This CFL season has seen a lot of odd personnel moves, but the one the Montreal Alouettes made Monday may be the strangest yet. The 4-11 team, which still hasn't been officially eliminated from the playoffs despite a 22-8 loss to Calgary Saturday, released leading receiver Duron Carter (938 yards on 61 catches) and fellow receiver Kenny Stafford (Carter's cousin, who had 16 catches for 215 yards), and only issued a short release with no explanation of the moves. So, the Alouettes have just gotten rid of two talented receivers for no return, and the timing of the cuts is late enough that they won't even get much in salary-cap savings (although, when given reports that they're $300,000 over the cap, it may be enough to drop them from the most punitive level down to a less punishing level). Why in the world would they do this?
Yes, Carter and Stafford drew some negative attention this year for Carter's bump of Ottawa head coach Rick Campbell and the Carter-Stafford-Rakeem Cato practice confrontation. Both of those issues were months ago, though, and everything seemed fine more recently. Maybe this is about interim head coach Jacques Chapdelaine, but Chapdelaine's been in place for a month now, and it seems highly unlikely that an interim coach would be able to pull this kind of move on his own. It's possible the Alouettes will claim the "attitude issues" Toronto cited for releasing their trio of top receivers, but that hasn't exactly worked out for the spiraling Argonauts. As Herb Zurkowsky noted, too, those kinds of dubious comments were also used to justify the recent exodus of another talented Montreal superstar:
Like the Canadiens with Subban, #Als are stating there was a problem in the room - not to mention the field - with today's moves.— Herb Zurkowsky (@HerbZurkowsky1) October 17, 2016
Carter took to Twitter following his dismissal to point out how different this is from when the Alouettes were trying to lure him back from the NFL:
If I had a nickel for all the times I heard," you always have a home in Montreal"— Duron Carter (@DC_CHILLIN_8) October 17, 2016
But he and Stafford both went on to thank the fans:
Had fun Montreal! Much love! Much will be said in the next few days... Sorry I can't help Montreal get back to the glory days— Duron Carter (@DC_CHILLIN_8) October 17, 2016
Thank you to the organization of Montreal for allowing me to showcase my talent also thank you coach Jacques Chapdelaine.— Kenny Stafford (@Kstaff07) October 17, 2016
Thank you to the city and fans of Montreal it was good while it lasted— Kenny Stafford (@Kstaff07) October 17, 2016
The timing of this release is particularly rough for the players. It comes less than a week after the CFL's trade deadline, but because it's after the deadline, they can sign with another CFL team but cannot play this year in the regular season or the postseason. They also won't get paid the rest of their contracts; as Kirk Penton writes, Carter's in his third CFL season and Stafford's deemed to only be in his third year based on games played (although he's played in the CFL in four different calendar years), so their salaries are not guaranteed.
It seems likely that's what this is really about. Now that they're mostly out of playoff contention (if not officially eliminated yet), the Alouettes are pinching pennies and trying desperately to reduce their salary cap penalty (if they're more than $300,000 over the cap, they'll lose first- and second-round picks plus a lot of money; $100,000 to $300,000 is a first-round pick and less money, and $100,000 or less is just a financial penalty). However, their salary-cap problems have been obvious for a long time (Zurkowsky reported they were a ludicrous $700,000 over the 2016 cap back in February), and they should have been dealt with long ago.
Cutting talented players like Carter and Stafford for short-term financial savings is a bad idea, and one that might come back to bite the Alouettes. If Montreal was so determined to move on from these guys, they should have traded them before the deadline (or in this offseason) or cut them following that practice incident; that way, they could have at least gotten some return for them, or had a somewhat plausible off-the-field reason for parting with them. Cutting them now hurts the Alouettes' talent for this year's remaining games and heading into next season, and it also sends a bad message to prospective players about how Montreal values their guys. Of course, if more comes out as to why the Alouettes released them, maybe this makes more sense, but with what we know right now, it doesn't look particularly smart.
It's quite possible we'll see Carter and/or Stafford pop up elsewhere in the CFL. Carter in particular has undeniable talent, and the numbers he put up on a team with a ton of offensive issues (quarterback, schematic, receiver depth and more) this year are impressive, while Stafford has substantial raw speed and has impressed at times. They may find work elsewhere if an NFL team's willing to gamble on them, but the CFL may be more likely at this point, and it's worth noting that getting out of Montreal has been a great move for other players like Jerome Messam. The Alouettes have plenty of issues at this point, and just because things didn't work out for Carter and Stafford there doesn't mean they can't be excellent contributors elsewhere in this league.
It's unfortunate that we won't see Carter and Stafford for the rest of this season thanks to the timing of this release, though. We'll see if these guys play in the CFL again, but they've certainly shown the talent to do so. At this point, nothing's come out that suggests teams should avoid them. For now, this looks like a desperate accounting maneuever from the Alouettes, and one that could cost them down the road.