It seems a little silly to be highlighting how much better the CFL’s West Division has gotten this off-season. After all, the West has produced four of the last five Grey Cup winners and has long held the league’s balance of power. But after a year in which three teams in the division finished well below the .500 mark, you knew there was going to be some significant change this winter. Well that change has happened and it’s hard not to take notice.
It seems like everyone in the West has undergone some sort significant change. BC is bringing Wally Buono back on the sidelines. Edmonton won the Grey Cup and lost virtually its entire coaching staff to the overhauled Riders. Calgary has a new head coach and a new defensive coordinator. And Winnipeg smashed open the piggybank to transform in free agency. As you can see, I wasn’t really exaggerating.
But don’t just take my word for it because players league-wide are just as acutely aware of this crazy off-season as we are. For instance, I had a chance to pick the brain of one of the West Division’s brightest stars on just this topic. Stampeders quarterback Bo Levi Mitchell knows playing out west has just gotten even more difficult.
Let’s not forget, the Stamps have made major changes of their own. John Hufnagel has handed over the coaching reins to Dave Dickenson while Rich Stubler has been replaced by Devone Claybrooks at defensive coordinator. On the field, mainstays like Keon Raymond and Juwan Simpson are gone while Eric Rogers is going to try his hand south of the border.
The Stamps were going to be hard pressed to keep their spot near the top of the mountain regardless. When you factor in how much teams around them got better, it makes the challenge that much more difficult.
For instance, Calgary went 5-0 combined against Winnipeg and Saskatchewan last season. Not coincidentally, those two teams happen to have been the busiest teams this off-season. It seems unlikely Edmonton (who went 4-0 against them in 2015) and Calgary will dominate the Bombers and Riders again this season.
“I think Winnipeg did improve,” Mitchell told me. “I know some guys that went over there and I know they’re good athletes and I know that, sure, I would have been happy to have some of those guys too.”
“I know they’re good athletes and I know that, sure, I would have been happy to have some of those guys too.”
If you were a quarterback, you’re telling me that adding Andrew Harris and Ryan Smith to your arsenal wouldn’t be something you’d embrace? While I still have some questions about the overall foundation Winnipeg has in place, I also understand the Bombers are likely going to be much, much better this season.
Adding kicker Justin Medlock takes the Bombers from a team likely to lose by a few points into a team that could find itself on the right side of some close games. Winnipeg has added on the defensive line, too, and it would be a surprise to see the Bombers struggle to the extent they did in 2015.
The Riders should be in very much the same boat.
“When you watch Saskatchewan last year…they were losing games by seven points, six points, three points,” Mitchell observed. “Now they have a championship head coach in there…we all know what Chris Jones brings to the table defensively and I’m sure they’re excited to have him over there wearing green and I’m excited to play them.”
The Riders have gotten their fair share of press this winter, and for good reason. They have completely overhauled their team to an extent that we can’t really get into on this column without keeping you here for another few hours. Nothing went untouched in Regina this off-season; they made sweeping change in the player personnel department, coaching, and of course on the field.
Of course, Saskatchewan and Calgary remain heated rivals and that isn’t going to change anytime soon. That didn’t stop Mitchell from putting himself in Darian Durant’s shoes as a fellow quarterback, though.
“As a vet you’re excited about it, you know the change and the younger guys you’re bringing in.
“But not only that, the change of culture; Saskatchewan is looking for that, they’re thirsty for it, and I think they’re going to be a different team this year.”
It’s tough to disagree, which means we’re probably looking at another vastly improved team in 2016. So where does that leave the defending champs?
Edmonton was dominant en route to its first Grey Cup title since 2005. And now the Eskimos look like a completely different team. Jones has left for the Riders and he’s taken most of his staff with him. This is Jason Maas’s team now and his challenge becomes keeping his team at the top of the pecking order. With all that change and with a drastically improved division, that is a daunting task.
“I think they’re excited. I’ve always stayed close with JC Sherritt and…they are very excited about what’s going on over there,” said Mitchell. But it was his observation on Maas that really stood out to me.
“I think Maas is a great coach; he’s a guy who I’ve seen from the very beginning.
“When he was in Toronto, we played them, I would see him out on the field with [former backup quarterback] Trevor Harris before he was the starter…he had him out there running drills every single game.
“You see what Jason brings offensively to a team, so I know they’re very excited over there.”
So, yeah, the Eskimos are also a team in transition, but that doesn’t mean they’re going to take significant steps back. Mike Reilly is one of the league’s elite quarterbacks and despite losses like Kenny Stafford and Aaron Grymes, they’re still going to be a tough out.
What does this all illustrate? More than anything, it’s a pretty good depiction of how much of a dogfight playing in the West Division is going to be this year. That’s not a slight on the four teams out east, because the balance of power really did shift their way last season.
That’s why it’s been such a busy and significant winter in the west. Teams like Saskatchewan aren’t used to losing like they did in 2015 while the Bombers are sick of struggling like they have since realignment.
As we mentioned off the hop, four of the last five Grey Cup winners have been West Division representatives. Knowing how the five teams will have to slug it out this season, I honestly wonder what the last team standing will have left when we get to BMO Field in late November.
Diamond in the rough?
We won’t be making an appearance next Monday because CFL.ca is going to be all over next weekend’s National Combine in Toronto. We’re already ramping up our coverage right now and something really caught my eye when researching over the last few days.
Toronto offensive line product Josiah St. John has been an interesting CFL prospect ever since he transferred to Oklahoma in 2013 as a highly touted junior college prospect from Trinity Valley Community College.
At a big time Big 12 school, St. John started four games at right tackle as a senior in 2015 and he did it against solid competition like Texas and West Virginia. But what makes the former Sooner so intriguing is just how high his ceiling could be.
It’s no secret St. John is a late bloomer. He went the JUCO route before catching on in the NCAA and was still putting everything together in his two-year stint under Bob Stoops at Oklahoma. As one scout told Dunk, St. John “possesses all the tools” but just needs to “put it all together.”
It shouldn’t surprise anyone, then, that ESPN named St. John as a potential breakout player prior to the 2015 season. While that may not have fully come to pass, all those traits still exist and there’s no question he has the ability to be a true impact player at the professional level.
St. John has the right passport and, as an offensive tackle, plays one of the most crucial positions in the sport. Don’t be surprised if there’s a buzz surrounding him coming out of this weekend’s combine. The prospect of St. John “putting it all together” is something that might be too good to pass up.