January 19, 2016

Zero to Hero: Who will be 2016’s Cinderella story?


TORONTO — In some parts of Canada you’ll hear this old saying that if you don’t like the weather, wait a minute. Funny, you could almost say the same for the CFL landscape – especially as it pertains to teams missing the playoffs.

The standings in the CFL sometimes change like the weather across parts of Canada, so what’s that tell us about your chances if you’re a Bombers, Alouettes or Riders fan? Well, just look at last November’s Grey Cup matchup.

It took the Eskimos two years to go from four wins to owning the CFL’s best record, winning the West Division and earning an eventual victory in the 103rd Grey Cup. Edmonton’s opponent in that game? A REDBLACKS team that went from two wins in 2014 to 12 wins and an East Division title just a year later.

What’s obvious is the year-to-year change in this league is substantial. Good teams can turn bad pretty quickly, like the Riders from 2013 to what they became last year. And just as quickly, good teams can turn the corner and become dominant:


Team Year Record Opponent Score Record Improvement
Montreal 1969 2-10-2 Calgary 23-10 7-6-1 +4.5 wins
Toronto 1995 4-14 Edmonton 43-37 15-3 +11 wins
Ottawa 1950 4-7-1 Saskatchewan 21-14 7-5 +2.5 wins
Toronto 1949 5-7 Winnipeg 13-0 6-5-1 +1.5 wins
Toronto 2011 6-12 Calgary 35-22 9-9 +3 wins


Further to that, six teams (including Ottawa in 2015 and the Ticats in 1998, who lost to Calgary in the Grey Cup after going 2-16 in 1997) have appeared in the Grey Cup Championship following a two-win season.

So as the off-season kicks off and teams look to turn their fates, whether through trades, a big splash in free agency or just strength in continuity, we beg the question: Who will be 2016’s Cinderella story?

After two of the three non-playoff teams in 2014 returned last season, we look at the forecast for the three teams that failed to qualify for post-season play last season – and what it’ll take for them to be on the field next year in late in November.

Montreal Alouettes


The eternal optimist:

The Alouettes fell short of the playoffs last year following a tumultuous season, one in which they lost multiple quarterbacks to injury and dismissed their head coach about two months in.

Yet in the wake of a 6-12 season, there’s plenty of reason for optimism – the number one being continuity. The veteran Kevin Glenn will be back under centre after landing in Montreal late last year in a trade, as he looks to bring veteran leadership to a team already with some explosive parts on offence.

On defence, meanwhile, the Als will return Noel Thorpe after some off-season controversy while the majority of players on that unit are under contract through 2016, including last year’s sack leader in John Bowman.

The pieces are there for the Alouettes to be a real X-factor in the East as Montreal will be one of the most experienced teams in the CFL entering a new season.

The problem:

Continuity can be your friend in this sport, yes, but for an older team like the Alouettes, what can change the Als from being a 6-12 team to making the playoffs in the highly-competitive East Division?

Having the same coaching staff return to the sideline will be a huge help no doubt, but the Alouettes need a player that can put them over the top. Last year they weren’t overly impressive in any one category, ranking fifth overall defensively and seventh on offence – both areas that will need to improve substantially.

They’ll make the playoffs if:

Kevin Glenn is productive and healthy. When the Alouettes had strong quarterback play, they won football games. It’s no secret that’s the key to success in the CFL, and last year two early-season injuries to Jonathan Crompton and Dan LeFevour put the offence behind the 8-ball right away.

Glenn is in the top 10 for all-time passing yards and has proven he can be a solid CFL starter. Can he be consistent enough though? Will he have the right pieces around him?

There are a lot of questions in Montreal but more often than not, how far you go is determined by quarterback play. The Als have other guys that can play too, but in the end they need a strong season from the wily veteran.

Winnipeg Blue Bombers


The eternal optimist:

In a make or break year in the Manitoba capital, is 2016 the year the Bombers finally break out and become an elite CFL team? The first step would be getting in the playoffs. That’s not unreasonable if a few things go their way, which starts with the health of Drew Willy.

