As 2013 draws to a close, a lot has happened this year in the Canadian Football League. Many new faces emerged and shined for the league. The Saskatchewan Roughriders fulfilled their destiny and won the 101st Grey Cup in front of their hometown fans. And the city of Ottawa is preparing for the return of Canadian football plus are now learning who will be among the first to play for this expansion team.
This was also quite the season for the Montreal Alouettes football club. Many highs, plenty of lows and enough changes that required someone to pay attention. Lucky for you, that someone is me. Let’s take a look back at 2013 and how the year unfolded for the Birds of Prey.
Bear Down, Trest Out, Hawk In
The 2012 season ended with dreams of the Alouettes playing for the 100th Grey Cup dashed by an unlucky pass bounced off of Brian Bratton’s chest numbers. But Montreal fans knew that as long as Anthony Calvillo was healthy and Marc Trestman was on the sidelines, there was always the chance for redemption the next year.
Well, that last part of that sentence took a turn south for Als fans in 2013. On January 16th, the Chicago Bears hired Coach Trestman to lead the Monsters of the Midway. What was really incredible was the subsequent outpouring of love and support for Trestman from not just Alouettes fans, but from all CFL fans.
Even if you weren’t an Als fan you had to respect the way Trestman carried himself as a leader of men. He breathed new life into this Montreal team and made them great football players and even better men. In the five years he coached for Montreal, Trestman brought this team to three Grey Cups and won two of them.
The team was a success on and off the field. And satisfied with that tremendous accomplishment, he now had the chance to finally realize his dream of being a head coach in the NFL.
So with Trestman leaving and with training camp mere months away, the Alouettes had to find his successor in short order. Alouettes owner Robert Wetenhall and General Manager Jim Popp knew they had big shoes to fill and not a lot of time to do so. When the smoke cleared, the name that was chosen to lead this Alouettes team in the post-Trestman era was former NCAA coach and ESPN analyst Dan Hawkins.
To say that Hawkins was the anti-Trestman would be a vast understatement. Whereas Trestman was quiet and reserved, Hawkins was loud and boisterous. When Trestman was interviewed he listened to the question being asked, took his time and formulated an intelligent answer that was well thought out. Hawkins would answer questions with a nervous laugh and the bravado of a used car salesman.
Trestman carefully crafted an offense and defense that kept teams guessing. Hawkins took a winning formula and flushed it down the toilet, thinking that his team of professional athletes needed to be taught the basics of football. Trestman is a successful head coach in the NFL. And after 5 mostly forgettable games on the Alouettes sidelines, Hawkins is back in a TV studio analyzing college football.
I’ve written a fair bit already on the Dan Hawkins fiasco, but one coaching hire that the Alouettes made last off-season has paid off; Noel Thorpe took a pedantic defense and made the entire league stand up and take notice. That same defense kept the Alouettes competitive in many games this year and all signs are pointing to Thorpe being named this team’s head coach sometime in the future.
But for now, it seems that Jim Popp will assume that role amongst his many others within this Alouettes organization. Is this a cost-related measure so as not to pay TWO head coaches in 2014? (The Als are still paying Hawkins to NOT coach this season.) Or will this organization come up with another unknown commodity? We shall see what this winter brings.
Everybody Hurts (Sometimes)
As bad as it was to be saddled with a coach that didn’t have a clue, injuries will kill even the best-coached of teams. The Alouettes were no exception to the injury bug as they suffered many losses of key players in 2013. Starting with major O-Line losses in Scott Flory and Andrew Woodruff. The defense suffered a major loss when Scooter Berry went down. Special Teams took a hit with losses to Martin Bedard, Noel Devine and Jordan Verdone. And the offense took major blows by losing Brandon Whitaker and Jamel Richardson.
But the biggest blow to the Alouettes came on August 17th, when Anthony Calvillo was knocked out of the game vs. the Roughriders by Ricky Foley. It was as clean a hit as you will ever see in football. But Calvillo’s 40 year old head took a bounce off the ground that ultimately ended his 2013 season and quite possibly, his two decades as a signal-caller in the Canadian Football League.
