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  • Corey Chamblin's decision to close two practices a week to fans seems like an overreaction.

    One of the big stories in the CFL season's first week has been secrecy, with the Saskatchewan Roughriders electing to close two practices a week to fans and the Calgary Stampeders electing to bar both fans and media from a 40-minute segment of Thursday's practice. From this corner, Saskatchewan's move seems particularly unnecessary and heavy-handed, while Calgary's is more understandable, but still debatable. However, these are just the latest secrecy-related issues in the CFL, and they're minor compared to some of the other ones out there. Teams blocking fans from practices is annoying, but it would be much easier to overlook if the league would take a few other steps to reduce its overall veil of secrecy. That would provide extra ways to engage fans across the league and level the playing field for all teams, a desirable outcome.

    On this week's specific practice issues, it's Saskatchewan's decision that's particularly concerning. The Riders have long been famed for their accessibility, and that's a huge part of why they have such a tremendous fanbase. They also tend to have more fans come out to practice than most teams, and that's a valued connection for many of those fans; don't underestimate the impact letting fans watch the team practice and personally connect with players afterwards has on the team's bottom line, from merchandise sales to ticket sales. How do they justify it? Well, take a look at the statement head coach Corey Chamblin released (via Rod Pedersen):

    Read More »from Why so secretive, CFL?
  • Ricky Ray, seen taking a hit from Marcus Howard Saturday, lost in his return to Edmonton, but still impressed.

    Eric Tillman might just be the happiest man in the CFL at the moment. The Edmonton Eskimos' general manager has been dealing with criticisms of the Ricky Ray trade for months and has seen plenty of dismal predictions about his team, so Saturday's 19-15 victory over the Ray-led Toronto Argonauts has to feel pretty sweet, especially considering that two of the players he acquired for Ray, quarterback Steven Jyles and kicker Grant Shaw, played important roles in the win. However, it's far too early to start saying that this result vindicates Tillman, or that the Argonauts' hopes of a strong 2012 campaign were in vain. Yes, Ray didn't perform as well as he has in some past games, but that's not all on him, as the Argos' offensive line and receivers frequently struggled too. Moreover, although this has to be a hugely disappointing result for Toronto given the offseason hype around their makeover, there were still some very impressive signs here, particularly late in the contest. This result might signify that things won't automatically fall into place for the Argonauts despite their talent, but don't write their season or their decision to trade for Ray off just yet, and don't assume that Edmonton will be just fine without Ray.

    Read More »from Ricky Ray’s Argos fall short in his return to Edmonton, but may still win in the end
  • Ricky Ray will lead the Argos against his old team Saturday night.

    It's hard to imagine a more potentially-perfect way for Argonauts' quarterback Ricky Ray to start the 2012 CFL season. The one-time face of the Edmonton Eskimos was shipped off to Toronto for a bag of footballs (well, technically, quarterback Steven Jyles, kicker Grant Shaw and a draft pick were involved too, but sources report the footballs were the clincher) this offseason despite a tremendous 2011 campaign, and although Ray seems excited about his new team, you know he'd love a chance to prove that Edmonton general manager Eric Tillman's methods are unsound in Saturday's clash against the Eskimos (7 p.m. Eastern, TSN). There's lots on the line for Tillman, Jyles and the Eskimos, too, as they'll be out to show that this team's fine without their former quarterback and that the decision to dump him for salary-cap relief was the right one, but it's Ray's homecoming to the city he starred in for so long and the team he won two Grey Cups with that might be the most intriguing storyline Saturday night. As Frank Zicarelli of The Toronto Sun writes, although he says he's moved on, Ray still seems to be carrying a bit of a chip on his shoulder from the trade:

    Read More »from Ray’s shot at revenge: spurned former Eskimos’ quarterback brings the Argos to town
  • Keron Williams (R) and the B.C. DL kept Buck Pierce and Alex Brink under pressure Friday.

    The B.C. Lions' campaign to defend their 2011 Grey Cup title isn't going to be easy, but it got off to a great start Friday night with a 33-16 win over Winnipeg. In fact, that scoreline flattered the Bombers; one of their touchdowns came in garbage time, and the Lions could easily have had more points with a few different breaks. It was an excellent beginning for the Lions, and although it's extremely early and there are still things to work on, this result suggests they could be a dominant team this year and could make a strong push for a second-straight Grey Cup.

    Read More »from B.C. Lions begin title defence in fine form
  • Geroy Simon (left) embraces Milt Stegall after breaking Stegall's record Friday.It didn't happen until there were just over 10 minutes left in the B.C. Lions' season-opening clash with the Winnipeg Blue Bombers, but history was made Friday night at B.C. Place. Slotback Geroy "Superman" Simon caught a bomb from Travis Lulay that went for 56 yards at 4:57 of the fourth quarter, giving him 15,192 career receiving yards and allowing him to break former Bomber and current TSN analyst Milt Stegall's record of 15,153. Simon had opportunities to break the record earlier in the night that he couldn't haul in against tight coverage, but for some reason, the Bombers left him open deep on this play, Lulay made no mistake and Simon hauled in the pass, causing the stadium to go wild. You can see video of the play here. The game was then stopped for a presentation from Stegall and CFL commissioner Mark Cohon, and deservedly so; this is a tremendous accomplishment, one that means a lot in the grand scheme of the CFL's history, and one that deserves all the recognition it can get.