Willy was a top-three quarterback last year when healthy, but injuries limited him to seven starts. Since then the Bombers have added Paul LaPolice and could also be active in free agency as they look to bolster an offence that ranked dead last in the league in net yards.

A young, athletic O-line and a new-look offence combined with a breakout season from Willy should have the Bombers back in the post-season or potentially better.

The problem:

Those who stand in the way. Yes, the Bombers have some problems of their own to sort out, but the biggest issue may be who they have to overtake to get back in the post-season. It starts at the top, where the Eskimos and Stampeders have been two of the CFL’s top teams over the past several years. They’ve both gone through changes this off-season but still figure to contend for the West.

If Winnipeg can’t overcome one of those two West Division powerhouses, that leaves the Bombers along with the Riders and Lions fighting for a single playoff spot. Both of those teams are expected to be better than last year which means the Bombers may have to be much better too.

They’ll make the playoffs if:

Drew Willy stays healthy, the offence clicks under LaPolice and the team can make a splash in free agency.

The Bombers need Willy under centre and they need to get him some help. They’ve improved their O-line substantially the last year or so, while LaPolice’s offence will help the quarterback get rid of the ball quicker – but the team needs more proven performers at running back and receiver.

If GM Kyle Walters can get his quarterback just a little more star power this off-season, the Bombers’ playoff outlook will change very quickly because the foundation is already in place.

Saskatchewan Roughriders


The eternal optimist:

After going 5-21 since the Banjo Bowl in 2014, the Riders hit the reset button this off-season and will have a brand new outlook in 2016, from the front office and the coaching staff all the way down to the kicker and punter. And who better to lead the charge than a proven Grey Cup winner in Chris Jones?

Jones has been a CFL coach for 14 seasons and never missed the playoffs, reaching the division finals 12 times, appearing in the Grey Cup seven times and winning a Grey Cup in each of his four stops – so why should anything be different in Saskatchewan?

Riderville was shaken up up by the release of Weston Dressler and John Chick among other previous off-season departures, while Jones’ rebuild remains a total work in progress with the off-season barely under way. But after the previous core wasn’t getting the job done, a fresh start means a chance to build something special from the ground up – something Jones has proven he can have success doing.

The problem:

The Riders are a team in total rebuild. If it wasn’t obvious before, it is now after the release of Chick and Dressler. Teams can turn things around quickly in the CFL, but is it possible for Jones and the Riders to make such a fast turnaround without their franchise cornerstones?

Then there’s the fact that Jones, while a proven winner on the sidelines, is taking on the task as a general manager on top of his coaching duties for the first time in his career. It’s true, Jones surely had a large say in personnel during his time with the Eskimos and even the Argos, but now he has more on his hands than ever before.

Finally, the quarterback question is one that always looms — whether Durant returns or not. If he’s back, can he be productive after missing almost two and a half seasons? And if not, will Jones land an experienced CFL pivot?

They’ll make the playoffs if:

They have an experienced quarterback and there’s rapid buy-in to the Chris Jones way of life.

A healthy Durant can make a world of difference in Riderville because at 33 there’s no reason he can’t still perform at a high level. Meanwhile, as Jones implements his aggressive, fast-paced coaching style on both sides of the ball, how quickly can the Riders get up to speed?


It didn’t take long in Edmonton as Jones brought a culture change to the Eskimos almost suddenly. But in Saskatchewan it may be more of a culture shock than a change, as the Riders’ slate is mostly blank going in.

Right now the Riders are lacking proven CFL talent, although that could change as the team has cleared up cap space entering a particularly strong free agent class. And on top of that, Jones has proven his ability to uncover hidden talent south of the border when necessary as well.

One thing’s certain: If the Riders have success right away this year, we can be certain that Jones truly has found a unique secret winning formula to win in the CFL.