The Saskatchewan Roughriders lost last weekend, marking the 103rd time in 107 seasons that their season will not have ended in a Grey Cup victory and the 88th time that they will not even make an appearance in the championship game - so in that sense, it's not much of a surprise that they lost. But it was definitely a surprise to those of us in attendance, as they had finished first in the west and seemed primed for a Grey Cup appearance that very few fans and pundits would have predicted at the onset of the season.
Despite the team's success last year - 12-6 with one of the best defenses in the CFL - I thought that this year was going to be a letdown. I was expecting the Riders to win at most 8 games (out of 18) and to compete for last in the West, rather than first. The Riders had an untested offense, a fragile starting QB, and a new front office and coaching staff after Chris Jones, who had served as VP of Football Operations, General Manager, Head Coach, and Defensive Coordinator for three seasons, had left the Riders rather unceremoniously in the lurch after their playoff loss last year when a job with the NFL's Cleveland Browns opened up only a week after Jones had signed a two-year extension on his contract.
Even though the team had improved significantly under Jones, I was not a fan of his philosophies and practices of player management, and it was very much his team, which I thought would mean that his absence would be a huge hit to the team - possibly the difference between 12-6 and 6-12. In short, I was not looking forward to this season, and I was not expecting to invest much emotionally in its outcome.
An unexpected season
My fears seemed validated early on, as the Riders lost their starting QB in the first game and started off 1-3. Their third loss, which I had the displeasure of viewing live, was an ignominous 37-10 loss to the Calgary Stampeders at home, and it seemed like my predictions might be right. But then something happened: the team started winning, often in unorthodox and last-second ways, and the Riders found themselves at 6-3 halfway through the season at Labour Day.
They split the home-and-home Labour Day Classic and subsequent Banjo Bowl with Winnipeg, and then lost only one more game (to Calgary, again) on their way to a 13-5 finish which placed them first in the West - an incredibly unexpected finish to what had turned into a surprisingly enjoyable season and team.
The team had already by far exceeded all expectations, including the emergence of starting QB Cody Fajardo, who would also become the West Division's nominee for Most Outstanding Player, as a possible franchise QB, and easily the first to truly take up that mantle since Darian Durant's departure in Jones' first year. There had been one-and-a-half years of tearing down, two years of rebuilding and one year of success under Jones before this year, so this was easily the most enjoyable full season since the Riders won the Grey Cup six years ago.
A community team
As this season went on, I really started to appreciate this team and these players more, both through what they were doing on the field and what was happening off the field. These players seemed to be having more fun, and they seemed to be more involved in the community than the Riders had been in the past few seasons; I can't say for sure if that impression is true, but it certainly felt like these Riders belonged more to the community than they had in the past few years.
I don't think the problem in recent seasons had just been Jones - although his authoritarian presence and summary dismissal of many beloved Riders certainly didn't help); the Riders, perhaps buoyed by the success of winning the Grey Cup at home in 2013 and building a new stadium, seemed to be more corporate in the past half-decade than they had been earlier in my life.
I remember the days of the Rider telethons and community outreach and selling shares in the team, when we were the lovable underdogs and not the crown jewel franchise of the CFL. It seemed in the midst of their unprecedented success as a team and a business as though the team had lost a lot of the sense of community that had made them so endearing for so long.
So this season was refreshing both on and off the field, and for somewhat estranged fans like me, it took most of the year to move forward with this team. My heart softened significantly as the team succeeded and seemed to change its ways, and I found myself once again looking forward to watching games and cheering for players as they battled with Calgary and Winnipeg for first place in the last month of the season.
The Western Final
So, somehow, the Riders found themselves hosting the Western Final not against the Calgary Stampeders, who I had thought were the team to beat and who had beaten the Riders twice in the regular season, but against the upstart Winnipeg Blue Bombers, to whom the Riders had lost in last year's home playoff game and whose quarterback had been the Riders' Day 1 starter. A victory was not only not improbable, but possible, and arguably even likely.
That is, at least, until they started playing the game. It soon became evident that the Riders were having the kind of game that they have every so often - one in which they make it more difficult for themselves by not playing up to their true potential, especially on offense. And they were underwhelming all game, settling for field goals rather than touchdowns on play calls that were increasingly baffling as the game ensued.
The fact that the game was somewhat winnable until the very last play was more of a testament to the Riders' defense (well, maybe not their secondary) and Winnipeg also playing an underwhelming game than it was to the Riders playing a good game. I mean, a game in which a team has a 1st down at the 3-yard line and fails to score is probably a game that they don't deserve to win. But at least they kept trying until that final errant pass hit the goal post to end the game, and they did not stop right until that final buzzer.
The renewed sense of community and the increased enjoyment of the players on the team makes the defeat in the Western Final much more bittersweet than it otherwise might have been because I felt like this team cared about us as fans again, and I felt that part of the reason they were disappointed to lose was not just for themselves, but also for us.
It really felt like the team understood us as fans for the first time in years, and that they were truly frustrated in their inability to score even one touchdown - particularly when they had a first down inside the five-yard-line with three minutes to go to potentially score to tie the game, and then when they had another three downs to try to score at the end of the game to send it to overtime.
It was disheartening, discouraging, and disappointing, but nowhere near the level of say, the 2004 Western Final (McCallum's missed field goal) or the 2009 Grey Cup (losing on a re-kicked field goal because of a 13th man penalty with no time left on the clock). Perhaps that was because this whole season was a delightful return to form for the franchise in the community, but also because it seems more like the start of something rather than a culmination or conclusion for this group; of course, rosters vary from year to year, but it really seems like the core of this team will be together again next year.
Sure, a Grey Cup appearance would have been amazing, especially considering the tentative expectations for this team at the beginning of the year, but we have not seen the best that this team has to offer. This might feel like a missed opportunity - and it surely was, even just to give this young group some big game experience - but I don't think it will be this team's last chance to make a playoff run and win a Grey Cup. After all, as we say far more often than not in Rider Nation, there's always next year - and next year, the Grey Cup is back in Regina, which will make next year a true community effort.