Play It Again, Ricky

NATHAN DENETTE / THE CANADIAN PRESS FILE PHOTO

I can’t stand Ricky Ray, but only because he’s: (a) so good at what he does; and (b) never brought that amazingness to my beloved Riders.  Can you imagine Ricky Ray throwing to Naaman Roosevelt and Duron Carter?  *Sigh*

When Marc Trestman returned to the CFL with the Toronto Argonauts last year and named Ricky Ray as his starting quarterback, you could hear coaches and GMs across the CFL groan as they realized what havoc the two could wreak on opposing defences.  And they were right to worry.  After two injury-riddled seasons, Ray threw for over 5,500 yards and 28 TDs in 17 regular season games.  After contemplating retirement following the Argos’ surprising Grey Cup victory, Ray decided to return to the Argos for another year.  Now the winningest QB in CFL history and a lock for the CFL Hall of Fame, what does Ray have left to accomplish?

James Franklin is likely asking himself the same question.  The Argos traded for him in the off season before Ray decided to return.  Despite limited playing time, Franklin had been dubbed ‘the next great CFL QB‘.  As he was set to become a free agent in February, the Edmonton Eskimos decided to move him out of the West Division.  If pressed into duty this season, it will be interesting to see if he was worth the hype.

Then there’s James Wilder, Jr.  His goal?  To become the first player to reach 1,000 yards rushing and 1,000 yards passing in the same season.  After a contract dispute during the off season wherein he declared that he was going to sit out the 2018 CFL season unless he made more money or the Argos released him to try out in the NFL, Wilder signed a contract extension through the 2019 season that makes him one of the CFL’s highest paid running backs.  In the Grey Cup, Wilder had a whole 13 yards rushing and 18 yards receiving.  He now needs to prove that he’s worth the money.

SJ Green leads the Argos receivers, the perennial player maker and is supporting by Armanti Edwards and Brian Tyms.  Green was 2nd in the CFL in receiving in 2017 after sitting out most of the 2016 season with a knee injury.

Shawn Lemon and Cleyon Laing anchor the Argos defense, along with LBs Marcus Ball, Taylor Reed, and Bear Woods, although Woods will miss the first month of the season due to needing further time to recover from off season surgery.  As Corey Chamblin has not returned to the Argos as Defensive Co-ordinator, Mike Archer takes over his duties.

Finally, the kicker with the best name in the CFL had his comeback cut short.  Swayze Waters was among the Argos’ final cuts after being beaten out by Ronnie Pfeffer in training camp.

It’ll be tough for the Argos to follow up 2017’s improbable Grey Cup win.  As the REDBLACKS have reloaded for another run at the East Division title, the Argos will need to be more consistent during the regular season, particularly on defence, in order to fend them off.  But given Trestman’s track record, I’d bet on him to come out on top.

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Hometown Glory?

Remember when Jason Maas had a temper tantrum while talking into his headset?

Or when he freaked out on Cory McDiarmid?  (Surprisingly, McDiarmid is still employed at the Eskimos’ Special Team Co-ordinator.)

Or when Jason Maas THREW HIS HEADSET after he lost a pass interference challenge and was assessed an objectionable conduct penalty?

I remember.  And I put the over/under on Jason Maas blowing up on the sidelines at 5 times, with one of them resulting in him kicking/pushing over the Gatorade cooler.

The Eskimos host the 106th Grey Cup in November.  Imagine the tantrum Maas would throw if the Eskimos didn’t end up in the championship game….

Maas has more on his shoulders this season, having taken on the role of Offensive Co-ordinator.

I look forward to watching Maas yell at himself.

Maas’ success is largely dependent on the play of the Eskimos’ star quarterback Mike Reilly, who also happens to be the reigning CFL MOP and #1 on TSN’s Top 50 CFL Players list.  Reilly threw for over 5,800 yards last season, and threw 30 TDs and only 13 interceptions.  He was a force all season, even when the Eskimos endured a 6 game losing streak.

Reilly will not have his favourite receiving target this season.  Brandon Zylstra signed with the Minnesota Vikings in the off season after leading the CFL in 2017 with nearly 1,700 yards.  However, the Eskimos will have the services of Derel Walker, who was the CFL’s second-best receiving in 2016, only behind his former teammate, Adarius Bowman.  Speaking of Bowman, he was released prior to free agency in February, but was signed by the Winnipeg Blue Bombers.  The Eskimos are still in great shape at receiver even with Bowman gone, as they still have Kenny Stafford, Vidal Hazelton, and Bryant Mitchell.

