There’s a new optimism gripping the Montreal Alouettes these days, one that’s spreading like a grassfire as the team rides a couple of hot performances into it’s Week 6 game against Edmonton.
It’s unbridled, running free despite the uncertainty that has shrouded the team, with both its head coach and general manager being released during the last two months.
The Montreal Alouettes are 2-2 this young CFL season, the sky-high hopes of contention abundantly on display. The reasons for this are many: A new head coach that has set the tone. A defensive coordinator who, despite having no previous CFL experience, is a quick study. An offence that is, at long last, finding its footing. And a roster that is filled with playmaking leaders on both sides of the ball.
Middle linebacker Henoc Muamba is one of those playmaking leaders and he personifies the confidence that has enveloped his team.
“I think it’s something that’s been brewing since even last year,” says Muamba, who is eager to put Montreal’s recent legacy of losing seasons in the rear view.
“To be honest with you, we’re all so sick,” he says, then abruptly breaks off the sentence after the last word, with a quick pivot to the here and now.
“We’re trying to put our blinders on and focus on this moment, this time, this season. This team.”
If the Montreal Alouettes are shoving recent history to the back burner – and two very solid wins over Hamilton and Ottawa suggest they could be – coaching has an awful lot to do with it, surprise, surprise.
When Mike Sherman, who coached the team to a 5-13 record in 2018, was fired on the eve of the regular season, assistant coach Khari Jones was elevated to become the Interim Head Coach.
His personality, as well as his organizational structure, made differences to the Als straight away.
“The enthusiasm that he brings to the game is really contagious and it’s being passed around,” says Muamba, the eight-year vet in his second full season with Montreal (he played four games with the Alouettes during the late stages of the 2015 season as well). “I think that’s a big reason for the success that we’re seeing right now.”
“He doesn’t have to ask or beg guys to spend more time in the locker room,” Muamba continues, describing the benefits of the Khari Jones contagion. “I’m noticing guys are just willingly doing that. And I think it’s a testament to the type of person that he is. Guys wanna fight for him. Guys wanna play for him. Guys wanna win for him.”
It’s been a boon to the Montreal team dynamic, Muamba says, although he is quick to point out that he feels the seeds of growth were planted during the 2018 season, the Alouettes already being a tight band of brothers. Jones and his personality, then, have provided the light and the water for rapid growth.
Beyond that, Muamba says, Jones’ way of doing things has made the Alouettes more efficient and able to more finely craft the details of game plans.
“The way he changed things around as far as the structure of our days are concerned, I think, has been the biggest key for us. Our practices are a little shorter but they’re high intensity practices. You gotta focus. You’re on the field and then you’re off. You’ve got more time to focus on the little things, and you’ve got time to do more meetings with one another.”
Muamba, who stands ninth on the list of the CFL’s top tacklers with 23, is the linchpin of a defence that has been decent so far, but could use some improving, standing in the middle of the pack or near the bottom of some defensive categories. The good news there is that the talent level is deep, the signs of cohesion are evident, and the unit has a coordinator they believe in.
“Just a smart football mind,” Muamba says of Bob Slowik, the first year defensive coordinator with the Als. “We’re buying in. We believe in him and his system.”
Episode 167: Moving on and moving up + Andrew Harris stops by
EPISODE OVERVIEW: Kavis Reed is out in Montreal but the Alouettes are on the up and up. Have they found their guy in Vernon Adams Jr.? Plus, what’s going on in BC and how can it be fixed? Then, Andrew Harris stops by to chat with Donovan about team speed, skill and his new coaching gig.
EPISODE RUNDOWN: Kavis on the outs (3:00); Is Vernon Adams Jr. the guy in Montreal? (15:45); Dom Davis needs more time (19:30); Whats up with BC (29:00); Trevor Harris playing like MOP (35:00); WPG/TOR and Macbeth’s play (37:15); Week 6 game of the week (47:00); Andrew Harris interview (52:30).
Slowik came into the organization with no experience in Canadian football other than some time as a guest coach with the Alouettes last season. He spent more than two decades coaching in the NFL and that equation – tons of American football experience with none in Canadian football – has often times led to disaster, historically speaking.
Slowik, though, has the right attitude, according to Muamba, leaving his ego aside when it comes to adjusting to the world of three downs. What has really stood out for Muamba is Slowik’s “humility with respect to his approach to the game.”
To ensure he didn’t make the team’s transition to his own philosophies too abrupt, Slowik kept in place much of the Alouettes’ defensive scheming from 2018, at least at the beginning.
“He added a few things here and there that fit the guys on the team,” says Muamba. “It’s not just, like, his thing and he wants everybody to do it. He sees the guys that he has and he calls a defence based on our abilities.”
“He understood that there was gonna be some nuances that he wasn’t gonna be familiar with. But his humility, I think, is what allows him to kinda grow and absorb the new stuff and be able to apply it to his defence. Add some wrinkles to his defence.”
And those wrinkles have been added, slowly but surely.
“There’s a few things that we’ve changed since the beginning of the season just so that it fits the guys that are on the team,” said Muamba. “The more he gets to know us, the more our defence is gonna get better and better.”
“We can do better than what we’ve been showing so far.”
With Muamba in the middle, with veteran John Bowman anchoring a defensive line filled with young promise, and with winning experience all over the secondary (safety Taylor Loffler left Winnipeg as a three-time All-Star and defensive backs Tommie Campbell, Ciante Evans and Patrick Levels all come from the victory factory that is the Calgary Stampeders), the Alouettes’ defence has the makings of what could be a very difficult group to play against, every week.
“Guys that are great leaders, and have done this thing for a long time but are still able to be locked in,” says Muamba of the group.
What has been most impressive for Montreal over the last two weeks, what has been garishly evident, has been the play of the offence and that is something very different for a unit that has struggled, season over season, to try and find some kind of solid footing, some kind of forward momentum.
Five weeks into the campaign, the Alouettes’ offence sits in the healthy half of a number of categories; fourth in net offence, fourth in points scored, fourth in touchdowns. Second in average gain on first down, at 7.5 yards. First in rushing.
And time of possession? The Als are fourth in that category, averaging thirty-two minutes and forty-three seconds of ball control per game, just fifty seconds less than the league leaders in Edmonton.
Muamba admits that while defensive players like to talk about what their job is and getting it done no matter what happens with the offence, time of possession is a major factor in the overall health of a team’s winning percentage. “Our legs are fresher,” he says of his unit, during the late stages of games. “We have more energy.”
“We’re excited for what the offence is doing right now,” Muamba says, enthusiastically. “We knew that once things clicked on the offensive side of the ball, it was only gonna make it easier for us.”
While Alouette players were certain they could have a good ground game – “We knew what Stanback was and the type of runner that he is,” says Muamba – there were doubts about the team’s aerial possibilities, chiefly because of questions at quarterback. In receivers B.J. Cunningham and Eugene Lewis, the Als had illustrated ability on the roster. The addition of another proven pass-catcher, DeVier Posey, bolstered the unit in a large way and Quan Bray is off to an impressive start in his rookie year.
With the emergent play of quarterback Vernon Adams, the Montreal offence is pulling its weight and that has added to the growing optimism.
“We’re excited for the team that we’re becoming,” says Muamba.
An improved offence, a positive and inspiring coaching scene, and a good defence on the upswing. All key components in Montreal’s early season mental buoyancy.
To achieve that, considering the backdrop, is impressive. Although there is the hope that the team currently without a permanent owner will have one soon, the Alouettes began the season without one and the head coach, as mentioned, was let go just after pre-season finished. Now, the general manager, Kavis Reed, has had his duties terminated.
Despite the uncertainty, the Alouettes are on an uptick as the season passes the quarter pole.
“It’s called mental toughness,” says Muamba, when asked why and how the uncertainty did little to upset the team’s progress on the field.
“The good thing abut the way this team has been assembled is it’s got great leadership, both sides of the ball. That helps to weather situations like what we’ve been going through. The leadership is the pillars of this team.”
Pieces falling into place, finally, in Montreal? Muamba, for one, feels certain that they are although he insists the team takes nothing for granted.
“We know there’s still a ways to go,” he says.
The recent past, the one Muamba is sick of hearing about, might very well be dead. It will not be buried, though, not without more hard work.