Oh hello there CFL fans. Feels like it’s been ages since Ernest Jackson’s 18-yard OT touchdown grab gave us one of the greatest Grey Cups of all time. With the pre-season mercifully over, we can finally turn our attention to games that count with players we have actually heard of!
So that means it’s time for my annual preview column where the theme is both bright sunny optimism and abject despair. I will fill your hearts with warmth explaining why your team has an excellent chance to win the Grey Cup and then moments later I will be Debbie Downer, pointing out that your team is doomed and you may as well start peppering Duane Forde and Marshall Ferguson with your 2018 CFL Draft questions.
Let’s get started!
What they were doing when we last saw them: After a brilliant 32-31 comeback win against the Winnipeg Bombers, the Lions were roundly thumped by the Calgary Stampeders, losing 42-15.
Why I like them: Once newly acquired receiver Chris Williams is healthy, the Lions will have the best receivers in the game. This past year saw Emmanuel Arceneaux, Bryan Burnham and Williams combine for 261 receptions, 4,204 yards and 26 touchdowns. Look at those numbers one more time!
In Jonathon Jennings, the Lions have a young quarterback poised to wrestle the MOP away from Bo Levi Mitchell. His rise has come along so quickly from backing up Travis Lulay in 2015. I loved his poise after multiple mistakes put the Lions down 25-6 late in the second quarter of that Western Semi-Final. It’s one thing when a young quarterback can win his first post-season start but it is an entirely different animal when a 24-year-old can shake off his errors and lead his team back from such a deficit under that amount of pressure.
The Lions weren’t just a team who could beat you through the air in 2016 as they led the league in both rushing yards and touchdowns. BC was the only team in 2016 to beat a Bo Levi Mitchell-led Calgary team in the regular season and in 2017 the Lions will finally get over Calgary in the playoffs as they go to their first Grey Cup since 2011.
Why I don’t like them: Yes, Solomon Elimimian is still at his linebacker position, making life miserable for opponents — but the Lions saw CFL All-Star Adam Bighill and his 489 tackles, 33 sacks, eight interceptions and eight forced fumbles in 99 games depart for the NFL’s New Orleans Saints. Losing such an important piece will be a huge hit for a defence that saw another linebacker, Bo Lokombo, sign with the Baltimore Ravens. The team has high hopes for Micah Awe but you’re asking a great deal of the Texas Tech rookie to fill some massive cleats at linebacker.
The talent drain doesn’t end at the linebacker position as the team’s leading sacker Alex Bazzie is now in Arizona and six-time CFL All-Star Jovan Olafioye said au revoir to Vancouver and calls Montreal home. That is a great deal of elite talent to lose in one off-season.
Yes, the Lions beat Calgary to start the year, but they also lost by 28 in their other regular season game and they trailed 32-0 at the half in their playoff loss! Sorry BC, you’re doomed to losing to Calgary for the third time in the playoffs. But hey, unlike your last two playoff losses, this time you may be able to keep it in single digits!
What they were doing when we last saw them: A near double-digit favourite, Calgary was on the losing end of one of the craziest Grey Cup games anyone has ever seen, losing to the Ottawa REDBLACKS resulting in huge losses for gamblers and making gas bags like me look really stupid.
Why I like them: Because they really only lost one regular season game and that was in Week 1. You name an important statistical category and I’m betting the Stampeders were either first or second. They have won 29 games over the past two seasons and last year they basically stomped all over everyone until their stunning Grey Cup loss.
The reigning MOP is healthy and under centre and I think we’re all excited to watch the Mitchell to second year receiver DaVaris Daniels connection. Daniels came out of nowhere in the second half of the season embarrassing secondaries by putting up nearly 900 yards and nine touchdowns (ICYMI: Check out this fantastic piece on Daniels).
Charleston Hughes and Micah Johnson are back and I love the addition of Bryan Hall to help bolster the middle of that defensive line.
Why I don’t like them: Now just remember, “doom” is relative when it comes to this franchise, but there is no way this team is going to be as focused in 2017 after what happened in the Grey Cup. You have to think that so many of the players still wake up and ask themselves “how the hell did we lose that game???” What-ifs are a hard thing to live and work with but they are going to be haunting the veterans all season long.
On the field, Mitchell’s job just got a lot tougher with his main bodyguard, OL Derek Dennis, obviously tired of winning games, electing to sign with Saskatchewan. The secondary, while talented, is getting older and the team just lost Cordarro Law for the year. Calgary won’t be able to handle the firepower of Mike Reilly and Jonathon Jennings and will be relegated to a “pitiful” 10-win season. Shame!
What they were doing when we last saw them: Getting dominated by such luminaries like Kienan LaFrance and Juron Criner on a snowy field, losing 35-23 to Ottawa and proving that the presence of snow can rob your ability to tackle.
