November 4, 2018

Writing a Narrative: 12 storylines for the Grey Cup Playoffs

Adam Gagnon/

Twenty-one weeks. That’s what’s passed since the start of the season, and now it’s time to open up a fresh page, a new chapter in Canadian football lore.

History probably won’t remember that stormy, rain-soaked night when Chris Streveler made his first start but the Esks came back and won; nor will it quickly recall McLeod Bethel-Thompson leading the Argos from a 24-point deficit to defeat a dejected Ottawa REDBLACKS team in early August.

» O’Leary: Uncertain future could motivate Stamps
» Matchups Set: 106th Grey Cup Playoffs ready for kickoff
» Wally’s Way: How Buono became the CFL’s most iconic coach

The playoffs, the Grey Cup, these are what we remember. For six teams and their fan bases, November provides the opportunity to make a true ripple in sports history. To author new moments that will be remembered forever. Glory that will stand the test of time, from euphoria to nostalgia.

With the stage set and the actors ready, here are some of the top storylines heading into the Grey Cup Playoffs.

The Replacements: Can the Stamps overcome their injured receiving corps?

With injuries to nearly every starting receiver, Dave Dickenson has had to improvise. There’s no denying the Stampeders have a talented group of receivers, but can they meld in time to win two more games and capture the 106th Grey Cup presented by Shaw?

Bo Levi Mitchell looked more like himself in the season finale, throwing for 250 yards in the first half alone to help his team wrap up the West. There’s no doubt that progress has been made, as Mitchell gets on the same page with relative newcomers Chris Matthews and Bakari Grant, along with the newly-promoted Markeith Ambles.

In the end, though, the injuries endured at receiver will either be an excuse in a lost season, or a mark of perseverance on the way to a championship.

Legacy on the Line: Bo knows winning is everything

Bo Levi Mitchell was barely into his 20s before winning his first Grey Cup in 2014, taking MVP honours and, a couple of years later, winning his first Most Outstanding Player award. With the CFL’s all-time winning percentage record for a starting quarterback, Mitchell continues to align himself with some of the greatest signal-callers to ever play the game.

As complete as Mitchell’s resume may be, however, it feels like something’s missing. Everyone is dwelling on the back-to-back Grey Cup losses, both coming in spectacular fashion in upsets at the hands of the Ottawa REDBLACKS and Toronto Argonauts. This year, meanwhile, the Stamps have backed into the playoffs, losing three games in a row before winning the division-clincher in Week 21.

A leading candidate to win his second MOP honour this November, there’s no doubt Mitchell has his eyes on something bigger. Anything less than a Grey Cup and the skeptics won’t be going anywhere.

Bo Levi Mitchell hopes the third time is the charm for the Stamps this post-season (The Canadian Press)

‘Defence wins Championships’: Can the Riders bend the philosophy?

The ‘defence wins champions’ mantra is rarely bought into in the three-down game. That’s because quarterbacks are what drive success on this side of the border. Look at the recent list of Grey Cup-winning pivots: Ricky Ray, Henry Burris, Mike Reilly, Bo Levi Mitchell, Darian Durant, Travis Lulay.

Yet in 2018, the ‘defence first’ approach has worked for one team. The Saskatchewan Roughriders, led by the savvy exploits of Chris Jones along with playmakers like Willie Jefferson, Charleston Hughes and Ed Gainey, fell just shy of a West Division title

Can the Riders’ defence overcome an up-and-down offence that’s struggled to show up week to week? If so, it would go against everything we’ve learned about the CFL, and it would put their defence in rarefied air.

Good Zach/Bad Zach: Which Collaros will show up?

At times, first-year Riders pivot Zach Collaros has resembled the quarterback that would have won MOP in 2015 had he not suffered a season-ending knee injury. Other times, though, he’s struggled, forcing the league’s most imposing defence to bail him out.

Collaros’ two best games of the season were both against Calgary, resulting in monumental wins for the Green and White. In those games, the Riders’ pivot combined for 622 yards and averaged 9.0 yards per attempt, elite numbers against a top-ranked defence. On the other hand, he was pulled and his team was shut out in a 31-0 loss to the Bombers.

If Collaros can show up in the playoffs like he did in big regular season games, one of the league’s most talented but inconsistent quarterbacks could easily become the story of the 2018 post-season.

Window of opportunity: Is the clock ticking in Winnipeg?

The Bombers have improved every season under Mike O’Shea and Kyle Walters, making the playoffs three years in a row while becoming a perennial Grey Cup contender. Yet after back-to-back first round exits and, now, a third-place finish, anything short of a Grey Cup won’t cut it.

A loss in the Western Semi would make for an uncomfortable off-season in the Manitoba capital, especially considering the Bombers’ aging core. With Matt Nichols (31), Andrew Harris (31), Weston Dressler (33) and Adam Bighill (30) all on the wrong side of 30, the window of opportunity won’t stay open forever.

