Upon Further Review: The 2019 Esks
When the Edmonton Eskimos began the 2019 offseason, there were endless questions.
Most, if not all of them revolved around wondering if their franchise quarterback Mike Reilly would stay put, or up and leave for somewhere he found more desirable.
Reilly left. It could have been a disaster. General Manager Brock Sunderland could have had a tough time in his first year recruiting talent in free agency and drafting players that fit Jason Maas’ coaching staff scheme.
Instead Sunderland back filled the roster in one of the more memorable recent days of CFL player movement as he scooped up Trevor Harris, Greg Ellingson, Larry Dean, Don Unamba, SirVincent Rogers, the list goes on and on.
Winning offseason transactions is a positive, but none of it matters unless in-season wins follow. For the 2019 Eskimos it was an up and down, at times injury doomed season that they salvaged into a crossover playoff win before falling to the Ticats in Hamilton as every other team did last season when entering Tim Horton’s Field.
So who were the 2019 Eskimos? A group of thrown together individuals forced to find their way on the fly? Did they underperform based on the talent acquired last February or over achieve based on their road playoff victory?
That’s all a matter of perspective. What I do know is how the teams offensive attack took on a new identity with Trevor Harris hired to lead the Green and Gold in place of Mike Reilly.
In 2019 the Eskimos had a far less aggressive and explosive passing attack, but as a result were much more efficient and limited turnovers in the passing game. They took on the expected identity of a Maas-Harris led football team and in many ways reverted to the 2018 Redblacks which Harris led to a Grey Cup berth.
The ‘Coles Notes’ differences between Harris’ last year in Ottawa and first in Edmonton?
Lower first down pass efficiency, more overall run/pass balance - especially on second down, almost identical Yards In Air tendencies and a marginally more explosive pass attack as the ghosts of Mike Reilly’s gun slinging past lingered around Commonwealth just enough to influence Harris.
In both 2018 and 2019 CJ Gable was undoubtedly the rock of Edmonton’s offence as Jason Maas ran him over and over again, especially on first down where Gable had the second most carries in the 2019 CFL season behind only Andrew Harris.
The Esks were also a team defined by football geography in 2019. Inside their own 30-yard-line Trevor Harris was a surgeon using his big offensive line and efficient early down pass attack to lead the CFL’s most productive offence when backed up and trying to avoiding conceding points.
The problem came when Edmonton reached the score zone - or inside their opponents 30-yard-line. There the offence sputtered as Edmonton tried to stay ahead of the CFL’s worst score zone team, Harris’ old Redblacks.
The narrative around Harris this season in Edmonton but basically everywhere he has been in the CFL is a masterfully effective quarterback who takes a far more conservative approach than the average CFL quarterback with him anywhere he goes, but is that true?
First a look at his 2019 attempt throw zones.
Does that ‘check down zone’ sitting at 14.3% look much higher than average? Yes, but in reality Harris’ massive throwing workload appears to be skewing the way fans think of him.
Harris doesn’t throw behind the line of scrimmage everywhere more than anybody else. What he does is attack certain parts of the field at a much higher rate. See for yourself from his 2019 season compared to CFL averages.
Under ten yards in the air Harris only attacks five of a possible ten ‘underneath’ zones above league average, but did he ever love the slip screen and bubble to his strong side in 2019 (+2.16%).
Here are his completion percentages when attacking those same throw zones.
So was Harris attempting a higher percentage of his passes ‘conservatively’ as everyone seems to perceive? He’s actually middle of the pack on throws attempted five yards or under and throws attempted at or behind the line of scrimmage by 2019 CFL quarterbacks with at least 100 attempts.
It’s as if we can’t believe the efficiency he plays with so we convince ourselves he must be taking all easy throws or refusing to throw the ball vertically, but the numbers suggest otherwise.
With that being said, when the playoffs rolled around Harris and the Eskimos designed a ball control passing attack for what would be Jason Maas’ final games coaching Edmonton that stood in stark contrast to other playoff teams through the CFL divisional semifinals and finals.
As a result Harris put on one of the more calculated clinics in CFL playoff history on the road in Montreal which looked like this.
The next week Edmonton would lose to Hamilton setting off a chain of events which has Harris motivated and ready to storm the 2020 season with new Head Coach Scott Milanovich, a healthy arm and a variety of new teammates.
If the 2020 Eskimos can harness Harris’ natural efficiency and maximize timely aggressive shots as Milanovich did with Ricky Ray in Toronto, Edmonton football fans have themselves a playoff team and perhaps much more.
Marshall Ferguson is a former U SPORTS Quarterback, now serving as TSN 1150 Hamilton morning show host, voice of the Hamilton Tiger-Cats and CFL.ca analyst.