It is time to BRING IT IN and BRING IT ON. The 2017 CFL season is nearly here!
(BTW, I think we can all agree that this is one of the best ads for the CFL in YEARS.)
While the 2016 CFL season was an exercise in frustration for this Rider fan, even I have to admit that the season ended on a high note with a Grey Cup game that will go down as one of the most exciting in its 104 year history.
During the long off season, the winds of change blew through the CFL as they always do, but with a bit more force than usual. Let’s take a look at some of the major off season events that will significantly shape the 2017 season.
1. HENRY BURRIS MAKES THE RIGHT CALL
I know: how could I put TWO pictures of Henry Burris up when he’s RETIRED?! And especially when he’s NOT my favourite person to talk about?
Well, he’s one of the biggest personalities the CFL has had over the past fifteen years, and his retirement leaves a big hole not only for the REDBLACKS at QB, but for the league as a whole. Smilin’ Hank was a player fans loved to hate, and he relished the attention. He was a little Trump-like in that he was pretty touchy about negative media coverage, but you always knew what he was thinking and he was clearly passionate about the CFL game.
Who could forget his epic meltdown last year where he went off on TSN last year?
But Burris did most of his talking where it mattered most: on the field. While he retires with only
two three Grey Cups, he was always a threat. Except when he got rattled early on in games, like he did in this memorable Grey Cup game.
Seriously, though, his statistics speak for themselves. He’s a first-ballot Hall of Famer, and he deserves it. Now one more time:
2. ‘THE GHOST’ DISAPPEARS FOR GOOD
Twenty years from now, most CFL fans will likely have forgotten Jeffrey L. Orridge’s brief and somewhat tumultuous two years as Commissioner. While no one seemed happy with the job he was doing, it came as a surprise when on April 12th he and the Board of Governors released statements stating that Orridge’s last day on the job will be June 30th.
Orridge remains an enigma; no one really knew what his focus was. He moved the CFL forward in terms of social media use, signing a deal with Draft Kings that finally moved the CFL into fantasy football – a place it should’ve been in at least a decade ago – and embracing the LGBTQ community through the You Can Play campaign and other events.
The trouble with Orridge, though, was that it was clear he didn’t care to get involved in improving the game. When he named former CFL referee Glen Johnson as VP of Officiating, Orridge signalled that he was leaving the state of the game itself to Johnson. In my humble opinion, this was a rather big mistake. Under Johnson’s tenure, the CFL’s officiating has become far less consistent, video replay use has skyrocketed, the game has slowed down, and no TD can be celebrated until the next kickoff, i.e. until the possibility that a team can throw a challenge flag has been exhausted.
One area in which Orridge stood out from his predecessors was in his wielding of fines. I do not recall a team being fined as often and as harshly as the Roughriders were last year. (And it appears that they more than deserved it.) But it wasn’t just the Roughriders that were hit hard in the pocketbook. The Eskimos were hit with hefty fines after HC Jason Maas refused to wear a live microphone during a scheduled live mic game. Hamilton HC Kent Austin was suspended for a game and fined $10,000 for making contact with an on-field official. The Riders and Lions were fined in the off season for various bylaw infractions.
While the CFL likes to think of itself as one of North America’s ‘big’ leagues, most times it still operates like a small town, where the Board of Governors is effectively a town council made of people whose sole motivation is to protect their own turf rather than think about the greater good of the league as a whole. In levying stiff fines, Orridge tried to wrest some power away from the Board of Governors, a move that should have been supported. For too long, the rules and bylaws have been more suggestions than rules. Orridge tried to create some consistency – at least for off field violations. On field infractions are another story.
But the biggest failure of Orridge’s short Commissionership was his handling of the 2016 Grey Cup in Toronto. While he inherited the mess left by the previous Toronto ownership group, the transition to BMO Field should have been a boon for the troubled franchise. And it may well yet be. But handing the league’s premiere event to Toronto in its first year at BMO Field was a huge mistake. Argos’ attendance dropped over the course of the season, and by the time Grey Cup rolled around, Pizza Pizza was offering two Grey Cup tickets, a pizza, chicken wings and a couple of cans of pop for $29.99, and Bell employees were given free tickets to make sure the venue looked full on TV.
