With the penultimate week of the Canadian Football League season upon us, we know one thing for sure: Week 18 will give us four more meaningful games as the six playoff teams fight for home field in the postseason. Results could make it so the final week of the season doesn’t give us as much drama, but we’ll cross our fingers that isn’t the case.
Goodbye to a legend?
We here at the Monday Morning Quarterback sincerely hope this past week’s news concerning Anthony Calvillo isn’t the beginning of the end. I know many wondered aloud if we might have seen the last of the Montreal Alouettes quarterback after General Manager and Head Coach Jim Popp announced the he would be shut down for the rest of the season. It’s an understandable question to ask, as we’ve been asking it the last number of seasons when AC has finished healthy.
There are many reasons to believe Calvillo has indeed played his final snap. He hasn’t played a game since sustaining a concussion in August. The fact he suffered a setback after getting back on the field and starting to throw again is alarming, especially because concussions are just so unpredictable. And, or course, we’re talking about a guy who will be 42 for most of the 2014 season. Most guys just don’t play that deep into their careers.
Yet, there are just as many reasons the optimist can counter with. We’re talking about one of the most competitive guys we’ve seen, and a player who takes fierce pride in his craft. Knowing that, fighting back from one of the most serious injuries he’s ever faced could be just the fuel Calvillo needs. On top of that, I’m fairly certain he’d like to get back on the field to erase the memories of a frustrating start under since-fired Head Coach Dan Hawkins. And topping the list is his track record. Calvillo has done nothing but beat the odds in his CFL career, so returning from an injury like this to play another year really couldn’t be viewed as a surprise.
Selfishly, I truly hope Calvillo comes back for 2014, if only to give football fans one last look at one of the greatest to ever play. If his career ends like this, it doesn’t taint a thing for me. I’ll remember an epic Grey Cup comeback at McMahon Stadium to force an unforgettable 13th man penalty. I’ll remember his record-breaking accomplishments while still playing at the highest level late in his career. And I’ll remember a guy who simply was one of the class acts of the sport.
Whether you and I want to see him back, there’s one thing that rings truer than anything else: Anthony Calvillo has earned the right to go out however he wants without his legacy being affected, whether a serious injury forces his career to end or not.
Just a few days after the unfortunate Cavlillo news, Als fans were treated to a nice debut that provided a glimmer of hope going forward. When Troy Smith was signed earlier this season, it was clearly with an eye to the future. Montreal had been hoping for a number of years to bring Smith into the fold and were finally able to after the former Heisman Trophy winner took a year off from the game.
Jim Popp would have loved to save Smith’s starting debut until next season under ideal circumstances. 2013 has not been an ideal year in Montreal, however, so Smith got the call Sunday against Hamilton. In a 36-5 home win over the Tiger Cats, Smith gave us a pretty memorable debut and has more than earned a second start in another crucial game, this time on the road in Guelph.
Let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves, as we’ve seen plenty of first time starters put up some nice numbers only to come crashing down to earth. Smith threw three touchdowns on 17 for 35 passing and did most of his damage using big plays. His accuracy will need some work, no doubt, and he had some issues playing against an extra defender for the first time. But he was exciting, and he provided a glimmer of hope when the Als needed it most.
It’s important not to forget how much is still up for grabs here. While Montreal has had a tough season in many senses, they still have a legit shot at a home playoff date with destiny in their own hands. Wins in the final two games of the season would give them a 9-9 record and the head-to-head tiebreak with Hamilton. In that same scenario, the Tiger-Cats could only finish 9-9 themselves and the standings edge would go to Montreal for the Eastern Semi-Final. Plain and simple, if the Als win out, they’re hosting a playoff game.
Smith’s big play ability and experience in big games could very well pay off for Montreal. While his performance in the 2007 National Championship Game with Ohio State wasn’t strong, Smith was the 2006 Fiesta Bowl MVP and is no stranger to important regular season games. If he can give the Als the same explosiveness he gave them on Sunday, this could be a very interesting end to the season.