    Read More »from Superman Geroy Simon smashes Milt Stegall’s record, becomes CFL’s all-time receiving leader
  • Andy Fantuz's landing in Hamilton Friday wasn't as smooth as he hoped.

    When free-agent Canadian receiver Andy Fantuz chose to leave the Saskatchewan Roughriders and head to the Hamilton Tiger-Cats this offseason, it helped build the hype around the Tiger-Cats' offence, and it was also cited as one of the reasons why the Riders might continue to struggle this season. In both clubs' first regular-season game Friday, though, the reverse was the case, as the Fantuzless Riders moved the ball effortlessly and put up plenty of points in a 43-16 win over Hamilton.

    The Tiger-Cats' receivers may be getting the attention, but it was the Saskatchewan receiving corps that really stood out Friday night, and minus Fantuz, they looked much like the group that went to back-to-back Grey Cups in 2009 and 2010. Weston Dressler in particular had a fantastic night, picking up 180 receiving yards and three touchdowns on 13 catches, but others stepped up too; Chris Getzlaf had three receptions for 96 yards and a touchdown, while Rob Bagg, back after missing 2011 thanks to an ACL injury, also looked good with three catches for 26 yards. Even rookie running back Korey Sheets got in on the act, hauling in two passes for 43 yards to go with the 80 yards and a touchdown he picked up on 12 rushing plays. It was a brilliant performance from quarterback Darian Durant, who looked like the good Durant of 2009-10, not the one who struggled last year. Durant finished the night with 25 completions on 34 attempts (73.5 per cent) for 390 yards and four touchdowns, and while he'd probably like to still have a receiver of Fantuz's calibre around, if he can keep that up, this offence will be just fine with the players they have.

    Read More »from Fantuz makes Hamilton regular-season debut, but it’s his old team’s receivers that shine
  • Perhaps no other position on either side of the ball is as specialized or as important as your starting centre. A centre provides stability and unity to an offensive huddle. He is a leader in the locker room and will be the first to give his teammate a swift kick in the ass or a kind word of encouragement. His timing is impeccable and his ability to see things before they actually happen comes from an uncanny ability to analyze every defensive player's position, posture and stance. If that wasn't impressive enough, he will deliver the perfect snap while making line calls to his fellow linemen, and he will do it all within a matter of seconds.

    In this, the first in our "Ode to the Fat Guys" series, we Angus Reid of the B.C. Lionstoday focus on the "big toe" of the offensive line — the centre.

    At the start of every CFL season I try  to give a little love to my O-linemen brothers.  You would think after all these years, 2012 would be a year of enlightenment for football fans, a chance to finally see, not only are O-linemen cute and cuddly, they are also an integral part of any success an offense enjoys.

    But despite this being our 100th Grey Cup season, some things never change. While we gleefully sing the praises of "skill position" players, recognizing quarterbacks, running backs and receivers as those talented athletes entrusted with "carrying the rock", making plays and scoring touchdowns, we somehow forget that behind every drop back pass,  every run to day light, every over the shoulder catch, five fat guys with nasty dispositions are doing their jobs to make it all happen.

    Read More »from Ode to the Fat Guys: Part 1, The centre
  • Will Travis Lulay's Lions face Montreal and John Bowman in the 100th Grey Cup?

    We've done team previews in our Three-Down Theatre series (each individual post is linked at the beginning of this final one) and talked with commissioner Mark Cohon about the state of the league from a business standpoint, so now it's time to take an overall look at the league similar to what we did last year. Remember, this CFL season starts Friday night with a doubleheader; the first game will feature Andy Fantuz's Hamilton Tiger-Cats taking on his former team, the Saskatchewan Roughriders (7 p.m. Eastern), while the second game's a rematch of the 2012 Grey Cup between B.C. and Winnipeg (10 p.m. Eastern). Toronto and Edmonton play Saturday at 7 p.m. Eastern, while Montreal and Calgary will face off at 7 p.m. Eastern Sunday. All games are on TSN in Canada and ESPN3 in the U.S., plus a variety of local and national radio broadcasts. It should be a great kickoff weekend, and one that sets the stage for an outstanding season that will culminate in the historic 100th Grey Cup.