RB CJ Gable has never played a full season in the CFL.  He’s played 15 games, once in 2016, and once in 2013, his first year in the league.  When healthy, Gable is a great asset.  Behind him is Shaquille Cooper, whom Rod Black has already ordained the next great running back in the CFL if you listened to his May 27th broadcast.

The Eskimos’ defensive line was the most affected by off season changes.  Veteran DE Odell Willis was traded to the BC Lions, via the Ottawa REDBLACKS, prior to free agency, and DE John Chick retired.  DE Alex Bazzie will take Willis’ place after becoming a free agent.  Bazzie was with the BC Lions for the latter part of the 2017 season after being released by the Arizona Cardinals.  DT Almondo Sewell will remain a force in the middle.

JC Sherritt missed all but one game of the 2017 season with a ruptured Achilles.  He returns to captain the Eskimos’ backfield at middle linebacker.  And I can’t help but mention DB Forrest Hightower, whose name is so very perfect for a defensive back.

Overall, the Eskimos’ roster is largely the same compared to last year’s squad, as GM Brock Sunderland has bet that he has the players to take his team to the Grey Cup. The Eskimos’ goal for the 2018 season is simple: it’s either make it to the Grey Cup or watch Jason Maas’ head explode.

Back in the Black

For the REDBLACKS, the 2017 season was the one that got away.  It started out well, with a Grey Cup rematch that saw the REDBLACKS tie the Calgary Stampeders in a high scoring affair.  After that, the REDBLACKS lost the next 4 out of 5 games by a combined 10 points.  Ultimately finishing with an 8-9-1 record, the REDBLACKS failed to capitalize on a weakened East Division and let the Toronto Argonauts slip into first place, leaving the REDBLACKS to take on – and subsequently lose to – the Saskatchewan Roughriders in the East Division Semi-Final.

One of the major issues the REDBLACKS had throughout the 2017 season was turnovers.  The REDBLACKS had a -12 turnover ratio, with only BC and Montreal having a worse ratio.  This means that not only did the REDBLACKS cough up the football a lot, they didn’t produce many turnovers.

Enter: Noel Thorpe

Noel Thorpe’s defences are far more aggressive than anything former defensive co-ordinator (now linebackers coach) Mark Nelson ever ran.  The additions of Kyries Hebert – even at age 37 – and Loucheiz Purifoy will help inject the REDBLACKS’ defense with a more hard-nosed style of play.  However, the REDBLACKS will need to overcome the losses of DL Zach Evans, who signed with the Riders during free agency, and LB Taylor Reed, who is now a member of the Argos.

While the REDBLACKS’ defense got a makeover, the offensive core remains intact.  QB Trevor Harris and star receivers Brad Sinopoli, Greg Ellingson, and Dionate Spencer all re-signed with the REDBLACKS in the off season. RB William Powell also re-signed.  If he can stay healthy, he may well lead the league in rushing yards.  Despite missing 6 games last season, Powell only finished 9 yards behind Andrew Harris for the league rushing title.  With the addition of Richie Leone as field goal kicker, the REDBLACKS shouldn’t have any trouble putting up points this season.

Last year the REDBLACKS lost a number of games as their defence couldn’t close out teams.  This season the REDBLACKS are looking to rectify that problem and get back on top of the East Division.

Third Time’s the Charm?

Justin Tang/CP

On November 26, 2017, for the second time in two years, Bo Levi Mitchell walked off the Grey Cup field a loser.  He threw a late 4th quarter interception that sealed the Grey Cup victory for the Toronto Argonauts, unlikely winners after a one year rebuild.  Mitchell’s reaction?

“We had a chance to win the game at the end of the game,” said Mitchell. “Just like last year after the Grey Cup I said I wanted the ball in my hands at the end of the game.

 

“It was, and I didn’t get it done.”

Mitchell has been his own worst enemy at times, and in the Grey Cup, that Achilles heel showed.  He forced the ball downfield on 2nd and 5 and the result was yet another Grey Cup loss.  Mitchell’s solution?  Leave Twitter.

