They say that absence makes the heart grow fonder, but Head Coach Marc Trestman didn’t need a bye-week break to think of the 2012 edition of the Alouettes as a special group of players and coaches.
“The year’s really gone by extremely fast,” said the two-time Grey Cup champion from his off-season home in Raleigh, North Carolina.
“The one memory I have is how good our players have been. I said early on how much I’ve enjoyed coaching this team. They’ve listened, they’ve worked together, handled the adversity and the things that have happened to us along the way. It’s really been quite a ride all the things we’ve had to deal with. “Hopefully it will give us the backbone to finish strong here.”
Saturday the players return for two days of “competitive practices” to restore their conditioning. By Sunday night they’ll know who comes to Olympic Stadium to suffer the roar of 50,000-plus pro-Montreal fans.
“We were excited about having this bye week and getting a chance to rest and regroup and let those two teams battle it out.”
The Als are NOT concerned about a season-ending loss in Winnipeg preventing them from their first three-game win-streak to close out a regular season schedule since 1998.
Since the franchise was reborn, that’s the only year other than 1996 they’ve gone 3-0 heading into post-season. In each case the Als were stopped dead in their tracks at the Eastern Final.
What IS concerning, however, is two battlers in the trenches getting dinged before the break: centre Luc Brodeur-Jourdain (hoping to be cleared after concussion) and defensive tackle Scooter Berry, who is expected to be held out of the Eastern Final because of a shoulder separation.
“Berry is a big loss—he’s done just a fantastic job playing some good football and becoming a leader on the team,” explains Trestman. “Certainly that will hurt us. We have guys who will have to step up.”
If the Als are destined for a trip to the Grey Cup, it may thus be aboard “The Staten Island Ferry.” Ollie Ogbu, former Penn State captain, built like the ferryboat that chugs to and from his hometown.
“He has the right attitude,” says Trestman. “Jim’s brought in another really good person, a high character guy with football ability, so he’s going to have to step up and play a much larger role as we finish up the season here in the next month.”
“Ollie is a very strong, physical push guy up the middle. As injuries have mounted, he did a fairly decent job in his first games. But we’re looking to bring someone else in. We’re looking as we’re talking,” said General Manager Jim Popp.
A GM must be prepared for the next injury crisis after all, and there is no over-confidence despite the fact the Als were 2-1 vs. the Argos, 2-0 vs. the Esks in 2012. The regular season finale loss to the Bombers also re-exposed the Special Teams Achilles Heel. Long returns surrendered always seemed to jumpstart opponents’ comebacks.
“I think we’ve been inconsistent in all three phases,” says Popp, refusing to single out shoddy “teams” play.
The truth is, even for his three Grey Cup Champion rings, in his 19th season Anthony Calvillo may still be due for a dream post-season through each of the four quarters of a playoff game and the 100th Grey Cup.
“I think he’s had an outstanding season…there are too many critics who get caught up in the stats and won-lost records,” says Popp of the Als’ but not the East’s MOP nominee. “They don’t notice the shifting of personnel. He’s had a tremendous, tremendous year and he’s by far been the top player in our league for well over the last five years or more.”
I ask Popp if he thinks AC wants to play again in 2013?
“I haven’t heard that he doesn’t so that leads me to believe that we hope to see Anthony around hopefully for a few more years.”
“We’ll take one year at a time in the off-season, let the body rest and when the right time comes we’ll have that discussion. That’s how it’s been handled for a couple of years now.”
Amidst the personal accolades, Outstanding Offensive Lineman finalist Josh Bourke says it’s an important week.
“There are a lot more important things on our plate right now, we got a big game coming up next week and then competing in the Grey Cup is what we’re focused on right now.”
Bourke, named an East All-star for a fifth-straight year, says the Argos are a “good group, thick-bodied up front…very good against the run—and they got Belli back in there and he’s up to his old tricks.”
“Chris Jones is a really good coordinator, you never really know what you’re going to get out of him. Just because they show a certain defence one week doesn’t mean they’re going to run it the next.”
The Als jumped to big and early leads against the Esks, but Bourke warns of “lulls” the team suffered.
“Marcus Howard’s back and he poses as an issue. When healthy he’s one of the better defensive ends in the league. They got a good group up front too, they’ve progressed.”
“We’ve had some success against both teams and that will give us confidence.”
Bourke knows he and fellow award finalist Shea Emry don’t want to be road tripping to Toronto only for a black-tie gala.
“It’s better to be in the Big Game obviously,” says the man who protects Calvillo’s blind side. “We’d been in three in a row, so I went to see what goes into Grey Cup last year, did a lot of charity events, hospital visits, went out and had a couple of cocktails, of course. When you’re in the game you’re so focused.”