Opinion: Roughriders should consider coaching change before playoffs

Photo courtesy: Electric Umbrella/Liam Richards/Saskatchewan Roughriders

If the Saskatchewan Roughriders lose their final two games of the season and still make the playoffs, there’s no reason for them not to consider a coaching change before the West Semi-final.

While the Green and White make a mockery of what is supposed to be a late-season playoff chase, the realization has set in that this train heading full speed in reverse might accidentally be on the tracks when the regular season wraps up at the end of October.

Changing head coaches before a playoff game sounds like a spooky Halloween joke but the stars are aligning in Riderville this autumn in a way that might make too much sense to be ignored.

Think about it.

The Riders have the entire football world convinced they have nothing left after Saturday’s 38-13 eyesore of a loss to the Hamilton Tiger-Cats.

This team, now on a five-game losing skid, has shown positively zero pushback since its Labour Day win over Winnipeg, which now seems like an eternity ago. A prime example of this was witnessed early on Saturday night.

Midway through the first quarter, after a turnover had helped the Riders take early control of the field position game, they had Ticat quarterback Bo Levi Mitchell right where they wanted him: facing a second-and-8 at his own 12-yard-line beneath the shadow of his own goalpost.

It was a very manageable situation for any defence in this league, knowing a pass play was coming and needing nothing more than a single knockdown to get the ball back on the fringes of field goal range early in a scoreless football game.

Instead, disaster struck. Bo found Tim White and 88 yards later, all the pomp and ceremony that had riled up the crowd just moments earlier was gone. The air was very evidently let out of the balloon. It was the TSN Turning Point before either team had even scored and everyone knew it.

And there, ladies and gentlemen, lies the problem with these Saskatchewan Roughriders.

On the gridiron, as in life, bad things are bound to happen. Adversity is inevitable and our best-laid plans are almost certain to go sideways with all kinds of regularity. We all make mistakes and have bad moments. Nobody among us is lucky enough to escape that.

It’s all about not allowing our circumstances to dictate whether or not we accomplish our goals. We owe it to ourselves to navigate whatever landmines life or the football field throws in our direction.

Some of us respond better than others but very few of us respond more poorly than the Roughriders did to Tim White’s catch on Saturday night. There wasn’t an honest human being present at Mosaic Stadium or watching on TSN who thought the Riders had a sniff after that. The sag in the mood was evident and you just knew that this day would be no different from any of the four straight losses before it.

Much has been made about the poor performance being unworthy of a night with so many Roughrider dignitaries in attendance to celebrate the life of George Reed and the Grey Cup championship of 2013.

How about the public humiliation this bunch is putting their head coach through? Like all football coaches, Craig Dickenson is far from perfect but putting him through this exercise of having to explain why this group is falling apart week after week has been painful to watch. Nobody deserves such a torturous task, especially not a decent, respectful person like Dickenson.

This team has quit on him and they’ve quit on each other in spectacular fashion.

If the Roughriders soil the sheets in Calgary on Friday and then again at home to the Argos the following weekend — as most of us fully expect them to — their regular season will end at 6-12, just like it did a year ago.

If the Stampeders take advantage of the listless Roughriders and lose to superior opponents in B.C. and Winnipeg, then the Riders still get third in the west. And if the Ottawa Redblacks don’t win all of their remaining games, then the Riders are in the playoffs!

So much for the West is best. Who knew so much backpedalling would have such little consequences in a division where Alberta has lowered the bar in an embarrassing way this football season?

Such a scenario would leave Roughriders’ GM Jeremy O’Day with two options:

A) Go through a painful bye week and another painful practice week followed by what is sure to be a painful West Semi-final loss in B.C. Then enter a long painful offseason of negativity from Rider fans asking questions about whether or not you should remain as the General Manager.


B) Fire Craig Dickenson after the regular season finale versus Toronto — or even earlier — and cite, as Brian Burke once did when he fired Toronto Maple Leafs’ head coach Ron Wilson, “cruel and unusual punishment” from the fans and his own players. Then replace him with someone else to see if they can spark something out of what appears to be a sparkless outfit these days.

That someone probably has to be defensive coordinator Jason Shivers. In-season coaching changes don’t really work unless it’s someone who’s been around for much of the season. A promotion from defensive coordinator to head coach on an interim basis for a playoff game isn’t the dumbest idea in the football world, not by a long shot.

Fitting how this team will visit Calgary for its next game, the same city where a similar outside-the-box idea was once presented by respected NHL insider Bob McKenzie. He proposed firing then-Flames head coach Jim Playfair after Game 2 of a playoff series with the Detroit Red Wings. It didn’t happen and this one might not happen either but, in both cases, the discussion was valid.

The closest precedent we could find in the modern history of the CFL for making such a drastic move before a playoff game came in 2001 when then-Alouettes GM Jim Popp fired Rod Rust from the head coaching job with one game remaining in the regular season. Popp replaced Rust with himself and predictably, the Alouettes lost their regular season finale and their playoff game a week after that. The change didn’t help but what did Montreal really have to lose after dropping seven in a row?

Come to think of it, that’s how big the Rider losing streak will be if their final two regular-season games go the way most of us expect them to.

The most convenient time for any pro football team to make a head coaching change is going into a bye week. It gives everyone some time to breathe, think things over, make adjustments and enter the practice week with a clean slate and a clear message.

It just so happens the Roughriders would have a bye week under such a scenario before having to prepare for their playoff game.

Shivers might balk at the idea of starting his long-awaited head coaching career in such an unseemly mess but he might embrace the upside of it, too. A subsequent playoff win would put him in the driver’s seat to become the permanent head coach.

Surely, some of his players on the defensive side will come through for him in ways they haven’t for Coach Dickenson.

It’s a pie-in-the-sky idea that I’m sure will be scoffed at by some. And in no way are we hoping for the dismissal of one of the good guys of pro football.

But if this train wreck keeps heading in the same direction and still somehow enters the playoffs, what would the Riders have to lose by following through with such a dastardly suggestion?

Desperate times call for desperate measures.

Brendan McGuire has covered the CFL since 2006 in radio and print. Based in Regina, he has a front-row view of Rider Nation.