Grey days for Esks?

TERRY JONES -- Edmonton Sun

, Last Updated: 8:25 AM ET

The pigskin prognosticators have a problem.

As the Canadian Football League is set to start for another season, the big question, other than if the Ottawa Renegades will finish it, is 'Where do you pick the Edmonton Eskimos?'

Everybody else is easy enough. But the flagship franchise, which in so many seasons has been picked to click from the get-go, could be picked to go to the Grey Cup or to miss the playoffs for the first time in 34 years.

This was a 9-9 team which lost the West semifinal last year, fired the head coach and gassed half the players on the team.

This is a team with 20 new names on dressing room stalls when they showed up to start their first work week of the regular season yesterday. At least half of the 24 starters for the lid lifter Friday against the Ottawa Renegades at Commonwealth Stadium are players who weren't here last year.

Plus there is a new head coach, a Canadian who never played the game and began his professional coaching career as an unpaid volunteer for two years in Montreal.

There's room here for things to go terribly wrong.

On the other hand, Ricky Ray is back at quarterback after leading the Eskimos to the Grey Cup game in his first two years since falling off a potato chip truck here and winning it in 2002. And some of those new starters are established CFL veterans such as Joe Montford, Kelly Wiltshire, Davis Sanchez, Tim Fleiszer, William Loftus, Sandy Annunziasta and Mike Maurer. And this is a team with a schedule which gives them Ottawa and Winnipeg - the two last-in-the-league teams - for four of their first five games.

"I hope everybody picks us last," says coach Danny Maciocia. "But come watch us play. I like our chances."

And then he made the clip-and-save statement to stick on the fridge: "If I had my pick of any 40-man roster in the league, I would pick this one."

Bruce Beaton, back after missing a year to get a new set of knees, has his view.

Talent is spread out

"I see a team as good as any I've played for in my career, including the 1995 Calgary Stampeders and the 2002 and 2003 teams here," he said.

"Where we go from here is up to us. The thing that makes this year different than most years in this league is the talent is really spread out around the league.

"You can make a case for six or seven of the teams having a shot at the whole thing. It's not just the talent which is spread evenly, there's quarterbacking talent spread around most of the league.

"But everything is here for this team to take it as far as we have the desire to take it."

Veteran receiver Ed Hervey isn't picking the Eskimos to finish first.

"The odds-on favourite has to be the B.C. Lions. They were in the Grey Cup last year and they've kept their roster pretty much the same in the key areas.

Improvements

"And I'm sure Wally Buono feels he's made some improvements in the off-season.

"But if you are talking about a team which has the potential to do a lot of good things this year, I think you have to be looking at this team. If this team can gel with all the people we have here, if this team comes together, Wally Buono and the B.C. Lions might not want to be playing us in November."

Montford figures the key is staying healthy.

"This team needs to have the same people playing together all season so we all really come together. If we're not making too many changes during the season, I don't think making all the changes in the off off-season will matter much. On defence we have such a tremendous amount of talent, we should be able to play a basic defence and shut down any offence in the league."

Signor Mobley doesn't buy the idea that all the changes are going to make it a struggle to come together as a team.

"I don't buy it that making a lot of changes means you can't win games. Not all of our changes are rookies. They've brought in veterans. They're all guys who are going to help the team. In some ways, you could even go so far as to say we're a bit of an all-star team.

"Who knows? We didn't win it last year. We're not the champions anymore. We don't have any bragging rights.

"But we'll win. When it's all said and done, the Grey Cup will be back in Edmonton."

The bottom line is that around here, anything less than the Grey Cup is considered a second-rate season, anyway.

Listen to 'Terry Jones At Large' weekdays at 8:35 a.m. on 790 CFCW.


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