2017 CFL Season Preview: Part II

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Last year at this time, Henry Burris was the starting QB of the Ottawa REDBLACKS, with Trevor Harris nipping at his heels.  Jim Popp was still trying to prove that he could be both a coach and a GM.  Scott Milanovich and Jim Barker were in charge of the Argos during their first season away from Rogers Place.  Kent Austin was grumpy and unshaven.

To begin the 2017 season, Trevor Harris takes over as the REDBLACKS’ starting QB from the retired Henry Burris.  Jim Popp has reunited with Marc Trestman to try to turn the good ship Argo around.  Jacques Chapdelaine loses the ‘interim’ tag and takes over as Head Coach of the Alouettes.  Kent Austin is still grumpy and unshaven.

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Because of all of these changes, I have put off writing this post for about two and a half weeks, as I cannot decide which team will finish where in the East Division.  So here goes my best guess…

OTTAWA REDBLACKS

The greatest catch in the REDBLACKS’ short history – caught by a guy the team didn’t re-sign in free agency, and thrown by a guy who retired.

The REDBLACKS are learning that it’s hard to keep a team intact after it wins the Grey Cup.

Let’s start at quarterback.

Trevor Harris was signed with the intention that he would one day become the REDBLACKS’ number one QB.  The REDBLACKS thought that was in 2016, but after a red-hot start, Harris was hurt in Week 5 and never regained his early season form.  He struggled down the stretch, Henry Burris took over, and well, you saw what happened.

Now that Burris has retired, there is no question that this is Harris’ team.  The question is whether the succession plan will work.

One issue that has been pointed out is that while Harris often starts out the season well, he fades in the latter half of the season.  The problem the REDBLACKS face this year is that they don’t have a Henry Burris riding shotgun to pick up the slack.  That role now belongs to Drew Tate, who’s only started a whole two games in the last two seasons.

The news for Harris doesn’t get better.  During the off-season, the REDBLACKS lost two of their four 1000+ yard receivers.  Ernest Jackson, he of the Grey Cup game-winning catch, moved on to Montreal, while Chris Williams went due west and ended up with the BC Lions.  Can Greg Ellingson and Brad Sinopoli be as effective without Jackson and Williams as foils?  That’s one of the bigger questions for the REDBLACKS this year, as the team heavily relied on its aerial attack in making its way to the Grey Cup.

As for the REDBLACKS’ defence, in 2016 it was in the middle of pack statistically.  There aren’t any huge names; it’s a defence by committee.  One noteable loss is that of DB Abdul Kanneh.  But this is actually a win for Ottawa, as Kanneh was good for at least one PI flag per game.

Nevertheless, the REDBLACKS’ season will largely depend on Trevor Harris.  If he can keep Ottawa’s passing game going, the REDBLACKS have a good chance at getting back to the Grey Cup game.

MONTREAL ALOUETTES

The Alouettes cleaned house last season after Jim Popp’s dismal coaching record, coupled with a couple of high profile locker room and practice incidents, led the Alouettes to one of their most tumultuous seasons in recent memory.  Jacques Chapdelaine takes over Head Coach duties minus the ‘interim’ tag, and Kavis Reed is now the Alouettes’ GM.

Yes, you read that correct.  Kavis Reed is a General Manager of a CFL team.

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For whatever reason, Kavis Reed is someone who has managed to fail upwards.

I just don’t get it.

He couldn’t count to thirteen in 2009.

He was fired by the Eskimos after failing spectacularly as a head coach, going from an 11-7 record in his first year to an amazing 4-14 in his last year.

He joined Montreal as a special teams co-ordinator.

And then he ends up as the Alouettes’ GM, succeeding Jim Popp.

Huh?

Here’s another ‘quoi?’

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This sight still stings.

Be prepared to hear the words ‘comeback’, ‘revenge’, ‘man on a mission’, blah, blah, blah, for the next several weeks, if not months.  This video pretty much sums it up:

“I’m not finished yet.”

The saga of Darian Durant and Chris Jones ended with Durant being traded to the Alouettes on January 13, 2017.  Interestingly, current Rider starting QB Kevin Glenn was the Alouettes’ starting QB at the beginning of 2016.  He started the first few games, got an eye infection, and managed to only go 3-6 through the first half of the season.  He was traded to the Blue Bombers, and then started the quarterback carousel of Rakeem Cato, Vernon Adams Jr., Jonathon Crompton, and Brandon Bridge.  Bridge, too, ended up in Saskatchewan.

With Durant, the Alouettes have their first franchise QB since Anthony Calvillo retired. Durant instantly creates stability at the QB position and brings more veteran leadership into the locker room.  As long as he stays healthy.

(He did give the Alouettes a scare when he hurt his knee during training camp.)

The Alouettes’ receiving corps suffered a lethal blow when SJ Green went down in Week 2.  He tore all of the ligaments in his knee, and he took a lot of the Alouettes’ offence with him.  In the off-season, Green signed on with the Argos.  Into his role steps Ernest Jackson.  Jackson and Nik Lewis will likely be Durant’s go-to receivers.