That all being said, Orridge leaves one valuable new tradition behind. The inaugural Mark’s CFL Week was held in Regina in March and was by and large a huge success. Over the course of the week, more than 50 CFL players stopped in to sign autographs, hang out with fans, take part in Q & As, and promote the league. CFL players took over the local airwaves all week, with Nik Lewis’ stint on CTV Morning Live Regina being a highlight. The most interesting part of the week, though, was the ‘You Make the Call’ evening hosted by Johnson, where fans ran through 14 plays from the 2016 season and Johnson explained what the correct call was. (More on that in a later post.)
It’ll be interesting to see how the selection process unfolds for a new Commissioner. The Board of Governors has not released any time line, so the league could potentially operate for the entire 2017 season without a Commissioner. A number of notable names have been put forward for the job, including the aforementioned Johnson (yuck), former player and Canadian college draft guru Duane Forde, to Glen Suitor and even Canada’s no longer favourite Premier, Brad Wall. After selecting Orridge, a no name in CFL circles, the league will likely go with a more known commodity this time around.
Just PLEASE don’t let it be Jock Climie. He’s insufferable enough already.
3. FLAG FEST WILL CONTINUE
The good news: there are FAR less rule changes this season than in seasons past.
The bad news: Glen Johnson is still in charge of officiating and he thinks everything is AWESOME.
Watching a CFL game last season was a frustrating experience – even when the Riders weren’t playing. Flag after flag was thrown, including a lot of challenges for pass interference for interference that took place twenty yards from the *actual play*. Challenges took FOREVER, and even then, Command Centre couldn’t get calls right.
I saw and still see a fumble. Everyone watching saw a fumble, including CFL players and coaches. Come on – even Rod Black had the right call! Social media exploded.
Of course the CFL stood by the call. I guess it was #fakenews, eh?
(I hate myself a little bit for using that hashtag.)
We will talk more about CFL refereeing in the weeks to come, as I gleaned a lot of information from the refereeing session at Mark’s CFL Week, but here are a couple of the changes the CFL is making to its rules to try and improve game flow, clamp down on ridiculous challenges, and keep the focus on player safety this season:
- No more freebie challenges. As implemented half-way through the 2016 season, each challenge will be subject to a loss of a time out if not successful. This significantly cut down on fishing expeditions in the latter part of the season, as coaches were usually using their first challenges on ticky tacky calls to negate big plays.
- The league will work with TSN to have challenges take place during commercial breaks to cut down on delays. I just hope this doesn’t mean that fans won’t get to see all of the available angles on replay.
- Unnecessary roughness on a QB will not be reviewable, but roughing the passer will remain reviewable. So grazing the QB’s helmet during a tackle will no be reviewable. I think.
- Low blocks on kicking plays will be punishable by a 15 yard penalty, up from 10 yards.
- Command Centre will now be able to call penalties. Johnson backed away from this blatant of a statement during the ‘You Make the Call’ session in March, but his interview says something else.
I am always skeptical of anything the CFL does to improve the game or its officiating. After two straight years of major rule changes, coaches, players and fans are likely more than relieved that the CFL decided not to do any further tinkering. (I certainly am.) The league needs to leave the rules alone for a couple of seasons, as it’s hard to determine if these new rules are helping the game if they change on a yearly basis.
Despite what the CFL thinks, innovation isn’t always the answer, and it doesn’t always result in a better on field product. But I guess that’s the new Commissioner’s problem.
4. LATE OFF SEASON GM AND COACHING CHANGES
During Grey Cup week, the league places a moratorium on big announcements, such as coach and GM hirings and firings. As a result, December is usually when most coaches find out that their services are no longer needed. Early January generally brings hiring announcements, as new coaches and GMs want time to prepare for CFL free agency in February.
