N.B.: There’s a lot to cover, so this has been split into two posts. In case you missed the first part yesterday, click here.
When a CFL team turns in a 6-12 record, it’s safe to say there are not as many positives as one would like. As he looked back on this past season for the Montreal Alouettes, I’m certain General Manager/Head Coach Jim Popp would have loved to have a few do-overs on the 2015 season. But he did manage a few positives and we’ll have a closer look at those starting now.
As stated numerous times over the past few seasons, the heart and soul of this team is in the defense. No one epitomizes that statement like defensive end John Bowman. He is the leader of this corps and the first name that makes opposing coordinators cringe when they have to plan against this Alouettes team.
But this year the big man’s resolve was tested, as then-Head Coach Tom Higgins failed to appreciate what Bowman brought to every single game he played in and benched the sackmaster for a pair of games this summer. While Bowman was sidelined, his teammates tried to rally themselves for him on the field. Many people had surmised that this was Higgins’ way of showing the players who was the boss.
That misguided strategy backfired and when Jim Popp took over as head coach, he made it very clear that John Bowman belongs on the field, not on the sidelines dressed in street clothes. Bowman made his return in Hamilton and his inspired play was a major factor in the Alouettes handing the Tiger-Cats their first ever loss at Tim Hortons Field.
Bowman finished this season as the all-time sack leader for the Alouettes, a record he set at Percival Molson Stadium in front of his many supporters and teammates. He was also named to the 2015 CFL All-Star team and while some people wrote him off, he proved that he still has the fire burning within him. Bowman’s a free agent and as of this going viral, he and the team are in talks for a new contract. I personally hope that deal gets done and it means that Big John stays in La Belle Province for the rest of his playing career.
John Bowman is the leader of this defense, but a leader is only as good as the people he’s surrounded by. And when you have names like Alan-Michael Cash, Winston Venable, Kyler Elsworth and Dominique Ellis listed on the lineup sheet, you’d have to be a VERY good leader!
All four of these guys stepped up big in 2015 for the Montreal Alouettes. Cash has steadily improved with every passing year and this season, the rest of the league finally started to take notice. Alan-Michael posted some very respectable numbers in 2015 and has become a leader alongside of Bowman on the D-Line. Not only has he planted the opposing QB on his rear end numerous times, Cash has also been a dynamo with interceptions! He has grown tremendously this season and will be a young veteran that Montreal will rely on a lot in 2016.
It took a while for Winston Venable to crack the linebacking corps, especially with names like Kyries Hebert and Chip Cox to contend with. But Venable had himself a breakout year and truly became a force to be reckoned with in Montreal. With 104 tackles and 5 sacks this season, there was simply no stopping this guy. Venable’s hard-hitting ability made it tough to plan against him; he was quick enough to cover a short-yardage receiver as well as dropping back in coverage, leaving QBs constantly guessing. Winston wisely signed a one year contract last season to prove his worth and he is going to get paid this season.
Kyler Elsworth’s coming out party didn’t last as long as he would have liked thanks to injuries, but he did do something remarkable; he almost made people forget about Bear Woods, who himself was lost for the season. When Woods tore his tricep, it was the former Michigan State Spartan that was slotted into Bear’s MLB spot. And Elsworth made the most of his opportunity. Most notable was his game versus the Edmonton Eskimos where he stripped, scooped and scored the Alouettes’ lone touchdown that evening. Elsworth is a gamer and is worthy of an everyday spot on any CFL team. With a healthy Bear coming back as well as big-ticket acquisition Henoc Muamba in the lineup, Kyler will once again have to come up huge when training camp opens next June.
Last season, Dominique Ellis was like Winston Venable in the sense that he had a hard time seeing game action. But when he did, he made the most of it. This year, Ellis came out of training camp white-hot and made it easy for the Alouettes to dismiss a once sure-fire veteran in Geoff Tisdale. Dominique OWNED his spot and along with Jonathan Hefney and Mitchell White, Montreal’s secondary was as dangerous as ever. Ellis carries himself with the confidence of a lion presiding over a fresh kill in the Serengeti and NFL team scouts have taken notice as well, with a number of teams inviting him to a professional tryout. Should he not put his name to an NFL contract, re-signing Dominique has to be a top priority for this football team’s general manager.
I could write volumes about the many defensive superstars that this team has in its lineup. But I’d just be repeating myself as I have stated time and time again that if it wasn’t for the Alouettes defense, the games of this 2015 season would be a complete and utter trainwreck to watch and eventually write about. As disappointing as what this season was for Alouettes fans, you certainly can’t pin the fault on the defense.
