To me, there is no sport more Canadian than CFL football. Quick, name me one other game where Canada has its own professional league with its own rules–and Saskatchewan has its own team, to boot! As always, the CFL season kicks off over the Canada Day long weekend, and while all the Euros and the homos in Toronto will be tuned in to the Euro Cup and the Gay Pride Parade, I know which game I’ll be watching. GO STAMPS GO!
Anyways, last season saw a tremendous deal of parity in the Canadian Football League, with three of the four teams out West finishing 11-7, and the long-dominant Montreal Alouettes knocked off their perch atop the Eastern Divison–despite their identical record with Winnipeg, both teams ending up at 10-8. The 99th Grey Cup saw the hometown B.C. Lions beat the Bombers badly, the 34-23 score not reflecting the fact that Winnipeg was never really in the game. You’ve gotta figure that the Lions are the team to beat again this year, though I’m not so sure about the Bombers. Here’s how I see things unfolding in the CFL this season.
1. B.C. Lions (13-5): Despite the retirement of legendary head coach Wally Buono, the defending champs return most of their key players from last season, led by Most Outstanding Player Travis Lulay. This team is strong both in the receiving corps and in the defensive secondary, and should continue to throw the ball downfield, although a healthy Tim Brown will add some speed to their running attack. To be the best, you gotta beat the best, and there’s only one team with the means to do so out West…
2. Calgary Stampeders (12-6): This year, the Stamps are Drew Tate’s team. The sixth-year QB played well down the stretch in taking over for Henry Burris last season, but played so poorly in their first-round playoff loss to Edmonton that he was replaced by Burris at halftime. That said, I like the cut of his jib. A diminutive, active, accurate passer, Tate the great has visions of Doug Flutie dancing in my head when he’s at his best. And he’s got the weapons to work with, as well. Canadian RB Jon Cornish is one of the CFL’s most explosive runners, and should contend for the league rushing title if he stays healthy. Meanwhile, the receiving corps is anchored by veterans Nik Lewis and Romby Bryant with a bevy of up-coming non-import talent so impressive that the team cut Ken-Yon Rambo. Losing defensive co-ordinator Chris Jones hurts, but here’s hoping that the values he instilled on his troops are carried over into this season. The Stamps should have an impressive secondary, but it remains to be seen whether Charleston Hughes and a host of newcomers on the D-Line can put enough pressure on the passer. If they do, this team could go all the way. After all, they really only have one team to beat in their division.
3. Saskatchewan Roughriders (7-11): Another year, another new coach for the Roughriders, who didn’t really benefit from the tutelage of Greg Marshall last season, finishing with the worst record in the league. Although they lost key contributors Wes Cates and Andy Fantuz to free agency, I still think this team will win a couple more games this year–by virtue of beating the Edmonton Eskimos.
4. Edmonton Eskimos (4-14): In what could go down as the worst trade in CFL history, the Esks dealt franchise QB Ricky Ray to Toronto for backup kicker/punter Grant Shaw, career backup QB Steven Jyles (who was starting for Argos last season) and the second-overall pick in the Canadian Draft–which they subsequently shipped to B.C. for a trio of later choices. If Edmonton gets anything out of the likes of OL Austin Pasztor, DL Justin Capicciotti or LB Ryan King, it will be only as an indirect result of the Ray trade, those players drafted with the picks acquired from the Lions. Without one of the 21st century’s greatest CFL passers, you’d think the Esks would rely more heavily on the run game–but therein lies another problem. RB Jerome Messam, last year’s Most Outstanding Canadian, signed an NFL contract in the offseason with Miami Dolphins. Without any weapons on offense, this team is gonna get manhandled like a smart car on Whyte Avenue. But hey, even if their trio of top prospects doesn’t turn out, at least they’lll get another shot at it with the first overall pick next year…
1. Montreal Alouettes (12-6): Although they were taken down a half-notch by Winnipeg last year, the Als remain the team to beat in the East. Marc Trestman has never had a losing season in the CFL, and as long as he’s got football’s all-time leading passer Anthony Calvillo throwing to the likes of Jamel Richardson and S.J. Green and a punishing defensive front seven, he should be just fine, thank you.
2. Toronto Argonauts (10-8): They may have finished last in the East last year, but that was Before Ricky. In adding one of the CFL’s most prolific passers, still in his prime at 32, this team just got a whole lot better. Throw in a punishing rusher like Cory Boyd, an explosive weapon in Chad Owens and an always-stingy defense, and you’ve got a potential Grey Cup contender. Let’s just hope they draw more fans per game than Raptors this season–though I wouldn’t bet on it. I will be in the stands for their home opener, though. I won’t be cheering for the home side, mind you.
3. Winnipeg Blue Bombers (9-9): Last year was a tale of two halves for the Bombers, who started 7-1, then dropped back-to-back games to the lowly Riders leading to a 3-7 finish. Though they squeaked out an ugly 19-3 Eastern Final win on the frozen tundra of CanadInns Stadium, their performance in the 99th Grey Cup left a lot to be desired. This year, it’s do-or-die time for QB Buck Pierce, entering his eighth CFL season. Pierce has never managed to stay healthy for a full 18 games, though he set personal bests in pass attempts, completions and yardage last year. That said, his 14-to-18 TD-to-INT ratio and 82.0 QB rating were far from impressive. If he can’t elevate his game–and by extension, his team–this year, the Bombers will be studying a lotta film of QB prospects in the offseason.
4. Hamilton Tiger-Cats (8-10): Although Marcel Bellefeuille wasn’t a bad coach, he could never get his team over the hump. If you take away 2008, when he took over a terrible team at mid-season, his record as head coach was 26-28, with three playoff appearances–and just one win. Last year, the team took a step back from 9-9 to 8-10, and while they did manage to beat Montreal in a thrilling East Semi-Final, their poor performance in Winnipeg the following week cost Bellefeuille his job. But with him gone, I don’t see an immediate improvement under new bench boss George Cortez. Even with the notable additions of QB Henry Burris and SB Andy Fantuz, they stand to face tougher competition this season–most notably from their rivals down the QEW. That said, another 8-10 season should make the Cats the first East team to cross over into the West Division playoffs, and set up a match against Burris’ old team–if he hasn’t lost the starting job to Quinton Porter by season’s end. If Hank indeed leads his troops into Calgary on November 11th, I might have to burn his old jersey as an offering to the football gods. In any case, I don’t see Hamilton making it past the first round this year, either.