September 23rd, 2019

Inside the CFL: Labour Day rematches showcased discipline problems

By Graham Kelly on September 10, 2019.

Winnipeg Blue Bombers quarterback Chris Streveler (17) gets set to throw against the Saskatchewan Roughriders during the second half of CFL action in Winnipeg Saturday, September 7, 2019. THE CANADIAN PRESS/John Woods

I was recently asked about the origin of the Banjo Bowl.

The night before the 2003 West semifinal between the Bombers and Roughriders, Winnipeg placekicker Troy Westwood called the good folks of the land of living skies “banjo-pickin’ inbreds.” Later he said, “I referred to the people of Saskatchewan as a bunch of banjo-pickin’ inbreds. I was wrong to make such a statement, and I’d like to apologize. The vast majority of people in Saskatchewan have no idea how to play the banjo.” The next day the Big Bad Blue Bombers were dispatched 37-21 by the visitors in Green and White.

Westwood’s remarks caused such an uproar that astute Bomber marketers rubbed their hands with glee knowing they had struck gold. Why not a signature event during Labour Day week played in the Manitoba capital? And so the Banjo Bowl was born. Just as the game in Saskatchewan on Labour Day Sunday has become the most important event on the province’s sports calendar, so it is in Winnipeg. Attendance for the game has exceeded capacity every year except 2009. The fans must have known something. Saskatchewan won 55-10.

Saturday was the 16th playing of the Banjo Bowl between the the prairie rivals. With Winnipeg’s 35-10 victory, avenging their loss in Regina, the record is 9-7 in favour of the Red River boys. They truly thumped the visitors, clearly establishing themselves as the top team in the West Division. The Riders are now 7-4, same as Calgary but in third place because they lost to the Stampeders in July.

Coaches have told me for years how hard it is to sweep a home-and-home series, so I expected the Bombers to bounce back. I didn’t expect the undisciplined play of the Saskatchewan defence but when I examined the statistical record it showed the Riders are indeed rough and the second-most penalized team in the league. Winnipeg’s opening touchdown drive was kept alive by the visitors’ fouls. Coach Craig Dickenson must address the problem.

Edmonton is the most undisciplined team in the league and has been since Jason Maas became head coach three years ago. The Stampeders had no trouble beating the Eskies back-to-back and moving from fourth to second in the standings. True, Edmonton lost quarterback Trevor Harris but Calgary beat them Aug. 3 with backup Nick Arbuckle at the controls. Sympathy for the Eskimos’ dilemma is somewhat muted considering every team except B.C. and Ottawa lost a starter to injury. Montreal, Hamilton, Winnipeg, Saskatchewan and Calgary have done just fine, thank you, and Edmonton will have to do the same. But it won’t matter if they don’t address the penalty problem.

Against Calgary, Edmonton intercepted Bo Levi Mitchell early and scored a major. They had the Stamps pinned deep on the next sequence but instead of forcing a punt from the 17 yard line, they took roughing and conduct penalties. Two Eskimos got into a fight at their bench. Maas’ post-game remarks seemed to indicate he doesn’t understand the gravity of the situation. He is halfway down the plank he will likely walk at the end of the season.

With many holes to fill and injuries to starting receivers, running backs, linemen and his quarterback, Calgary head coach Dave Dickenson’s stated goal back in June was “to keep our heads above water” until Labour Day. Last Saturday, Mitchell became the winningest quarterback in club history, a significant achievement considering the Stamps have been led by luminaries like Peter Liske, Doug Flutie, Jeff Garcia and Henry Burris. Although Mitchell looked shaky at times, all he does is win. To clinch a home playoff date, the Stamps need a receiver to go with Reggie Begelton and Eric Rodgers and help on the D-line.

And so the critical Labour Day week is over with the stretch drive lying ahead. The Eskimos have the week off to reorganize, the Roughriders entertain the resurgent Alouettes while Calgary welcomes Connor McGough, Aaron Crawford and the well-rested, league-leading 9-2 Tiger-Cats to McMahon. Hamilton then continues its western swing with games in Edmonton and Winnipeg.

It’s supposed to be nice in Calgary Saturday. Why not head to McMahon to see our local boys in action?Graham Kelly has covered the CFL for the Medicine Hat News for 47 years. Feedback for this column can be emailed to sports@medicinehatnews.com.

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