Mitchell got into trouble in October 2017 when it was announced that Duron Carter would be playing cornerback in a game against the Stampeders.  Mitchell told him not to do it, and Carter responded that Mitchell had better have on his “chasing cleats!!!”  The rest is history.

While Twitter was one thing occupying Mitchell’s mind, the other was his injured throwing shoulder.  He injured it in Week 5 versus the Riders, which resulted in small tears that affected him for the duration of the season.  Luckily for him, surgery was not required to fix the problem, and he rehabbed his shoulder in the off-season.  But even though he played hurt throughout the 2017 season, he still threw for 4,700 yards and 23 touchdowns.

Mitchell will be leading an offence that has lost a few key pieces.  First and foremost is the loss of RB Jerome Messam, who signed with the Riders during free agency.  Terry Williams will likely be the Stamps’ starting running back, but as an import, the Stamps will have to adjust their ratio to makeup for the loss of Messam’s Canadian passport.

Veteran receiver Marquay McDaniel was released in February, and has indicated that he’s retiring.  That’s probably not a bad thing given McDaniel’s comments about fellow receiver Kamar Jorden’s fumble late in the Grey Cup that led to the Stampeders’ loss.  Jorden will be back, as will DeVaris Daniels, but Canadian Anthony Parker was released by the Stampeders and won’t be returning.  The Stampeders signed Eric Rogers a few days ago, after Rogers was released by the San Fransico 49ers.  Rogers suffered a torn ACL in 2016, and it remains to be seen whether he can regain the form that made him the CFL’s leading receiver in 2015.

Up front, Derek Dennis returns to the Stampeder’s offensive line after a less-than-stellar 2017 season with the Riders.  Calgary lost two veteran offensive lineman with the retirements of Pierre Lavertu and Daniel Federkeil.

On defense came the most shocking move of the Stamps’ off-season when they traded veteran DE Charleston Hughes to the Tiger-Cats – who then flipped him to the Riders.  The all-time sack leader for the Stampeders had a solid 2017, but GM John Hufnagel moved him due to salary cap issues.  Cordarro Law and Ja’Gared Davis, along with free agent acquisition Ese Mrabure (a former Rider, no less) remain.  LB Alex Singleton returns to lead the defensive backfield.

The Stampeders’ special teams remain solid with veterans Rob Maver and Rene Paredes handling kicking duties.  However, there will a new guy returning kicks, as Roy Finch has stepped away from football for the time being after being arrested in Oklahoma over the off-season for assaulting a police officer and possessing marijuana, among other things.

2017 was supposed to be the year the Stamps redeemed themselves after losing the 2016 Grey Cup to the Ottawa REDBLACKS.  But I hate to use the word ‘redemption’, as it implies that the Stamps lost something that they were entitled to.  While they may have been the best team in the CFL during the regular season over the past two seasons, they were not the best team in the championship game.  So here’s my prediction: if the Stamps fail to win a championship this year, there will be big changes in Calgary.  Big.

Blue Skies

Global News

Maybe it’s a prairie thing, but I’ve come to realize that even if the Riders are terrible, I can handle it as long as the Bombers don’t win the Grey Cup.  This strategy has worked for me since I was in Grade 3 and predicted the score of the Grey Cup would be 51-11.  For Edmonton.  I was only one point off of the final score of 50-11, except that the Bombers won.  It cost me a win in our classroom’s Grey Cup contest, but I still got a prize.

Back to the Bombers.

Last year, the Bombers finished a surprising 2nd in the West Division, only a game and a tie behind the Calgary Stampeders.  However, the Edmonton Eskimos picked apart Richie Hall’s defensive backfield to perfection in the West Semi-Final, which was a disappointing end to a solid season.

(It irritates me to have to write that.)

Going into free agency, the Bombers had a number of veterans they tried to re-sign.  They mostly targeted their defence, specifically LB Maurice Leggett, LB Ian Wild, and CB Chris Randle.  SB Weston Dressler also re-signed with the team.

With free agency came a couple of significant losses on defence.  DB TJ Heath left for the Toronto Argonauts, while DE Jamaal Westerman now plays for the Montreal Alouettes.  On offence, WR Clarence Denmark became a free agent, the OL Travis Bond signed with the Riders (although it appears he may have been released).

