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December 28, 2018

Johnny Manziel named CFL.ca’s top newsmaker of 2018

Johany Jutras/CFL.ca

TORONTO — Love him or hate him, Johnny Manziel was the centre of attention in the Canadian Football League in 2018.

On Saturday, the Montreal Alouettes’ quarterback was named CFL.ca’s Newsmaker of the Year, as the third annual year-end awards were voted on by seven CFL.ca writers.

“I don’t think there was a story that drove the CFL through the off-season and into the season like Johnny Manziel,” said Jamie Nye. “While he didn’t wow anyone with his ability, there was rarely a week that Manziel wasn’t in the headlines. Well … until the playoffs.”

From a summer blockbuster trade to his miserable CFL debut, fans couldn’t stop talking about Johnny Football this season, but he wasn’t the only one. Bo Levi Mitchell, Travis Lulay and Lewis Ward were among other players who made their mark in 2018 in a season of record-breaking achievements, dramatic comebacks and last-second victories.

As we welcome the start of a new year on Tuesday, CFL.ca’s writers and staff voted on year-end accolades for eight major categories: Newsmaker, Person, Story, Comeback, Breakout Star, One-Game Performance, Game and Canadian.

Let’s look back on the best of 2018 (and even some honourable mentions) in the eyes of our writers:

NEWSMAKER OF THE YEAR:

JOHNNY MANZIEL

Photo: Johany Jutras/CFL.ca

The numbers would suggest there was nothing remarkable at all about Johnny Manziel in 2018. The Alouettes’ quarterback, who was acquired mid-season before moving into and out of the starting role, finished with 1,290 passing yards, five touchdowns and seven interceptions in eight games.

Yet when No. 2 took the field, you couldn’t help but watch.

“Whether you enjoy the Manziel experience or not, the guy demanded more headlines in 2018 than anyone else,” said Marshall Ferguson.

“Tough to argue against his selection,” added Don Landry. “If the category recognizes the person who made the most waves in the CFL news cycle in 2018, Manziel fits the bill perfectly and it isn’t really close.”

Manziel was by far the most consensus choice among this year’s eight award winners, taking five of the seven votes.

Writer Picks: Newsmaker of the Year

Voter Selection
Jim Morris Johnny Manziel
Marshall Ferguson Johnny Manziel
Chris O’Leary Johnny Manziel
Don Landry Johnny Manziel
Matthew Cauz Bo Levi Mitchell
Pat Steinberg Bo Levi Mitchell
Jamie Nye Johnny Manziel

The former Texas A&M star and NFL first-round draft pick ended a months-long contract standoff, signing with the Ticats in May. In the summer he was the centrepiece of a rare blockbuster deal, involving five players in total and two first-round picks, sending Manziel to the Alouettes.

For all the hype, the 26-year-old didn’t quite deliver. Manziel’s first career start was a spectacular struggle, throwing four interceptions in a 50-11 loss to his former team. After suffering a concussion, he was replaced by Antonio Pipkin, who took control of the starting job and kept Manziel stapled to the bench for more than a month.

It wasn’t until his seventh start that Manziel would record his first win, but it’s worth noting he improved along the way, throwing five touchdowns against just two interceptions in his last five starts.

Calgary Stampeders quarterback Bo Levi Mitchell took the other two votes as the honourable mention.

“Already with an MOP under his belt, Mitchell had the best regular season of his stellar career and added another MOP nod,” said Pat Steinberg. “He capped it off with a Grey Cup victory over Ottawa and is now trying his hand south of the border. There weren’t very many bigger newsmakers in 2018 than Bo.”

Last Year’s Winner: Duron Carter


PERSON OF THE YEAR:

BO LEVI MITCHELL*

Photo: The Canadian Press

It was the year of the horse in the CFL, specifically one named Bo. Calgary Stampeders quarterback Bo Levi Mitchell’s story went from one of missed opportunity to one of redemption, deleting his Twitter account along the way to the best season of his career.

