40 Years Ago – the 1981 Grey Cup Game
The CFL season is in full swing and before we know it the playoffs, and ultimately the Grey Cup will be upon us.
In the run up to that game in, (unusually for now), December, I thought it might be interesting to do a series on the recent decade anniversaries of the big game. Staring with 50 years ago, then 40, 30 and so on.
We started with the 1971 contest and are now moving on a decade to 1981 and a contest between a dominant 14-1-1 Edmonton Eskimos team and 5-11 Ottawa Rough Riders squad. For this game 52,478 fans were on hand at Montreal’s Olympic Stadium to see Edmonton run out 26-23 winners in a surprisingly close contest that came close to being one of the all time great upsets.
The Run up to the Game
Edmonton can point to periods of sustained success throughout their history. This is reflected in their 23 Grey Cup appearances and 14 title wins.
But this game came at the peak of arguably the most successful period in team history. The 1970’s had been a great time to be a football fan in Edmonton. During the decade the team went 97-55-8. That had led to six Grey Cup appearances and three wins.
They finished off the decade with back to back title wins. They followed that up with another championship in 1980. Going into the 1981 Grey Cup game then they were 3 time defending CFL champions coming off a hugely dominant 14-1-1 regular season and looking to put an indelible stamp on their success.
The Rough Riders’ best era was arguably in the 1960’s and early 1970’s. They had been competitive making the playoffs every year bar one from 1966 to 1981. That period had seen them contest five Grey Cup games, winning on four occasions. The most recent win coming in 1976.
Since that Grey Cup appearance they had gone 27-19-2 from 1977-79 and made three consecutive Eastern Finals. Only to be thwarted by the Montreal Alouettes on each occasion. Decline was starting to set in by the early 1980’s however. In 1980 they had gone 7-9 and lost in the Eastern Semi-Final (again to the Alouettes), and by this 1981 season they were posting a 5-11 record. Their first losing season in a decade.
This looked like a potential mismatch with the Rough Riders declining and Edmonton at their peak. They put on quite the game however.
1981 Grey Cup Playoffs
Despite winning just five of 16 games, the ’81 Rough Riders finished second in the East, well behind the Hamilton Tiger-Cats (11-4-1), but ahead of the Montreal Alouettes (3-15) and Toronto Argonauts (2-16), so they played host to the Alouettes in the division semi-final.
After winning 20-16, they travelled to Hamilton and stunned the Tiger-Cats 17-13. The winning points came on a 102-yard pass-and-run play from QB JC Watts to receiver Pat Stoqua in the fourth quarter.
Edmonton had a much simpler route. Having won the West ahead of 11-5 Winnipeg and 10-6 BC Lions teams respectively they waited whilst they played off. BC progressed after a 15-11 win and rode into Edmonton to face the defending champs. 52,861 fans were on hand at Commonwealth Stadium to see the Esks outlast the Lions 22-16 and set up another Grey Cup appearance.
The 1981 Grey Cup Game
The 1981 Grey Cup game did not start as expected. Nor was it the blowout that was expected. Yet, in the end, it was the result that was expected. How close did Ottawa come, and how far did they push a team recently voted the greatest Grey Cup champions of all time?
The Rough Riders entered the game with the worst record ever held by a Grey Cup contender, 5-11, and were heavy underdogs. In fact, the Eskimos entered the game as 22½ -point favourites. Not surprising given that Edmonton had beaten Ottawa 47-21 and 24-6 during the regular season. But the Rough Riders gave the Eskimos their most difficult playoff game in four years.
In fact, they dominated in the first half. At QB for the Rough Riders was J C Watts. He had only appeared in 9 of their games during the season. Hardly setting the league alight. Going 77 of 142 passing for 957 yards 3 TD’s and 11 interceptions. Yet, here he found another gear.
Watts orchestrated a couple of drives that led to a pair of 34 and 37-yard field goals by Gerry Organ in the game’s opening 10 minutes. Which put the 22½ -point underdogs up by a 6-0 lead. It got better for Ottawa in the opening quarter too. Rick Sowieta intercepted a poor throw by Edmonton quarterback Warren Moon, (who had a terrible first-half), helping to set up a one-yard touchdown run by Jim Reid.
