EDMONTON - The Edmonton Eskimos cleaned out their lockers Monday, bitterly disappointed over their loss in the East Division semifinal a day earlier.
Yet despite a tumultuous season that ended on an ugly note, there was still optimism that the franchise will be turned around.
"It was a season where a lot of things went on, up and down, a roller coaster, but one we can learn from," said defensive back Joe Burnett. "We saw a lot of young guys play, grow and work and they will contribute next year and years to come."
The Eskimos' season ended Sunday much like the team's entire year, in confusion, second-guessing and defeat. Their 42-26 loss to the Toronto Argonauts didn't feel out of place after finishing 7-11 during the regular season.
"I've always judged myself, did you walk away a winner or did you walk away a loser, and we walked away as losers this year," said linebacker J.C. Sherritt, the West nominee for most outstanding defensive player, who didn't play against the Argos because of an ankle injury.
Defensive lineman Almondo Sewell said the Toronto game was like a microcosm of the team's season.
"Yeah, pretty much," he said. "Just a lot of bad breaks happened in that game … we killed ourselves with mental mistakes."
Still, Sewell said there were a lot of positives to be taken from the season.
"We proved we can come back from almost anything … going through a lot of tough times but we got through it, that's what we have to take from it."
The team heads into the off-season facing more questions than answers.
The first question that has to be answered is who will be named general manager to replace Eric Tillman, who was fired a week before the playoff game. Names mentioned include head coach Kavis Reed and former player and current head scout Ed Hervey.
Reed wouldn't commit one way or the other Monday, saying his focus right now "is decompressing from the season and making sure decisions that are made for this franchise are the right decisions.
"I'm not going to be one who advocates for a position. I'm focused on making sure the decision that is made is, first of all, right for my family, but most importantly right for this franchise."
Key among the new GM's early priorities will be trying to re-sign the 13 free agents, including nine defensive starters, and trying to figure who will be the team's quarterback of the future. Tillman's trade of Ricky Ray to Toronto proved to be a monstrous mistake that left the Eskimos without a competent starting pivot.
Kerry Joseph, at 39, said he plans to return next year but he can't likely be counted on to be a full-time starter. Steven Jyles, the man obtained in the Ray trade, hasn't shown in six years with four teams the ability to be a starter. And Matt Nichols, the obvious choice to be the starting quarterback, broke his ankle in Toronto.
On crutches, Nichols said he will see his doctor Tuesday to schedule surgery to insert a pin that will come out in February.
"It's probably the best case scenario really, for what happened," he said. "I plan on being ready for training camp."
The second-guessing went on all season and continued Monday after three coaching decisions that had huge impact on the playoff loss.
Why play Sherritt and his injured ankle in the final regular season game, just so he could get the CFL tackle record, when he was then lost for the playoff? Reed said Monday he wouldn't change that decision and Sherritt suggested he probably wouldn't have much choice.
"The thing with that game, if I can play I'm going to," said Sherritt. "It's not fair for the defence to go out when the guys are banged up, and they're all playing. How is it fair for me to sit down? If I'm ever put in that situation again I promise I'll be out there playing."
The questions don't end with Sherritt. Reed started Joseph instead of Nichols despite the latter putting on strong performances in the final two regular-season games. At running back, Reed rotated Hugh Charles and Cory Boyd even after Charles had a solid first quarter.
"We went with what we felt was best for the team," said Reed, adding that after looking at film all week the coaching staff felt alternating the two was the right thing to do.
Reed said it was a season of challenges for the players and coaches.
"There was a lot of noise around us, but the season was very educational. We found out a lot about this team in terms of the character in the locker-room. Never was the character compromised and the work ethic was never compromised.
"I've very proud of the players for the way they handled it and proud of the coaches for the way they handle all the noise that went around us."
Joseph was even more bold, predicting the Eskimos would return to form next season.
"This is a great franchise and it will be back on top," he said. "They're going to put the pieces in place … this team will be back in 2013 ready to compete again."