You can see it from the stands. It’s obvious watching them interact on television. It’s in their body language. It’s in their eyes. It’s in their words.
The guys on this football team very visibly have developed a real chemistry together. There’s a real feel there. Considering how many new pieces were involved in this puzzle, it’s a remarkable thing.
The Edmonton Eskimos may “only” be 6-3 and haven’t beaten anybody in the West other than Ed Hervey and Mike Reilly and the already-out-of-it 1-8 B.C. Lions. And the litmus-test games against Winnipeg and Calgary are dead ahead. But it’s tangible.
Despite unprecedented turnover coming out of free agency and missing the playoffs in a Grey Cup hosting year, the one thing that may stand out about the team turning the corner on their season more than any other is their very visible togetherness.
In my annual mid-season general manager’s interview and evaluation of the Eskimos, Brock Sunderland spoke to that with emphasis Monday.
“Honestly, that was a huge focus over the off-season. It was our priority to make sure we have the right people in the locker room to be playing for the person next to you. And our guys bought in.
“Jason Maas deserves a tremendous amount of credit for that. He’s applied that within the team meetings and a lot of things we do during the week are focused on that, and it’s shown,” he said of the head coach who was allowed to keep his job after the 9-9 season and only the 12th time in 70 years the Eskimos have missed the playoffs.
“These guys really do care about each other. It is a close-knit group. So everything that might be seen there from wherever you might be observing is absolute reality.
“We’re thrilled with that. It’s a big piece of why we are 6-3 at this point.”
While ex-Eskimos general manager Hervey was getting praised for luring quarterback Reilly and stealing a significant number of Eskimos away in free agency, it’s Sunderland who is going to end up as the executive of the year if he can carry this through the season and into the playoffs.
He was certainly given plenty of credit at the time for the moves he made to replace the defectors with the likes of Trevor Harris, Greg Ellingson, Larry Dean, Don Unamba, Ricky Collins Jr., DaVaris Daniels, Vontae Diggs, Anthony Orange, Teavon Smith, Jovan Santos-Knox and all the others.
But it turns out it was more than a change of talent, but of something that had come to enter the culture of the 14-time Grey Cup champions since winning the most recent one in 2015.
Back at the start of the season, kicker Sean Whyte referred to it as a cancer that had developed within the team and declared that the off-season departures had rid the locker room of it.
Sunderland wouldn’t go there.
“It was an area that some things happened. But 2018 is over and our focus going into the off-season was just core beliefs when Jason and I sat down to go forward — things that Jason and I believe in and are very much aligned on was cohesiveness and close teams.
“We’ve both been on championship teams and one of the biggest things we both believed led to that was the right guys, people who cared about each other and having an aligned belief in the chemistry that leads to championships.”
It just wasn’t just having 15 new starters and a host of other new names on the roster — it was the entire coaching staff other than head coach Mass.
“Phillip Lolley with the defence, coach Maas and Jordan Maksymic with the offence and A.J. Gass with special teams are all doing good jobs,” Sunderland said of the co-ordinators.
“Our defence is flying around and, as well as our defence is playing, our offence is leading the league in a lot of categories as well. I think, collectively as an organization, the guys are playing extremely hard. They’re being coached well and they’re being coached hard and we’re all on the same page.
“Coach Lolley is doing a tremendous job and we’re happy with those guys. They’ve made a lot of plays so far this year. There’s no question. Everybody in the organization has a lot of confidence that those guys are going to stand tall when they need to.
“We’re playing Friday for first place in the West. We’ve put ourselves in a good place to this point in the season and we’re happy with that. But we’re a long way from having accomplished anything yet.”
Making the playoffs is now likely a lock with the Lions‘ abysmal start, but the first goal is a home playoff game, and Friday’s first-place game against Winnipeg and the annual Labor Day back-to-back games against the Calgary Stampeders will go a long way toward settling that.
Football is a complicated game to manage. Not only is it arguably the ultimate team game but it has the most moving parts, the greatest incidence of injury and areas that suddenly, inexplicably, stop being efficient such as Edmonton’s offence being outstanding until they neared the end zone when they couldn’t score. The so-called “red zone” problem appeared to be fixed Friday in Toronto but the Argos are hardly a reasonable facsimile of the Blue Bombers defence.
“I thought everybody involved did a very good job of identifying the problem and then going out and executing,” said the G.M.
The Eskimos finished the first half with more penalties for more yards — 111 for 913 — than any other team in the league but it’s been an area of improvement lately to at least some extent. This last game, I think, was the least amount of the season.
“What I will say about penalties is the one thing our organization does is to be very upfront and honest with our players about penalties. We’ll get on them. We hold players accountable. We are also honest with them. If we didn’t think it was a penalty, then we’re not going to chastise guys.
“The other thing I’ll say about penalties is that I believe we lead the league in roughing the passer penalties and one thing we preach here and that we’re going to continue to preach is to continue to be aggressive. We fly around. We pin our ears back. We play as fast as possible and we’re going to be aggressive. We are not trying to intentionally hit anybody illegally. But we are going to play hard and it’s going to happen. It’s not that we’re OK with it. But we understand it.”
One of the most staggering statistics of the first half of the season has been Edmonton sacking the quarterback 30 times while only giving up three sacks on Harris. And that’s despite having the two highest-profile offensive linemen, SirVincent Rogers and Matt O’Donnell, out for most of the season as well as several others assigned to blocking for the quarterback out of the lineup for shorter stretches.
“Yeah, three sacks and one of those wasn’t attributed to the offensive line at all. They have done a great job. We have really good depth there. Coach Mike Gibson does a tremendous job of preparing everybody to play at all positions.
“Another aspect of that is that Trevor gets rid of the ball extremely quick.
“All those factors come into play but our offensive line is doing a great job there. We also have the second leading rusher in the league and he missed a game. And C.J. Gable’s pass protection is exceptional.”
Sunderland hasn’t been a travelling spectator with the team in the first half. The Eskimos have had more than their fair share of injuries and he made what looks like a key trade, sending receiver Kenny Stafford to Saskatchewan for return man Christion Jones.
“We had to get better there. We had enough depth at the international wide receiver spot that I don’t think it hurt our team at all to move on from Kenny, not that he’s not a good player. And we thought Jones has the potential to be a game-breaker.”
Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2019