Mitchell checked off all three major boxes for a CFL signal-caller, winning Most Outstanding Player, Grey Cup MVP and the 106th Grey Cup presented by Shaw.

“Bo Levi Mitchell was the Grey Cup MVP and the MOP of the league,” said Nye. “He also threw for the most touchdown passes in a season that ended with the Calgary Stampeders on top — and now we wait to see if he even returns in 2019 as the Mitchell-NFL watch takes us into the new year. He was the best in the CFL in 2018.”

I wanted to be hipster and choose Jeremiah Masoli considering the massive leap he made,” said Matthew Cauz,” but in the end to the victor goes the spoils.”

It was a tough call for the decision board, as Travis Lulay and Dave Dickenson shared two votes each along with Mitchell. But the tie-breaker went to Mitchell, who fended off his share of critics after losing back to back Grey Cups and put his Stamps on top.

Writer Picks: Person of the Year

Voter Selection
Jim Morris Wally Buono
Marshall Ferguson Dave Dickenson
Chris O’Leary Wally Buono
Don Landry Rolly Lumbala
Matthew Cauz Bo Levi Mitchell
Pat Steinberg Dave Dickenson
Jamie Nye Bo Levi Mitchell

*Tie broken by CFL.ca editor picks

While Mitchell continues to fill his trophy case at just 28 years years old, it’s hard to ignore Wally Buono’s farewell tour. The CFL’s all-time coaching wins leader spent his last season on the sideline, helping the Lions overcome a 3-6 start to return to the playoffs.

Buono is not only considered one of the CFL’s all-time great coaches but also one of the most respected.

“Hands up if you had the BC Lions making the playoffs in 2018,” said Chris O’Leary. “Eleven weeks into the season the Lions were 3-6 and everyone was ready for them to fade into the background of the West. Instead, Wally Buono led the Lions to an unlikely playoff appearance in his final season on a CFL sideline. He’d say a Grey Cup win would have been the perfect sendoff, but the one he built this year was still a good one.”

“Some athletes or coaches make a big deal of their farewell tour,” said Jim Morris. “Typically Buono tried to shift the focus away from himself. His last news conference as head coach was funny, sad, touching and honest. I covered the news conference when Wally was named the Stampeders’ head coach and watched his farewell.”

Another head coach, Dave Dickenson, was also part of the discussion for CFL.ca’s Person of the Year.

“The head coach of the Stampeders led his team to another first overall finish, another Western Final, and another Grey Cup appearance,” said Steinberg. “This time, though, Calgary finished things off with a win as Dickenson is forging one of the best starts to a head coaching career in CFL history.”

Last Year’s Winner: Ricky Ray


STORY OF THE YEAR:

LEWIS WARD*

Photo: Dave Chidley/CFL.ca

There may never be another story like Lewis Ward. Despite being an undrafted rookie, the REDBLACKS’ kicker set virtually every place kicking record in the league this year, ending the season with two major trophies as Most Outstanding Rookie and Special Teams Player.

Ward went from being a security guard at TD Place to breaking Adam Vinatieri’s pro football record for consecutive field goals, earning the nod for CFL.ca’s Story of the Year.

“It came out of nowhere and made us all open our eyes to realize anything is possible,” said Ferguson. “Even a kid from Kingston can break an all-time football record and enjoy the hell out of doing it.”

“For me, I couldn’t believe what that kicker in Ottawa was doing week in and week out,” said Nye. “Lewis Ward had an amazing story of being the hometown kid who was working security at the stadium and then he does something no pro kicker has ever done. WOW!”

