O’Leary: Despite coming up short, Als made strides in 2019
Having trailed all day and the time dwindling on the clock, the Montreal Alouettes were almost exactly where they wanted to be on Sunday.
The Edmonton Eskimos were clinging to a five-point lead with just over three minutes left on the clock. The 21,054 fans at Molson Stadium were on their feet, waving white towels. An air horn squeaked all day under a cool grey early November sky.
This game and this drive was the Alouettes’ season in a nutshell. They’d taken a pounding from the Esks and when you think about it, it shouldn’t have been a five-point game. Not with Trevor Harris’ completion rate in the high 90 percent-range almost the entire day, with the star QB making his first 22 passes. Not with the Alouettes’ defence bent so far back it was about to break.
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But here the Als were, thanks to a Mario Alford return touchdown — the crowd could sense the end zone for him when he got to midfield and it felt like two seconds later he was there — and two hint-of-daylight moments that Vernon Adams took advantage of that led to majors.
These kinds of games became the Alouettes’ mantra in 2019, these incredibly resilient larks, rising from the ashes of four non-playoff seasons to routinely yank wins out from their opponents. Most teams are done when they fall behind like that. The Als, somehow, had you right where they wanted you.
“I can tell you this, we weren’t real comfortable at the end of the game because I’ve seen them come back on a number of teams,” Esks head coach Jason Maas said after the game. “Vernon Adams just has that special quality about him. I know their offence believes and their whole team believes that he’s capable of bringing them back.”
The Als got from their own 25-yard line to their 52 before Maas got comfortable again. Adams didn’t see halfback Josh Johnson when he let the ball go. Johnson easily snagged his second of what would be three interceptions in the game and took the ball back 29 yards before Adams pushed him out of bounds.
On the sideline, the young quarterback squatted down and slammed his fist into the ground over and over, knowing that the magic had finally run out on a team that was full of tricks this year.
“We had opportunities there,” Adams said after emerging from an emotionally devastated locker room. “We had opportunities and costly, late picks there at the end and. We’ve got to just be better with the ball.
“It was a bad read by me,” he said of the interception. “It was a bad read by me and it’s one of two plays I’d like to have back.”
With that, arguably the funnest team in the CFL had its season end.
Montreal had dramatic comeback wins twice against Calgary this year. They came out on top of a whale of a game in Moncton in August and had perhaps their best come from behind performance against Winnipeg at home in Week 15. They were key pieces in a 10-win season, the organization’s first winning campaign in seven years.
“It’s definitely tough that it’s over,” Adams said. “We had in our minds to be in the playoffs for a few more weeks. I just love these guys, man. I’m so proud of the guys. To see where we came from, from the last few years to now,” Adams gestured to the crowd of reporters that were in front of him.
“Look at all the media in here, like nobody was in here (before), just the normal (beat) guys.
“It’s a tough feeling but I love those guys man I love coach Khari (Jones). He’s helped really put a jumpstart to my career and I’m gonna keep working, man, we’re all going to keep working.”
We haven’t seen it since the Anthony Calvillo days, so it’s easy to forget what kind of an atmosphere a competitive team can create in Montreal. Molson Stadium was loud and mostly full, with the team holding its best crowd of the season in its final home game.
Even the visitors enjoyed it.
“It was pretty rowdy,” Harris said. “It was jumping, man. When they played that Mo Bamba song, they were waving the towels. I kind of just looked around like, this is sweet bro, this is, this is the thing that you imagine when you’re a kid, is the crowd going nuts and losing your voice after game.
“I’m trying to talk real low because my voice is gone so props to the crowd, they were amazing. There’s a reason Montreal played so well at home this year, especially down the stretch is their fans are coming out and they’re being rowdy.”
Inside the Als’ locker room, players were crying and making their way past the media to hug teammates and coaches and start to say their goodbyes.
“We fought hard. No one ever believed in us outside of our locker room, then more and more people started to talk about us,” Als middle linebacker Henoc Muamba said. “We came far and that’s what hurts the most. At the end of the day, you have to look at the positives. As disappointed and hurt as we are, we had a good run. It’s tough for me to even say that.
“But when you look back at the totality of the season, we did some things that nobody thought we could do.”
To keep this going, the Als will need to secure Jones as their head coach. He took the job six days before their Week 1 meeting with Edmonton and showed himself to be a natural head coach, despite the situation and having no prior head coaching experience. If the Alouettes can’t secure him — he’s said he wants to return to the team — he’ll be a hot commodity on the free-agent coaching market this winter.
“We want to keep winning. That’s the guy, bring him back,” Adams said, very directly lobbying for the coach that turned his career around. “He’s setting the foundation, he laid it down right now he’s doing a great job. Everybody in the room loves him and I think it’s important to bring him back.”