The Fab Five
We wrote last week about how elite a group of players Calgary Stampeders running back Jon Cornish could join if he were to join the 1,700-yard club. Well, thanks to 145 more yards on Friday night in Edmonton, he’s basically a shoo-in to make that happen. With two games remaining, Cornish has already put together one of the greatest seasons ever for a tailback, and there’s still 120 minutes for him to build on it.
Cornish is at 1,690 yards right now and the Stamps still have at least one more meaningful game to play. If they were to fall to the Riders on Saturday night at McMahon Stadium, they’ll need to play their starters in week 19 too. If Calgary wins their final home game, then there’s a much larger chance we see Cornish used sparingly to finish the season. Does it really matter, though?
Anyway, enough about Cornish, because there’s not a whole lot else that can be said. What hasn’t been talked enough about is how good a job the beasts in front of him have done all season long. The Stampeders offensive line has been the league’s top unit, and has the stats to back it up.
Whether they’ve been playing at full strength or not, this front five has been great in all aspects and deserves a ton of credit. In Friday’s 27-13 win over the Eskimos, Cornish ran for more than 7.6 yards per carry, upping his season average 7.2 per carry. Yeah, he deserves a ton of credit, but he wouldn’t be doing it if we weren’t talking about heaps of space open for him on a regular basis.
While the Calgary ground game has plenty of big plays in them, Cornish wasn’t boosting his average with one or two plays on Saturday. His longest run was 22 yards, with much of the rest coming from great gaps. Cornish is very gifted when it comes to reading his blocks, but he didn’t need glasses to see the openings against Edmonton, because they were evident as soon as the ball was snapped on many occasions.
Remember, this is a line without regulars Dimitri Tsoumpas and Dan Federkeil, but it hasn’t seemed to matter. This is also a unit with a rookie in Brett Jones doing the job at an extremely high level at centre, a spot he’s started at for 15 straight games. Spencer Wilson and Jon Gott are both still very young while Edwin Harrison and Stanley Bryant consistently do the job their asked.
It’s not just in the run game where this group excels, either. Whether it’s been Kevin Glenn, Drew Tate, or Bo Levi Mitchell taking snaps, they’ve been protected. The Stamps have allowed just 31 sacks all season long, and only had their quarterback dropped once against the Eskimos. When you’re averaging less than two sacks against per game, you’re already doing your job. When you couple that with another historic season in the run game, and the Calgary offensive line deserves a hearty tip of a hat.
This and that
Saturday’s showdown between the Riders and the Stampeders is going to be outstanding stuff. A Saskatchewan win will set up a very interesting end to the season, because it will ensure them the advantage if a tiebreaker comes into play. Unlike the Als, the Riders would still need help from BC to win the West Division, but for that to even be possible they have to win their final road game first.
Saturday’s 35-19 thrashing of the BC Lions ensured this much: the Riders will finish this season with a better record than they finished last year. With three straight wins, Saskatchewan is clicking at a much higher level than at this time in 2012 when they lost their final four regular season games. Sure, they almost beat the Stamps in the Western Semi-Final last year, but losing four in a row to close a year didn’t sit well with anybody. Finishing much stronger a year later can only be viewed as a positive.
Toronto is in a very good spot to host the Eastern Final next month, even if it’s not sewed up just yet. That said, they’ve got a good opportunity to do two things in their final two games of the season. First, of course, they can clinch the East Division and rest up for a week before hosting Hamilton or Montreal. The second accomplishment could be almost as important, however.
The Argos finish their season with a pair of home games against Winnipeg and Montreal. That would usually be a good thing and something viewed as a positive, but not necessarily in Toronto’s case. The Argonauts are 3-4 at the Rogers Centre this year and would be well served to get things going at home knowing they’ll be hosting a playoff game there, too.
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.