Jim Popp's run in Montreal ends, but in despair, not in triumph

Jim Popp's run in Montreal ends, but in despair, not in triumph

After over two decades, two cities, four Grey Cup championships and 10 division titles, Jim Popp's time with the Montreal Alouettes has officially ended, and not in the way it seemed likely to four years ago. Following their season-ending win over Hamilton Saturday, the Alouettes announced Monday that Popp will not return to the club in 2017. That was somewhat foreseeable given Montreal's recent issues, but it's still somewhat surprising considering what Popp's tenure meant to this team. It's particularly surprising when you consider that four years ago, it looked like Popp would be choosing to leave the CFL in order to take a job as a NFL general manager.

In the 2012-13 offseason, Popp's stock was extremely high. Montreal had finished first in their division for the fourth time in five years under Popp and head coach Marc Trestman and narrowly missed their fourth Grey Cup appearance in that span, partly thanks to a game-tying pass bouncing out of Brian Bratton's hands in the East Final against the Toronto Argonauts, who would go on to win the Grey Cup. The Alouettes went 11-7 that year, part of a 59-31 run under Popp and Trestman, and they still looked like a dominant CFL team. That led to the Chicago Bears hiring Trestman as head coach on January 16, 2013, and it looked like Popp would head south too. He'd already been publicly short-listed for the Indianapolis Colts' GM job the previous year, and the 2012-13 offseason saw him receive strong interest from both the Carolina Panthers and the New York Jets. Neither offer came through, though, which led to Popp staying in Montreal, and things went downhill from there.

It's worth considering just how poorly the Alouettes have done since Trestman's departure, and just what led to Popp's exit. They're 30-42 in the regular season since 2012 and 1-2 in the postseason, and they've gone through five different head coaching terms; Dan Hawkins for five games in 2013, Popp for the rest of the season that year, Tom Higgins (against Popp's will) for 2014 and part of 2015, Popp for the remainder of 2015 and the start of 2016, and Jacques Chapdelaine for the last six games this year. This was Montreal's second-straight season without a playoff appearance, and it's also worth remembering how Popp was removed as head coach partway through this year, how the Alouettes went 3-9 under him as head coach and 4-2 under Chapdelaine, how the team has been regularly reported (although they deny it) to be approximately $300,000 over the salary cap (which would lead to massive fines and lost draft picks), and how recent power struggles (such as the decision to release talented receivers Duron Carter and Kenny Stafford) appear to not have gone Popp's way.

Add that all up, and there's a definite case to move on from Popp. That's especially true when you consider the prominent candidates out there, including Danny Maciocia (the former CFL GM and head coach who's built the Montreal Carabins into a Canadian university powerhouse), Eric Tillman and Jim Barker (both currently GMs in Hamilton and Toronto, but ones who might be enticed to move on for a better situation in Montreal), and promising assistant GMs like Ottawa's Brock Sunderland, Saskatchewan's John Murphy and Winnipeg's Danny McManus. This might be a good offseason to make a change, too, as a lot of organizations seem to be happy with their GMs; the Alouettes may be one of the only vacancies out there, which could give them their pick of top candidates.

Popp's recent years in Montreal haven't gone well, and his decision to keep trying to coach himself (and his struggles with the other coaches the team has had) may have doomed him here. He also wasn't able to settle on a quarterback to replace Hall-of-Famer Anthony Calvillo (who got injured in 2013 and retired that offseason), running through a long list of unsuccessful options, and his draft picks didn't work out as well recently as they did for much of his Alouettes' tenure. Still, this wasn't an easy call for Montreal given just how well Popp performed for most of his time there and that he was still under contract for another year (and reportedly owed $500,000 for that span).

Popp's time with this club should be remembered for its highs as well as its lows. He started his CFL career with Saskatchewan in 1992 as the wide receivers coach and director of player personnel, then became the general manager and director of player personnel for the expansion Baltimore team in 1994, helping them appear in the Grey Cup that year and win it in 1995. That franchise moved to Montreal in 1996 thanks to the return of the NFL and the collapse of CFL USA, and Popp went with them as GM; he'd lead them to Grey Cup titles in 2002, 2009 and 2010 and further appearances in 2000, 2003, 2005, 2006, and 2008. He did a lot of things very well over time, especially in drafting great Canadian players and surrounding them with the right mix of imports, and it seems likely he'll be able to find further work on the personnel side in either the CFL or the NFL. It is unfortunate to see his memorable time with this franchise end this way, though.