• Reeve Batstone

In the Clinch


The Argos clinched first. One objective down and two to go; win the East Final and the Grey Cup. Congratulations to the Argonauts for achieving this in consecutive seasons and with a very young head coach and defensive coordinator. Kudos to the coaching staff. It’s a very improbable scenario, with such inexperience, but the football operations staff has set them up for success with outstanding drafts and depth almost everywhere on the field. It should also open the door for them to start Chad Kelly and rest players like MBT, Muamba and perhaps Dejon Allen for the final game of the regular season.


Positives:


Good play calling on both sides of the ball.


MBT had a passing efficiency over 100 again and drove the team down the field late (twice) for the winning points.

Only three penalties!! Wow, that territory is usually reserved for Calgary or Winnipeg. By comparison it was hard not to notice that big penalties sank Montreal in the late stages of this game. Once again composure wins. The on-field discipline has improved markedly since earlier this season and this was a difference-maker on Saturday.


Muamba was sensational again and led the team in tackles. Jones showed he belonged and showed great instincts in his pivotal INT. The defence was outstanding again and out-sacked Montreal 5-1! That's not a misprint. The o-line was terrific in establishing running lanes and protecting MBT. One of their best all-round performances this season.


Kurleigh Gittens just keeps getting better. Mr. consistency. Fayad showed potential.


Negatives:


Boris Bede had a rough night. The punt return game is still stuck in neutral. Not much else worth mentioning.



National Leaders


Congratulations to Glen Constantin, Head Coach of the Laval Rouge et Or, who is now the winningest football coach in Canadian USports history. Laval is also the winningest program in Vanier Cup (modern history). The ascendancy of football in Quebec is an incredible story and is not limited to Laval, it’s a provincial story. While Constantin is receiving well-deserved recognition, it’s noteworthy that the coach that first raised the bar at Laval is former Argonaut assistant, Jacques Chapdelaine. Chapdelaine took over in only the second year of the program's existence at Laval and four years later was the first head coach to lead a French-Canadian university to a Vanier Cup in 1999. The following year his undefeated team was upset in the playoffs and he departed Laval for the Calgary Stampeders. Enter Constantin.


Sadly, the ascendancy of francophone Quebec based teams has been coincident with the descendancy of the teams in Atlantic Canada who are just not competitive outside their own conference anymore. The competitiveness of a university football program in Canada is proportional to its budget and the AUS budgets for football are decidedly smaller than many schools in the conferences in Quebec, Ontario and the West. Even within the OUA and Quebec conferences there are wide variations in budget and competitiveness. It’s time that USports considered tiering teams according to budget size. At the moment some of the games amount to a turkey shoot.


True Blues


The four winningest programs in Canadian university football history are now Laval, Western, University of Toronto and Queen's. U of T and Queen's are the only two that have the distinction of winning the Grey Cup. The once mighty Varsity Blues won four including three in a row and Queen's has won three, all consecutively. The Golden Gaels won the last Grey Cup by a university in 1924. In 1922 they defeated the Edmonton Elks 13-1 at Richardson stadium in Kingston (yes, they were really called the Elks then), and in 1923 they hammered the Regina Roughriders 54-0. Together, with Varsity, they have won an astonishing seven Grey Cups, more than some CFL teams. Never to be repeated, Queen's Grey Cups were recently featured in a documentary series, “We are Golden”, featured on Bell Fibe.


The Argos have won 17 Grey Cups, the Varsity Blues four , Balmy Beach two and the RCAF Hurricanes one, giving Toronto teams a total of 24 Grey Cups in just over a century. Not bad. It was the Argos who first established Blue as the foundational colour of Toronto sports teams in 1873. Their successful tradition led the Leafs and Blue Jays to follow suit in the 20th century.



TV Coverage


Is it just me or does the lighting of night games in CFL stadiums vary widely. I couldn't help but notice that evening games in Edmonton's Commonwealth stadium are very well lit, whereas Ottawa is much darker. BMO is also well lit, perhaps because of MLS or FIFA requirements? McMahon stadium in Calgary is also not as well lit for TV. I'm also puzzled that TSN schedules games in BC at 7pm pacific time. It means that even die hard fans wishing to watch someone like Nathan Rourke, east of Manitoba, must wait until 10pm eastern time before the game starts. Even in the heyday of Monday Night Football the NFL never started a game in an eastern time zone later than 6pm pacific or 9pm eastern time. This has to be a major drag on national viewership when you know the game won't finish until 1am ET.