The Alouettes’ running back situation is an interesting one, as Tyrell Sutton and Brandon Rutley, two capable backs, may split duties.

The Alouettes’ defence remains largely intact, with familiar characters such as John Bowman, Kyries Hebert, and Chip Cox returning.  For whatever reason, though, linebacker Bear Woods was released and picked up by the Argos.  With the additional loss of Marc-Olivier Brouillette at safety, there could be some holes in the middle left to fill.

The most mind-boggling move of the Alouettes off-season, though, was the re-signing of placekicker Boris Bede.  He made 11 of 21 field goals last season, meaning he was about as accurate as a weather forecaster.  If I was Chris Jones, I’d be trying to fleece Kavis Reed and send one of our kickers their way for a 2018 2nd round draft pick and something else to make up for Brouillette retiring after signing with the Riders.

The Alouettes are clearly trying to ‘win now’, as the veteran team pick up more veterans in the off season.  If Durant can remain healthy, the Alouettes will certainly be better than last year.  But I have faith that Kavis will screw it up somehow.

HAMILTON TIGER-CATS

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Last year was a return of the East Division to the (L)EAST Division, as the Edmonton Eskimos crossed over to beat the Tiger-Cats in the East Division Semi-Finals.

It did not help that Zach Collaros didn’t play until Week 8 of the 2016 season.

While Collaros had decent numbers for the 10 games he played (18 TDs, 66.9% completion percentage, 2,938 passing yards, 100.8 passer rating), it wasn’t enough.

One of the major issues the Ti-Cats faced in 2016 was significant injuries to its receiving core.  Slotbacks Luke Tasker and Andy Fantuz missed the last third of the season with injuries, and Fantuz won’t be back for a while yet.

Despite that hard luck, there was a most welcome surprise as DE John Chick found his motor again and amassed 14 QB sacks, just one shy of his career high of 15.  The Tiger-Cats’ defence was a force in 2016, but the offence never fired on all cylinders when it mattered most.

The Tiger-Cats are a bit of a mystery.  They have the talent, with CJ Gable at running back, Simoni Lawrence at linebacker, a strong defensive line and solid special teams. Can the Tiger-Cats take the next step this season and put it all together?  The answer to that question will depend on Zach Collaros being able to play a full season.

I am betting they will, as whatever I think the Tiger-Cats will do, they always end up doing the opposite.  Just watch – they’ll end up 1st in the East.

TORONTO ARGONAUTS

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Fun fact: If you search for ‘ARGOS’ via Google – CANADIAN Google – the first result that comes up is a British catalogue retailer called Argos.

The fact that the Toronto Argonauts don’t even get first billing on Google in Canada tells you everything you need to know about how visible the franchise is.

Hopefully that is about to change.

A few weeks ago I pointed out the very late firing of former GM Jim Barker and the even later hirings of new GM Jim Popp and Head Coach Marc Trestman.  The duo led the Alouettes to much success in the late 2000s, including two Grey Cups in 2009 (sniff) and 2010 (double sniff).

I will never forgive them for those wins.

Trestman returned to the NFL in 2013 to coach the Chicago Bears (WHY??), but was promptly fired after two seasons.  He then served as the Baltimore Ravens’ Offensive Coordinator, where he didn’t survive the 2016 season.

As for Popp, you read about him above.

While getting a late start to free agency, the early part of which resulted in some players inexplicably signing on with the Argos, Trestman & Co. have managed to make a bit of a splash by trading for SJ Green, signing Bear Woods after he was released by the Alouettes, and signing J’Michael Deane to shore up the offensive line.

Those are solid signings, although after trading a freaking first overall draft pick to the Blue Bombers for Drew Willy, ANY signing would look better.

Hey, look – the Argos released Drew Willy yesterday.

(Did they ever get fleeced by the Bombers last year.)

As with most CFL teams, a lot of the Argos’ success will depend on whether the oft-injured Ricky Ray, who’s now 37 years old.  Upon taking over Head Coach duties, Trestman immediately announced that Ray would be the Argos’ starting QB.

Ricky Ray hasn’t played a full season since 2011.  In 2016, he hurt his knee during Week 5, returned three weeks later, and then suffered a partially deflated lung (I still don’t understand how that happened) that kept him out for the remainder of the season. Prior to 2016, he was plagued by shoulder problems.  If Ray can’t stay healthy, the Argos are in heap of trouble at QB.

Aside from Ray, I cannot name one other player on the Argos’ offence.

On defence, the defensive line should remain solid, as it continues to be anchored by Shawn Lemon and Justin Hickman.  Ricky Foley was cut during the off-season and remains a free agent.

Beyond those three players, I have no idea who else is will start for the Argos on defence.

This is yet another rebuilding year for the Argos.  The good news for Argos fans is that they finally have capable people in charge of football operations.  As long as Jim Popp doesn’t get the urge to coach again, the Argos should progress, although it might be a long first half of the season.

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