EDMONTON - REGINA — For only the ninth time in their 62-year history — but for the third time in the last five years — the Edmonton Eskimos have missed the playoffs.
Does it make it any better this way?
Or does it just make it worse?
Probably the latter.
It will be forgotten that the Eskimos had won five of their last six after going 0-4 and 2-9 to start their season.
They lost this one 31-23.
They finished 7-11.
They finished last in the West.
And this was the year of Grey Cup 2010 in Edmonton, a year when they were supposed to get a home playoff game with a shot at getting there.
They got nowhere.
“We came together as a team,” said defensive captain Dario Romero of the late season string of success to get to this game. “We started to care for each other. We learned a lot about each other. It’s heart-breaking to lose it this way.
“But the bottom line is that we’re going home.”
In this one, the bottom line was that they gave up 26 consecutive points when the game was there to be won. As they did so many times this season, this team wasted good individual performances by coming undone.
They did it here earlier this year when Fred Stamps caught 12 passes for 213 yards. They did it here Saturday night when Stamps caught nine for 118 and Daniel Porter had his fourth-straight 100-yard game rushing, ending up with 19 for 153.
“We ran out of gas,” said a red-eyed head coach Richie Hall, who probably has a better chance of being fired than he has of being rehired, although that might not have been the case if he’d won this one.
He claimed to be proud of the team in the end despite what happened here.
“We faced a lot of obstacles. We didn’t roll over and die.”
When it mattered most, they didn’t fly.
“In this business, you are never prepared for the bitter end,” said new GM Eric Tillman, who ends the season with a 5-3 record in the position.
“There are positives that we finished strong and put ourselves in a position to control our destiny.
“Credit where credit is due. Saskatchewan and B.C. came to play (Saturday). Like us, B.C. was in a hole. Like us they refused to roll over. Unlike us, they finished the job.”
One team or the other was going to be a very good story by the end of this day. But it turned out to be the B.C. Lions, winners of seven of their last 10 after a 1-7 start.
The game could have been meaningless if the B.C. Lions, after going the first 58 minutes chasing the game, hadn’t finally took the lead over the Hamilton Tiger-Cats and won 23-21.
In danger of missing the playoffs for the first time in 14 years and only the second time in Wally Buono’s 21-year career, if the Leos had lost, the Eskimos would have clinched third place regardless what happened here.
But it’s better that somebody won their way into this game. The Eskimos, in the end, as was the case for most of the season, weren’t worthy.
There was certainly no criticizing the Cats for not playing for the win.
The Riders, bringing a four-game losing streak and a two-game home losing streak into the game, played to win the game as well despite having secured the second-place spot and the hosting of the Western Semifinal weeks ago.
There was a price, too, losing middle linebacker Barrin Simpson early.
When the Eskimos second highest paid player Patrick Kabongo (honest) gave Byron Bullock an uncontested blindside run to hit Ricky Ray between the shoulder blades, the pain the quarterback appeared to be in at that moment suggested the season was probably over then and there.
But it wasn’t thanks to Ray recovering from what turned out to be a stringer to slice and dice the Saskatchewan defence primarily using Fred Stamps and Daniel Porter.
But the defence allowed the Roughriders to score at the end of the half to turn a 10-1 and 13-4 game into a 16-15 game and then to score on six plays to start the second half and turn a fumble by Ray into another TD and the body language change and they were dead men walking.
“We played so well coming down the stretch,” said Ray. “It’s super tough to end it this way. It was sitting right there for us.”