June 30, 2011
The CFL season is about to get rolling Thursday evening with the B.C. Lions heading to Montreal to take on the Alouettes (7:30 p.m. Eastern, live on TSN in Canada/NFL Network in the U.S.; like all CFL games, it can also be seen live in the U.S. on ESPN3's webcast). We've already done extensive breakdowns of each CFL franchise (linked west to east) in the Zeroth Down series of team previews, so now it's time for a wider look at the league. Also see our season preview chat from this morning, where we discussed many of the issues facing each team.
It's appropriate that the CFL's first game this year features the B.C. Lions and Montreal Alouettes, as those teams represent two of this year's biggest storylines. For Montreal, head coach Marc Trestman may preach that this is a new year and a new team, but with as much continuity as the Alouettes have had from the teams that won the last two Grey Cups, the rest of us will be focusing on their chances to three-peat (sorry, Pat Riley!). Montreal had arguably the CFL's best offseason and entered training camp pretty well set at every position.
One of Montreal's biggest issues in 2010, the secondary, has been nicely addressed with the addition of league all-star defensive back Dwight Anderson. The departures of Avon Cobourne and Ben Cahoon shouldn't hurt them too much, as Montreal's depth means they have a plethora of candidates vying to replace both. Quarterback Anthony Calvillo, TSN's selection as the league's top player heading into this year, has reportedly recovered nicely from a cancer scare. He may still be able to solidify his legacy, but he's already at the point where people are asking if he's the best CFL quarterback of all time. If he continues to play at the level he's been at, it's going to be incredibly difficult to knock the Alouettes off their championship perch, and I've predicted that no one's going to be able to.
The team with one of the best shots to take them down might be their opponents Thursday, though. Yes, B.C. was 8-10 last season, but the Lions went 7-3 after a 1-7 start and looked very good down the stretch after ditching Casey Printers in favour of Travis Lulay (pictured above handing off to Jamal Robertson in a pre-season game). They narrowly lost to eventual West champions Saskatchewan in a double-overtime playoff game last November, and this B.C. team might be better than that one; they lost receiver Emmanuel Arceneaux (to the NFL) and returner/running back Yonus Davis (to drug charges), but added the league's 2010 most outstanding offensive lineman in Ben Archibald (TSN's seventh-ranked player, and the top-ranked offensive lineman). With him in the fold, Lulay with more experience and a veteran core comprising everyone from Geroy Simon to Jamal Robertson to Davis Sanchez and Paul McCallum, B.C. might just be in position to give opponents a run for their money. It doesn't hurt that they have extra motivation to challenge for the Grey Cup this year, as they're hosting it in their sparkling newly-renovated building.
B.C. may face a tough time getting out of the loaded West, though, and the Calgary Stampeders won't relinquish their regular-season hold on the conference easily. They've got one of the league's most potent offences, particularly on the ground where Joffrey Reynolds and Jon Cornish form a terrific one-two punch, but 2010 Most Outstanding Player Henry Burris (pictured at right, and ranked second on TSN's list) is a quarterback who can hurt you on the ground or through the air. With Calgary's cast of receivers, including Nik Lewis, Romby Bryant, Ken-Yon Rambo and rookie Anthony Parker, you know they're going to put up points. They'll need some blocking, though, and Archibald's departure hurts them up front. The other question will be if they can stop other teams from doing the same; they've suffered substantial losses on the defensive side, including defensive tackle Tom Johnson (NFL) and cornerbacks Brandon Browner (NFL) and Anderson (Montreal). They get into action Friday night when they host Toronto (9 p.m. Eastern, TSN, tape-delayed to 8 p.m. Eastern Saturday on NFL Network).
Calgary isn't B.C.'s only opponent for Western dominance either, as the Saskatchewan Roughriders will be looking to get back to the Grey Cup for the third year in a row and actually come away with it this time. They'll have to use a revamped aerial attack to get there, though, thanks to the departure of 2010 top receiver Andy Fantuz (NFL) and Rob Bagg's injury issues. The Riders have a new-look coaching staff with Greg Marshall as the head man and Richie Hall as the defensive coordinator, but the organization seems to be quite unified and generally keeping things on a steady-as-she-goes approach, with old head coach Ken Miller taking a vice-president (football operations) job and working with general manager Brendan Taman to build the roster. They've got plenty of veterans, and they're trying to win this year. They have plenty of offensive talent, too, including quarterback Darian Durant, who led the CFL in passing yards in 2010 and was picked as TSN's third-top player on their list. The question is if they've addressed enough of their issues, though, including stopping the run and all facets of special teams. Saskatchewan kicks off their year Sunday at 7 p.m. Eastern at home against Edmonton on TSN.
The Edmonton Eskimos appear to be the one team in the West that don't seem to be a serious threat to win the division, but you wouldn't know it from new head coach Kavis Reed's speeches about bringing back the franchise's glory days. Reed (pictured, right) and general manager Eric Tillman have launched a massive roster makeover, though, and most of their moves seem to be made with an eye towards building for the future (except the signing of 37-year-old Kerry Joseph to back up Ricky Ray, which I still don't understand, it would have made more sense from this standpoint to develop a young quarterback there). By the way, Ray is 16th on TSN's list, and the top-ranked Edmonton player. The Eskimos shouldn't be as bad as they were at the start of last year, but they might not be as good as they looked at the end of the season either. This is a transitional season for them, and should be viewed as such. They'll get the ball rolling Sunday against Saskatchewan (7 p.m. Eastern, TSN).
It's a similar story out east for the Winnipeg Blue Bombers. They've got some great veteran talents, like 2010 rushing leader Fred Reid (14th) and star receiver Terrence Edwards (13th), but the focus this season will be on the development of their young prospects, including Kito Poblah, Henoc Muamba, Jade Etienne and Carl Volny. For the Bombers to have any success, they're going to need a solid performance and continued health from veteran quarterback Buck Pierce. Even if he delivers, though, there still are enough problems in Winnipeg to likely keep them out of the playoffs this year. They start their developmental quest Friday night against Hamilton (6 p.m. Eastern, TSN).
Things look slightly better in Toronto after the Argonauts' impressive turnaround to 9-9 last year. They'll be looking to find some consistency and maintain that turnaround, but they won't radically be changing the formula that got them to this point. Thus, expect lots of running from Cory Boyd (fourth), solid defence featuring guys like Ronald Flemons (seen at right trying to knock down a Kevin Glenn pass) and plenty of special-teams plays involving kick returner/wide receiver Chad Owens (11th). For the Argonauts to succeed, though, they'll need to improve the efficiency of their passing game. Whether it's Cleo Lemon, Dalton Bell or Steven Jyles under centre, someone has to step up. We'll find out if anyone will, beginning on Friday night in Calgary (9 p.m. Eastern, TSN, tape-delayed to 8 p.m. Eastern Saturday on NFL Network).
The Hamilton Tiger-Cats seem to be in a bit of a stronger position to challenge Montreal for divisional dominance. They're getting aggressive in an attempt to do so, and that approach has translated into everything from free-agent signings like Avon Cobourne to coordinator hires like Corey Chamblin. They've got some solid pieces both on offence (slotback Arland Bruce III, ranked seventh by TSN, and quarterback Kevin Glenn (pictured above right, ranked 17th) and on defence, where they have 2010 defensive player of the year Markeith Knowlton (ranked 10th overall), but plenty of questions as well, especially in the kicking game. We'll see if they have enough in the tank to challenge for East Division dominance, or if Montreal will be just too strong. They get rolling Friday evening at home against Winnipeg (6 p.m. Eastern, TSN).