TORONTO — The 2015 season has been one huge struggle for John Chick and the Saskatchewan Roughriders.
The optimism that surrounded the team at the start of the campaign has been overpowered by the bitter disappointment of mounting defeats. A close 30-27 home loss to the Ottawa Redblacks on Saturday night further anchored the Riders (league-worst 1-11 record) at the bottom of the West Division standings less than two years after hoisting the Grey Cup before their rabid fans at Mosaic Stadium.
And although Chick said the Riders haven't given up on making the CFL playoffs, their uphill battle will be a test of the players' character.
"It's easy to be a front-runner and work hard because winning is fun," said Chick, in Toronto on Monday to kick off the third annual Sun Life Financial Inc. Kick Diabetes program with the CFL. "I think you'll see in the weeks to come what guys are made of, what drives them because when you're as low as we are right now it's about being your best self.
"Each week you still have to put the work in."
Chick admits the Riders' disappointment actually began last year when, after storming out to an 8-2 record, they lost starter Darian Durant to a season-ending elbow injury. The Riders then dropped seven of their next nine games without their offensive leader, including an 18-10 decision to Edmonton in the West Division semifinal.
Durant's healthy return and the off-season acquisition of veteran Kevin Glenn helped buoy Saskatchewan's confidence heading into the season. But Durant suffered a season-ending Achilles injury in the opener before Glenn (torn pectoral) was hurt, leaving unproven rookie Brett Smith and sophomore Tino Sunseri under centre.
At 0-9, the Riders fired head coach Corey Chamblin — the CFL's coach of the year in 2013 — and GM Brendan Taman. Special-teams co-ordinator Bob Dyce and assistant GM Jeremy O'Day were both promoted on an interim basis and Saskatchewan responded by beating Winnipeg 37-19 on Sept. 6 but has dropped two straight since.
What's more, seven of Saskatchewan's 11 losses have been by four points or less.
"That ability to finish, that's tough," Chick said. "You can do a lot of great things during a game but at each individual position it's always about that finish and collectively we haven't been able to get it consistently yet.
"We're still working towards it and the guys in the locker-room haven't given up. Everyone knows their vitality is on the line and you know they're giving their best."
Defensively, Saskatchewan is allowing a 30.4 points per game but the six-foot-four, 250-pound Chick has been a bright spot. He has a team-high eight sacks, one behind league-leaders Jamaal Westerman of Winnipeg and Calgary's Charleston Hughes.
Last year, Chick had a CFL-best 15 sacks but regrets how the Riders' struggles have negatively impacted Saskatchewan's rabid fans.
"It's not only wearing on the players, coaches and staff but you see it affecting fans," he said. "That's who we don't want to let down . . . the people who support us."
The Kick Diabetes program is near to Chick's heart. He was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes at age 14 and wears an insulin pump.
Chick, a two-time Grey Cup champion with Saskatchewan who does charity work with several diabetes-related associations, said he's living proof diabetics can live active lives with education and treatment.
"As healthy as I am and like to think I am unbreakable sometimes . . . to say I've got it whooped, no," he said. "It still takes 24-7 effort but it's possible."
Dan Ralph, The Canadian Press