You can say this about the 2012 Edmonton Eskimos: Whenever they look at their options, they always choose the most difficult one for themselves.
Trade away a sure-thing quarterback in Ricky Ray? Absolutely. Go instead with Kerry Joseph, the 39-year-old veteran whose best days have grown infrequent? Positively. Fall behind 19-0 in a game that could have clinched a playoff spot? You know the answer.
On an afternoon that held so much importance, the Eskimos fashioned a patented performance Sunday. They chose the most demanding route, falling behind by more than two touchdowns to the at-home Montreal Alouettes before unleashing a desperate comeback. Backup quarterback Matt Nichols, stepping in for Joseph, almost stole the show. Had he completed his last pass for a two-point conversion, Edmonton would have tied the score and forced overtime.
Instead, the Eskimos lost 27-25 to keep the Hamilton Tiger-Cats' postseason hopes alive while squeezing every last drop of possibility from the CFL's regular season. Edmonton could still be playing come the Nov. 11 division semi-finals, but naturally it's going to take a hard plow to get there.
To cross over to the East Division semi-final and play the Argonauts in Toronto, Edmonton needs Hamilton to lose to Toronto on Thursday. If Hamilton wins, the Eskimos would then have to top a rival they haven't beaten all season, the Calgary Stampeders. (If the Ticats and Eskimos end up tied with 7-11 records, Hamilton advances.)
To get to the West Division semi-final, the Eskimos have to beat Calgary while the Saskatchewan Roughriders would have to lose in B.C. to the Lions. (If that happens, Edmonton and Saskatchewan would be tied at 8-10 with Edmonton awarded third place for having beaten the Riders twice during the season. That would send Saskatchewan to Toronto for the East semi-final.)
Life for the Eskimos could have been so much simpler if only they had won a key game here or there. But they didn't, and it's easy to figure out why – inconsistent quarterbacking. Last weekend's CFL action was another prime example of what good quarterbacking, or lousy quarterbacking, can do for a team.
On Friday night, B.C. rested Travis Lulay, suffered with Mike Reilly in the cold and watched as three Stampeders quarterbacks (Kevin Glenn, Drew Tate and Bo Levi Mitchell) all threw for a touchdown in the first half. Not surprisingly, Calgary won in a breeze and now has a string of options for the playoffs – the injury-recovered Tate or the team-driven Glenn, who has started 10 of the Stampeders' 11 wins.
On Saturday, Hamilton's Henry Burris was on target while the Winnipeg Blue Bombers endured another evening of Buck Pierce starts but doesn't finish. No one questions Pierce's gallantry, but in 62 career starts in the CFL, he has gone the distance only 38 times. That's not reliable enough for a No. 1 pivot on a last-place team.
As for Saturday's other game, Toronto at Saskatchewan, it was won largely by Ray's slick passing, 24 completions in 30 attempts for 305 yards and four touchdowns. Had the Eskimos not traded Ray, ostensibly to lighten their payroll, you have to think they would be far better off at quarterback and blessed, too, with a better record.
What they have in Edmonton this week are raging fires of discontent: Why did head coach/offensive co-ordinator Kavis Reed wait until Joseph hurt his hand before going to Nichols against Montreal? Didn't Reed see how his side was being out-quarterbacked by Anthony Calvillo, who topped the 5,000-yard passing mark for the season, the seventh time he's done that in his career, a CFL record? And who should start in the regular-season ender for Edmonton, assuming the Eskimos absolutely, positively have to win that night to get into the playoffs?
Based on what he did in Montreal – 230 yards passing and three touchdowns in one quarter – Nichols will get plenty of consideration. If Joseph starts, he'll play with the shortest leash imaginable. Adding to the overall degree of difficulty is the fact the Eskimos have lost two key players to injuries, left offensive tackle Orrin Thompson and defender Rod Williams, and have just four days to prepare for Calgary.
It's a rough road for the Eskimos, and they're down to their last option.