Ward faced stiff competition for the distinction, edging Calgary’s Grey Cup Championship in the tie-breaker:

Writer Picks: Story of the Year

Voter Selection
Jim Morris Inconsistency
Marshall Ferguson Lewis Ward
Chris O’Leary Esks miss playoffs
Don Landry Stamps win Grey Cup
Matthew Cauz 5,000-yard passers
Pat Steinberg Stamps win Grey Cup
Jamie Nye Lewis Ward

*Tie broken by CFL.ca editor picks

The Stampeders’ story of redemption didn’t go unnoticed. The Stamps erased their ghosts of Grey Cups past in defiant fashion, overcoming a seemingly endless injury list, surviving a late-season slump and conquering the highly-competitive West en route their first championship since 2014.

“Not only did the Stamps have the ghosts of 2016 and 2017 to contend with, they had an incredible spate of injuries in their receiving corps to overcome,” said Landry. “They persevered and flipped the script, even though a late-season swoon had it looking like they might come up short again.”

“It was the story all year long: could Calgary redeem a pair of heartbreaking Grey Cup losses,” added Steinberg.

Cauz voted for the four pivots who threw for 5,000-plus yards in Jeremiah Masoli, Mike Reilly, Bo Levi Mitchell and Trevor Harris, while Morris said inconsistency and unpredictability characterized the 2018 season. O’Leary voted for the demise of the 2018 Grey Cup host Edmonton Eskimos, who missed the playoffs in a year many favoured them to contend.

“Teams like Edmonton and Winnipeg stumbled,” said Morris. “The Tiger-Cats looked like the best team in the East until they didn’t. The Lions could have finished second in the West but sunk to a cross-over team.”

It’s still hard to wrap your head around the idea of the Esks missing the playoffs in a year they had what many considered legitimate Grey Cup aspirations,” said O’Leary. “That they missed out on even competing to play in a Grey Cup they were hosting, and that the Stamps celebrated a Grey Cup win in their locker room, is a disappointing and strange finish to a proud organization’s season.”

Last Year’s Winner: Stamps get upset in second straight Grey Cup


COMEBACK PLAYER OF THE YEAR:

TRAVIS LULAY*

Photo: The Canadian Press

When Travis Lulay suffered yet another heartbreaking injury in 2017, some wondered whether he’d even play another game. Lulay rehabbed and returned that off-season before eventually overtaking Jonathon Jennings as the team’s starting quarterback, leading the Lions’ return to the post-season.

The 35-year-old was named CFL.ca’s Comeback Player of the Year, edging Eskimos linebacker JC Sherritt.

“This guy is just so hard not to cheer for, because all Lulay has done is be a consummate pro and incredible teammate,” said Steinberg. “When Jonathon Jennings was the guy, Lulay was there to help him succeed as his backup. When it was his chance again, Lulay stepped up showed he could still play in this league.”

“When Lulay was hurt last year, there was a lot of talk of him retiring and moving onto Wally Buono’s coaching staff,” added O’Leary. “Instead, Lulay went through a very difficult rehab at 34 and worked his way back into the starting job with the Lions. He wasn’t perfect but the Lions wouldn’t have made the playoffs without him.”

Writer Picks: Comeback Player of the Year

Voter Selection
Jim Morris Travis Lulay
Marshall Ferguson JC Sherritt
Chris O’Leary Travis Lulay
Don Landry Eric Rogers
Matthew Cauz JC Sherritt
Pat Steinberg Travis Lulay
Jamie Nye JC Sherritt

*Tie broken by CFL.ca editor picks

While Lulay earned the tie-breaker, Sherritt’s comeback season in 2018 was no less remarkable. The Eskimos’ linebacker recorded the second 100-tackle season of his career despite coming off a ruptured Achilles that took away almost all of his 2017 season.

“Sherritt is the slam dunk winner, going from barely one game played in 2017 to 100 tackles, three sacks, two interceptions and most significantly 18 games played in 2018,” said Cauz.

“Bouncing back from that injury isn’t easy,” added Ferguson. “Doing it while recovering every bit of explosive ability that made Sherritt a CFL all-star is special.”