Why I like them: It’s easy to focus on Calgary’s offence with Bo Levi Mitchell winning the MOP or the Lions with Jennings and all those wideouts, but it was the Eskimos who led the league in total yards, first downs and second down conversions. The only thing more impressive than Mike Reilly’s beard was his production in 2016, with a league-leading 5,554 yards.
Yes, the defence, statistically, was mediocre last year, but it did improve in the second half thanks to injection of talent in DB Brandyn Thompson and DE Phillip Hunt. Over the past three years, Edmonton has gone 40-32 and has appeared in three straight division final appearances. There is no reason with that offence and an improved defence it’s not Edmonton holding up a second Grey Cup in the past three years.
Why I don’t like them: Not wanting to let Toronto hog the “What the hell are they doing” spotlight, the Eskimos, out of nowhere, fired Ed Hervey as the team’s general manager. I’m not here to say it was the right or wrong move — I’m not inside those walls — but it is mighty strange when one of the main architects of the team’s recent success, the guy who helped bring Reilly to Edmonton, is let go a couple months before the start of the season.
Moving away from the management coup d’état, Edmonton lost fantasy monster Derel Walker, leaving the team searching for a new partner for Adarius Bowman who will set a record for most double teams faced by a receiver in a single season. Without the passing attack firing on all cylinders, Edmonton will find itself again having to cross over to the East but this time getting knocked out quickly in the first round.
What they were doing when we last saw them: Peter Dyakowski being called for a holding penalty that soon led to a Zach Collaros interception, ending any chance of a Tiger-Cats comeback on the way to a 24-21 loss to Edmonton.
Why I like them: I mean, they can’t have another injury plagued season . . . can they? Just how good could the Ticats be if they had relatively healthy seasons from Collaros, Craig Butler, Courtney Stephen, Luke Tasker and so many others? Eventually the team has to run into some sustained good luck with health, so why not this year?
Collaros reverts back to his 2015 form which means the team doesn’t need to have a consistent running attack, which will please Coach Kent Austin to no end. Defensively, the addition of Abdul Kanneh from Ottawa and the health of Butler transforms an already good secondary into the CFL’s best. Everyone raise a warm beer or a Jello shot on Barton Street, the Tiger-Cats are going to the Grey Cup!
Why I don’t like them: Oh I don’t know, maybe because the idea of everything evening out this year injury-wise is not at all based on any sound logic but rather is rooted in nutty sports fan logic. There are no guarantees at all this team will stay healthy.
Also, who is going to kick for Hamilton? The search for a kicker resembles ‘American Idol’ if all the contestants couldn’t hold a note. It seems like every time I check, the team has added another kicker who I have never heard of. A bad kicking game will always cost you a couple of wins.
The team lost a great coach in Orlondo Steinauer and at some point John Chick has to slow down, the guy has eight kids — that has to be tiring right?
What they were doing when we last saw them: Finishing off a disappointing season with a morale-boosting 4-2 end of the season run under then interim and now full-time head coach Jacques Chapdelaine.
Why I like them: Let’s start at quarterback. Darian Durant represents the best option Montreal has employed since Anthony Calvillo. You have to think that Durant is planning on going on a Canada wide “I still got it” tour to prove all his doubters he can still be a key cog on a championship team. He can say he isn’t bitter but I bet somewhere in the recesses of his mind is the Chris Jones quote saying that Durant was “moderately successful.”
No way does the team give up a league-worst 64 sacks with the addition of Jovan Olafioye and Brian Simmons to the offensive line. The team should have greater stability with Chapdelaine getting a full training camp and the addition of Ernest Jackson not only gives them a big-time weapon but also a much-needed boost of a winners mentality in a locker room that has seen a whole lotta losing over the past couple years.
If key veterans like Kyries Hebert, John Bowman and Chip Cox can stay healthy, the Alouettes can win an Eastern Division that didn’t produce ONE team with a winning record in 2016.
Why I don’t like them: Admit it, when Durant injured his knee during training camp, you thought his season was already done. Durant is 34 years old and hasn’t played a full season since 2010. His injury list includes plenty of verbs like “torn” and “ruptured” and back in 2015, he suffered a season-ending injury just two quarters into the year without being hit. I don’t think anyone expects him to survive the whole season.
Can someone please tell me how the defence is going to be better in 2017 with the release of the East Division’s Most Outstanding Defensive Player Bear Woods?
Finally, it has to be a bad sign that the only team that scored fewer points than Montreal was Durant’s former team, Saskatchewan. Ouch.
What they were doing when we last saw them: A near-double-digit underdog, Ottawa stunned Calgary in one of the craziest Grey Cup games anyone has ever seen, resulting in huge gains for a small amount of gamblers and making gas bags like me look really stupid for not giving them a chance.
Why I like them: Henry Burris had one of the greatest games ever played by a quarterback in the Grey Cup and he was the second-best signal caller on his own roster. Trevor Harris’ numbers were ridiculous last season and for the first time in his career, he is the undisputed starter. At 31, he is in the prime of his career and will never have a better chance to really put his mark on this league.
