November 4, 2019

Steinberg’s MMQB: Expect the unexpected

The Canadian Press

I’m really not sure what to expect this Sunday afternoon. Because the circumstances surrounding both Division Semi-Final matchups are very unique, it’s difficult to get a feel on what we might see. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with that; in fact, it makes the first playoff weekend of 2019 that much more interesting.

When the Winnipeg Blue Bombers kick off the Western Semi-Final at McMahon Stadium, they’ll be playing their opponent for the third straight time. Yep, because the Bombers finished the regular season with a Week 21 bye, they’ll be facing the Calgary Stampeders in three straight games. That’s something you just don’t see very often in football.

The circumstances are similar for the Stamps with a little pallet cleanser in between. Calgary and Winnipeg split a home-and-home set in Week 19 and 20; as the Blue Bombers went onto their bye the Stamps finished their regulation campaign with a win over the BC Lions. Even still, for the Stampeders it works out to three games against the Bombers in the span of four weeks.

How does that manifest itself on the field? The thing is, I don’t know the answer to that question. It’s rare to see teams play one another so many times in a such a short period of time, which is why this is so interesting.

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After Winnipeg’s big comeback win over Calgary in Week 20, I’m curious to see what adjustments are made. How much better prepared are the Stamps to face Zach Collaros at quarterback, if indeed he makes the start? And, knowing they’ll likely have access to Chris Streveler, do the Bombers regularly use both quarterbacks in the game?

The Easterm Semi-Final is unique, too, chiefly because of Edmonton’s quarterback situation. With the Eskimos crossing over to visit Montreal, the good news is Trevor Harris is back. The bad news is Edmonton’s pivot has barely played down the stretch.

Harris got hurt in a Week 13 game with Calgary and wasn’t able to return until last week’s game against the Riders. After a decent showing in his first game back, the Esks elected to sit Harris in their regular season finale in Saskatchewan, which was a very interesting decision.

On the one hand, by not playing Harris, Edmonton ensured their number one guy will be healthy for the playoffs. No offence intended to Logan Kilgore, but the only way the Eskimos are going to pull off an upset over the Alouettes is with Harris under centre.

On the flip side, though, I wonder slightly about rust and rhythm for Harris with so little playing time in the final two months of the season. It’s a lot to ask for a quarterback to step in and be at peak form at this time of year, which Harris will need to be at, with only four quarters of action in the span of almost two months.

If there’s one quarterback who is capable of getting the job done under these strange circumstances, it’s Harris. Prior to going down with injury, he was very much in the Most Outstanding Player conversation, so I’m not suggesting he won’t be able to play at a high level. I’m just pointing out how unusual this spot is for Harris and the Esks.

When you combine Harris’s inactivity for Edmonton with Calgary and Winnipeg’s miniseries of games, Semi-Final weekend in the CFL has some interesting circumstances. With four good teams in the mix, it just adds more wrinkles to what should be a pair of entertaining games.

Award season

Voting is underway for year-end awards, and this year is one of the most interesting years to have the privilege of being part of the process. In particular, the Most Outstanding Player conversation is as wide open as I can remember, because there just isn’t a clear-cut leading candidate.

Last year, for instance, Bo Levi Mitchell’s second half of the season made him the obvious frontrunner, which is why it came as no surprise to see him win in a landslide. This year, however, I’m not even sure which player is going to be coming out of each division, let alone who the frontrunner is.

In next week’s MMQB, I’ll gladly fully put forward how my votes went in final voting, because I think transparency in the process helps keep me accountable. Knowing I’ll be publishing where my votes are cast, and my reasoning behind them, is on my mind the entire way. As such, I put a lot of thought and research into these decisions, even though it’s just one vote of many.

It’s safe to say either Hamilton’s Brandon Banks or Montreal’s Vernon Adams Jr. will be representing the East Division. I’m fascinated to see how the voters went on this one, because both players are worthy of the nod.

» Sunday, 1:00 p.m. ET: Edmonton at Montreal
» Sunday, 4:30 p.m. ET: Winnipeg at Calgary

Adams finished the regular season with 36 total touchdowns and was the biggest reasons for Montreal’s turnaround in 2019. Banks, on the other hand, was the league’s most dominant receiver for a second straight season, finishing with 13 touchdown catches at 1,550 receiving yards, both of which were league-leading totals.

My guess is Riders’ Cody Fajardo will get the nod out of the West Division, which is fair. In his first year as a full-time starter, Fajardo led the league with 4,302 passing yards and finished with an impressive 18-8 ratio of touchdowns to interceptions. When you factor in his ten rushing majors and Saskatchewan’s first place finish, you can understand why he might get the nod.

From there, though, it’s going to be extremely close, and at this point I’m not sure which way I’ll be leaning. The final round of voting will be completed in the next week.

One solid tenure

The report of Rick Campbell’s decision to step down as head coach in Ottawa came as a bit of a surprise early Monday morning. 2019 was a tough year for the REDBLACKS, with the team finishing the season with 11 straight losses en route to a 3-15 finish. But as Campbell says goodbye, he has nothing to be ashamed of in his six years at the helm.

In six seasons under Campbell, Ottawa made the playoffs four times, reached the Grey Cup on three occasions, and won their first championship in just their third year of existence in 2016.

That’s a pretty strong resume for a head coach and Campbell deserves a lot of credit for his time with the REDBLACKS.

The two non-playoff years for Campbell came in year one, which is fully understandable as an expansion team, and this year. And let’s not forget, the circumstances this past season were rather difficult, which is why a tough year in Ottawa was not unexpected.

It’s not overstating it to suggest the REDBLACKS lost an All-Star roster of players during the offseason. Trevor Harris, Greg Ellingson, Diontae Spencer, William Powell, and SirVincent Rogers all said goodbye following a 2018 Grey Cup appearance. For the record, that’s a starting quarterback, two top receivers, a number one tailback, and a starting left tackle. I don’t know many teams equipped to handle those kinds of departures without some growing pains.

2019 was clearly a hurtful one for Campbell, but he should be proud of the work he accomplished. To be at a 50% Grey Cup appearance rate in your first six years as head coach, of an expansion team no less, is nothing but impressive.