Honourable mention goes to Eric Rogers, who returned after two seasons on the sidelines and overcame a nagging knee injury to play a significant role in the Stampeders’ Grey Cup Championship.

“Rogers battled all the way back from a devastating knee injury, one that saw him completely out of football for a year and a half,” said Landry. “He also had to deal with the sudden loss of his mom, Carrie, who passed away at the age of 53, last winter.”

Last Year’s Winner: S.J. Green


BREAKOUT STAR OF THE YEAR:

JEREMIAH MASOLI

Photo: Adam Gagnon/CFL.ca

After firmly entrenching himself among the CFL’s elite quarterbacks, Jeremiah Masoli is the CFL.ca Breakout Star of the Year for 2018.

It took all of six years for Masoli to get the chance, but the Ticats pivot finally became a regular starting quarterback this season and made the most of his opportunity, leading the league’s most prolific offence while throwing for 5,209 yards and 28 touchdowns.

“We’ve been waiting for someone to join Bo Levi Mitchell and Mike Reilly among the elite CFL quarterbacks and 2018 delivered in the form of Masoli,” said Steinberg. “Hamilton’s quarterback provided a blueprint for any number of young quarterbacks. Masoli came up slowly in Hamilton, but when it was finally his time to shine, he made sure to crank the brightness.”

In Masoli’s first full season behind centre, the Ticats’ offence led the CFL with 405.6 yards per game. But as good as he was with his arm, the 30-year-old was just as dangerous running the ball. His 9.1 yards per passing attempt and 7.5 yards per rush both led all eligible quarterbacks.

“From just another backup to challenging for franchise and league records in various passing stats,” said Ferguson. “This one was easy.”

Sophomore receiver D’haquille Williams was the runner-up, while defenders Chris Ackie and Davon Coleman also received votes. This is the first year the award has been handed out.

Writer Picks: Breakout Star of the Year

Voter Selection
Jim Morris Davon Coleman
Marshall Ferguson Jeremiah Masoli
Chris O’Leary D’haquille Williams
Don Landry Chris Ackie
Matthew Cauz Jeremiah Masoli
Pat Steinberg Jeremiah Masoli
Jamie Nye D’haquille Williams

As good as Masoli was, watching the physically-dominant Williams lead the league in receiving yards in just his second season was something to behold.

“He definitely had flashes last year, but nobody could have expected him to become such a dominant force in 2018. Except maybe Mike Reilly and Duke Williams,” said Nye.

“In his second season in the league, Williams more than doubled his production and established himself as an elite talent,” added O’Leary. “He could have done more, too, had he not been battling injury late in the season.”

Coleman, traded from Hamilton to BC, played a key role in a revitalized Lions defence, while former fourth overall draft pick Chris Ackie was among the CFL’s top tacklers before being traded to Ottawa.

“After two ordinary seasons as a depth guy in the Montreal secondary, followed by an injury-shortened 2017, a permanent move to weak-side linebacker had Chris Ackie soaring in 2018,” said Landry.

Last Year’s Winner: N/A


ONE-GAME PERFORMANCE OF THE YEAR:

TREVOR HARRIS’ 6-TD GAME

Photo: Adam Gagnon/CFL.ca

Some said Trevor Harris wasn’t a ‘big game quarterback’, until he he was.

After having to wait to win his first career playoff game, Harris answered his critics with the game of his life, breaking a playoff record with six touchdown passes. Harris’ near-perfect performance against the Ticats led Ottawa to a 46-27 win in the Eastern Final, earning the nod from the writers as the One-Game Performance of the Year.

“Trevor Harris had already answered critics with two very good performances late in the regular season, helping the Ottawa REDBLACKS secure first place,” said Landry. “Then, he smashed any remaining doubt with six touchdown passes in the Eastern Final.”

It was a performance for the ages, and not just because of the touchdowns. Harris finished the game with 367 yards on 29-of-32 passing against one of the league’s top-ranked secondaries throughout the regular season.

