Jones: Next year starts now

Edmonton Eskimos players watch from the bench during the second half of their CFL Western...

Edmonton Eskimos players watch from the bench during the second half of their CFL Western Conference Final football game against the BC Lions in Vancouver, British Columbia, November 20, 2011. (REUTERS/Ben Nelms)

Terry Jones, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 10:09 AM ET

VANCOUVER - The season is over. Got over it yet?

Didn’t take long, did it, Edmonton Eskimo fans?

Considering where the Eskimo franchise had fallen 16 months ago, firing a GM in early season, firing the head coach at season end, then ending up with 25 of 46 new players and 12 of 24 new starters … Eskimo fans have no reason to be depressed between now and the opening of the Spirit of Edmonton room here Thursday.

The Eskimos took a huge step forward this year. They have a solid corps of young players to build around now.

But there are more big steps to be taken for head coach Kavis Reed to return the EE to being the team of tradition, with the top-of-the-tables successes of the past.

And it’s GM Eric Tillman, in charge of gathering together the pieces for Reed to mould into Eskimos like we used to know them, who still has work to do, as the 40-23 score in the Western Conference final says by itself.

Tillman is still a long way away from fixing the Canadian content. He has mortgaged the future in getting down to two draft choices. He made a Danny Maciocia-like mistake in signing Chris Bauman to stupid money for zero production. And he made one of the worst trades ever in kicker Justin Medlock for Zip (that’s Zip Duncan). But on balance, he put a lot of pieces in place. He turned the team around.

But as we all saw Sunday, there’s a long way to go. And next year starts now.

The No. 1 reason the Eskimos were dominated in the Western Final was the major mismatch involving all the CFL All-Stars on the B.C. Lions front seven going against a patchwork collection of offensive linemen.

“If there is one area where continuity is critical, it’s up front. When we hit the playoffs we only had one starting offensive lineman from Week 1. That’s a staggering number,” said Tillman of the team that used 13 different men on the O-line this season.

“I believe we can become much better via good health, individual player development and, likely, with a new starter or two.”

The defensive secondary was exposed in the final, too.

“That will likely be an area with a couple of changes, too,” said Tillman.

“Improvement in open field-tackling is an absolute must. We gave up far too many yards after the catch. With a fresh face or two, and a greater emphasis on technique, we will improve.”

More speed at receiver is also on the shopping list.

“Our receiving corps was a quality group and we were close to having three 1,000-yard guys. But, yes, it’s fair to say we need to add the speed dimension to our overall group.

“Being able to stretch teams vertically is critical. It creates big plays and it opens up so many things underneath.”

Then there’s the question of developing a quarterback behind Ricky Ray.

Are Eric Ward and Matt Nichols the guys?

“We believe each has the talent and work ethic to make significant strides in 2012,” said Tillman. “In addition, we have two guys on our negotiation list, Jeremiah Masoli and Dan Persa, we’re hoping to bring to camp.

“In my view it’s imperative to start developing our young guys. The best clubs always have one eye on the present and the other eye on the future.”

But a big part of building this team is also to get stable now and let the young core grow together.

“Our young overall nucleus is very good and it will improve with the benefit of another draft, another free-agency period and another injection of young talent from our neg list.

“Building a championship-calibre club is a process and until you play Year 1, it’s a little bit like living life without a mirror. Now that we have a much truer reflection of our imperfections, it’s easier to plan for the future.

“We made a lot of progress and with continued hard work, and good decisions, we can give our fans the kind of team they want and deserve.”

The best move Tillman made was hiring Kavis Reed as head coach. What he did in one year to transform this team was wonderful work and there’s every expectation he knows the job is nowhere near done.

“His leadership sets the tone in every area and, along those lines, Kavis will continue to establish expectations as we grow, develop and, eventually, attempt to sustain success,” said Tillman.

Follow me on Twitter.com/sunterryjones

terry.jones@sunmedia.ca


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