Perhaps the most remarkable thing about this Montreal Alouettes season was that despite all the hardships, this team was still a contender to make the playoffs! Of course when 66% of the league’s franchises qualify for said playoffs, it stands to reason that the three teams who didn’t were either really bad or really unlucky. But in the CFL, a team has to make their own luck. And sometimes all you need is a good insurance policy.
The Alouettes tried to win with a number of different quarterbacks in 2015 but thanks to a combination of injuries, shoddy play-calling and inexperience, there was just no getting around the white elephant that was in the room; this team needed a veteran hand leading it under centre. So who better to call upon than the man widely considered being the CFL’s best insurance policy?
Kevin Glenn has seen his fair share of action since joining the CFL in 2001. He’s also been all over the map of this great nation, having played for a number of teams that needed a steady hand. He’s led teams to the Grey Cup, but sadly has never raised that trophy skywards. Throughout these later years, he has become a valued commodity when a team has needed a pivot that knows what he is doing.
Glenn has become an indelible part of the fabric that makes up the Canadian Football League. And in an attempt to right the ship and hopefully enter the playoffs via crossover to the Western division, Jim Popp made a trade to bring this steadfast leader to Montreal.
Glenn had accepted being a backup in recent years but was more than ready to lead whenever the incumbent quarterback got hurt. That happened in 2015 when he was backing up Darian Durant in Saskatchewan. Durant tore his Achilles during the opening game and was lost for the season, thus the Riders became Glenn’s team. And Kevin’s competitive fire kept the Riders fighting to the bitter end. Many of the Roughriders’ 15 losses were tightly contested games that were lost not because of Glenn’s play, but rather a poorly-led defense and a head coach that refused to take accountability for his actions.
As Saskatchewan’s season circled the drain further, the Riders decided that it was best to see what their youth can do at quarterback and Glenn became expendable. From the moment Glenn stepped into the Alouettes locker room, you can see how excited he was to have a true opportunity to be a real leader and not just keep someone else’s seat warm. And that same locker room was equally glad to have an older, wiser man at the helm.
It had to be a relief as well for Anthony Calvillo to not have to spoon-feed someone at the team’s most important position. In fact, Glenn was actually able to help his neophyte coach as well; AC could bark out the plays and KG could execute them as directed or improvise on the fly, since he has been there and done that. It wasn’t going to be easy for the Alouettes to make the playoffs after piddling away so many close games earlier in the season, but this team was going for broke. If the Kevin Glenn who led the Calgary Stampeders to the 2012 Grey Cup could resurface, ANYTHING was possible!
But alas, it was not meant to be. Between the injuries, personnel upheaval and the tight losses that defined the summer of the Alouettes, this team’s luck ran out. The playoff dream was finally put to bed in Edmonton, of all places. A place known colloquially as the City of Champions and where Montreal themselves were twice crowned Grey Cup champions. The Alouettes needed to derail the runaway train of momentum that was the Eskimos in order to keep that faint playoff hope of theirs alive.
In what could only be considered yet another log on their bad luck fire, this game would have to be won without their field boss! Stricken with vertigo and unable to fly out west, Jim Popp found himself on the one-game injured list and a new leader would be calling the shots in Edmonton for the Alouettes. Defensive coordinator and assistant head coach Noel Thorpe finally got the proverbial keys to the car; a move that many people, including myself, had been hoping for.
A win as guided by Thorpe would have certainly proven that he was ready to lead his own team and that team could very well be the Alouettes. A loss would hardly dampen that thought, as Thorpe’s leadership abilities are on display every time the Montreal defense is on the field. He is a well-respected leader of men and his time as a full-time CFL head coach will come.
Led by Thorpe and Kevin Glenn, the Alouettes gave the Eskimos all that they could handle and it seemed like a win in the most unlikely of places could actually happen. But yet again, in keeping with their theme for the year, the Montreal Alouettes just couldn’t keep from stepping on their own toes en route to a victory. An injury here, a bad bounce there and that was all that a Chris Jones-led football team needed to clip the wings of the Birds of Prey. For the first time since their rebirth in 1996, the Montreal Alouettes would not be a participant in the Grey Cup playoffs.
That meant that the final Alouettes game of the 2015 season at Percival Molson Stadium would simply be played for pride and to publicly thank their faithful fans for their endurance and never-ending patience. So why not make a little history as well on this day?
Why not give the fans of this great league something they have been desiring for almost 20 years? Why not let a Canadian-born quarterback start an actual game in the CFL? And so on November 8, 2015 versus the Saskatchewan Roughriders, “Air Canada” was finally cleared for takeoff.
