page. They constantly get reminded of it, which I understand that’s your job to do, but they don’t talk about it beyond that. They just go back to work and try to go back and make everyone proud of them.”

The Riders (6-8) will visit the Lions (10-4) on Friday, September 29 at 10:30 p.m. EDT. The two teams have split the season series, with Saskatchewan most recently pulling off an upset victory in Week 11.

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.