When Mike Reilly accepted the Most Outstanding Player trophy at the Shaw CFL Awards on Thursday in Ottawa, it wasn’t just on behalf of his 86 teammates this season.
The 32-year-old quarterback was also representing each of the 27 Eskimos teams that came before him without a Most Outstanding Player (MOP) award winner among them.
“It’s the highest honour that we can have as an individual in our sport,” Reilly said about receiving his first national football award. “To be able to win the award just speaks volumes to how well we worked together as a team and the things we were able to accomplish with the 12 guys on the field, whether it was offence, defence or special teams and whoever was out on the field at any given point in time really buying into what we do here in Edmonton.”
The Eskimos had to overcame the loss of 54 players for a club record 393 man-games on the injured list that affected almost every position on the team to deliver a hot-and-cold season with a six-game losing streak sandwiched between winning streaks of seven games and six games before losing the West Division Final to the Calgary Stampeders.
Eskimos General Manager & VP of Football Operations Brock Sunderland said Reilly “was the stabilizing force in a very unstabilizing year.”
“All you have to do is watch how he plays the game, how he practises, how he prepares and that says everything about him,” Sunderland said. “I wish the fans and everybody could follow him for a day and just see what really goes into it because it’s exceptional.”
With Reilly passing for a league-leading 5,830 yards, tied for the league high with 30 touchdown passes and leading in rushing TDs (12) and quarterback rating (87.1), the Eskimos led the league in several offensive categories, including offensive points and offensive touchdowns, rushing TDs, net offence, first downs, time of possession, fewest two-and-outs and fewest quarterback sacks allowed.
“I’ve always said the reason I love football is because it’s the ultimate team game and I’m not a big fan of the individual accolades and things like that because it’s impossible to go out and perform well based solely on yourself,” Reilly said. “It’s always you working well within your team structure and having great teammates who also do the same thing.”
Reilly said it’s not easy to consistently have the type of offensive success the Eskimos have enjoyed game-in and game-out since head coach Jason Maas arrived with his offensive system two years ago. Of course, defence and special teams played a role, too.
“You’re not going to win the ball control battle like we have this year if your defence isn’t getting stops and you’re not going to be able to go down and score the most touchdowns offensively in the league if your special teams isn’t giving you good field position,” Reilly pointed out. “If you take bad penalties on special teams, you’re stuck in your own end of the field and it’s hard to drive down and score. So it’s indicative of the entire team working together.
“Of course, the ultimate award that proves that is the Grey Cup and we fell short on that this year, but that doesn’t mean that you had a terrible season. At least, this (MOP award) is a small consolation for our team that we at least have some sort of hardware to remember back and say, ‘Yeah, we still had a pretty good year.’ It’s not the ultimate one that we wanted, but we’ll still take pride in it.”
The Eskimos have been shut out in the MOP Award since quarterback Tracy Ham was selected in 1989 and didn’t even have a finalist since slotback Craig Ellis in 1990. During that time, Edmonton had 17 teams finish a season with at least 10 victories, six won the West Division and four were Grey Cup champions.
“I know there’s been a ton of great football teams and players who have come through these doors since then,” Reilly said.
One example is Toronto Argonauts quarterback Ricky Ray, who was the East Division MOP nominee for a third time this year, but never represented the West Division despite winning two Grey Cups and passing for at least 5,000 yards three times while playing with the Eskimos from 2002-11.
“I know that Ricky is a great player and I know he had a great season and would have been very deserving of the (MOP) award, too,” Reilly said. “Just to be in that group with him, I’m proud of that for sure.”
Asked to assess his personal performance in 2017, Reilly said he was taking the stats out of the equation and just talking about how he felt he played.
“I think it was my best year in terms of just being efficient and doing what is asked within the offence and operating it at a high level,” he said. “It was far from perfect. As good as I think we were offensively, there’s still a lot of room for improvement.
“As I’ve become more mature as a quarterback and learned what it takes to run this offence efficiently, I think people who watch can see the transition. I don’t take off and run like I used to in 2013, and a lot of that is by design.
“But when I do take off and get out of the pocket, we try to make the most of it. Sometimes, that’s not running the football. Sometimes, that’s throwing the ball on the second drive against Calgary in the division final when you’re rolling out of the pocket and you hit a 69-yard touchdown because you didn’t run. You kept your eyes downfield and found the open guy. Those are things we’re going to continue to get better at.
“I know for a fact that our best days and my best days are in front of us and not behind us. We still have a long way to go and we have the ability to get there. We have the ability to get a lot better than we were this year. Personally, I can be a lot better than I was and I will be. As an offence, we can be a lot better and we will be.”
Reilly’s only previous experience as a candidate for a national football award was when he finished runner-up to future NFL running back Bernard Scott for the Harlon Hill Trophy (the NCAA Division II equivalent of the Heisman Trophy) during his senior year at Central Washington University. Reilly passed for 3,706 yards and 37 touchdowns and set an all-divisions NCAA record that season by extending his streak of throwing a TD pass to 46 consecutive games.
Besides Thursday’s awards ceremony, Reilly also has a busy schedule of community appearances in Ottawa throughout the week as part of Team Shaw (each CFL team has one representative at the Grey Cup).
“It’s always hard when you’re one of the seven (players) who are not playing in the game because you try to put on the brave face and be excited to be there, but there’s always that disappointment that you’re not there with your teammates and not playing in that game,” he said. “But at the same time, Grey Cup week is always bigger than the individual and it’s even bigger than the two teams who are playing in it. It really is a league-wide celebration, which I learned quickly in 2011 when I was with B.C. and we hosted the Grey Cup and we played in it.
“I remember the first day I was out and about and I saw so many Hamilton and Saskatchewan and Montreal and Calgary and all these different teams represented by fans from everywhere who were all over the place. I was like, ‘What is going on here? Do these people not realize that it’s B.C. against Winnipeg in this game?’ ”
At the time, Reilly was more familiar with the Super Bowl, where the NFL’s championship game is only about the two finalists.
Reilly used to be dead-set against going to the Grey Cup if his team wasn’t there. But he admitted “it’s kind of cool to see all of the other festivities and be a part of it,” things he would gladly never experience if the Eskimos could be playing in the game.
Although he has Grey Cup tickets in a box suite at TD Place Stadium, Reilly will fly back to Edmonton on Sunday morning.
“The one thing I can’t get myself to do is actually go to the game if I’m not playing in it,” he explained. “I still haven’t got to that point where I’m comfortable doing that yet. I want to be in Edmonton when the game’s being played. I’ll watch the game on TV from the comforts of the city that I take pride in playing in and not over there in Ottawa.”