A year ago, the Roughriders celebrated winning the Grey Cup at home for the first time in franchise history. This time they were cleaning out their lockers in a sombre mood two days after an 18-10 loss to the Edmonton Eskimos in the West Division semifinal.
With the Roughriders falling short of their goal to repeat as Grey Cup champions, the team is promising changes will be made this off-season. That means some of the players will see their time with the Roughriders end in disappointment.
"It sucks. I don't know how else to say it," said offensive lineman Brendon LaBatte. "Even after last year you knew there were going to be changes. You knew you were seeing guys for the last time unless you end up playing against them in the future. And for some guys, this is the end of the road. It sucks to end it on this note, too."
As was the case a year ago, the Riders face an off-season that is sure to be loaded with difficult decisions when it comes to coaching staff changes and player personnel. The Riders have 27 players eligible to file for free agency on Feb. 15, and several on that list are marquee talents, though a handful of those players are 30 years or older.
"I like the guys that we have on our team as far as age goes," head coach Corey Chamblin told the media. "There are some pieces that will be retooled. Some guys will be let go in free agency and we won't sign because maybe they don't fit the plan going forward. Some of these guys have different mindsets from what they want for the 2015 season. There are some things that we can't give them, whether that would be money or a position or whatever they may want."
Two of the Riders' four starting defensive lineman — 32-year-old Ricky Foley and 31-year-old Tearrius George — are eligible for free agency. That duo combined for 24 sacks in 2014 in leading the Riders to a 10-8 record and a third-place West Division finish in the regular season.
Also on that list are starting safety Tyron Brackenridge (30) and linebacker Brian Peters. Brackenridge had 11 tackles and an interception on Sunday and was a West Division all-star for the second straight year. Peters led the Riders in tackles this season with 78 and special teams tackles with 20.
Cornerback Tristan Jackson, who also starred as a special teams returner, also is a free agent. He led the league in combined return yards with 1,531.
On offence, the biggest name on the free agent list will be Weston Dressler, who will turn 30 during the off-season. He signed a one-year deal with the Riders in August after he was cut from the NFL's Kansas City Chiefs. At the time, Dressler didn't rule out testing his luck down south in 2015. He confirmed those feelings again on Tuesday.
"I'm not going to commit one way or the other," he said. "I don't think the smartest thing to do right now would be to shut any doors. I'll take it day by day and see what kind of opportunities are out there for me."
Elsewhere, the Riders' playmakers aren't getting any younger. Dressler, along with slotback Chris Getzlaf (31) and wideout Taj Smith (31) are all over 30 and dealt with injuries this past season. Forty-one year old quarterback Kerry Joseph, who was coaxed out of retirement in October, said after Sunday's loss that his playing career is over. He threw five interceptions in the game against Edmonton.
Starting quarterback Darian Durant is 32 and is still recovering from surgery on right elbow. He signed a contract extension in April that runs through 2016. Durant plans to rest and rehab in the near future and is dedicated to coming to training camp fully recovered.
"There's no need for me to go out and push it and try to throw and do those different things," he said. "I can just sit back and go through therapy and let (his elbow) heal so I can begin my regular lifting program. It's all about downtime and making sure my arm is 100 per cent as quickly as possible."
The Riders raced out to an 8-2 start behind a healthy Durant. But the star quarterback tore a tendon in his right elbow on Sept. 7 in a game versus the Winnipeg Blue Bombers and the team, especially the offence, never recovered.
"We sputtered too much too often," Dressler said. "We didn't generate enough drives and give ourselves a lot of opportunities to make plays. We never got into the flow. After Darian went down, we never found that energy, that consistency throughout an entire game. We had spurts but it wasn't consistent."
Chamblin plans to meet with general manager Brendan Taman to discuss potential free agents on the Riders' roster and who might become available through free agency elsewhere in the league. Whether it's rebuilding or restructuring, the Riders are prepared to undergo some retooling.
"I think we were really close this year," Dressler said. "Maybe a couple of guys here and there with a little more experience and a little more of that veteran leadership may have made a difference. It's hard to say. You want to keep that continuity in the locker room but you also want to have the right guys in place. I don't get paid to make those decisions, so we'll see what happens."