Nearly two calendar years have passed since Chris Jones helped the Edmonton Eskimos hoist the Grey Cup in 2015, a week or so after which he and his coaching staff vacated their posts for Regina and the staggering Saskatchewan Roughriders.
Jones and co. finished their first stint on the southern prairies with a 5-13 football team, a rash of injured players and a sometimes hobbled quarterback discontent with the apparently lower-than-expected money the team offered him to stay on board.
“Moderately successful” was how Jones described the much-loved quarterback’s play through 2016. It wasn’t long before his prized number 4 jersey was taken by one of the team’s rookies – a Canadian linebacker who played at UCLA and who didn’t have double initials, D or otherwise.
Durant was traded to Montreal; the strategic veteran Kevin Glenn was signed to replace the former star quarterback, and he eventually outplayed the sluggish former NFL quarterback Vince Young at Roughriders training camp in Saskatoon.
Now two-thirds of the way through his second season at the helm of the community-owned team as its head coach, general manager and vice president of football operations, Jones has pieced together a contender. His assistant coaches like Stephen McAdoo, Craig Dickenson and Jarious Jackson withstanding.
The numbers bear that out, too. Consider the following.
At the end of the 2016 CFL season, the Roughriders were tied for last in the league with Toronto for win-loss record.
The Riders’ offence ranked last among all nine CFL clubs for points scored, touchdowns scored and passing touchdowns scored.
That unit ranked second-last in rushing touchdowns scored, net offensive yards, first downs and sacks allowed.
After week 14 in the 2017 CFL season, Saskatchewan’s record is one better than last year at six wins and six loses. And league analysts consider the team a contender for a playoff spot, likely as a crossover team to the east division.
Equally revealing is the turnaround of the offense and the defence.
Kevin Glenn and co. are tied for first with Winnipeg in offensive touchdowns (36) and are ranked first in passing touchdowns (28) and average yards gained on first down (7.4).
The team ranks third, behind Winnipeg and Calgary, in points for and average points per game (353 and 29.4, respectively), offensive points scored (322) and touchdowns scored (40).
The Riders are second in passing yards (3717) behind Edmonton, and are tied for second with Winnipeg in fewest turnovers at 19.
Jones’s defence – known for its multiple looks and rushing fronts – also looks to be stabilizing after an up-and-down 2016.
Towering Willie Jefferson at defensive end and hawkish Ed Gainey at defensive back are rallying the unit to a level of stability and dependability that escaped it last year.
Saskatchewan’s defence ranks second in opponents’ touchdowns scored (30) and opponents’ offensive touchdowns scored (26), behind Calgary in both categories.
The unit sits fourth overall in points allowed and opponents’ offensive points scored.
Its pass defence unit was spotty at the season’s start, but the play of Gainey, veteran Jovon Johnson and newcomer Crezdon Butler has stabilized the unit enough for a recent resurgence over the past six weeks, dating back to a home field blowout over the B.C. Lions.
The Riders are ranked first in opponents’ pass completion percentage (63.7), and second in turnover ratio (+10) and turnovers forced (29).
The team still has multiple injuries. Its offence still looks sluggish and unsure of itself at times. The defence does, on occasions, have a habit of letting opponents’ offences maintain possession for too long each game.
But the team is far and away better than last year’s team. And it embodies just that – a team, bigger than any one player or individual.
Bigger than double-who?