November 7, 2023

Rob Vanstone: Roughriders created pro football’s 16-win curse — one the Argos hope to erase

“Sweet 16” has yet to apply to the world of professional football. 

The first two NFL or CFL teams to win 16 games in a regular season surprisingly fell short of winning a championship, despite being prohibitively favoured. 

The third such team — the 2023 Toronto Argonauts — is to play host to the Montreal Alouettes in Saturday’s CFL East Division final. 

Toronto recently tied the league record for most victories in a season, matching Edmonton’s 16-2 mark of 1989. 

Edmonton had stood alone in the ranks of 16-game winners until the 2007 New England Patriots went 16-0. The Patriots extended their string of perfection to 18-0, thanks to back-to-back NFL playoff victories, before losing 17-14 to the New York Giants in Super Bowl XLII. 

A massive play on the Patriots’ final possession was a sack by defensive tackle Jay Alford, who felled Tom Brady for a 10-yard loss. 

Alford went on to spend 10 games with the 2012 Saskatchewan Roughriders. He also attended training camp with the Green and White in 2013. 

At the Roughriders’ training camps of 1983 and 1984, one of the guest coaches was Kevin Gilbride — the Super Bowl-winning offensive co-ordinator when the Giants upset the Patriots. 

Also on the Giants’ roster for Super Bowl XLII: Defensive back R.W. McQuarters. His second cousin, Ed McQuarters, was a star defensive lineman with the Roughriders from 1966 to 1974. 

As a newcomer to the CFL, McQuarters helped Saskatchewan win the first Grey Cup title in franchise history. 

When the Roughriders next celebrated a championship — 23 years later, to the very day — a Grey Cup berth was secured at the expense of the 16-2 Edmonton team. 

Saskatchewan, at 9-9, was supposed to be easy fodder for the home side when the West final was played at Commonwealth Stadium on Nov. 19, 1989. 

“People are expecting us to blow them out of the water but, the bottom line is, I’m expecting us to blow them out of the water,” Edmonton defensive lineman John Mandarich told Norm Cowley of the Edmonton Journal in the week leading up to the game. “It’s not being arrogant and it’s not being cocky, but it’s being determined, because there’s no reason why we shouldn’t blow them out of the water. 

“(The Roughriders) keep reassuring themselves that they’re the only team to beat us but, hey, you’re going to have to play a whole lot better than that to beat us because there’s no way we’re going to lay down.  

“I hope Saskatchewan comes out here and battles the hell out of us, because that’s what we want. We want to prove to everybody that we’re the best.” 

The game seemed to be unfolding as Mandarich had anticipated when Edmonton assumed a 10-0 lead midway through the first quarter. A field goal by Saskatchewan’s Dave Ridgway completed the scoring during the opening 15 minutes. 

Early in the second frame, Edmonton was poised to fatten its lead. A Tracy Ham-led offence marched the football to the visitors’ 25-yard line before linebacker Eddie Lowe took over. 

After sacking Ham for a loss of five, a blitzing Lowe rocked the Edmonton passer once more, dislodging the football. Middle linebacker Dave Albright scooped up the loose football and rumbled 62 yards for a major. Ridgway’s convert knotted the game at 10-10. 

Shortly thereafter, an interception by (guess who?) Lowe gave the Roughriders a first down on Edmonton’s 42-yard line. Five plays later, Kent Austin threw a six-yard touchdown pass to Ray Elgaard. Ridgway’s convert gave Saskatchewan a 17-10 lead. 

Edmonton responded by scoring the game’s next 10 points, but the Roughriders countered with back-to-back third-quarter TD passes by Tom Burgess. 

Burgess, who had entered the game in the second quarter after Austin suffered a knee injury, put the Roughriders ahead to stay with a 47-yard scoring bomb to Jeff Fairholm. Elgaard later scored his second TD of the game, making a spectacular grab for a 14-yard major. 

Each club registered a rouge during an uneventful fourth quarter, after which the Roughriders rejoiced. 

“I was so excited seeing what was happening that I thought I was going to tear apart the little room I was in in their press box,’’ recalled Tom Shepherd, who was completing a three-year term as the Roughriders’ president. “Not one person in the province thought we were going to the Grey Cup when that game kicked off, and one week later all of Saskatchewan was trying to find a way to get to Toronto.  

“It was unbelievable to watch that because all of us, including Al (Ford, the Roughriders’ General Manager), thought (Edmonton) was the best team the CFL had ever seen. I remember seeing (Edmonton GM) Hugh Campbell after the game and he was speechless.  

“Yes, they were overconfident, but they didn’t lose it — we won it! We outplayed them!” 

The Edmonton players, to their credit, faced the music (in the form of the media) after a devastating defeat.
I never wanted to be part of the biggest choke in CFL history,” offensive lineman Hector Pothier told the Journal’s Cam Cole. “But we knew if we lost this game, that’s what it would be.  

“Someone said a minute ago, ‘You’ll feel better in a week, knowing you were 16-and-2 this season.’ I said, ‘That makes it worse.’ 

“I’m going to hear about it every day. Every day at work, every hockey game I go to, it’s going to be in my face. I may have to buy a toupee and shave my beard.” 

A decade later, Blake Dermott — like Pothier, a perennial standout on Edmonton’s offensive line — was interviewed for my book on the Roughriders’ 1989 championship team, The Greatest Grey Cup Ever. 

“I went home that night (after the West final) and obviously I wasn’t feeling very good over what had happened,” Dermott said. “I decided I was going to hang low that day (after the game). I didn’t want to talk to anyone and I knew, being one of the guys that lived in Edmonton year-round, that I would have to answer a lot of questions many times over the next few weeks.  

“Anyhow, my son — he was three at the time — goes out with my wife. He comes home and asks me to come with him because he wants to show me something. We walk to the corner and there is an Edmonton Sun newspaper stand. On the cover, there’s a picture of me sitting on the bench with my head in my hands, and it looks like I’m crying.  

“My son looks at me and says, ‘That’s you, Daddy! That’s you!’ I just said, ‘Yeah, it is …’ ”