Can it get any better?Defending Grey Cup-champion Eskimos look to improve right out of the gate
By TERRY JONES, EDMONTON SUN
Future Hall of Fame running back Mike Pringle will carry much of the load for the Eskimos this season. (SUN file photo)
How do you improve on a 13-5 Grey Cup winning season? Easy. Get it right in the beginning. Start the way you finished. Be the team at the front end of the schedule that you became at the end of last season.
"I'm a thirds guy,'' said Eskimos head coach Tom Higgins. "I break the schedule down to thirds.
"We were 3-3, 5-1 and 5-1 last year.
"Our goal is to be the team in the first third of this season that we were in the final two-thirds of last year. We need to start the way we finished. We need to show the discipline, intensity, passion, character and confidence we had at the end of last year from beginning to end.
"My feeling is that it is going to be there, that this year we'll start with what we had at the end.''
The Eskimos were a mess in the first third of the season last year. They were an undisciplined team with a ridiculously high number of penalties. They opened with a loss against the Alouettes in the Grey Cup rematch and coughed and sputtered through the first six games before finally getting it going.
FOCUS ON FIRST THIRD OF SEASON
Tonight the Grey Cup rematch lid-lifter is here instead of at home. And Higgins is trying to get his team to focus on the first third of the season instead of the big picture of 18 games and playoffs to get back to the Grey Cup game.
"With most good teams the first third is easy. Everybody is excited. And the last third is obvious because you're making the run to the playoffs. It's the middle third that's usually the challenge.
"This team should be shooting for 5-1 records in every third, no worse than 4-2. We should aspire to a winning record every third of the schedule. Sometimes you can hit a stretch where stuff happens. I'm sure Saskatchewan will be struggling for a while with the injuries to their quarterbacks. You hope you don't get in that spot.
The Alouettes are not a great example of how success early can breed success late. While Montreal won the Grey Cup two years ago, the Als are notorious front-runners with a history of fading down the stretch.
The Als have managed to win at least a dozen games in seven of the last eight years, but even in getting to the last two Grey Cup games they've started 8-0 and 9-1 and played .500 football the rest of the way.
"Every year is a different journey,'' said offensive lineman Tim Prinsen. "But one thing we want to show this year is that we can pick up where we left off, playing disciplined, tough football.''
Veteran receiver Terry Vaughn says it's important.
"We want to get off to a good start and get in a position where teams are chasing us all season. That's our goal.''
OPENERS HAVE BEEN TOUGH ON CFL WEST TEAMS
With Saskatchewan and Winnipeg losing their openers and B.C. up next in the Esks home opener, then two weeks later in Vancouver, they could be in a position to do that if they win this game.
"We should be able to start the way we ended. We don't want to put ourselves in the same situation we were last year. We want to put together a run from the very beginning and maintain the run.''
Normally, veteran teams get off to solid starts because of a minimum number of changes. But this concept of the season-opener pitting the Grey Cup teams against each other to launch CBC's Football Night in Canada run, has put a hitch in the git-up-and-go for one of the top two teams in the league.
"You might as well start with the best,'' said Higgins. "Montreal is a test.
"The thing that makes this game exciting and intriguing is that both teams have a very good book on each other.''
The coach of the year believes the Alouettes usually get off to excellent starts because they're a tough team to play until you get a book on them.
"One thing Montreal tries to do is confuse you. I don't believe we'll be confused.''
Higgins believes starting the season with the discipline the Eskimos finally found in the second half of the season will show if this team has long-term maturity or not.
"It's been discussed,'' he said.
Higgins knows there is a bit of a built-in challenge with a few of his players, including quarterback Jason Maas and receiver Ed Hervey in terms of being helmet throwers and swingers.
The CFL has put in a new rule, inspired by Hervey's Labour Day helmet-swing at a referee, requiring helmets to remain on heads at all times while the players are between the sidelines.
"We have a couple of athletes who are helmet-removers,'' he said. "We've talked about that and about overall discipline. I believe we'll be a much more disciplined team at the start of this season than we were at the start of last year.''
The key to the Eskimos start is obvious enough. The Eskimos need Maas to step in and make the transition from Ricky Ray from the git-go.
"Production from that one position is going to be huge,'' said Higgins.