It’s disheartening to think that a great career may have been ended by a concussion. But AC wouldn’t be the first QB to have his career ended in such a fashion and he certainly won’t be the last. Every league is looking more and more into head injuries and how to prevent them. Rules are being changed yearly to give the quarterback more protection from defenses that are getting bigger, stronger and faster.
As of this going viral, Calvillo still hasn’t made a decision about his career. He still has one year on his contract and probably would rather he leave on his own terms. But with a family to think about and nothing left to prove to anyone, he may just decide to be content with his legacy as the greatest quarterback the CFL has ever seen. His close friend Ben Cahoon is about to be enshrined in the Canadian Football Hall of Fame and AC will join him there in no time.
New Blood Rising (Part 1)
As I said earlier, 2013 will be remembered by CFL fans as the Year of The New Quarterback. It seemed like no team’s starting QB was safe as every single team had someone new take snaps at least once this season. Until AC went down with his concussion, it seemed like the Alouettes would have been exempt from the previous sentence. But lo and behold, Calvillo goes down and in steps Josh Neiswander to finish and almost win the game. But during the next rain-drenched game versus BC, Neiswander gets off to a shaky start and things look as gloomy as the weather did on that summer evening.
Enter Marsh Madness.
Before we do that, let’s quickly head back to training camp. A lot of Alouettes fans were surprised to hear that heralded collegiate quarterback Kyle Quinlan would not be joining the Alouettes at camp, opting to retire and stay at his alma mater McMaster to serve as an assistant coach for their football team. Quinlan’s reasoning was that he would never get the chance to be more than a backup quarterback for the Alouettes, as AC wasn’t planning on leaving anytime soon.
The hope for Quinlan to grow and develop into the future QB for this team was dashed right then and there. As usual, Jim Popp finds talent in the most unlikely of places. And in a small town in Texas, he found a tall kid with a powerful arm and the ability to pull wins out of nowhere. And at the time, all I could say as I glanced at the training camp roster was, “Who the F*** is Tanner Marsh?!”
But as camp progressed and I watched his work ethic, I began to like what I saw. I clearly wasn’t the only one as the coaching staff had made Marsh the official backup to Calvillo, beating out Neiswander and Quinton Porter, who was brought to camp to compete for the #2 spot. But aside from the second preseason game where he threw for a TD, Marsh didn’t get much action and was passed over for Neiswander when AC went down to injury.
Going to Neiswander was surely done out of his knowing the Alouettes system for 3+ years. But when Josh was pulled and Marsh got the call, it was during easily the most exciting football game that the Alouettes were a part of since being in the 2009 Grey Cup.
When Marsh connected with Eric Deslauriers on a Hail Mary pass with a mere nine seconds left on the clock, how does any Alouettes fan not jump out of their seat in sheer delight/utter shock? For one night, everyone had forgotten all the woes of the head coach debacle and the injury to Calvillo. A new star was born and the name Tanner Marsh was on the lips of everyone watching the CFL.
He was far from perfect in that game but when the Alouettes needed a spark, he was the one who lit the fuse. And I am willing to bet that in the Hamilton area, a certain young man was cursing his decision to return to the safety net of his part-time university coaching job.
Also notable for that game was the third string QB dressed for Montreal. A name that had seen NFL action plus would figure prominently in the latter part of the Alouettes season and possibly beyond. That name? Troy Smith.
New Blood Rising (Part 2)
Smith’s CFL debut came at a tumultuous time for Montreal, as Marsh and Neiswander had flashes of brilliance and moments of despair. Could the steady hand of a Heisman Trophy winner be the tonic to cure the Alouettes woes?
It wasn’t supposed to be. Smith had been on the Als’ negotiation list since 2005, when he was still playing for THE Ohio State University. After he won the Heisman, many expected Smith to leapfrog into an NFL starting job. Did Smith even know he was on the Alouettes’ radar? Did he even know where Montreal was on a map? Questions that were probably never asked until nearly a decade later.