But the Bombers added some significant talent by signing free agent Adarius Bowman.  Bowman spent two seasons with the Bombers in 2009 and 2010 until he was released.  It was with in his third stop in the CFL with the Eskimos where Bowman found his stride.  After a lacklustre 2017, the Bombers are hoping he can step into Denmark’s role and complement Darvin Adams and Weston Dressler.

The biggest addition of the offseason for the Bombers, though, occurred just before training camp when LB Adam Bighill was released by the New Orleans Saints.  LB Sam Hurl started the 2017 season playing middle linebacker, but was heavily criticized and effectively replaced by Wild by season’s end.  Bighill adds another piece to a solid defence that suffered a number of major breakdowns in its West Division Semi-Final loss last season.

The Bombers will start out the season hampered by the loss of starting QB Matt Nichols to a knee injury.  Luckily, Nichols will only be out 4 to 6 weeks.  I say luckily because early reports indicated the injury was much more serious, particularly since Nichols sustained the injury while backpedalling.   Bomber fans seem to be fairly high on rookie QB Chris Streveler, but at this point it’s unknown which quarterback will be called upon to start for the Bombers in Week 1.  Regardless of which QB starts, the Bombers will heavily rely on RB Andrew Harris to lead the offence while Nichols recovers.

I hate to say it, but this is a Bombers team that is as talented, if not more so, than the 2017 edition.  Therefore, may Richie Hall’s defence continue to breakdown at inopportune times, and the Bombers’ backup QBs be less than serviceable over the first couple of weeks of the season.

Everybody Loves the Backup

The Canadian PressAfter being hired on August 2, 2017, as an assistant coach for the Tiger-Cats, I remember hearing the name June Jones and thinking that it was about the most American football coach name that I’d ever heard.  I chuckled and wondered if he had any idea what the CFL was.  Lo and behold, he was promoted to Head Coach a mere three weeks later.  To the surprise of most, he took an aimless Tiger-Cats team that was 0-8 and led them to a 6-4 record over their last ten games.  By the end of the season, every team in the CFL was thankful that the Tiger-Cats weren’t in the playoffs.  Jones was rewarded with a contract extension in the off-season and the demotion of Kent Austin.  And he was well aware of the hurricane that was bearing down on his team.

Enter Johnny Manziel.

Annoyingly, you can’t seem to find anything about the Tiger-Cats that doesn’t mention Johnny Manziel.  This is frustrating because I don’t want to talk about him.  I am tired of hearing about him, and the pre-season isn’t even over yet.  He is the most talked about backup quarterback the CFL has ever seen.  For a former NFLer with a forgettable career, he has garnered a ridiculous amount of attention.  As far as I’m concerned, he hasn’t earned it, and therefore, I will not mention his name on this here blog ever again until he actually takes a snap in a regular season game.

In all of the national media hoopla surrounding the Tiger-Cats, the team’s actual starting quarterback has largely been forgotten.  But it was Jeremiah Masoli who was largely responsible for the Tiger-Cats’ impressive run during the later half of 2018.  After Zach Collaros was permanently benched, Masoli started the last ten games of the season.  After being named the teams’ starting quarterback, he led the CFL in passing yards and rushing yards by a QB.  Over the last two months of the season, he only threw four interceptions.  Masoli is a scrambler; if the pocket breaks down, he has no qualms about taking off with the football.  He’s not the prettiest passer, but he gets the job done.  What will be interesting is to see if Masoli gets tired of being a starting quarterback whose backup is more well-known and a lot more popular.  If Masoli struggles, there will be immense pressures on Jones to go to the next guy.  For Masoli’s sake, I hope his solid play from the latter half of 2017 carries over into 2018.

On offense, Masoli will have largely the same offensive line and receiving corps.  Using Brandon Banks as a receiver was probably June Jones’ best move in 2017, and also the most obvious.  Luke Tasker returns after a 1,000 yard season, which is rather impressive given the Tiger-Cats’ inability to move the ball for the first half of the 2017 season.  The Tiger-Cats will need Jalen Saunders to take another step in his development.  Overall, the Tiger-Cats’ receivers are fairly small but make up for it in speed.  I assume Alex Green will be the Tiger-Cats’ running back, although Banks will probably be used in the backfield from time to time, particularly to spread out opposing defences.