For a team that many are considering this year’s Grey Cup favourite following a five-game winning streak, the next few weeks could define the Kyle Walters/Mike O’Shea era in Winnipeg.

Bombers Most Outstanding Canadian Andrew Harris will play a central role in any long playoff run this year (The Canadian Press)

Wally’s World: Lions looking to win one for Buono

With 450 games, 282 wins and nine Grey Cup appearances to his name, Wally Buono is prepared to leave the sideline and call it a coaching career — but not before one last playoff run. The Lions persevered after a 3-6 start, going on a big run to sneak into the post-season via the East Division crossover.

The defence is stingy against the pass and has a penchant for making plays, while late-season additions Tyrell Sutton and DeVier Posey along with a healthy Travis Lulay have transformed the offensive side of the ball. There’s no reason the Lions can’t go on the road and beat Hamilton and Ottawa, though it’s a path no team has ever successfully ventured.

In a resurgent season on the west coast, can Buono’s team flip the script, run the table in the East and shock the CFL?

Back in Time: Lulay turning back the clock

Rumours of Travis Lulay‘s demise have been greatly exaggerated (stop me if you’ve heard this before). The 35-year-old quarterback is about to start another playoff game for the BC Lions, what was once little more than a pipe dream for the hard-luck Lulay.

It was barely in this decade when Lulay won a Grey Cup and Most Outstanding Player back in 2011, but the veteran has been a winner in this league before, playing at a high level whenever he’s been healthy enough to play.

After everything he’s been through, Lulay leading the Lions to a Grey Cup in 2018 would be one of the greatest comeback stories in Canadian football history.

Banking on Brandon: Can the Ticats win without their biggest playmaker?

Jeremiah Masoli might have been the Ticats’ Most Outstanding Player this season, but was anyone more valuable to his team, on any club across the CFL, than Brandon Banks? Banks reeled in a league-best 11 touchdowns and was averaging 101.6 yards per game before injuring his collarbone, leaving a significant void on the Hamilton offence.

It’s a chicken and egg situation in Steeltown. Banks, Masoli and Head Coach June Jones all came together at the same time on Labour Day in 2017, helping the Ticats go from winless basement dweller to legitimate Grey Cup contender. How the team can fare without either part of this trio is entirely up in the air.

So far it hasn’t been good for one of the league’s most productive offences, a narrative the Ticats will have to rewrite quickly if they’re going to make it through the East.

Luke Tasker will have to do most of the heavy lifting in the Ticats’ injured receiving corps (The Canadian Press)

Holy Masoli: Can Jeremiah’s breakout season continue?

One of the biggest stories of the 2018 CFL season has been the emergence of Jeremiah Masoli, who certified himself not just as a bonafide starting quarterback but a legitimate candidate to win Most Outstanding Player in his first full season as a starter.

After confirming the glimpses we had seen in 2017, throwing for 5,209 yards and 28 touchdowns while averaging 9.1 yards per attempt this season, Masoli is facing another big step in his transformation into an elite starting quarterback.

When it comes to the post-season, the great ones elevate. Think Burris, Ray or Calvillo, legendary quarterbacks that just knew how to come through when it matters. Do the Ticats have a legend in the making?

The Breaux-muda Triangle: A true shutdown corner

Delvin Breaux is such a good cover corner that he virtually erases his area of the field on defence, forcing quarterbacks to awkwardly avoid wherever it is he’s lining up. So how can opposing offences game plan for the league’s top cover corner?

The matchup game with Breaux will be one to watch, as the Ticats boast one of the CFL’s stingiest defences against the pass and will look to take the air out of the Lions and the REDBLACKS in the road to the Grey Cup. A matchup against the latter would be particularly interesting, with the big three of Greg Ellingson, Diontae Spencer and Brad Sinopoli being a handful.

Either way, the Ticats have a unique weapon on their side.

The Next Step: Can Harris become a Grey Cup-winning QB?

Speaking of re-writing a narrative, can Trevor Harris alter the perception surrounding his ability to win big games? The REDBLACKS’ pivot has flashed elite potential in his time as a CFL starter, but the great ones do it consistently and, most importantly, when the spotlight is at its brightest.

At age 32, the story is still in the works for Harris, open for interpretation. It’s this next part that will define everything, as he searches for what it is exactly that separates the good from the great in professional sports.

Fluent in Rushin’: The ground game matters more in the playoffs

As inclement weather comes into play, the ability to run the ball looms even larger in the post-season. There’s no shortage of quality backs around the league, from rushing leaders William Powell and Andrew Harris to the ultra-productive Alex Green.

Then there’s Tyrell Sutton, the Lions’ mid-season addition who finally, after years of losing in Montreal, gets to play for a post-season team, leading a rejuvenated Lions ground game.

One of these running backs will play a significant contributing role in a run to the Grey Cup, and they’ve all got the ability to be difference-makers along the way. Who will it be?