103rd Grey Cup
Eskimos slipping under the radar amid RedBlacks fanfare
It’s not easy to come into a Grey Cup week with a 15-4 record and slide under the radar through most of an event-filled buildup to the game.
But somehow, the Edmonton Eskimos have managed it.
Partly, of course, this is because the Ottawa RedBlacks saga is irresistible: Their Phoenix-like rise from a 2-16 expansion club to 12-6 and a Grey Cup berth … well, who wouldn’t jump all over that yarn?
That outhouse-to-penthouse season not only netted Rick Campbell the coach of the year award and quarterback Henry Burris the Canadian Football League’s outstanding player prize, its byproducts included two more league awards on Thursday, to Canadian slotback Brad Sinopoli and offensive lineman SirVincent Rogers.
Burris has been the overwhelming star of the week, with his luminous smile and ebullient personality and endless availability. In fact, the RedBlacks as a feel-good story have been unbeatable all week.
Quietly — very quietly — the Eskimos have watched it all unfold, and held their tongues. They were still holding them Friday after each team’s final full practice in advance of tomorrow’s 103rd Grey Cup.
Even garrulous Edmonton rush end Odell Willis, who has rarely hidden his feelings, wasn’t going to be drawn into an observation on the RedBlacks’ week-long love-in.
“I didn’t see no pushups,” he greeted a writer’s question, a reference to an earlier admonition that he would only talk to reporters watching practice if they did pushups on the sideline.
“We did them in the press box,” the scribe lied.
“I heard that before,” Willis said, and promptly went all Marshawn Lynch on us, answering every question with a variation of: “No. Doesn’t matter. We’re here to win a Grey Cup game.”
Others were only slightly more forthcoming.
“Uh … I got to be careful with my words,” said middle linebacker J.C. Sherritt, “but we certainly saw them clean up everything (at the awards), that’s for sure. I’ll leave it at that.”
It’s not that either team needs additional motivation for a Grey Cup game. That would just be silly.
“You know what? I would hope that wouldn’t be the sole source of any type of motivation,” Esks head coach Chris Jones said, with what may have been a twinkle in his eye, “although they had a real good night last night.”
Lots has changed about the Eskimos since Jones moved his no-nonsense regime in last year, but this hasn’t, from way back in the Hugh Campbell era: low profile during Grey Cup week. The lower the better.
This is not to take away from what the RedBlacks have accomplished this season. There’s a reason they’re getting all the accolades.
Nor is it to downplay their chances of winning Sunday. Stranger things have happened. Lots stranger.
This game could easily go the way of the last Ottawa appearance in the Cup, that 1981 thriller when the 14-1-1 Eskimos had to rally from a shocking 20-1 halftime deficit to win 23-20 on Dave Cutler’s field goal with three seconds left.
That Ottawa team was 5-11 in the regular season, this one is 12-6, and Henry Burris is a whole lot better quarterback than J.C. Watts.
“He’s got the strongest arm in the league,” Sherritt said.
“He’ll make plays that you’re not supposed to make, but due to his arm strength, he can throw a five-yard out to the (wide) field, off his back foot, and that’s something we’re very conscious of.
“And then you take into it his experience … he’s seen every defence we’ll show him. You gotta run the scheme to perfection, because he’s able to see flaws pretty quickly and make you pay for them.”
There, too, at quarterback, the Eskimos have finished a distant second in the media.
As articulate and thoughtful as Mike Reilly is, he’s been a bit player in the production this week.
But his fires are burning, too, under the surface. He hasn’t forgotten that just two seasons ago, his first as a starter after a three-year apprenticeship in B.C., the Eskimos were 4-14 and he wasn’t even sure he’d continue as the team’s No. 1 quarterback with a new coach in town.
But it was a bonding exercise, he said, all that losing. No doubt much like what happened to the RedBlacks last season.
Reilly said he would go to Odell Willis after each loss and say: “Remember this, man. Because we’re going to talk about this at some point and laugh about it. We’re going to say, ‘Man, that sucked, but we had to go through that to find success.’
“This year, I’ve found him and said, ‘Remember how bad that was? It was all worth it to feel this.’ ”
For the Eskimos, it has been an entirely uncharacteristic 10-year wait between championships, since the second of the Ricky Ray-led titles in 2005.
Then again, they have been in eight Grey Cups, and won five, since Ottawa’s last appearance 34 years ago.
One more reason the RedBlacks are the people’s choice … for whatever that’s worth on Sunday.