Can Montreal head coach Dan Hawkins (centre) get his team on the right track?Dan Hawkins is no stranger to big games on ESPN channels: as a coach with Boise State and Colorado, and later as an ESPN college football analyst, he's been around plenty of those over the years. When his Montreal Alouettes take on the Calgary Stampeders Saturday night (7 p.m. Eastern, TSN/ESPN2) in the ESPN2 game of the week, though, it may mark the most pressure there's been on Hawkins in one of these contests in quite some time. After a promising 38-33 win over Winnipeg to start the year, the Alouettes have dropped two straight games (one of which was also shown on ESPN2) and have only managed 25 points in those two contests. Their offence is dead-last in many crucial categories despite its remarkable collection of talent, and the spotlight is shining brightly on Hawkins and offensive coordinator Mike Miller, both of whom are in their first CFL season. How those coaches perform under pressure against Calgary may say a lot about Montreal's chances this year.
It's not all that surprising that Hawkins and Miller haven't gotten off to a dominant start. Adapting to the CFL game and its quirks takes time, and although they have a group of experienced Canadian hands to help (including defensive coordinator Noel Thorpe, who has plenty of CIS and CFL experience, and senior advisor Doug Berry, who has been a CFL head coach and offensive coordinator), there's a reason not too many head coaches are hired without any CFL experience. A lot of the game changes when you're playing 12-a-side, three-down football on a bigger field, and those are just a few of the differences in football north of the border. It's not easy to learn on the fly, but that's what Hawkins and Miller are having to do. There are promising signs for them, though. With Hawkins in particular, it's refreshing that he's consistently stated he's willing to learn the Canadian game rather thaIn merely plunging ahead with the confidence that his football knowledge will all translate perfectly. That's a substantial departure from other head coaches hired without CFL experience, including infamous Toronto flameout Bart Andrus. As Hawkins told The Denver Post's Terry Frei earlier this month, the chance to experience a new kind of football was a significant part of why he wanted the Montreal job:
"This job here offered other things. You're in a foreign country, you're in a French-speaking province. It's an out-of-box experience. Every day you're learning something and going 'Wow.' That's fun. That's growth."
It's worth keeping in mind that a bad start doesn't necessarily mean all that much. Two years ago, the B.C. Lions started 0-5 and went on to win the Grey Cup: the Alouettes are already ahead of that pace. Last year, the Toronto Argonauts started 1-2 and finished the season 9-9, but went on to win the Grey Cup. That example's particularly applicable to Hawkins and the Alouettes, as Toronto had a new head coach/offensive coordinator in Scott Milanovich, and it took the Argos a while to adapt to his system. It wouldn't be surprising at all to see something similar in Montreal, with the team improving over the year as they adjust to Hawkins.
There's precedence for that with the Alouettes as well: famed head coach Marc Trestman, who took the team to three Grey Cups (winning two) in five years before leaving for the NFL started his debut season in 2008 with a 2-3 mark before turning things around, leading them to a 11-7 record and a Grey Cup appearance. Conversely, Saskatchewan jumped out to a 3-0 start last year, but went 5-10 the rest of the way and lost in the first round of the playoffs. Thus, even the best start to a season doesn't always mean anything in the long run, and there's no need to panic over a 1-2 start yet.
Alouettes' offensive coordinator Mike Miller has been under fire lately for the team's poor showing.What's notable about those Lions, Argos and Als teams that struggled early is that they showed plenty of promise. Trestman's 2008 Als averaged 31.4 points and outscored their opponents by 23 points over that 2-3 start, a sign of the better things that were to come. The 2012 Argos only put up 27 points per game over their 1-2 start, but they were still only outscored by 10 points over that stretch, while the 2011 Lions put up 25.2 points per game over their season-starting 0-5 stretch, but lost by four, two, 16, eight and five points respectively. Apart from that 16-point loss to Edmonton, those are one-score games.
That should give Montreal fans some hope. While the Alouettes have looked awful on offence in their two losses, they put up 38 points in their win. They also lost both of their other games by just eight points, so they've only been outscored by 11 points on the season. Thus, it's not absolutely, totally, and in all other ways inconceivable that they could have a turnaround similar to those other slow-starting teams.
However, Hawkins and Miller do have a lot of work to do, and they're rightly feeling the heat. Montreal's 21.0 points per game average is far worse than how those other teams started, and it's the second-worst in the league this year. The Alouettes are the CFL's worst team in total offence (227.0 yards per game), total first downs (43), touchdowns (four), rushing yards per game (61.0), gain per rush (4.1 yards) and gain per pass (6.0 yards). A lot of that's on their struggling offensive line, which is unlikely to get any better now that veteran guard Scott Flory is gone for the year with a complete bicep tear. Star quarterback Anthony Calvillo's thumb injury doesn't appear serious enough to keep him out of Saturday's game, but it may still affect his play, and there's no proven quarterback depth behind him. Running back Brandon Whitaker also hasn't looked like his old dominant self so far.
The Alouettes' offence has plenty of pieces, but its execution thus far has been terrible. It's on Miller and Hawkins to figure that out sooner rather than later. Montreal's season is far from lost, as the stories of those other teams with bad starts illustrate, but the Alouettes need to start going in the right direction. Hawkins and Miller will be under the spotlight Saturday, and their performance may say a lot about what to expect from Montreal this year. If they come up short, it could lead to even further pressure on that duo, but if they win, perhaps it will be time to do a happier dance: