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December 2, 2019

Steinberg’s MMQB: Als, Khari Jones have a bright future together

Dominick Gravel/Montreal Alouettes

Signing head coach and offensive coordinator Khari Jones had to be one of the easiest decisions the Montreal Alouettes have made in a long, long time. The Als and Jones agreed to a three-year extension early last week, which means one of the best stories of 2019 isn’t losing a key character.

While Hamilton’s Orlondo Steinauer got my final vote for Coach of the Year, it was actually Jones who got the nod from me in the initial round of polling to determine the finalists. For me, considering all the circumstances, no one did a better job of coaching in 2019 than Jones.

Jones joined the Alouettes’ staff in 2019 as their offensive coordinator, so he was a newcomer to begin with. Five months later, Montreal parted ways with Head Coach Mike Sherman and all of a sudden Jones was THE guy. Oh, and all of this just happened to transpire less than a week before Montreal started the regular season.

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Khari Jones led the Als to their first home playoff game since 2014 (Cynthia Cianciusi/Montreal Alouettes)

Even with an 0-2 start, a couple smart people (maybe named Jeff Krever and Chris O’Leary, maybe not) kept saying “this is a different Als team.” Those unnamed humans were correct, because this was a good team, and Jones had a huge part to play.

It wasn’t a coincidence that Vernon Adams Jr. arrived in 2019 with Jones as his head coach and OC. Yes, I know Adams was not the Week 1 starter in Montreal, but you can’t convince me having Jones there didn’t help.

More than anything, Jones didn’t try to fit Adams into any particular quarterback mold or archetype. Instead, he let Adams shape things and, thus, shape the offence. The Alouettes’ offence allowed Adams to be a true hybrid quarterback; he was able to drop back and pass, throw on the run, or pull the ball down on a keeper.

Jones’s ability to design an offence in which Adams would thrive was crucial in 2019, and thrive is exactly what he did. Adams finished the season with a CFL-high 36 total touchdowns; he tied for the league-lead with 12 on the ground and was second to McLeod Bethel-Thompson with 24 through the air.

Montreal’s 2019 offence was a balanced one, too. Led by Adams, the Als also got great years from playmakers like William Stanback, Eugene Lewis, and Quan Bray. One of Jones’s decision I really appreciated was when he tweaked the ratio late in the season to allow both Stanback and Jeremiah Johnson to have a hand in the backfield. It made the team’s rushing attack that much more dangerous.

More than anything, Jones seemed to have the respect of his players. He’s only 12 years removed from an extremely successful career on the field and, at 48, is still very relatable to his players. Jones walked into an extremely difficult situation six months ago and was a huge part of turning that tough spot into a successful season.

He deserves a lot of credit for that, and a new three-year contract probably falls under that banner.

What a career

Some football people raised eyebrows when the Calgary Stampeders drafted Rob Maver fifth overall in the 2010 CFL Draft. Nine years later, after one of the best punting careers this league has ever seen, I would imagine those eyebrows are back to regular levels. Maver announced his retirement after 10 seasons in the league last week.

It’s funny, though, because Maver wasn’t drafted to fill a void at punter for the Stamps. Instead, Calgary beat Toronto and Hamilton to the punch to bring Maver in as a kicker. The Stampeders had said goodbye to longtime kicker Sandro Deangelis after the 2009 season, leaving a void at an important special teams position.

Coming off a great four-year career at the University of Guelph, Maver was one of the most highly touted Canadian kickers in some time. His transition to full-time punter came somewhat by chance.

Maver’s rookie season with the Stamps had ups and downs. He nailed 37 field goals on 47 attempts (78.7%), but did more than enough to earn a second season at the helm. Maver’s first game of his sophomore campaign may have altered his course, a path that would turn him into one of the best punters this decade.

That year, Maver missed three field goals as Calgary lost its Week 1 matchup 23-21 to Toronto. He also injured himself in that night’s pre-game warmup and missed the rest of the 2011 season as a result (enter Rene Paredes). Maver wouldn’t attempt another CFL field goal from that point on.

 

The following year, a new opportunity opened up for Maver. Another longtime member of the team had departed too, this time in the form of punter Burke Dales. Maver was a successful punter at Guelph and, as a Canadian, keeping him on the roster had plenty of benefits. Calgary is glad they did.

Upon taking the punting reins in 2012, Maver was named a West Division All-Star three times, and a CFL All-Star on two of those occasions. In reality, he could have gotten more nods than that.

Maver was one of the league’s best directional punters during his eight years at the position. His “outside the numbers” proficiency was near the top of the league on a regular basis (including this year), and he had five single points or fewer in his last four seasons. In a sport so dependent on field position, Maver’s consistent ability to pin teams deep without a chance for a return was elite.

I’ll be honest, I wasn’t expecting a Maver retirement, because he was coming off another outstanding season. But perhaps I should have clued in when he sat down for a chat with me during Grey Cup week in Calgary.

“If I’m the last guy back, you know, space is not your friend, you always want to play moving forward,” Maver said. “I’m way too slow, you know, I’m way too old. I’m 33 now; I’m not catching any returner in this league. If I do catch them, they’re probably going to have their locker cleaned out by the end of the game.”

Sure, he might not be winning any speed contests, but Maver can still perform at the highest level. He’s going out on his terms and there’s something to be said for that. With two Grey Cup titles and 10 years in professional football, Maver has a lot to be proud of.