The way I look at the Saskatchewan Roughriders moving into the 2012 season is they have a long way to go, but a lot of energy around them to get there.
Let's be honest, Roughrider football last year was brutal. A regular season record of 5-13, but at times they collectively looked like they were playing for a paycheque, not a Grey Cup championship.
Darian Durant regressed after a 2009 season that saw a first-place finish and a Grey Cup appearance, and a 2010 season that saw the Rider QB throw for 5,542 yards. In 2011, last year, there were long, long stretches between touchdown passes and even longer stretches, it seemed, between points. The Riders finished dead last in points scored, averaging 19 a game, and only Toronto had fewer net yards than the Riders, as the Argos netted 319 yards per game to Saskatchewan's 327.
On defence it was a similar story, dead last in takeaways with only 31, and the takeaway/giveaway ratio was minus-17, tied with Toronto. To a final point of emphasis, B.C. was No. 1 in forcing two-and-out situations while Saskatchewan was again tied for dead last with Toronto in a critical aspect of CFL defence - forcing two plays and a punt as fast as possible.
Last year was brutal.
Now that was last year, so, let's focus on this year. There is a new energy, a new drive around Saskatchewan in the name of Corey Chamblin, the new head coach. The only thing that bothers me about Coach Chamblin is he is so young, 35. He makes me feel old because he is so young.
But he certainly has paid "the dues" and has a resume of association as good as any head coach in football.
There really is something about youth and energy that makes a difference and I can't help but anticipate Coach Chamblin's enthusiasm for football will transition to all of his players. He also has created an excellent support system around him. He has hired experience and class in Richie Hall, Alex Smith, and Bobby Dyce. As well, lots of youth will be an innovation with Craig Dickenson, Khari Jones, Jason Tucker, and Barron Miles on the coaching staff. All four of those coaches have potential to be head coaches down the road.
On the defensive line is Mike Walker - a coach I played against as a player - of whom I have exceptional respect for, and offensive line coach Kris Sweet. This was a significant hire as Coach Sweet is the opposite of his name. Very demanding.
I can guarantee you that this year's Riders will protect the quarterback better in every way as compared to previous years. Both men are solid position coaches.
Now I will be the first to tell you that players win games, but a good staff can make the average player good, and the good player great. I believe the Riders have that opportunity with the present personnel.
The challenges are there. Darian Durant must rebound, and they have to find an 18-game running back. Who is going to play left tackle? Who is the next Andy Fantuz? And those are just offensive questions.
But energy is transferrable and the energy feels good in Regina. With a $14 million upgrade to Taylor Field, and a new stadium on the horizon in 2014, there are many bright lights just around the corner to chase with the Riders.
And with the best fan base in CFL football, this would be a good place to be a football player. Now it's up to the players that Coach Chamblin chooses, because the support system is already there.