The choke artist who shall not be named

Someone blew the Grey Cup for the Saskatchewan Roughriders. But was it really Jason Armstead?
Michael Friscolanti and Charlie Gillis

When a sports team chokes, the choke in question doesn’t usually require much explanation. The Boston Red Sox lost that World Series game to the Mets because Billy Buckner let a slow groundball dribble through his legs. The Buffalo Bills blew their first of four Super Bowl chances because Scott Norwood was wide right. And the Edmonton Oilers of the 1980s probably would have won five straight Stanley Cups had rookie defenceman Steve Smith not passed the puck into his own net.

The 97th Grey Cup featured its own memorable choke: the underdog Saskatchewan Roughriders lost to the Montreal Alouettes by one measly point because someone wearing a green jersey was on the field when he should have been on the sidelines. But unlike Buckner and Norwood and Smith—whose gaffes were instantly obvious—we still don’t know who actually screwed up. The coaches are not saying and, to their credit, the culprit’s teammates aren’t throwing him under the bus either.

Here’s what we do know. With five seconds left on the clock and the Als down by two, Damon Duval attempted a 43-yard field goal that didn’t even come close to the uprights. But to the horror of Rider Nation, penalty flags flew as soon as the ball was snapped. Saskatchewan had 13 men on the field—one too many—and Duval was granted a do-over from ten yard closer. He didn’t miss. Alouettes 28, Riders 27. Game over.

Fingers were quickly pointed at Jason Armstead, the Rider receiver who was standing in touchdown territory when Duval missed kick number one. “It looked like somebody ran on late into the end zone,” said TSN broadcaster Chris Cuthbert. It certainly did seem strange that the Riders—desperate to block the field goal attempt—would waste a player in the end zone when an extra body would have certainly helped on the line of scrimmage. Even if the Als missed the kick and the ball traveled through the end zone, the resulting single point would not have cost the Riders the Cup. (At least one fan is convinced that Armstead is to blame. Just hours after the final whistle, some semi-literate soul altered the receiver’s Wikipedia profile to say he “was responsible for a crucial penalty during the final play of the 2009 Grey Cup” and “ultimately put the Montreal Alouettes in field goal position”).

In the locker room, Armstead proclaimed his innocence. “What kind of question is that?” he told reporters. “Come on, ask a smart question. Don’t do that. Ask a smart question.”

What he should have said is: “Check out the replay.” Because the video footage of those final, critical moments raises an interesting question: If Armstead is the goat, why was he on the field not just for the first, penalized play, but for both of Montreal’s field goal attempts?

That’s right. Look closely at TSN’s pictures of Duval’s second kick, and you’ll see Armstead still in the Roughriders’ end zone (at 1:22 of the clip, directly behind the official on the right hand side). Surely if he was supposed to be on the line of scrimmage—or off the field entirely—he would have been gone from the end zone for the Mulligan.

Yes, the Toronto Star’s Damien Cox makes a good point about the redundancy of having a returner in the end zone if conceding a single point wouldn’t have cost Saskatchewan the game. But it’s possible the Rider coaches worried that something would go wrong with their attempt to block Duval’s kick. Montreal might somehow recover the ball in the air after it had been blocked, in which case having one last man to prevent an Alouette ball-carrier from entering the end zone might have come in handy.

And look at the CFL Rulebook’s section on scoring: if the ball goes into the end zone “as a direct result of a kick from scrimmage being blocked in the field of play or goal area,” it says, and the player in possession takes a knee, the result is not single point, but a safety touch, which is worth two points. Two points would have tied the game.

Would a tipped ball that wound up in the end zone qualify as a “direct result” of a block? Hard to know. The rule was likely written for scenarios where a team is punting from deep within its own territory yet gets stuffed by defenders.

In the end, the Saskatchewan coaches might simply have made a big mistake, putting a man in the end zone when they didn’t need to. But put him there they did. Twice. Which suggests their heads fit the goat horns about as well as Armstead’s—if not nearly as well as the mystery player who stayed on the field when he was supposed to come off.