February 25, 2020

Upon Further Review: Montreal Alouettes

Dominick Gravel/Montreal Alouettes

MONTREAL — If you meet someone who says they knew the Montreal Alouettes were going to be a playoff team in 2019 — let alone push for the East Division regular-season championship — you have just met a liar and should avoid that person under any and all circumstances.

I remember sitting on my back deck enjoying the odd preseason moment of quiet in the CFL news cycle when I opened my phone and was told Mike Sherman was no longer the head coach in Montreal.

Okay… So Khari Jones obviously was the right choice to fill the void, but how unfair is that?

To finally have a chance to become a head coach but to do so jammed into the tightest of timelines with many players you had a less-than-optimal amount of input on?

It was an impossible situation to cultivate success out of, but Khari used that ‘mission impossible’ mentality to motivate his group and, perhaps most important of all, found a way to make the men in Montreal’s locker room believe they were a part of something special.

» CFL 2020 Free Agent Tracker
» A summary of the Als’ free-agency moves
» Still Out There: Top free agents still available

Montreal Alouettes quarterback Vernon Adams Jr. gets focused in the tunnel ahead of the team’s game against the Toronto Argonauts. (Johany Jutras/CFL.ca)

So how did they do it? How did the Alouettes make the playoffs and create a game-day experience that has been lacking in Montreal for far too long?

You can claim a strong leader, an underrated quarterback or even a hint of random CFL magic, but for me, it’s more diagnosable than that.

Khari Jones found an identity that worked and pushed its limits to exploit any weakness he could find.

What was that identity? Certainly a much-improved one from the 2018 Alouettes.

In 2018- as in many seasons before – Montreal couldn’t find a consistent starter at quarterback who could last more than six weeks.

2018 QB Usage
Name Usage Grade
Antonio Pipkin 28.9% 52.6
Matthew Shiltz 5.5% 48.4
Jeff Mathews 7.3% 50.2
Vernon Adams Jr. 8.0% 56.0

In 2019, Vernon Adams Jr. became the type of player Alouettes fans have so desperately wanted to call their own. Despite not starting the year as starting pivot, Adams quickly stepped into the role and refused to give it back despite small bumps in the road — including a one-game suspension.

When Adams was on the field, he and Jones discovered his strengths on the fly, a requirement based on their newfound freedom and short timeline with which to work.

Adams Jr. showed a willingness to throw vertically without fear but coupled it with a striking inability to complete the typical CFL staple routes under 10-yards in the air. At one point this summer, I talked to a Montreal media member who told me, “If VA can just figure out the simple stuff and pair it with his explosive play ability defences won’t know which way is up”.

This will undoubtedly be a focus of Adams Jr, Coach Jones and everyone in Montreal as they try to avoid the dreaded ‘regression’ season that many are projecting, but there is beauty in the style the Alouettes offence took on. Of the twenty throw zones beyond 10 yards in passing depth, Adams Jr. averaged more attempts than the league average to 16 of them.

That is by far the highest number of zones attempted above league average.

In free agency, I imagine that would have been a major part of the pitch to new Alouettes receiver Naaman Roosevelt, who has reportedly inked a deal with the Als. He’s coming off a season of just four catches made beyond 20-yards in air.

While Adams Jr. was slinging it all over the place, the real key to the Alouettes’ offence was the run game led by William Stanback — especially when backed up inside their own thirty yard-line.


Win Zone Pass Playcall % (Through W7)
Hamilton Tiger-Cats 77.3%
BC Lions 76.1%
Toronto Argonauts 72.5%
Calgary Stampeders 70.1%
Edmonton Eskimos 65.6%
Ottawa REDBLACKS 61.5%
Winnipeg Blue Bombers 60.0%
Saskatchewan Roughriders 57.1%
Montreal Alouettes 51.7%

The Alouettes were extremely patient with their play-calling aggression through the first third of the season, but when they did decide to use on offensive skill position player to spring them from trouble, it was almost always Stanback who posted the second-highest targeted touch percentage behind the out-of-this-world number posted by Winnipeg’s Andrew Harris.

Win Zone Targeted Touch % (Through W7)
Andrew Harris 66.6%
William Stanback 46.5%
William Powell 32.1%
Nic Demski 29.1%
C.J. Gable 26.8%
James Wilder Jr. 25.8%
John White 23.8%
Ka’Deem Carey 22.8%
Brandon Banks 20.7%
Sean Thomas-Erlington 20.7%

It really is no wonder Montreal leaned on Stanback so much in all areas of the field — but especially when backed up after looking at his production grades relative to the rest of the CFL’s running backs and the top three rushing quarterbacks on 1st down in 2019.

Stanback was the only CFL ball carrier to be above the league average in carries and production grade on 1st down. Factor that in with the effective threat of Adams in the run game and Jeremiah Johnson having a production grade on 1st down above many of the CFL’s primary ball handlers and you have an offence built on the run game but dangerous in the vertical passing attack.

Here is a look at the same metric but for 2nd down.

Just like on 1st down, Adams remains an extremely effective run threat while Stanback pounded out the yards when asked. This has to be a mainstay of the 2020 Alouettes who, after acquiring James Wilder Jr. and Tyrell Sutton, look ready to employ a similar attack.

That one-two punch in combination with Adams Jr. refining his passing accuracy under 20-yards in the air while maintaining that vertical threat with Eugene Lewis should have Montreal on track for another year of improvement, another playoff berth and another chance to prove that in the CFL turnarounds can happen in the blink of a French minute.