Speaking of defences, Simoni Lawrence returns to captain the Tiger-Cats on the defensive side of the ball.  Hamilton’s defence allowed more points per game than any other team in 2017.  While allowing the most passing yards last season, Hamilton’s defensive backfield should be better with a year of experience. Despite the Tiger-Cats’ issues with the passing game, they were surprisingly effective at stopping the run, even having lost DT Ted Laurent for 1/3 of the season due to injury.

The Tiger-Cats sat on the sidelines during free agency, instead choosing to extend key players and, given the upturn at the end of 2017, keep the same core together.  About the only free agent signing of note was placekicker Lirim Hajrullahu.  Hamilton is betting that the team that weathered a rocky 2017 is finished with the growing pains and is now ready to compete for a playoff spot in the East Division.  The key for the Tiger-Cats will be to focus on football and not on all of the media attention that’s focused on their backup quarterback.

Jekyll and Hyde

The Canadian Press

You knew that Ed Hervey wasn’t going to be out of football for long.

Unceremoniously fired by the Edmonton Eskimos a mere two months before the beginning of the 2017 season, Hervey found a new home with the BC Lions after the Lions finished with a disappointing 7-11 record and in last place in the West Division.  Hervey was hired as the Lions’ GM when Head Coach Wally Buono stepped down after holding both jobs during the 2017 season.  While Buono announced that the 2018 CFL season would be his last as head coach, he still retains his VP of Football Operations title.  So the Head Coach reports to the GM, who reports to the VP of Football Operations, who is also the Head Coach.  This could be fun.

This not the first time this circular management has occurred in the CFL.  In 2011, Ken Miller was VP of Football Operations for the Saskatchewan Roughriders and was then reinstated as Head Coach following the firing of Greg “You haven’t heard the last of me!” Marshall.  Brendan Taman was the GM caught in the crossfire that season, and yet he outlasted both Miller and Marshall.

Hervey quickly made his mark on the Lions in free agency by focusing on the guys in the trenches.  His biggest signing was likely DE Odell Willis, who joins the Lions after a number of seasons with the Eskimos.  DT Euclid Cummings joins Willis on a revamped defensive line.  The Lions’ offensive line was a problem throughout 2017, so the signings of Chris Greaves, Joel Figeuora, and Jeremy Lewis were no doubt meant to bolster a weak part of the Lions’ roster.  The latter two linemen were with the Tiger-Cats and Alouettes, respectively, so how helpful they will be remains to be seen.

The Lions also added a number of free agents to their defensive backfield, with Otha Foster III and Gary Peters joining a group that was fairly green last year.  MLB Solomon Elimimian remains the heart of the Lions’ defence, although he’s lost his linebacker brother, Adam Bighill, to the NFL and then the Blue Bombers.

The Lions won’t be short of offensive weapons, with star receivers Emmanuel Arceneaux and Bryan Burnham and star running backs Jeremiah Johnson and Chris Rainey.  The question for the Lions is if QB Jonathon Jennings gain regain his 2016 form.

In 2016, Jennings was anointed the Lions’ starting quarterback, and he played like a seasoned pro.  He threw for over 5000 yards, threw 27 TDs compared to 15 interceptions, and he had a rushing average of 5.3 yards per carry.  He led the Lions to a 12-6 record and a come from behind victory over the Winnipeg Blue Bombers in the West Semi-Final before being outclassed by the Calgary Stampeders in the West Final.

The 2017 version of Jonathon Jennings was a shadow of the 2016 version.

The 2017 CFL season saw Jennings throw for only 16 TDs while throwing 19 interceptions.  He missed three games with a shoulder injury early on in the season, which seemed to literally throw him off for the rest of the year.  His confidence seemed to disappear, and if not for a season-ending knee injury to backup Travis Lulay, you can’t help but wonder if Jennings might’ve been the backup by the end of the 2017.

This year, Jennings has Jarious Jackson to guide him.  The former Roughriders QB coach is now the Lions’ Offensive Coordinator.  Jackson has sort of come full circle, as he spent nearly all of his time in the CFL as a player with the Lions.

The Lions will be out to show that last year was an aberration, particularly Jennings.  And Buono will want to end his career on a high note.  The Lions could be fun to watch if Buono decides to go through with his pre-season plan to be “a little more reckless“.  Between Jennings’ desire to get back to his 2016 form and Buono’s last kick at the can, the Lions have a lot to prove.  This season, look for the Lions to play spoiler and be right in the mix in an ultra-competitive West Division.