“One of the big knocks on Harris going into 2018 was his inability to perform in the playoffs the same way he has during the regular season,” said Steinberg. “Well, despite losing in the Grey Cup to Calgary, Harris blew the doors off that reputation.”

Added Nye: “Harris couldn’t miss, and to do as much damage as he did in a playoff game makes it that much more impressive.”

Harris’ performance took four of the seven votes. Argos quarterback McLeod Bethel-Thompson was the runner-up for his 24-point comeback against the REDBLACKS. Kamar Jorden’s 249-yard game also received a vote.

Writer Picks: One-Game Performance of the Year

Voter Selection
Jim Morris McLeod Bethel-Thompson comeback
Marshall Ferguson Trevor Harris 6 TDs
Chris O’Leary Kamar Jorden 249 yards
Don Landry Trevor Harris 6 TDs
Matthew Cauz McLeod Bethel-Thompson comeback
Pat Steinberg Trevor Harris 6 TDs
Jamie Nye Trevor Harris 6 TDs

For Bethel-Thompson, it was a first career start that’ll never be forgotten. The journeyman quarterback looked down and out after 30 minutes, but threw four second-half touchdown passes — including the game-winner with a second left on the clock — to lead the Argos to an historic comeback.

“One of the few highlights of a dreary Argonauts seasons was watching a guy with only two career pass attempts come back and beat the 2018 East Division Champions,” said Cauz.

“Who had heard of him before?” asked Morris.

Jorden, who was on pace for a career season before suffering a devastating knee injury, broke a team record with 249 receiving yards against the Bombers.

A lot of good options here, but the timing of Jorden’s game was everything,” said O’Leary. “He broke a record held by Herm ‘Ham Hands’ Harrison on the day that he was one of two Stamps honoured with the Diversity Is Strength program. Then the next week, Jorden had his season-ending injury against Edmonton. He left us with a strong reminder of what he’s capable of.”

Last Year’s Winner: Ed Gainey’s five-takeaway game


GAME OF THE YEAR:

ESKS, STAMPS LABOUR DAY REMATCH*

Photo: Walter Tychnowicz/CFL.ca

Through all the records, clutch plays and jaw-dropping finishes, no game was as thrilling from start to finish as the Labour Day rematch between the Eskimos and Stampeders.

Edmonton’s 48-42 win was the highest-scoring game of 2018, featured a season-high 1,052 yards, and involved incredible performances from Romar Morris (four touchdowns), Duke Williams (172 receiving yards), Mike Reilly (6 total touchdowns) and Bo Levi Mitchell (491 passing yards).

And almost a game-winning Hail Mary on the final play.

“The Argos had a mammoth comeback against Ottawa, and BC forged an incredible last-second comeback against Hamilton. Great finishes in both,” said Landry. “But Edmonton’s 48-42 win at Commonwealth had everything, all the way through.”

“You find me a better game than watching Bo Levi Mitchell and Mike Reilly combine for 888 passing yards and 10 total touchdowns,” said Cauz.

“What didn’t Edmonton’s 48-42 win over Calgary in their Labour Day rematch have?” asked Steinberg. “And the Stamps almost won the game on a Hail Mary as time expired. Yep, this was the best game of 2018.”

Writer Picks: Game of the Year

Voter Selection
Jim Morris Lions’ comeback vs. Hamilton
Marshall Ferguson Lions’ comeback vs. Hamilton
Chris O’Leary Argos’ comeback vs. Ottawa
Don Landry Labour Day rematch
Matthew Cauz Labour Day rematch
Pat Steinberg Labour Day rematch
Jamie Nye Lions’ comeback vs. Hamilton

*Tie broken by CFL.ca editor picks

CFL.ca’s Game of the Year had to be settled by a tie-breaker, and the Lions’ furious last-second comeback against Hamilton in Week 15 was no less exciting. Bryan Burnham caught a Jonathon Jennings touchdown pass on the game’s final play, then scored a toe-tapping two-point convert that endured a lengthy review to force overtime.