Yet there’s the case of this man.
This man gave up a first round draft pick for Drew Willy. FOR DREW WILLY.
He should’ve been fired for that move alone.
Yet the Argos’ brass waited until late January to give Jim Barker his pink slip.
The Argos went into free agency without a GM or a Head Coach, as former HC Scott Milanovich left the team and took a job in the NFL not long before Barker was fired.
A month later, the Argos hired former NFL and Alouettes HC Marc Trestman and his trusty GM sidekick, Jim Popp, who overstayed his welcome in Montreal.
Trestman and Popp were hired on February 28, 2017, nearly a month into CFL free agency.
Good luck, guys!
The Barker foul up, though, was a clear symptom of the ineptitude at the top of the Argo franchise.
In Edmonton, it’s all infighting for power and control.
Despite winning a Grey Cup in 2015 and getting to the Eastern Final (yes, the EASTERN Final) last season, Ed Hervey was unceremoniously dumped by the Eskimos in early April.
APRIL. Two months after CFL free agency and only a few weeks away from training camp.
Yes we did win a Grey Cup but it’s not enough,” CEO Len Rhodes said. “We’ve got to approach this differently.
“After winning the Grey Cup we didn’t fill the stands. Fan access, media access, season seat-holder access, sponsorship access and showcasing our athletes are all important areas allowing us to grow our fanbase and ultimately the success of the Edmonton Eskimos football club.”
But according to others, the firing was the result of a power struggle between Hervey and Rhodes, with Rhodes ultimately winning.
Given what happened to Hervey, new GM Brock Sunderland had better watch his back.
What happened in Toronto and Edmonton this off season is not likely without precedent, but it is certainly not standard operating practice for CFL teams. But if 2017 has taught me anything so far, it’s that normal doesn’t mean much anymore.
5. DARIAN GOES EAST
I used to think that Eric Tillman was pretty ballsy for trading Kerry Joseph after the Riders won the 2007 Grey Cup. Lucky for him, he had a young Darian Durant waiting in the wings.
Tillman pulled the trigger on another huge QB trade in December 2011 when he sent Ricky Ray to the Argos in exchange for Steven Jyles (LOL) and Grant Shaw. Ironically, Tillman turned to Kerry Joseph to lead the Eskimos after Ray’s departure. I think Tillman was blinded by his own hubris that time.
Chris Jones has no such excuse. What he did was just stupid.
January 13, 2017 will forever be remembered in Riderville as the day Darian Durant, one of the best QBs the Riders ever had, was punted East.
It was a sad, sad day. My work colleagues were concerned about my mental state, and rightfully so.
January 20, 2017 was even worse. Not only was that tool Trump inaugurated, but dear Darian was introduced as an Alouette and the first pictures of him in anything other than green and white were released.
That was a tough weekend, the only joy being Sean Spicer’s ridiculous first press conference about the size of the inaugural crowds.
Few football players get the opportunity to spend their entire career with one team. The economics, short careers, and the ‘must win now’ mentality make it nearly impossible. But the stars seemed aligned to allow Darian to be a Roughrider for life.
Until Chris Jones came along and tore out the hearts of Rider fans everywhere.
I understand why Jones did what he did. I get the salary issues, the injury history, Darian’s age, and so on. But what I don’t understand is why Jones went and signed a 37 year old journeyman QB and a 34 year old former college star who’s never played a down in the CFL and hasn’t played pro football in a couple of years.
Eventually we will spend an entire post hashing this out.
Besides the fact that this is my blog and I get to decide what makes the cut, the Durant trade makes the list of major off season events because he immediately makes the Alouettes better, upending the dynamics of the Eastern Division. He was also seemingly one of the few ‘untouchable’ players left in the league – players who wouldn’t get traded no matter what.
So much for that.
NEXT UP: A preview of the Eastern Division. Darian might get a mention or two.