- FREE AGENCY
You can’t help but feel good about what the Montreal Alouettes have accomplished. Thanks to an impressive 21-17 win over Calgary on Saturday afternoon, the Als are going back to the playoffs for the first time since 2014. Now 8-6 on the season, Montreal has been fighting in the CFL’s top tier all season long. Now they’ve punched their ticket to keep doing that when it matters the most.
Before we focus on the 2019 edition of the Alouettes, it’s a worthwhile exercise to look back on the half decade that has passed since they last played post-season football. Care to guess who the last quarterback was to start a Montreal playoff game? It was Jonathan Crompton, who started a pair of post-season games that year: a 50-17 win over the BC Lions in the Eastern Semi-Final and a 40-24 loss to Hamilton in the Eastern Final.
2014 was year one in LAA (Life After Anthony) for the Als and many though Crompton might be the guy to carry the torch after a Troy Smith experiment didn’t work out. It didn’t go that way, however, and the list of quarterbacks we’ve seen start games between then and now speaks loudly to that.
In the four seasons between playoff appearances, Montreal started 12 different quarterbacks: Crompton, Rakeem Cato, Kevin Glenn, Tanner Marsh, Brandon Bridge, Darian Durant, Drew Willy, Johnny Manziel, Antonio Pipkin, Matthew Shiltz, Jeff Mathews, and Vernon Adams Jr.
It just goes to show how difficult it is to find a solid, durable, and consistent number one in this league. Sure, scouting and coaching is a big part of it, but it also takes a good measure of luck to land a pivot capable of being the guy. The Vernon Adams story is a perfect example of how fleeting quarterback success in this league.
Remember, the Alouettes, still under Jim Popp at the time, gave up a first round pick to acquire the neg-list rights to Adam in May 2016. But it’s not like things took off immediately. In fact, after 15 months with Montreal, he was traded to Saskatchewan and then again to Hamilton.
Adams found his way back to Montreal early in the 2018 season, but it was Manziel and Pipkin who saw the bulk of the starts last year. A foot injury to Adams was a big reason why Adams didn’t play more in 2018, but it doesn’t change the fact it took more than three years and two other CFL stops for him to finally take the reins.
Of course, now that Adams has finally arrived, it seems like the journey was all worth it for both sides. Adams is one of the most explosive and dangerous quarterbacks in the CFL and is 2-0 against the defending Grey Cup champs this season. For the first time since Anthony Calvillo’s retirement, the Als have their guy, and he might finish 2019 with a Most Outstanding Player nod to boot. He has my East Division vote, without question.
So much of the focus has been on the compelling story of Adams, but Montreal has gotten contributions from everywhere. William Stanback is one of the league’s top rushers. Eugene Lewis and DeVier Posey are starting to break through as high-end receivers.
On defence, Patrick Levels and Henoc Muamba are having great seasons at linebacker. The backfield is marked with ball hawks across the board: Tommie Campbell, Ciante Evans, and Greg Reid all have multiple interceptions this season. And it’s all glued together by defensive end John Bowman, the elder statesman. At 37, Bowman has eight sacks, 40 tackles, and is in the running for a ninth selection as an East Division All-Star.
Oh, and it wouldn’t be due diligence talking about this season for Montreal without mentioning the guy who has tied it all together. Head coach Khari Jones has done a masterful job under difficult circumstances and has to be the leading candidate as Coach of the Year next month.
Just as refresher: Jones took over as head coach less than a week before the start of the regular season when Mike Sherman was let go. About a month later, general manager Kavis Reed was let go. Through it all, though, the Alouettes have been consistent and focused. Without the leadership of Jones, and without his offensive play calling, Montreal is likely in a much different position.
With only one head-to-head meeting left, it’s unlikely the Als track down Hamilton for top spot in the East. But an additional playoff showdown seems very much in the cards. With the way Montreal is playing, I really like their chances at home against a crossover team, which would set up a very tantalizing Eastern Final matchup with the Tiger-Cats.
Regardless of what happens, though, it’ll nice to see playoff football back in Montreal next month.
Don’t look now…
Speaking of that crossover team from the West, all of a sudden things are a whole lot more uncertain. An impressive surge from the BC Lions and a lengthy slump from the Edmonton Eskimos have flipped the bottom of the West Division playoff picture on its side. Oh, and just for good measure, those two teams have an absolutely massive showdown on Saturday night.
You can make it four straight wins for the Lions after a 55-8 thrashing of the Toronto Argonauts on Saturday night. BC is playing their best football of the season and it’s not even close. After a much-publicized slow start, Mike Reilly is back to the elite form we’re used to; he threw for five touchdowns against the Argos.
As such, this group of receivers is realizing the potential many saw them at the beginning of the season. Bryan Burnham has at least one touchdown catch in five of his last six games and he’s gone over 95 yards in four of those outings. Duron Carter, Shaq Johnson, and Lemar Durant have all enjoyed a ton more success of late, too.
And don’t sleep on this defensive unit, either, as Rich Stubler has his group at a different level down the stretch. BC has only allowed 20+ points in just two of their last six games, and both just barely. During this same stretch where the Lions are 4-2, Stubler’s defence is averaging less than 13 points against per game. Compared to an average of 34.2 in the nine games (1-8) prior, that is quite the turnaround.
Things are trending in the opposite direction for the Eskimos as they get set to host the Lions in week 18. Edmonton struggled mightily in a 42-12 loss in Hamilton Friday night, which makes it five losses in six games. Once very much in the mix at the top of the West Division, the Esks are now in danger of missing the playoffs altogether.
What’s scary for Edmonton is they don’t have their most important player in the mix for an extremely difficult stretch drive. Quarterback Trevor Harris remains on the six-game injured list with very little known about his timeline to return. Logan Kilgore has had flashes here and there, but without Harris, Edmonton’s vaunted passing game doesn’t pack the same punch.
Here’s the biggest problem for Edmonton: they face an extremely difficult schedule to finish the year. After this week’s game against BC, the Eskimos have their final bye week before finishing the season with a home-and-home set with the first place Riders. Even more daunting is the fact Saskatchewan is unlikely to be resting anyone in those final two games; it’s a good bet they’ll still be in a heavyweight fight with Winnipeg and Calgary for top spot in the division.
Edmonton is still very much in the driver’s seat here, which is a huge silver lining. In fact, the Esks very much control their own destiny on Saturday night. An Edmonton win or tie at Commonwealth will clinch the crossover spot and eliminate BC.
On the one hand, clinching control like that is what every team hopes for. On the other hand, it turns the pressure cooker up just that much more for the Eskimos, especially knowing how restless fans are with this recent slump. I am fascinated to see how Edmonton performs in front of their home crowd in a huge spot on Saturday night.