“An entire stadium full of people sat in suspense for minutes wondering if the game was done or we’d have overtime,” said Ferguson.

“It was a rollercoaster of emotion with more plot twists than an Agatha Christie novel,” said Morris.

“That game is what the CFL is all about,” added Nye.

The Argos’ 24-point comeback, led by Bethel-Thompson’s four second-half passing touchdowns, was an honourable mention.

My opinion might be biased because I was at this game, but the comeback was so incredible and such a drastic turnaround from a terrible first half of football,” said O’Leary. “In the second quarter the Argos had a punt bounce off of Martese Jackson’s shoulder, land in the end zone and Anthony Cioffi recovered it for the touchdown. This was a comeback that no one saw coming, down to McLeod Bethel-Thompson’s game-winning TD pass with nine seconds left.

“It was the last great moment of the Argos season.”

Last Year’s Winner: 105th Grey Cup


CANADIAN OF THE YEAR:

BRAD SINOPOLI

Photo: Adam Gagnon/CFL.ca

Following in the footsteps of Andrew Harris and Mike O’Shea, Ottawa REDBLACKS receiver Brad Sinopoli has been voted CFL.ca’s Canadian of the Year for 2018.

Sinopoli’s story has become well told over the years, going from university quarterback for the Ottawa Gee-Gees to one of the best Canadian pass-catchers of the current era. This year, Sinopoli raised his game even more, breaking the legendary Ben Cahoon’s record for catches in a season by a Canadian.

“When you break an all-time CFL record at a position Canadians get a legitimate chance to play, you get the nod,” said Ferguson. “Honourable mention to Jon Gott for being all of us on a Friday night.”

“You can’t argue against Brad Sinopoli,” added Morris.

Sinopoli was also named Most Outstanding Canadian this year, getting the nod over Andrew Harris. But he wasn’t an overwhelming choice for the CFL.ca writers, whose votes were wide-ranging and for various reasons.

Writer Picks: Canadian of the Year

Voter Selection
Jim Morris Brad Sinopoli
Marshall Ferguson Brad Sinopoli
Chris O’Leary Jon Gott
Don Landry Rolly Lumbala
Matthew Cauz Andrew Harris
Pat Steinberg Lewis Ward
Jamie Nye Canadian Mafia

Lions fullback Rolly Lumbala received votes from Landry both for Person of the Year and Canadian of the Year. The 11-year veteran was this year’s recipient of the Jake Gaudaur Veterans’ Award for his impact off the field.

“Lumbala continued his tireless community work in the Vancouver area – working with at-risk youth and immersing himself in pretty well every community outreach program the Lions have going – and he did so while caring for his father, Eugene, who died of cancer in September,” said Landry.

‘The Canadian Mafia’ got some attention this year after being made famous after Dave Dickenson’s comments were caught on air during the Western Final. Led by Mike O’Shea, Kyle Walters, Andrew Harris and Wade Miller, the Bombers’ Canadian battery has improved the team every year since returning to the playoffs.

“Safe to say the Bombers are in good hands with these Canucks leading the way,” said Nye.

Jon Gott was an honourable mention thanks to his beer-chugging antics that went viral, while last year’s winner Andrew Harris and place kicking phenom Lewis Ward also received a vote.

“Forget for a second that Ottawa’s kicker was an undrafted walk-on out of the University, because that’s impressive enough,” said Steinberg. “The season we saw from Ward, though, would have been incredible if he was a first overall selection. Ward shattered records previously held by players like Rene Paredes and Adam Vinatieri to complete the greatest kicking season in professional football history. That deserves a little love.”

Added O’Leary: “I think Jon Gott did what any Canadian would want to do if they were able to celebrate a touchdown. That was one of my all-time favourite CFL moments.”

Last Year’s Winner: Andrew Harris