A Stunner in the Hammer
(Photo courtesy: Montreal Alouettes)
Formidable et magnifique, what an amazing Coupe Grey comeback! Once again, the Grey Cup served up another classic of Canadian football. Not since the 9-9 Argonauts upset the heavily-favoured Stampeders of 2017 has the Grey Cup seen such an upset. In fact, you might need to go back to the 9-9 third place Saskatchewan Roughriders' dispatch of 16-2 Edmonton and then 12-6 Hamilton in 1989 to find a Grey Cup champion more unexpected.
It was a very entertaining game thanks to Cody Fajardo's focus and composure. Anyone reading my articles these past two years knows I think that Cody Fajardo was scapegoated out of Saskatchewan. The last two Rider quarterbacks unceremoniously run out of town are Fajardo and Zach Collaros, winners of three of the last four Grey Cup games. Together they have won three Grey Cup MVPs.
The presentation of the Grey Cup MVP must have given some Rider fans PTSD. Fajardo is the Rodney Dangerfield of the CFL no longer. He outplayed Zach Collaros, and the Alouettes finally out-sacked the opposition to win the Grey Cup. He has earned all the plaudits coming to him. Fajardo was gaslighted by management for being sacked a record number of times in Saskatchewan. This must be a remarkably sweet victory for him.
The Als did this in spite of some debatable calls going against them and some of the worst punting I have seen in some time. Through it all they never panicked.
Keeping it real
It was great to see James Duthie of TSN play the role that Brian Williams once did and ask the tougher questions of the CFL Commissioner in the Grey Cup pregame show on TSN.
Given an opportunity to own the oversight of the absence of French in Tim Horton’s field, Ambrosie reverted to the mean and failed to take responsibility for it, just like the Genius Stats debacle. This kind of misplaced defensiveness should be replaced with succinct contrition and it will just go away. The audience isn’t stupid and neither is the media. If you want respect, transparency and honesty are essential. In a year when the championship is featuring a team from Montreal and the league trumpets itself in diverse terms, this was a big fail.
In the same interview, the never ending expansion speculation resurfaced, and after promising to "fish or cut bait" the Commissioner sent mixed signals with comments about a highly engaged ownership candidate and then later contradicted himself further by introducing the possibility of expanding to Quebec instead. Duthie was patient while the Commissioner waxed on with explanations rather than answers. Viewers could be forgiven for being confused about what message he was really communicating. Maybe that was the point. It's been 50 years since then federal Minister of Health and Sport, Marc Lalonde, blocked the World Football League from coming to Canada and urged the CFL to expand to the maritimes. Don't hold your breath that it will ever happen, however, if the League really wants it badly enough they could pull together a non profit, community ownership group and cash flow a team via contributions from the League and its owners with a payback schedule. Hosting a couple of Grey Cup games could pay that debt down relatively quickly. A "pop up" stadium could make this a viable alternative, although it's not in keeping with the CFL's historical risk averse profile.
Make no mistake about it, the League desperately needs a tenth team. It’s not a nicety, it’s a necessity. If you are not growing, you are dying. It would make a huge difference to everything from player safety to a shorter season, consistent game presentation and increased viewership. There are currently some weeks in the season which feature only three games. A ten team league means five games every week and no short weeks jeopardizing player health and game quality. No more “where' Waldo” schedules.
While there was little discussion of the Global initiative this year the Commissioner's legacy, from a fan’s perspective, will be based on whether he delivers a tenth team or not. The Global initiative has been a nothing burger.
Around the league
The leading candidates for the Roughriders' head coaching job appear to be Scott Milanovich and Buck Pierce. My guess is that if Pierce gets the job we may see Dru Brown follow him to be his starting QB. Saskatchewan is not within a year of a Grey Cup and Trevor Harris will be 38 this coming season. You do the math.
Montreal, emphatically, gets this year’s “water into wine” award for doing the most with the least. They entered the season without a single elite playmaker on offence and proceeded to give up a lot of sacks. Now that they have stable ownership I expect they will be going on a shopping trip this off season on offence. They still need receiving depth and can only improve their pass protection. Look for them to be a much stronger roster come training camp than the one that just won le Coupe Grey.
If the Argos want to finish first next year their starting QB will need to win them games, not just, “not lose them”. Imagine finishing a season 16-2 and then going into the following year as an underdog. Having said that the Als didn’t beat the Argos this year, the Argos beat themselves.
Over in Edmonton there is talk of the Elks being privatized. Ironically the three most successful franchises in recent CFL history are Winnipeg, Saskatchewan and Edmonton. All community owned. Perennial leaders in attendance, it only took one bad hire, at President, by the Edmonton Board to send the club into a downward spiral. It’s a reminder that the most important job of any Board is hiring a good President & CEO. The choice of Chris Presson proved catastrophic and the team and its fans are still paying the price. It won’t matter whether the team is public or privately owned if they don’t hire the right President.
Speaking of governance and inclusivity (and diversity) it’s time the CFL walked the talk and added a woman to its Board of Governors. They could easily do this by adding a member at large without voting privileges since they may not be attached to a team. Both Football Canada and Football Ontario have women on their Boards. The CEO of Football Canada is Shannon Donnovan. The CFL has some catching up to do.
