As they return to the CFL playoffs for the first time in three years, the Saskatchewan Roughriders are not just trying to win the Grey Cup.
They’re also in the process of becoming respectable again.
Their 10-8 record was pretty impressive, considering they lost four of their first six games this season. As the wild-card qualifier they can continue their climb out of the gutter Sunday in the East semifinal when they visit the Ottawa Redblacks, the reigning Grey Cup champions. Even a loss wouldn’t devastate the Roughriders, who have shown a growing aura of competence and confidence during the latter half of the season.
It’s sometimes hard to remember the Roughriders won the 2013 Grey Cup before a hometown crowd, the highlight of a storied franchise that dates back to 1910. Because so much has happened since that championship, it seems like decades ago; indeed, only four players remain from the Cup-winning roster.
Since 2014, when they desperately summoned 41-year-old quarterback Kerry Joseph out of retirement to replace injured starter Darian Durant, then saw him throw five interceptions while losing their West semifinal 18-10 to the Edmonton Eskimos, the Roughriders had become embarrassing. They stumbled through 2015, dumping their head coach and general manager midway through the season, and recruited Chris Jones to replace them after a 3-15 campaign.
Jones immediately dispatched popular veterans and whirled through players at a record pace in 2016. The Roughriders were fined repeatedly for roster transgressions, posted a 5-13 record and in the offseason traded away Durant, one of the remaining fan favourites.
But Jones and his oversized staff of coaches, advisors and scouts started putting things in place during that 2016 season, harvesting starting defensive ends Willie Jefferson and A.C. Leonard, cornerback Kacey Rodgers and offensive tackle Bruce Campbell. They recruited vital free agents like linebacker Henoc Muamba, receiver (and part-time cornerback) Duron Carter, slotback Bakari Grant and cornerback Jovon Johnson.
Saskatchewan’s defence has been staunch. On offence, the addition of 38-year-old quarterback Kevin Glenn, for his third go-round in Saskatchewan, looked great at the start of the season. Since suffering a hand injury, Glenn’s hasn’t been as stellar and has regularly been replaced by journeyman Brandon Bridge, a change of pace that has sometimes benefitted the Roughriders’ offence.
Playing home games in a brand-new, ego-inflating stadium, the Roughriders were 2-4 before realizing they were actually pretty good. They rebounded from an embarrassing loss in B.C. to maul the Lions in a rematch, shellacked the previously undefeated Eskimos in Edmonton and won back-to-back road games for the second straight year, while staying in Eastern Canada between matches, against the Toronto Argonauts and Ottawa Redblacks.
They’re trying that route again — staying east — because if they win Sunday in Ottawa the Roughriders will visit the Argonauts for the East final one week later.
A victory in Toronto would send them back to Ottawa for the 105th Grey Cup. Despite their previous fall from grace, the community-owned Roughriders remain among the CFL’s wealthiest franchises, so they can easily assume the extra expenses of an extended road trip. And it is a long, winding and costly road trying to get back to the top.