In the second quarter, Moon was intercepted again. This time by John Glassford. A turnover that led to Sam Platt’s scamper for a 14-yard touchdown run. Ottawa led 20-0 before Edmonton picked up a single to make it an incredible 20-1 to the underdogs at the half.
A turnaround after halftime
The two teams fortunes would turn around in the second half as Edmonton scored 25 points and Ottawa 3 in the final two quarters of play. Even so, with 6:38 left to play, Gerry Organ kicked his third field goal of the game from 28 yards out to give Ottawa what seemed a comfortable 23-15 lead. Moon, and the Eskimos had other ideas.
Moon was actually briefly pulled from the game in favour of Tom Wilkinson, who was playing in his final CFL game. In the second half, once back in the game, Moon led Edmonton on three touchdown drives, converted a 2 pointer and set up position for the winning Field Goal. Although it was running back Jim Germany that scored Edmonton’s initial touchdown, scoring on a two-yard run.
After this, a Watts fumble was recovered by Dale Potter to give Edmonton a gilt-edged scoring opportunity at the Roughriders’ three-yard line. Four plays later, Moon scored on a goal-line sneak.
Three quarters of the game gone and Edmonton were storming back. But Ottawa still led 20-15. Then Moon fumbled the ball and Ottawa converted that into Gerry Organ’s third Field Goal of the day and a 23-15 lead.
Moon made amends for his fumble with another goal-line touchdown with less than five minutes remaining. A successful pass to Marco Cynear for a two-point convert tied the score at 23-23.
Mister Clutch Delivers
A controversial play followed. Ottawa were moving downfield and Watts hit veteran TE Tony Gabriel for a 20 yard gain. Gabriel had torn knee ligaments, and was limping through the game, but somehow came up with another big play in his career. Except he didn’t. The officials called pass interference penalties on both players and a potential final moment in the spotlight was lost.
Instead, Moon and the surging Edmonton Offence moved the ball close enough to set up a potential game winning 27 yard Field Goal. Enter “Mister Clutch” Dave Cutler who’s missed Field Goal had delivered the only Edmonton point of the first half.
He may have missed earlier in the game. But, with everything on the line he may have been the best clutch kicker of all time in the CFL. The 27-yarder sailed through with three seconds to go and the Eskimos picked up their fourth consecutive Grey Cup with an unexpectedly hard fought 26-23 win.
What Came Next – Edmonton
For Edmonton this game came in the greatest period in their history. Having recorded their fifth straight grey Cup appearance and fourth straight title in 1981 they would win it all again in 1982.
Five consecutive Grey Cup wins is an incredible feat, and remains the greatest CFL Dynasty we have seen. From 1977-1982 the team would be dominant going 70-22-5 and converting that into six straight Grey Cup appearances (they lost in 1977) and five straight wins. It is hard to imagine any team matching this in today’s CFL.
Although Edmonton did not make the Grey Cup from 1983-1985 they still made the playoffs. The Esks would not suffer a losing season again until 1999. Lean times have been few and far between for Edmonton supporters. In the 1980s’ they went 116-50-2, and appeared in 5 grey cup games, winning 4. Although beaten in the West Final, they even ended the decade on a 16-2 season – still the most wins in a CFL regular season.
What Came Next – Ottawa
For the Ottawa Rough Riders however it was a very different story. In 1982 they had another 5-11 season that they were able to convert into a playoff spot. But they were beaten 44-7 by Toronto in the Eastern Final. They would never again make it past an Eastern Semi-Final.
From 1986-1996 they went 49-158-1 including a 12-59-1 run from 1986-1989 and a 6-30 run in what would be their final two seasons from 1995-1996. They had been around in one form or another since 1898.
But that was not the end of CFL football in Ottawa. The 1981 Grey Cup game might have been the last hurrah for the Rough Riders but they would be succeeded by the Renegades and REDBLACKS. The Renegades appeared in 2002 but struggled financially and went 23-49 over 4 years before disappearing.
That was the last CFL team in Ottawa until the REDBLACKS were awarded a franchise in 2008. Wikipedia states that “For historical purposes, the CFL classifies the REDBLACKS, Renegades and Rough Riders as one discontinuous franchise.”
Banner Image: the 1981 Grey Cup feature a mismatch but produced a classic. Image from YouTube.