'A season to be proud of': Riders feeling the effects of up and down 2021
As the Saskatchewan Roughriders pack up their lockers, players and staff are reflecting on a season they say was full of adversity.
The Riders’ season ended abruptly on Sunday night after losing 21-17 against Winnipeg in the Western Final.
“It was a tough year,” Craig Dickenson, the head coach of the Roughriders, said. “With all the injuries we’ve had, and all teams have them, but I think we had more than our fair share. I told [the team] ‘you need to be proud of what you did.’”
During training camp in July, several players were sidelined with Achilles injuries.
The team went on to lose other key players due to injuries and personal reasons throughout the season, including punter Jon Ryan and offensive guard Brendan LaBatte, while wide receiver Shaq Evans missed several games.
Dickenson said COVID-19 protocols also played a role in making this season tougher than normal.
“A lot of energy was spent trying to do things. It seemed like we were asked to do more this year with less,” he said. “We had to keep the tier one bubble as small as possible so there’s less support staff. We had to make sure the players were separate so there was different meetings rooms when you’re having meetings.”
Despite the adversity, the head coach said he’s impressed by all his players and staff accomplished.
“It’s a season to be proud of,” Dickenson said.
Quarterback Cody Fajardo said he is still feeling “heartbroken” from the Western Final loss on Sunday, but he’s looking back at the season as a success.
“I’m in my second year as a starting quarterback and I’ve been able to play in two west finals and I’m very proud of that. I’m very proud of being a 10-win team in back to back years,” Fajardo said.
“I know I didn’t have my best year at times, there’s still so much learning curve for me and I know I can be so much better, but at the end of the day finding ways to win in professional football is hard to do and I can’t do it without the teammates that I have and the coaches that we have.”
Fajardo got emotional when asked what it means to him to be the starting quarterback of the team, saying it means everything.
“It’s tough at times when you’re not winning and when you’re not playing well,” he said. “I just go out there and give it everything I have. I lay it all on the line. I know I’m probably not the most talented job when it comes to being quarterback and things just come to me but I wouldn’t want to play for any other team.”
He said negativity on social media caused him to have some dark days throughout the season, saying he’d still see complaints after a win.
“It’s just tough when people call for your head when you do everything you can for this team,” Fajardo said. “It can be mentally tough sometimes and I think that’s why you see me breaking down is because I’m a human being at heart.”
Running back William Powell said although the season didn’t end how they hoped, he’s impressed by how far they made it looking back on the entire season.
“Obviously it’s a disappointment in the outcome, but our team went through a lot of adversity this year and we kept fighting. We showed that game in and game out,” he said. “It was definitely way more tough than a normal season.”
The Riders are now focusing on next season and any changes that need to be made to the roster.
“We’ve got to get better,” Dickenson said. “I want to do a good thorough study of our team and really look at our team inside out and involve the coaches.”
He said they’d be asking coaches who they think the team can be built around and areas where they need improvement.
“Then we’ll look at players in the league and see if there are some free agents that we feel can address those needs,” Dickenson said.
The coach said he’d also like to build on leadership while keeping as many current players and coaches as possible.
“This offseason I’m going to really work hard on the culture of the room. I felt like that was a little bit tougher this year. We weren’t able to mold the locker room quite the way we wanted to,” Dickenson said. “You try to build a great locker room with great culture and great leadership and then it just kind of takes over for you. I feel like this year there was a little bit of a void.”
The 2022 Grey Cup Final is scheduled to be held at Mosaic Stadium in Regina. Dickenson said although the goal is to win every year, they are going to do whatever it takes to get the team to that hometown final.
“I think we’ll be a little more aggressive [in the offseason] and maybe invest in a guy that’s only got one or two years, but we feel like he’s still got a couple of good years,” Dickenson said. “We try to put our best team on the field every year, but we know having the Grey Cup at home means a little more to the province.”
Fajardo said he’ll use the excitement of the potential in playing in a Grey Cup at home, as well as his past two seasons, to fuel his offseason.
“Hopefully take these experiences and let it roll over into 2022 and come back with the same fire. I’m going to work my tail off, I’m going to do everything I can because I’m going to think about the Western Final in 2019 and in 2021. It’s going to drive me all off season,” he said.
Offensive lineman Dan Clark, who won a Grey Cup at home with the Roughriders in 2013, said the entire team should be putting in any work possible to get the opportunity to hoist the cup in Regina next year.
“Any time you can host a Grey Cup at home it’s very special,” Clark said. “Any chance you can go into a championship or get that opportunity to play for a Grey Cup, it’s something that drives you. And if a professional athlete tells you different, they’re wrong. It literally is something that drives you every single day, every single workout.”
Dickenson said he expects next season to start earlier than this season. The date for the Roughriders training camp has not yet been announced.