After long saga, Alouettes' Jim Popp out as HC, which may not solve their issues

55 Yard Line
Jim Popp, who had been the Montreal Alouettes' GM since even before their return to the city in 1996, will not return in 2017. (John Woods/The Canadian Press.)

Jim Popp leaves Montreal

Jim Popp, who had been the Montreal Alouettes' GM since even before their return to the city in 1996, will not return in 2017. (John Woods/The Canadian Press.)

After the Montreal Alouettes' 20-17 loss to the Hamilton Tiger-Cats Friday, 3 Down Nation's Justin Dunk reported Alouettes' players "were told after Friday night’s loss that Jim Popp would not be returning as coach after the team’s bye week," plus "special teams coordinator Kavis Reed gave Popp the game ball and told the team he was dealing with some personal issues at home and wouldn’t be coming back after the bye week." Numerous Alouettes then denied that anything of the sort had happened, though,  with Reed telling TSN's Gary Lawless "Jim Popp has not stepped down as head coach of the Alouettes nor has he indicated to the staff that that is coming" and Popp telling CJAD's Rick Moffat he had no plans to step down. Now, the team appears to have made the decision for Popp, announcing Monday that he will "focus on his general manager duties" while receivers coach Jacques Chapdelaine steps in as interim head coach.

Moving on from Popp as head coach makes some sense, as the Alouettes are 3-9 on the season, have lost their last four games and have shown next to no offensive potential. The timing here also makes sense, as Montreal is on a bye week, giving everyone time to adjust to the new arrangement. However, there are some downsides to this, especially considering Chapdelaine's less-than-stellar record as a CFL head coach, the awkwardness of promoting him over Reed and defensive coordinator Noel Thorpe, and the awkwardness of keeping Popp around as general manager. From a pure record standpoint, Popp has been an excellent general manager, running the personnel side for this franchise since their Baltimore days and winning four Grey Cups, but things haven't been good lately, and a half-move like this may not fix everything.

Since head coach Marc Trestman left Montreal for the NFL after the 2012 season, the Alouettes haven't had a good coaching situation. They fired Dan Hawkins after just five games and a 2-3 start in 2013 and Popp stepped in, but only went 6-7 as interim head coach. The team then hired Tom Higgins as head coach despite Popp's reported wishes to stay in that role, setting up an awkward relationship between the coach and GM; Montreal went 9-9 in 2014, but lost to Hamilton in the East Final, and Higgins was fired after a 3-5 start in 2015, only for Popp to take over and go 3-7. Keeping Popp in the dual role ahead of this season was an attempt to see if he could make this work the way he wanted with a full offseason to prepare, but that didn't happen, and there were several issues (the intrateam fights in particular) that speak poorly for him as head coach. The question now is if Popp can again find the success he's previously had as just a GM after being pushed out of the HC role.

It's worth noting that many of the Alouettes' struggles have been on Popp the GM as well as Popp the HC. Kevin Glenn clearly wasn't the long-term answer at quarterback or good enough to win much in the short term with this cast around him, but Popp traded a fifth-rounder for him at last year's trade deadline and then kept starting him until recently; while he eventually traded Glenn to Winnipeg for a fourth-rounder (more than he spent to get him), the opportunity cost of starting Glenn meant the Alouettes' young quarterbacks didn't develop much. We haven't seen much from those young QBs when they have played, too; Rakeem Cato hasn't been impressive, and has made more headlines for practice fights with teammates than good play on the field, and Vernon Adams (who Popp traded a first-rounder for ahead of this year) hasn't shone enough in practice to even get a start. None of the other QBs Popp has tried over the last few years (Troy Smith, Jonathan Crompton, Tanner Marsh and more) have worked out well, either.

Beyond that, the Alouettes have found a few nice pieces, but they appear to have regularly overpaid for older players who didn't perform (including NFL veteran Vaughn Martin, who they cut earlier this year), and they're reportedly $300,000 over the cap. They haven't been able to draft, develop and retain much top Canadian talent in recent years, and that's definitely on Popp as GM. Maybe he can do a better job there if he isn't focused on coaching as well, but while he has a Hall of Fame resume from the 1990s and 2000s, the last few years have not been impressive from a talent-building side as well as a coaching one. By keeping Popp as GM, the Alouettes are hoping he can find some of his previous magic. Maybe he can, but it hasn't been evident recently.

The team's uncertain future is also notable from their choice of interim HC. Chapdelaine was just hired this year as the wide receivers coach, so he has less time with the team than just about everyone else, and he was promoted over promising defensive coordinator Noel Thorpe and special teams coach and former Edmonton head coach Kavis Reed. Chapdelaine has had some notable success as a CFL offensive coordinator, especially with the Calgary Stampeders and B.C. Lions, but he's never been a head coach in this league (he was a successful CIS head coach with Laval), and the plans to make him head-coach-in-waiting in Edmonton went disastrously wrong.

The team stated that they'll be doing a comprehensive interview process for a new head coach starting in October, and will interview their current coordinators as well as Chapdelaine, so perhaps this is meant as a way to not have to decide between Reed and Thorpe yet, but owner Bob Wetenhall's claim that "Jacques is the best person to lead an immediate turnaround" seems questionable. (The idea of an "immediate turnaround" also deserves skepticism; yes, the Alouettes are only two games back of the third East playoff berth right now, and yes, we have seen some turnarounds before, but they'd have to get much better to have a hope of making the postseason, and there's not much suggesting that they can.)

It might have been smarter for the Alouettes to just promote Thorpe. The defence has been one of the few bright spots this year and for the last few years, and he's been a much-buzzed-about head coaching candidate around the league for a while. Of course, there's the issue of him trying to leave for Edmonton this offseason and that move being nixed by the league, but it's certainly not going to help his feelings about staying in Montreal to see Chapdelaine promoted over him. There aren't a ton of CFL head coaching jobs out there, and maybe Thorpe can still get this one through the interview process and it will all work out, but demonstrating a lack of faith like this doesn't necessarily endear the team to him. 

In the end, this feels like a halfhearted move that leaves more questions than answers. Moving Popp back to GM only and announcing Chapdelaine as interim HC doesn't necessarily make the Alouettes any better right now, and it doesn't necessarily make them any better down the road either. Maybe Popp can find some of his old success as a GM, maybe Chapdelaine can quench the dissension within the team and get them on a miraculous winning run, and maybe the Alouettes can find a permanent head coach who pairs perfectly with Popp, but none of that feels particularly likely right now. It's also possible that the team may keep struggling and this could lead to more of a housecleaning after the season. We'll see how it plays out.

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