November 18, 2013

Steinberg’s MMQB: Grey Cup headlines write themselves

The folks who cover the Canadian Football League on both a national and local level have it pretty easy heading into the final game of the 2013 season.  With Saskatchewan and Hamilton meeting in the 101st Grey Cup, there is no shortage of storylines to flesh out over the next week.

All too easy

I don’t think the aforementioned media covering the lead up to the Grey Cup are going to be complaining about the abundance of intriguing topics to delve into.  First and foremost, the Saskatchewan Roughriders are going to take the year’s biggest party and turn it into something this country hasn’t seen before.

Related: Western Final

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» Images: SSK at CGY
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» Preview: Western Final

No one can deny how long standing the football tradition is in Saskatchewan, as Rider fans have been loyal and passionate ever since inception of their team more than a century ago. But nobody can deny how things have taken off over the last decade or so, as Rider Nation has been taken to a new level. It’s why the party in Regina over the next week will be hard to beat anywhere.
Saskatchewan won the West Division on Sunday afternoon, bucking a slow start far quicker than their red and white opposition in Calgary.  While forcing seven turnovers along the way, the Riders were extremely efficient and ruthless in their game plan, and have left little doubt who the best team in the West is.

Because it’s the nature of being a Rider fan, there wasn’t one green clad fan feeling comfortable in the second half of Saskatchewan’s 35-13 win over the Stampeders. Watching from a more objective standpoint in the McMahon Stadium press box, however, I can tell you I never once felt the Riders were going to let this game slip away.

Having the Riders involved in a Grey Cup hosted by Regina will make for one of the best atmospheres in pro sports anyway.  For a group of fans used to disappointment, a home field championship win will erase heartbreaking losses in 2009 and 2010, no doubt.  

Because this is a franchise with just three Grey Cups to their name in over 100 years of existence, each championship is extremely special.  In this case, though, the Riders could have 33 titles to their name and a win at Mosaic this Sunday will still feel like the first time.

Saskatchewan’s opponent is lead by a familiar face.  It was a vintage Henry Burris on display Sunday in Toronto, as the Hamilton Tiger-Cats scored 19 second half points to storm their way to a 36-24 win in the Eastern Final.  

Hamilton’s quarterback was in prime form once again, throwing for 371 yards and three touchdowns on 27-for-40 passing.  Burris added 51 yards on five carries on the ground, leading the Tiger-Cats to their first Grey Cup birth since 1999.

Rider fans haven’t forgotten Hank’s exit from Regina, and Burris hasn’t forgotten how it all went down either. The future Hall of Fame pivot knew there would be some backlash in the summer of 2004, but still thinks many others would have done the same thing he did. I spoke to him in July and he laid things out pretty clearly.

Related: Eastern Final

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» Images: HAM at TOR
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» Video: Ray, Watt Connect Again
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» Preview: Eastern Final

“All I wanted to do was be a starter,” Burris told me. “I think I deserved it at that time, and whoever was in charge they weren’t going to allow that to happen. They told me I had to still come in and battle for it.

I’m pretty sure when people have the opportunity to be promoted within their company, and to receive a raise and all the good things you work hard for, it’s pretty hard for a person to say no.  

Especially when the raise in salary and the opportunity to play is more lucrative than what you’re being offered at your original location.”

The rivalry that has built up over the decade since Burris decided to depart Regina for Calgary is one of the most memorable ones for me.  For one player to draw the ire of a group of fans like this is something you don’t see every day in pro sports, especially not in our friendly country.  And for Burris, it’s something that goes both ways.

“I knew with the way it was going there was going to be lots of backlash,” Burris mused.  “Off the field with Rider fans, there’s nothing but love.  On the field, we both hate each other and we want to beat each other bad.”

He’ll downplay it this week, because that’s what guys like Hank do.  But make no mistake, having the opportunity to get one over on Rider Nation in a Grey Cup game is something that’ll help fuel Burris’s fire heading into Sunday.  

Just like winning a title on home field will be extra special for the Rider fans, beating Saskatchewan will hold a little extra meaning for Burris.

Do the stories get any better? There are always great stories to tell heading into the CFL’s trademark event, but 2013 seems so much easier than most years.  Buckle up, because the road to the 101st Grey Cup title is going to be nothing but entertaining over the next seven days.

Questions abound

The Calgary Stampeders are going to be trying to answer tough questions for the next eight months.  Unfortunately, there’s one question that will be asked more than any others, at least in the immediacy: How could the league’s best regular season team turn the ball over seven times in one game?

It was an incredible afternoon at McMahon, as the assembled media throng in the cozy press box grew more and more vocal with each passing Stampeders turnover. Brad Sinopoli’s third quarter fumble drew the biggest astounded laugh, with Larry Taylor’s booted punt reception ranking a close second.

Head Coach John Hufnagel led a focused and determined team all season long.  This team fought through ravaging injuries at key positions all year long, and never seemed to miss a beat.  They had a never-ending rotation at offensive line, they used three quarterbacks, and defiantly finished the season with the best record in the league.

Look, there’s no doubt injuries did play a part on Sunday. Minus Micah Johnson and Demonte’ Bolden at defensive tackle, Kory Sheets and Jock Sanders ravaged the Stampeders on the ground.  The Riders finished with 256 rushing yards, and the game plan everyone knew was going to be enacted was executed to perfection.
In the end, though, injuries won’t be what the Stamps fall back on, because they won’t ever be used as an excuse by any team in this league. First off, the better team won, and the better team happened to wear green.  

Second, Calgary lacked the type of focus required in a game of this magnitude. The Riders played well enough that they didn’t need seven turnovers to win, but if you’re the Stamps, that’s why you’ll be kicking yourself until the summer of 2014.
The questions don’t end there, though. The future of this group will be one of the off-season’s most intriguing plots to follow, specifically at quarterback.  Kevin Glenn quietly signed a contract extension this season, an extension that went undetected by most league wide.   

That means all three Calgary pivots are under contract for 2014, with two ripe for the picking in December’s Ottawa expansion draft.
Many believe Ottawa will select Glenn as their quarterback if he’s left unprotected, which seems to be a foregone conclusion.  It doesn’t make a lot of sense to protect Glenn, mainly because he’ll be 35 when the 2014 season gets underway.  

Drew Tate will be 29 and Bo Levi Mitchell will be 24, which is why the decision will likely come down to those two.
I still believe protecting Mitchell is the way to go, as he’s got the highest ceiling of the three at this point. Tate is a very dynamic quarterback, but his injury issues have to factor in to the process.  

On top of that, Mitchell proved to be very dangerous in his work in 2013.  Getting consistent second-string reps next season could do wonders.

More solid footing

Despite being shutout in the second half of their loss to Hamilton, and despite failing in their attempt to repeat as Grey Cup champs, the immediate future looks set for the Toronto Argonauts.  

With Ricky Ray at the helm, the Argos will be a title contender in 2014, because all we know is that he makes teams competitive, just as he did this year.
However, despite knowing Toronto isn’t going to fall off the competitive map like we’ve seen in past years, that won’t change the shock that is likely still being felt by the Double Blue.  

The Argos looked fairly comfortable with a 24-17 halftime lead, and at the very least, it looked like the second half would be a hard fought 30 minutes.
Instead, they had just two first downs in the entire second half after 13 in the opening 30 minutes.  In a game where they needed to manage the clock, Toronto couldn’t run the ball, as the loss of the 2013 Grey Cup MVP was felt dramatically.  

Chad Kackert may have helped stem the tide against Hamilton, but again, the better team prevailed on this day, no doubt about it.
For me, Kackert is the biggest question mark for the Argos in 2014.  When healthy, he’s as scary a tailback as there is in this league.  The problem is, for two seasons now, there have been some question marks with his health.  

2012 was tame compared to this past campaign, as an injury plagued regular season finished with a broken ankle suffered in practice in the lead up to yesterday’s showdown at Rogers Centre.
I don’t want to pain the picture of a guy who’s going to wash out of this league because of injury.  In fact, I tend to be extremely cautious before slapping the “injury prone” label on any guy, and that holds true with Kackert.  

He’s just three seasons into his CFL career and we’ve seen plenty of occasions before where durability increases as a career progresses. He had some bad luck this year, and there’s a good chance that’ll be behind him by the time the next season gets underway.
That said, if there’s one thing Scott Milanovich might think about this winter, it’s having a better backup plan.  While Jerious Norwood was decent in his early CFL career, there just wasn’t much there against Hamilton on Sunday.  

Grooming a consistently capable backup that sees time in all 18 games could be a real help for this team in 2014.  Worst case, he fills in for Kackert if the need arises.  Best case, the run game is even more dangerous with another added dimension, allowing Ray to raise the competitive level of the team that much more.