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September 28, 2020

Steinberg’s MMQB: 5 storylines I would have kept my eye on

Johany Jutras/CFL.ca

Under normal circumstances, this edition of the Monday Morning Quarterback would be looking back at Week 16 action, which would have also been the final weekend of September football. For me, the start of October is the unofficial start of the CFL’s stretch drive. So, in the absence of a 2020 season, I decided to project the top five stories I’d have been most interested in heading into the final month of the regular season.

The defending champs

The Winnipeg Blue Bombers stopped the league’s longest championship drought when they beat Hamilton 33-12 in the 107th Grey Cup just under a year ago. In a league where a repeat champion has only happened once since the late 1990’s, I thought the Bombers had as good a chance as any to become the second.

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The biggest question mark in Winnipeg would have been at quarterback with the departures of Chris Streveler (Arizona) and Matt Nichols (Toronto). The Bombers gave the ball to Zach Collaros after his outstanding work late in the season and en route to the Grey Cup. It would have been fascinating to see if Collaros was able to stay healthy for the entire year and to see whether he’d have been able to continue playing at the high level we saw in his four 2019 Winnipeg starts.

Knowing all of the work Kyle Walters did in the off-season, I feel they would have been just fine. The Bombers brought back a huge number of high profile free agents, headlined by reigning Most Outstanding Defensive Player Willie Jefferson. Joining him were Stanley Bryant, Darvin Adams, and Drew Wolitarsky, with mainstay Andrew Harris already under contract. Yes, Winnipeg said goodbye to the outstanding Winston Rose (Cincinnati), but for the most part, they brought back an almost identical team that prevailed last November.

Hammer-time

So, with their loss to the Bombers, it’s Hamilton holding the CFL’s longest Grey Cup drought now. But with the group they were bringing back this season, the Tiger-Cats were set to be heavy East Division favourites to return to the big game. For my money, Hamilton was very much the best team in their division on paper coming in. But how would 2019’s bitter disappointment have driven them through 16 weeks?

My guess is the quest for redemption would have been a huge story all year, and not just for the Ticats, but league-wide. Hamilton’s position this season would not have been an enviable one. While every team has their sights set solely on winning a Grey Cup, very few are faced with the prospect of all other outcomes being deemed a failure. That’s the sandbox the Tiger-Cats would have been playing in, especially knowing the team they were returning.

Hamilton’s ability to re-sign their entire starting defensive line was an absolute coup. All four of Dylan Wynn, Ted Laurent, Ja’Gared Davis, and Julian Howsare were set to become free agents, and all four were brought back. Keeping the best starting four in the league together was huge and I think would have been a driving force all season. The Tiger-Cats weren’t able to keep everyone from 2019, but they would still have been heavy favourites to be back in the Grey Cup for a second straight year.

Rick’s roar

Rick Campbell’s six year run in Ottawa will garner him plenty of votes as head coach for our All-Decade Team presented by LeoVegas. That run came to an end following the 2019 season, but Campbell wasn’t out of work for long. After stepping down with the REDBLACKS in early November, he was introduced as head coach of the BC Lions on December 2nd and his first year in Vancouver had me really intrigued.

Rick Campbell was named the head coach of the BC Lions in December of 2019 (BCLions.com)

There’s no doubt the 2019 edition of the Lions were a disappointment with how much hype surrounded them entering last season. But Campbell’s track record had fans in BC feeling really good about 2020, knowing how quickly he turned Ottawa into a Grey Cup contender. Quarterback Mike Reilly was starting to trend positively prior to his late season-ending injury, which is why I felt the Lions had a chance to be one of this year’s biggest bounce back candidates.

BC didn’t mess around in the off-season either. Their Micah Johnson signing was quietly one of the best in free agency and reunites him with Campbell, his first pro defensive coordinator (2012 and 2013 with Calgary). The Lions also signed a pair of breakout candidate receivers in Caleb Holley and Dominique Rhymes and brought back Aaron Grymes to anchor their defensive backfield. To see BC contending in the West Division going into October would not have been a stretch.

New beginnings

Campbell’s departure opened the door for the second head coach in REDBLACKS franchise history and they filled that vacancy with the very deserving Paul LaPolice. I was really excited to see how head coaching tenure number two was going to play out for LaPolice, knowing the road he had to take. After being fired by the Bombers midway through the 2012 season, LaPolice worked in TV for three years before returning to Winnipeg for four more years as offensive coordinator. The guy was ready for another shot.

The hiring of LaPolice wasn’t the only new beginning in Ottawa, though. The REDBLACKS also landed the league’s biggest quarterback fish when they traded for, and eventually signed, Nick Arbuckle. After a solid seven-game audition as a CFL number one with Calgary, Arbuckle was highly sought after for a reason. He went 4-3 as a starter with the Stampeders and showed he could spread the ball around and limit mistakes.

Let’s be honest, there really wasn’t anywhere to go but up in Ottawa after 2019. They finished last season with 11 straight losses and dropped 15 of their last 16 after starting 2-0. It was a nightmare and 2020 was set to be a new beginning regardless. But with the additions of LaPolice and Arbuckle, that new beginning looked really promising.

Rookie in blue

We saw a significant coaching carousel following last season. Campbell replaced DeVone Claybrooks in BC. LaPolice followed Campbell’s departure in Ottawa. Edmonton replaced Jason Maas with Scott Milanovich. The Toronto Argonauts made the most surprising move of all, though, when they hired head coaching newcomer Ryan Dinwiddie. Having no experience as a head coach, or even as a coordinator, Dinwiddie was entering 2020 as a true rookie.

Ryan Dinwiddie is pictured at the Ontario Regional Combine earlier this year (Chris Tanouye/CFL.ca)

That’s not to say Dinwiddie didn’t have a solid pedigree upon his hiring. After three years as offensive quality control in Montreal, the former CFL quarterback took on the role of Calgary quarterbacks coach for four seasons. In that time, he worked side-by-side with Bo Levi Mitchell as he took home two Most Outstanding Player awards. Additionally, working as Dave Dickenson’s second in command on offence for all four of those years would have been nothing but helpful.

To go along with Dinwiddie’s hiring, the Argos made significant additions as new general manager Pinball Clemons started to reshape the team. Toronto signed quarterback Matt Nichols in free agency to help solidify a position in flux since the retirement of Ricky Ray. At receiver, the Argos added DaVaris Daniels and Juwan Brescasin to go along with veteran Alex Bazzie to anchor the defensive line. I was curious to see if Toronto could be challenging for an East Division playoff spot in the latter stages of 2020.