Yes, the team lost some great receiving talent in Jackson and Williams, but Harris still has two 1,000-yard targets in Greg Ellingson and Brad Sinopoli plus the additions of Kenny Shaw and Diontae Spencer give the REDBLACKS more than enough weapons.
Why I don’t like them: It’s hard to get excited about a defence that lost so much talent in the secondary. It’s not just about Abdul Kanneh but also Mitchell White and Forrest Hightower. In total, the team lost five defensive players who started in the Grey Cup including leading tackler and linebacker Damaso Munoz.
It’s so easy to just focus on their Grey Cup win but remember, the team won only eight games last year and was outscored on the season. If Calgary had managed to score after the Jackson touchdown, I think we would all be looking at Ottawa as a .500 team at best. Also, the deal with the devil they signed before the start of the playoffs has expired and, well, that doesn’t usually end well.
What they were doing when we last saw them: Limping to the end of another poor finish as Chris Jones shuffled between three forgettable quarterbacks in a 41-18 loss to the Lions, ending the year on a three-game losing streak.
Why I like them: Duron Carter is certainly on his best behaviour, saying about the Riders that they are “definitely the best football team I’ve been on.” Oh sure, that may sound wildly delusional but hey, at least everyone is getting along.
Late-season addition Willie Jefferson was fantastic rushing the passer upon his arrival and with Derek Dennis, the coaching staff won’t have to worry about the left side of the offensive line.
He ain’t sexy but Kevin Glenn is a steady quarterback who will be able to move the ball with Dennis protecting his blind side and with Carter and Naaman Roosevelt acting as a solid 1-2 punch at receiver. They could really put up some points, especially under a perennially-winning coach in Chris Jones. Maybe, just maybe Saskatchewan can win the West . . .
Why I don’t like them: Sorry, did I black out for a moment? I thought I was saying the Roughriders have a chance. Moving on. Between Kevin Glenn, Brandon Bridge and the departed Vince Young, is there a worse set of quarterbacks in the league? Check out this crazy statistic, courtesy of Rob Vanstone: With the signing of former UNC quarterback Marquise Williams, Chris Jones has brought in 17 different quarterbacks since his arrival in Regina. Nothing says organizational instability in football quite like a high level of turnover at the quarterback position.
On the defensive side, Saskatchewan lost two starting linebackers in Jeff Knox and Otha Foster to the NFL. I wish the Roughriders would be better, the league is more fun with a relevant Saskatchewan team but it just isn’t in the cards in 2017.
What they were doing when we last saw them: Winning only one game after Labour Day.
Why I like them: In Jim Popp and Marc Trestman, the Argonauts have the kind of stability and smarts at the general manager and coach position since the departures of Scott Milanovich and Jim Barker.
Why I don’t like them: Yeah, here’s the thing, when the best thing you can say about a team is its coach and GM, well, that’s a bad sign. The defence was last in so many important statistical categories and every time Ricky Ray is hit, every Argonauts fan collectively holds their breath and prays that he gets up.
I love the 2013 version of S.J. Green but I’m not as enamoured with the recovering-from-a-torn-ACL version. Jeff Fuller had a solid 2015 but he only played in one game in 2016. Brandon Whitaker had his best season since 2011 but how many 31-year-old running backs coming off of a 267-touch season are still productive the following season?
Yes, there are some really good players on this team and the addition of Bear Woods will make a difference, just not enough to make this a competitive team.
WINNIPEG BLUE BOMBERS
What they were doing when we last saw them: Blowing a double-digit second-half lead against the BC Lions in the Western Semi-Final (I still stand by O’Shea electing to attempt that 61-yard field goal).
Why I like them: This is such a tiny sample size but in that playoff loss to the Lions, Matt Nichols did NOT look like a “game manager” as he constantly challenged the Lions secondary deep and finished with almost 400 yards passing and two touchdowns. If Nichols could look that good in the biggest game of his career, why not in the 2017 regular season? Just imagine how much better the Blue Bombers will be if we see that version of Nichols throughout the year.
The return of Tristan Okpalaugo teamed up with Jamaal Westerman and Drake Nevis gives the Bombers a potentially fearsome pass rush, and don’t forget how dreamy CFL All-Star Taylor Loffler looks in his player photo.
Finally, don’t forget the team finished 2016 on a 10-3 run and gave BC a hell of a scare.
Why I don’t like them: As great as Nichols looked in that playoff game, the Bombers still finished second-last in touchdown passes. The biggest issue with Winnipeg is a word that Bombers fans hate: “regression.” Not only did Winnipeg lead the league in turnover ratio at plus-29 but the next highest was the 15-2-1 Calgary Stampeders who were plus-19. A 10 turnover differential is a huge gap.
What if, in 2017, Winnipeg is just slightly above average in this category? How many of those 11 wins in 2016 would have been losses if the team was middle of the pack? When you also consider the team was dead last in yards given up, it’s easy to see a dark path back towards .500.