Smith was brought in and the plan was for him to sit and learn the Canadian game, not to see any action in 2013. But AC’s injury forced the Alouettes to at least put him into a uniform and stand on the sidelines. Tanner Marsh suffered an injury to his throwing hand during a trip to BC and now Smith gets bumped up the depth chart. And when Josh Neiswander started to falter despite knowing the Alouettes’ system, it was go time for Troy Smith.
As expected, he took many lumps and experienced the growing pains of learning the Canadian game as well as dealing with an offence in disarray. But on Oct.20, Troy Smith became a leader and made this Alouettes team his own, completely dismantling the Hamilton Tiger-Cats. After that game, there was little doubt that Smith could be a force to be reckoned with in the CFL.
New Blood Rising (Part 3)
Having a quarterback who can win games is crucial, but they can’t throw or hand off the ball to themselves. And normally this is where the Alouettes had Jamel Richardson and Brandon Whitaker to handle such duties. But the injury bug bit them hard, especially when Whitaker was coming back from a major injury already. S.J. Green and Arland Bruce were doing a good job, but more hands on deck are always appreciated. So what do the Alouettes do?
Get (Duron) Carter.
Cris Carter is a Hall of Famer who redefined the wide receiver position in the NFL, along with Jerry Rice. Cris had a son named Duron, who followed in his father’s footsteps but unlike his dad, couldn’t get in with the Minnesota Vikings. But Jim Popp was willing to gamble on this burgeoning talent. Carter cracked the practice roster and when Richardson went down to season-ending injury, Duron was given a chance to shine.
And shine he did! A regular chip off the old block, Duron Carter made like his dad and caught many touchdowns for the Alouettes. And people down south took notice; so much so that after the 2014 season, this talented youngster just may find himself in the NFL. All he needed was a chance to display his natural talent and the Alouettes provided him with just that.
And when B-Whit couldn’t answer the call, along came a young man by the name of Tyrell Sutton. Yet another of the many diamonds in the rough unearthed by Jim Popp. Like Marsh, he shined in the second pre-season game, then laid in wait on the practice roster. And while Jerome Messam was that power back people expected him to be, Sutton was able to slash through D-Lines and get serious yardage on the ground. When Troy Smith couldn’t throw the ball, he leaned on these two to get yards and they did.
This was a year of transition for the Alouettes in many facets; youth is now being served. With this young nucleus, the potential to regain the top spot in the East is there for the taking.
Despite all the turmoil on and off the field for the Als, they still somehow managed to claim a playoff spot and become a favoured team by the CFL pundits. A trip to the Grey Cup would mean battling both of Ontario’s squads, starting with the
Guelph Moncton Hamilton Tiger-Cats. That team also had its up and downs this season and were actually barnstorming while their stadium was being rebuilt, playing home games in Guelph and one game in Moncton versus the Alouettes.
So the stage was set for a playoff game in Guelph, as both teams not only battled each other, but some hurricane-like winds that affected game play. Most notable was a field goal attempt by Sean Whyte that saw the ball sail to the uprights…..and drop right down in front of them. It should be noted that the referees did not award a rouge (single point) for that. But that wasn’t the worst blown call of that game.
Montreal had a chance to put the game away and nearly did late in the fourth quarter when Smith tried to connect with Duron Carter for a touchdown. Carter was blatantly interfered with as the Hamilton defender did not look towards the ball in play but the infraction drew no penalty flags from the officials. So instead of first and goal at the one yard line with 5 seconds to go, the Alouettes opted to tie the game with a field goal and take their chances in overtime.
The Alouettes managed a field goal on their sole possession, but Hamilton responded with a touchdown run that was the final nail in the coffin for this season from hell. A mercy killing, if you will.
And further twisting the knife, Hamilton made a great comeback versus the Argos in the Eastern Final and they advanced to the Grey Cup. One can’t help but wonder if that non-pass interference call was made properly, would it have been the Alouettes facing the Roughriders in the Grey Cup game for the 3rd time in 5 years.
Ottawa Is Back In (Red and) Black
Next season will feature new stadiums, Winnipeg playing in the West division and a new CFL team in Ottawa. Despite the wishes of many fans too blinded by nostalgia, this Ottawa team will NOT be called the Rough Riders, but rather the RedBlacks. What is a RedBlack, you ask? Nobody knows.