As predicted here last week, the injury-plagued Western University Mustangs finally ran out of gas and were overwhelmed by the University of Montreal Carabins 29-3, earning les Carabins a trip to the national championship at Richardson Stadium in Kingston next Saturday.
Meanwhile, the coastal war between UBC and St Francis Xavier was never in doubt as the Thunderbirds dominated St. FX from the opening kickoff winning 47-17. Last week I wrote that if St. FX could keep UBC under 40 points it should be considered a moral victory. Sadly, AUS schools just don’t have the budgets to compete. USports enable this lopsided playoff format as AUS only has four teams but its winner is within one game of the Vanier Cup every year, but never gets there. Sensitive to internal criticism USPORTS leadership acknowledges this weakness by rotating the playoff format every year allowing each of the winners of Canada West, OUA and Quebec conferences an easy pathway to the Vanier cup by playing the AUS on a rotational basis. If the AUS was competitive an established playoff format against Quebec would probably emerge, facilitating an East vs West format in the national final. It’s quite possible that no team from AUS is really in the top 10 nationally, year over year.
One of the great stories of the USPORTS playoffs has been UBC wide receiver, Sam Davenport. Davenport caught the winning TD in the Hardy Cup and then starred in the lopsided victory over St. FX. Davenport has been a refugee from the cancelled SFU football program. Given special dispensation by USPORTS to allow orphaned SFU players to transfer and play in USPORTS this season, Davenport has been an impact player as a visiting student to UBC. Kudos to USPORTS and UBC for making this happen. Meanwhile SFU continues to look like anything but an institution of higher learning.
As far as this year's Vanier Cup goes, watch for les Carabins to accomplish the double and bring home a second national football championship to Montreal. I believe they will do it decisively. Not since 1980 when the University of Alberta and Edmonton won the Vanier and Grey Cups respectively have these two national championships been won by teams from the same city. This could be the second time ever.
Back in the Six...a couple of days after the Eastern final, Chad Kelly dropped a bombshell to reporters at 3DownNation. He claimed that he had suffered a concussion which had gone undiagnosed and unreported to his team and medical staff. To put it mildly this claim begs a lot of questions, some of them quite awkward. Finding answers will remain part of the responsibility of the Argos coaching staff and management, who appeared to be blindsided by the revelation. Fortunately, for the Argos, some of the mainstream Toronto media do not focus on them and it was one of those times that they must’ve been grateful for not getting the same frenetic attention as the Leafs, Raptors and Blue Jays. Can you imagine the reaction of the local sports media had Austin Matthews, following a seventh game playoff exit suddenly revealed that he had suffered a concussion in a manner that was not identifiable, and had gone undiagnosed by his coach and medical staff? The media would have feasted on it for weeks and perhaps even months.
My holiday wish list for the Argonauts
1. Better depth at quarterback and offensive tackle. The Argonauts got All-Star performances in the regular season from their quarterback and offensive tackles. They need to re-sign as many offensive linemen as possible. They are the heart of this team. Where is Sage Doxtater ?
Argos management has done an outstanding job and they have the most depth on their roster of any team in the Canadian football league with the possible exception of these two positions. If Kelly gets hurt, they need to have a backup who can consistently win, if not push Kelly.
2. The Argos have great depth at all receiver positions, both Canadian and American. Nevertheless, they would benefit from adding a wide receiver with breakaway speed who can take the top off of the defense. Great speed and great hands are a lethal combination but not easy to find. The closest they have had to this in the past few years were Chandler Worthy and Brandon Banks. Neither had outstanding hands. I know less about the quality of their route running.
3. Acquire an additional Canadian running back for depth, given the departure of Andrew Harris to retirement. It appears as though Daniel Adebeboye will be ready to play a more active role with the departure of Harris, opening a space for someone to fill a depth role. Someone like Ante Milanovic Litre might work. He may be a free agent this off-season, and has performed well in limited action both in Calgary and Ottawa. At over 6 feet and 225 pounds he has good size and ran a 4.6 second 40 in the CFL combine. Featuring similarly long hair and wearing 34 he looks a bit like a slightly larger Canuck version of AJ Ouellette. Perhaps the draft will unearth someone who will fit this bill.
4. Sponsor the move of the Blue-Red game between York and the Varsity Blues to be played at BMO. Football teams in Canada are more ethnically diverse than the student bodies from which they are drawn. The undergraduate experience in a big city like Toronto is fraught with anxiety for students, and too often social isolation. Young people want to have a sense of belonging and unfortunately big schools like Toronto and York offer few large scale opportunities for an inclusive common experience and celebration.
This was once a feature of a combined experience between the two schools built on a fun rivalry. If you think there isn’t an appetite for this, just look at the huge attendance for the annual Panda game between Carleton and Ottawa U. The same engagement was evident for the Shrum Bowl between UBC and SFU, even though they were not even in the same league. Sadly, long term administrative incompetence at SFU may put this game permanently on the shelf.
Universities in Canada love to preach about diversity, equity and inclusion but struggle to offer real life opportunities for collective non-academic common experience. I can guarantee you that undergraduates remember these common emotional experiences which make them feel part of something bigger than early morning classes. They create lifelong memories and stronger attachment to their schools. In the case of the NCAA they sometimes bring entire communities together.