The Saskatchewan Roughriders feel they may have turned their 2011 CFL season around with Sunday's 27-7 upset victory over the Winnipeg Blue Bombers in Labour Day Classic XLV.
Only time will tell if that's the case but there's no doubt September 4, 2011 was an historic day in the 101 year history of the franchise. Two weeks after Riders' V.P. of Football Operations Ken Miller fired head coach Greg Marshall and offensive coordinator Doug Berry after a 1-7 start and replaced them with himself, the immediate future of the team was in grave doubt.
However it was a completely different team which took to the field on that day, and they dominated their prairie rivals whose 7-1 record earned them the title of the best team in the CFL. The Riders jumped out to a 7-0 first quarter lead and never trailed the rest of the day. He fought the Blue Bombers tooth and nail up and down the field all game long and it was reminiscent of better times when Miller was head coach from 2008 to 2010.
"I think it's the real deal," Miller advised after the game. "I think it would have been easy for adversity to strike and maybe for us to go the other way. But I think this is something that's consistent with the men that we have in the locker room."
The Roughrider players made no secret of their desire for Miller to return to the sidelines and before he even left the locker room after the win, Rider quarterback Darian Durant wrote on Twitter "It's Miller Time baby!". Durant looked like a totally different player himself, passing for
234 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions.
Now it's one thing for the Rider veterans who've played for Miller before to embrace the return of their coach, but the reaction of the first-year Riders who have never played for the 69-year old was truly remarkable. Rookie kicker Chris Milo hugged Miller on the sidelines after making the first of his two field goals in the second quarter. Clearly the Roughriders are buying what Miller is selling.
"When I talked with the team for the very first time, I talked with them about competing for and winning the Grey Cup," Miller revealed. "That's the direction we're headed."
Of course there is plenty of work to do. The Riders are tied with Toronto with a league-worst record of 2-7 and they have to go in to Winnipeg for the Banjo Bowl this Sunday against a Bomber team which is a league-best 7-2.
However their inspired play has given themselves, and the Rider Nation, reason for hope.
Saskatchewan still isn't in a playoff spot as they trail the 3rd-place B.C. Lions by two points in the West Division, however they are buoyed by the fact they host the Lions twice in the second half of the season.
It's hard to put a finger on just why Miller holds such a grip on that locker room. It seems even be a surprise to the coach himself, who stepped down after a 21-18 loss to Montreal in the 2010 Grey Cup due to health reasons. He felt he could simply step down and hand off the reins to someone else and quietly ride off into the sunset. However that's not so.
Miller was the first to caution after the coaching change that "past performance doesn't guarantee future success."
But so far, it's so good.
(Rod Pedersen is the voice of the Riders on 620 CKRM radio)