There was strong support for calling the team The Red and Black, much like how many Canadian universities call their teams by colours (Laval Rouge et Or immediately springs to mind). But instead, ownership decided on RedBlacks. And so there it is.
Personally, I am somewhat ambivalent to the name. I don’t care for it, but am glad the Ottawa ownership didn’t bow to the pressure of going with Rough Riders. I think the CFL has enough issues with being taken seriously without two teams in a nine team league sharing similar monikers. I do like that the team is using the name Rouge Et Noir for the French-speaking population and I personally will use that in reference to this team as much as possible on this blog going forward.
Once the 101st Grey Cup was finished, the Ottawa team was officially open for business, able to sign free agents as they wanted to. And on Dec.16th, the league held an expansion draft when Ottawa could select from each team three players.
Selected by Ottawa from the Alouettes were Moton Hopkins, Patrick Lavoie and Jordan Verdone. No one likes losing players this way, but as an Alouettes fan you have to wonder why these players in particular were not protected.
Hopkins was a fan favourite in Montreal and played well in the absence of Scooter Berry. Despite being injured in 2013, Lavoie has tremendous upside and was Montreal’s first draft pick of 2012. Verdone came from the same University of Calgary class that graduated fellow Alouettes Steven Lumbala, Michael Klassen and Mike Edem.
Obviously, you can’t protect everyone. But what exactly was it about these guys that made them expendable in the eyes of Jim Popp? Was it simply having too much talent on paper? Was it the injuries to Lavoie and Verdone? We may never truly know. But Ottawa is certainly being given a chance to be a competitive team right from the start.
There will still be some naysayers that will look to the past and see the failures of the Rough Riders and Renegades and ask why Ottawa was given yet another chance to field a team. The difference this time? Local ownership.
This isn’t some goofball operation out of America that only resides part-time in Canada, looking to make a quick buck and slink off into the night. This Ottawa group has ties to the community and has turned the Ottawa 67′s junior hockey team into a viable entertainment operation. In other words, this group knows how to make a team into a successful one both on and off the playing field.
There will be some hardships and it will take time for the Ottawa team to come together and be successful. But they have hired the right people and if given a chance, they will contend sooner rather than later.
Get Ready For 2014
And so that ends this 2013 year in review. There are still many questions to be answered such as the future of Anthony Calvillo, who will be the head coach if it’s not Jim Popp again, who will be the new offensive coordinator and many more.
With the Ottawa expansion draft done, Jim Popp must put on his general manager hat and resign some key players that are headed for free agency. Already he has locked up Alan-Michael Cash, Luc Brodeur-Jourdain, Troy Smith and Tanner Marsh to long-term deals. Many still remain unsigned and some may even test the free agency waters come February 15th.
And although many of the hottest names in coaching have been snapped up to fill voids, it’s my hope that Popp will find a talented offensive mind to help shape this team. Defense is taken care of and Special Teams is fine, now the Alouettes need a sound mind to create an offense for their two young quarterbacks in mind.
I would have liked Paul LaPolice myself, but he seems quite content with his TSN analyst gig and probably would prefer running his own show as well. Suffice to say, I don’t think the Als will be looking at any more coaches who have never coached on a professional level.
Despite the Dan Hawkins hiring, I am more than willing to give Wetenhall and Popp the benefit of the doubt in whomever they hire. Trying to top the Trestman hire is next to impossible. But a creative mind that understands the Canadian game would do wonders for this Alouettes team as they embark on a new era and carve out a new identity.
I would like to thank all of you who joined me on this journey. From the start of training camp to the hoisting of the Grey Cup, the CFL season is always a whirlwind of emotions, both good and bad. I’ve enjoyed covering every minute of it and sincerely hope you’ve enjoyed reading about it.
I’ll be back here and there with off-season thoughts; be sure to follow me on Twitter to know when a new blog post is up. I wish you fine readers all the very best for 2014.
GO ALS GO!!!
About the Author
Written by Clifford Pine
Montreal born & bred, lover of sports. Passionate about the Montreal Alouettes. Also a great cook & not too bad a dancer.