Just three weeks remain in the 2013 Canadian Football League season with much still to decide. Coupling Week 16 results and the remaining 12 games on the schedule, it’s outstanding to see there will be zero meaningless games in the final three weeks of the season. Even the two teams who likely won’t be playoff bound this year can relish the role of spoiler down the stretch, so bring on the sprint.
|Related: Week 15 Action|
Edmonton vs. Saskatchewan
Winnipeg vs. Montreal
Toronto vs. Hamilton
We’ve written a number of times this year about the Hamilton Tiger-Cats. This is a team that can show so much promise one week before looking like a completely different team the next. While that certain trait has leveled off a tad as the 2013 campaign has grown older, it still remains a worry for anyone involved with this Tiger-Cats team. Yet, even knowing consistency hasn’t been their strong suit this year, there may not be a scarier team to face in the East Division playoffs.
First off, it’s important to point out Hamilton still is playing for an automatic berth in the East Division Final. Their home-and-home sweep of the Argos puts them just one game behind division leading Toronto with a tiebreak going their way in head-to-head meetings. The Tiger-Cats put themselves in a very good spot winning their final two games against the Argonauts, because that won them the season series. The fact they had success against a division opponent shouldn’t be any surprise, though.
We’re talking about a Hamilton team who has lost just once in their division this year. The Tiger-Cats have a home-and-home set with the Als before finishing their season in Winnipeg. Now we’re not suggesting either of those two teams will be walks, but if Hamilton’s mastery of the East Division continues, they’ll be in very good shape to challenge for the division crown.
We all know the main thing that makes Hamilton as dangerous as they are. Their passing attack lead by quarterback Henry Burris remains the most potent in the league with multiple big play receivers at the ready. But what makes them a much more difficult out come playoff time is their balancing act, which is coming along.
Offensively, we’ve seen a much more successful ground attack in recent weeks. C.J. Gable has put together three straight weeks of at least 96 yards, and two of those weeks have seen him go well above the century mark on the ground. Adding in backup pivot Dan LeFevour, the Tiger-Cats have averaged two rushing touchdowns per game over that same time period. Clearly Hamilton’s ground game is becoming a much more potent threat late in the season.
But it’s not just when the Ticats have the ball. Hamilton allowed just two passing touchdowns in their back-to-back wins over Toronto, which cuts their per-game average in half compared with 2013 as a whole. And let’s not forget this is a team that hasn’t necessarily been easy to run on all year. Their performance against the Argos dropped their per-game rushing average by more than four yards, and they continue to allow less than a touchdown per game on the ground.
What we saw from week 13 was a wide-open East Division. Montreal had a tough time with Winnipeg while Hamilton took out Toronto for a second straight week. While the Argos will continue to be the favorite due to their status as defending champions, it would be foolish to write off Hamilton. The Tiger-Cats are a team far and away better than they were when the season started.
At least one of our loyal commenters took issue with my commentary on Alouettes quarterback Josh Neiswander last week. I had intimated the 26-year-old was a temporary fix at pivot in Montreal, and argued he was being groomed as the heir apparent to the injured Anthony Calvillo. The problem is, I just can’t see it. The quarterback situation for the Als has to be making Jim Popp’s head spin, because he’s not just thinking about 2013, he’s got 2014 and beyond on his mind too.
On the immediate front, Neiswander seems to be the guy Popp will turn to down the stretch. I can understand his thinking, despite my selfish hope of seeing Troy Smith get a real shot this season. I have no major affinity for Smith, it’s just that Neiswander hasn’t shown me the tools that say he’s ready to be a number one in this league consistently, now or in the future.
That said, sticking with a guy who has a season-long grasp of the offence isn’t the worst idea in the world. Popp knows far better than I how ready Smith is to get a start, so I think I’ll defer to him in this matter, seeing as how he’s running practices I haven’t laid eyes on. So what is the thinking for 2014?
We have no idea if Calvillo will be coming back for another season in Montreal. He’s 41 years old and will have to put an injury-plagued season in the books. If he comes back, it’s a bonus for the Als and they can continue using him as their number one for another season. But whether he’s back for 2014 or not, it doesn’t change one main fact: Montreal has to find a guy with true potential to take over when the AC era ends.
Smith has to stay. Not because I think he’s a bona fide CFL starter. Not because he’s shown anything so spectacular that they can’t let him go. They have to keep him around because, just like Neiswander a few years ago, he’s an unknown quantity with glimpses of potential. The Als brought Smith in for a reason, so giving him a full season with a full training camp would only be prudent business. But there’s no guarantee whatsoever he’ll be the guy they can count on game in, game out.
That’s why I’ll be keeping a closer eye on Popp’s dealings this winter than I usually would. Who knows where names like Drew Tate, Kevin Glenn, and Zach Collaros might end up. It’s something Montreal needs to address, whether it be with great offseason plans for Neiswander and/or Smith or additions elsewhere. At some point, we won’t be wondering when Calvillo will return.
Chasing (more) history
Seeing Calgary’s Jon Cornish break his own record on Friday night was fairly anticlimactic, which is kind of unfair. He’s done it to himself, though, because he’s been so deadly on a weekly basis for so long. His previous record set in 2012 came along with a slow start to the season. 2013 saw him hit the ground running (literally) right away, and it’s shown. Already broken, he’s going to vaporize his single season record for rushing yards by a Canadian.
While he likely won’t approach Mike Pringle’s overall single season mark, his total to date of 1,545 rushing yards is the highest posted since Charles Roberts put up 1,609 in 2006. If Cornish runs at his season average of about 110 yards per game (remember, he missed one game midseason), he’d be on pace for around 1,875. Not saying he’ll get there, but if he does, it’ll be the best mark we’ve since the aforementioned Pringle was terrorizing linebackers at his peak in the late 90’s.
So, while he’s already put up staggering numbers, and the best rushing totals we’ve seen in seven years, there’s a chance Cornish will be placed in elite company by the end of this season. Only seven running backs have gone over 1,700 yards in a season in this league, so Cornish would join Johnny Bright, Earl Lunsford, George Reed, Willie Burden, Willard Reaves, Robert Mimbs, and Pringle on the list. Only Pringle and Burden have been over 1,800.
At this point, I just don’t see anyone who could usurp Cornish as the West Division’s nominee for Most Outstanding Player. I know Saskatchewan’s Kory Sheets has played fewer games and only trails Cornish by 137 yards, but what the guy in red and white is doing is true to the letter of the award: outstanding. He’s gaining 7.2 yards per carry as compared to 5.6 for Sheets, and could very well put in the books one of the greatest single seasons for rushing we’ve ever seen. To me, that’s more than worthy of the West’s MOP nod.
Pat Steinberg is the co-host of the drive home program on Sportsnet Radio FAN 960 in Calgary. He also reports on the CFL and the Stampeders and hosts pre and post-game programs for the team. He looks forward to traveling to the Grey Cup every year. Follow Pat on Twitter @Fan960Steinberg.