A majority of Rider Nation has had a chance to digest the news that Chris Jones has left for a job with the Cleveland Browns. Now there’s time to reflect on his three seasons with Saskatchewan. It’s important to understand where the Riders were before he was hired to fully encapsulate the job done by Chris Jones.
It’s not hard to remember the turmoil the Roughriders found themselves in a difficult year for the team. Then franchise quarterback, Darian Durant suffered a torn-Achilles in the very first game of the season. The Riders found themselves at 0-9 at the midway mark. General Manager Brendan Taman and Head Coach Corey Chamblin were fired a season and a half after delivering a Grey Cup to Saskatchewan. The Riders would string together three measly wins en route to their worst season since 1999. What was left was an ageing roster that was constructed to win the Grey Cup two years prior.
Sustained success was the hot buzz-word that was used by President Craig Reynolds and he had found his man for the job, Chris Jones. There was no time wasted in turning over the ageing, cap-bloated roster making a flurry of personnel decisions. These moves weren’t popular amongst fans with the release of Weston Dressler and John Chick. Jones was hell-bent on building the team in his image and that meant athletes on defence who can make plays with a strong run game to supplement the game plan to control time of possession.
Between-the-tackles running back Curtis Steele was brought in to be the bell cow of the backfield. Meanwhile, the keys were given back to Durant to run the offence. However, with any vision, it took a while to develop as the Riders would stumble their way to a 5-13 record after starting 1-10. Durant would post respectable numbers of 14 touchdowns, seven interceptions and 3,839 yards. 2016 is best remembered as the building block year for Jones’ regime.
With another off-season came more roster turnover. Jones needed offensive firepower; he rolled the dice on Duron Carter who paid big dividends for Saskatchewan. Jones would officially end the Darian Durant era with a trade and a backhanded comment calling his career “marginally successful”. Stopgap quarterback Kevin Glenn was brought in to keep the team competitive. Behind him was his understudy Brandon Bridge, the two would trade reps all season long. On the defensive side of the ball, the Riders finally started to see Jones’ vision come to life. Breakout seasons from Ed Gainey (11 interceptions), Willie Jefferson (eight sacks) and Tobi Antigha (five sacks & 30 tackles) inspired confidence in a young squad. The offence was clicking with its two-quarterback system. Duron Carter, Naaman Roosevelt and Bakari Grant all posted above 1,000-yard seasons and a combined 21 receiving touchdowns.
Back to the Playoffs
With bumps along the way, the Riders finished 10-8, enough for 4th in the West. A cross-over ensued and the Riders matched-up against the defending Grey Cup Champion, Ottawa Redblacks. The Riders effectively dismantled their Eastern foes by a score of 31-20. A date with the Toronto Argonauts at BMO Field awaited the Saskatchewan Roughriders. However, despite a valiant effort against future Hall of Famer Ricky Ray, the Riders would fall 25-21 after a game-winning drive by the Argos.
After finishing the 2017 season one game short of a Grey Cup appearance, expectations were sky high going into 2018. Jones and company brought in Zach Collaros to compete with the upstart Brandon Bridge for the starting position. Charleston Hughes, Zack Evans and Jerome Messam were all brought in to bring a veteran presence to the team and presumably, get the Riders over the hump. The Riders 2018 defence would play a majority of the season lights out, scoring touchdowns, getting after the quarterback and creating turnovers. Rookie Nick Marshall played the role of the Swiss army knife, getting reps at starting corner as well as the short-yardage quarterback.
However, the offence would struggle throughout the campaign. When the running game wouldn’t click, Collaros and Bridge couldn’t do enough to secure victories in high scoring games. After a brutal (and illegal) shot to the head, Collaros would miss the West Semi-Final. The Riders would fall to the Bombers 23-18, well short of the massive expectations prior to the season. While a 12-6 regular season was had, it was no silver lining to the disappointing playoff defeat felt by the Riders that day.
The Last Word
It’s important to understand what brought the Riders to this point before assessing Jones’ legacy. An odd narrative flared up on Twitter that Jones left the team in worse shape than the one he inherited. This is simply not true, while the departures of fan favourites left many of Rider Nation scorned, they were the correct moves. Jones cleared salary and infused the team with new talent.
Let’s see who they decide to go with! All I know is veteran players who play at a high level is what got us to where we were the last two years. When those players weren’t on the field we know what happened! No way we shouldn’t have been in the west final! #2
— Jovon Johnson (@Mr_Consistent_2) January 16, 2019
However, the bar was set much higher than that. Jovon Johnson’s is correct, there was no way the 2018 Roughriders should’ve been anywhere short of the West Final. The expectation was to win championships, lots of them. That’s what Jones did everywhere he went and that’s what he was given three job titles to come in and accomplish in Saskatchewan. While the Riders can “thank” Chris Jones for turning the team around back into a contender, his time here will best be remembered as one of unfulfilled promises.
Main image credit:
Embed from Getty Images