I also question how much crossover there is between Blue Jays and CFL fans, in addition to Leafs and Raptors fans. There is an assumption that they overlap a great deal. I remain to be convinced that these audiences are fluid. Some yes, but how much is an open question


Speaking of visibility, anyone who stayed up late to watch the Elks v Lions game Friday would have had a hard time following the outcome as the acuity was really poor on some of the replays including a challenge of an Elks interception. The replay was blurry and it highlighted the absence of super slow motion on CFL telecasts. TSN has this capability and uses it too sparingly on baseball and hockey telecasts. It should not be reserved for just the Grey Cup. TSN has received some legitimate criticism recently for not promoting the CFL as actively on social media as the NFL. It needs to up its game. It appears as though TSN takes the CFL for granted. That's one of the dangers of having a sole source broadcaster. They hold the scarcity power. Not professional grade.


Rumour has it that the Roughriders are going to move on from former Argo, Cody Fajardo. My question is who are they going to replace him with? Who will be an upgrade? Fajardo is a mobile QB who has taken a pounding this season behind an offensive line that has given up a league and franchise worst 71 sacks, including five on Saturday night. That's an astoundingly high number and is approaching an all-time CFL worst. It would be disingenuous for Sask management to run him out of town for getting sacked a record number of times. Meanwhile the Calgary offensive line has given up a league best 18 sacks. That is a massive difference and does not account for the QB pressures on Fajardo that aren't counted. It’s a miracle he is still upright after 17 games. He is tough but does need to dial down the social media distractions. Calgary is not a team known for making a big splash in free agency unless you count the star receivers that leave for other teams. When they do sign a free agent it’s more likely to be an offensive lineman such as former Argo, perennial league all star and former Calgary Dino, Sean McEwen, or outstanding left tackle, Derek Dennis. This is a major reason why Calgary is the league's best rushing team and allowed the fewest sacks. What QB would not want to play for Calgary?! The Argos drafted another stellar Dino, Peter Nicastro, to replace McEwen. U Calgary produces outstanding o-linemen. With BLM leaving next year, this will free up some cap space, it will be interesting to see where the Stampeders invest that found money.


If it’s true that Sask will replace Fajardo with Bo Levi Mitchell, then BLM better bring his own pass protection or he won't last a quarter of the season. BLM struggled mightily without pressure against the Argos this season. Fajardo would do well behind even mediocre pass protection and would be a good fit in BC if Nathan Rourke goes to the NFL or just about anywhere else in the league.


Finally, Postmedia's JJ Adams is a breath of fresh air in his coverage of the CFL, among mainstream media. He caught TSN napping with a real time tweet during the Lions v Winnipeg last week when TSN missed a brilliant play by Lion's Terry Williams. Williams touched a kickoff simultaneously with one foot out of bounds on a late game kickoff return. It rendered it an illegal kick and it was brought out to the 50-yard line. While his teammates and coaches congratulated him for his presence of mind on the sidelines the TSN crew were still waxing broadly about the kick returns that evening, seemingly oblivious to what he had just done.


Adams also interviewed CFL Commissioner Randy Ambrosie in print, albeit with tongue in cheek, asking him a variety of questions, several of which Ambrosie obfuscated on. When he asked Ambrosie about a timeline on expansion he replied that the CFL was going to "measure twice and cut once." Adams replied, "but you've been measuring for 20 odd years now" (Adams is too young to know this but it’s actually 49 years as the CFL was urged to expand to Halifax by Federal Sports Minister Marc Lalonde after he blocked Johnny F Bassett and Leo Cahill's WFL franchise from coming to Toronto in 1973). Ambrosie replied glibly, "just think how precise we will be. " This is the same Commissioner who said, last spring that the chances of expansion to the Maritimes were 11 out of 10 in the near future. Sigh.


Adams also challenged Ambrosie on why he has flip flopped in his support of Canadians and negotiated hard on the ratio to reduce the number of Canadian starters. Ambrosie's reply was Orwellian as he went on about how Canadians are better than ever. It was the kind of confusing answer that continues to erode the respect for the league's office. Now that the Commissioner has admitted that Canadians are much better it clearly implies that reducing the number of Canadian starters is a cost cutting measure. Is that the message they really want to send? Adam's seems to have a nose for mendacity. The sad thing for the CFL is that its business model cannot afford many of the top 50 graduating Canadian football players anymore. They are signing south of the border, with a lot more to go in the future. If you want to understand the CFL’s evolving business model over the decades, read the excellent analysis by 3DownNation's John Hodge earlier this year. It raises some very good questions.


Adams also pointed out that the league still had some anchors and asked what was happening in Toronto. You didn't need to be a codebreaker to know that Ambrosie saw major disconnects with the community. He then contemporaneously referred to other cities, and said, "all of them went through a period of time where they had to figure out the strategies..." I'm not doing the interview justice, so it’s worth a read. One gets the sense that Adams isn't afraid to confront the elephants in the room and his writing is worth following.