    If there's an overarching theme to this CFL season, it's the change in roles of the divisions. For most of the last decade, the East has been dominated by the Montreal Alouettes, with just about everyone else regularly rebuilding. (There were exceptions, of course, including Toronto's 2004 Grey Cup championship and Winnipeg's surprising runs to the title game in 2007 and 2011, but the East has four Grey Cup championships in 10 years to the West's six, and three of those came from the Alouettes, who were also runners-up in 2003, 2005, 2006 and 2008.) Meanwhile, the West has been full of parity; every Western team's won a Grey Cup in that span, with only B.C. and Edmonton claiming two. Judging by this offseason, though, that seems to have flipped; it's now the East that looks dangerously deep with the always-fearsome Alouettes out for revenge following their early 2011 playoff exit, the Argonauts and Tiger-Cats looking to take big steps forward with new head coaches and new veteran quarterbacks, and the Bombers as reigning-and-still-scary division champions. The CFL has been known for its parity in recent years, but a lot of that has come from the deep West. Now, it's looking like the East that's legitimately up for grabs; any of these teams could come out on top in the regular-season standings without their victory being a massive shock, and they might go on to lose in the playoffs after that. It should be a season-long war of attrition out East, and it should be fascinating to watch.

    Read More »from Season preview: Will the Lions be able to join the ranks of back-to-back Grey Cup champions?
  • CFL commissioner Mark Cohon with the Grey Cup in November 2011.

    In advance of Friday's season kickoff, we've spent a lot of time looking at the on-field state of the CFL's teams in the Three-Down Theatre series and other posts, but the off-field state of the league on a variety of business fronts is just as important. To reflect that, CFL commissioner Mark Cohon took the time for an exclusive 55-Yard Line interview on the state of the league by phone earlier this month. Here are the highlights of that conversation. (Also see this post for highlights of Cohon's conference call with media this week.)

    The CFL's always a big deal in Canada during the summer months, but the league's getting even more attention than normal this year, as it's the 100th time the Grey Cup will be awarded. That's led to special initiatives from both the league and fan groups, and it's also put extra pressure on some teams (particularly the Toronto Argonauts, who will be hosting the big game) to succeed this year. Cohon said that the 100th Grey Cup celebrations, which will include a cross-country 74-day train tour and a 10-day Grey Cup festival in Toronto itself, represent a crucial moment for the CFL on the business side; they present the league with a chance to play up its history while also giving them a major platform to build on moving forward.

    "One thing as Canadians, we don't do enough to celebrate our history and our past," Cohon said. "We're really going to use that. We're going to celebrate our history and set us up for the next 100 years. It's about putting pride back in our league."

    Read More »from CFL commissioner Mark Cohon speaks with 55-Yard Line about the state of the league
  • Wally Buono (L) has to take on a new role, similar to how Gordon Bombay did.

    To finish off our Three-Down Theatre series of season preview posts, here's the final edition, on the B.C. Lions. They're trying to defend their 2011 Grey Cup title with new coach Mike Benevides, but former coach Wally Buono is still around in the general manager's role, and he's been working hard to improve an already-impressive team. It's going to be interesting to see how well the Lions do this year.

    Film: D2: The Mighty Ducks

    We'll see if the Lions can follow up their win the way the Ducks did.Although most of the actual hockey scenes are completely ridiculous, D2 is still an amazing sports movie, and the central premise of it is quite applicable to these Lions. The Ducks are coming off a significant victory and going on to an even-greater task, representing (with a few additional star players, similar to the additions the Lions made) the U.S. at the Junior Goodwill Games (not like there are actual international hockey tournaments for young players or anything). Meanwhile, the Lions' 2011 Grey Cup victory was certainly impressive, but now they face the even-tougher task of defending their trophy; since the Edmonton Eskimos wrapped up their string of five straight Grey Cups in 1982, only two teams have gone back-to-back, the 1995 and 1996 Toronto Argonauts and the 2009 and 2010 Montreal Alouettes. Those are stiff odds, perhaps equivalent to entering a random Minnesota hockey team in an international competition, and it's going to take something special to overcome them. We'll see if the Lions can come together when the chips are down the way Team USA did.

    Both the Ducks and the Lions have inspirational leaders in Gordon Bombay (Emilio Estevez) and Wally Buono respectively, and things have changed for both since the last championship. Bombay went on to become a minor-league star and was expected to make it to the NHL, but suffered a critical knee injury and then was offered the chance to coach "Team USA" (mostly ex-Ducks) at the Junior Goodwill Games. He had to change his style a bit to deal with how his players had aged and developed, and he had to work to incorporate the new additions to the team. Buono never actually left the Lions' organization, merely giving up his head-coaching job to focus on his role as a general manager, but that's still going to be a significant transition for him, and he'll have to work to find new ways to relate to the players. Bombay ran into numerous off-ice distractions before finding a creative way to deal with them, and while that seems less likely to be an issue for Buono, Bombay eventually figured out how to excel in his new role. We'll see if Buono can do the same.

    Read More »from Three-Down Theatre: When the wind blows hard and the sky is black, will the Lions roar together?

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