Brandon Bridge became the first quarterback born in this great country to start a CFL game since Guilio Caravatta led the BC Lions under centre against the Baltimore Stallions on October 21, 1995 (Fun Fact: Caravatta was actually selected by the Montreal Alouettes in the 1996 dispersal draft to provide the now former Baltimore Stallions with non-import players. He refused to report to Montreal and was traded back to BC.)
With no major implications, this was the chance that Bridge needed to prove that he could play in this league. After a solid pre-season outing and being thrown into the fire, redemption had to be on the mind of the young Canuck. Bridge wanted nothing more than to prove that he deserved every opportunity that Rakeem Cato was given. He wanted to show that he could be more than a short-yardage option or a placeholder for field goals attempts. On this day, Bridge had nothing to lose and the world to gain.
And guess what? Brandon Bridge was absolutely amazing! He went 21 of 30 with 220 passing yards and a pair of touchdown passes, including an absolute bomb to B.J. Cunningham. The moment wasn’t too big for the Mississauga-born pivot and everyone was left wondering why the heck didn’t Jim Popp put Bridge into football games much sooner?
As was the case all season, the Alouettes built up a lead and let it slip away, as this game needed overtime and Saskatchewan was able to escape with the victory. It’s been nearly two months since that game was played and it’s even more incredible to think that of the Riders’ mere three wins in 2015, TWO of them came at the expense of the Montreal Alouettes.
It was just that kind of a season, ladies and gentlemen. To quote Ray from Trailer Park Boys, “That’s the way she goes, boys. That’s the f—ing way she goes.”
Now comes the part where one will invariably have more questions than answers.
One question was answered almost immediately after the season was brought around back and mercifully put out of its misery. It took a whopping two days for the Alouettes to announce that Jim Popp would remain as head coach for the 2016 season while Noel Thorpe would remain as defensive coordinator and Anthony Calvillo would become the full-time offensive coordinator.
This would be done in the interest of providing this team with stability and leadership, something that both Popp and Alouettes president Mark Weightman said had been severely lacking in recent years. It’s hard to argue that point when you consider the cavalcade of coaches that have passed through these doors. At least now the coaching staff that is on hand has the respect and admiration of its players.
Popp also mentioned that Kevin Glenn was under contract through next season and would likely be the starting quarterback when training camp gets under way. Truthfully, that statement should put everyone at ease. You know exactly what you are getting with Kevin Glenn. And with AC as the OC, it will be easier to develop a proper playbook knowing that the quarterback should have little to no problem executing it.
But Glenn is not a long-term solution; AC’s true legacy as a coach can be cemented by properly grooming the next great Alouettes quarterback. Will it be either of the fresh-faced rookies Rakeem Cato or Brandon Bridge? Or can AC salvage the still-young careers of Jonathan Crompton or Tanner Marsh? Or will yet another mystery QB emerge from the shadows? No matter what, these questions must be answered. This team was not prepared for life after the playing career of Calvillo ended and if AC is to one day be the head coach of this franchise, he must solve the riddle that he himself helped create.
Once the Grey Cup was handed out, sheer pandemonium broke out when it came to CFL teams and coaches. It made for a wild couple of weeks as coaches bolted from one team to another. Positions became open and needed to be filled. It was at this moment that I thought that while I was still uncertain about what lay ahead for the Alouettes in 2016, at least I could rest easy knowing that this team had its coaching ducks in a row.
Or so I thought.
Because this year wasn’t already enough of a drama-filled smorgasbord, the Alouettes bellied up to the buffet for another heaping plateful. Noel Thorpe abruptly handed in his resignation after having a long conversation with Mark Weightman about his position within this franchise. I found this news to be particularly shocking as I had spoken with Thorpe beforehand at the Alouettes locker room visit and he gave me ZERO indications that he had any intentions of leaving Montreal.
In fact, he left the sale with two shopping bags filled with Alouettes gear for his family; hardly the behaviour of someone planning on jumping ship. So what gave? I have to believe that during that conversation with Weightman, some things were clearly miscommunicated and Thorpe acted in the heat of the moment when he resigned. It took the intervention of CFL commissioner Jeffrey Orridge to step in with an investigation of Thorpe’s resignation as well as a moratorium on all CFL personnel moves.
The end result was Thorpe’s resignation being nullified by the CFL’s head office and the decree that he simply couldn’t resign while under contract in order to accept a coaching position elsewhere. With that, Thorpe and the Alouettes came to an understanding and things are back to normal with Thorpe agreeing to honour his contract and remain as Montreal’s defensive coordinator/assistant head coach.
To say that this has been a tenable situation is putting it very mildly. The one game that Noel Thorpe acted as head coach clearly gave him the belief that he can run the show. He bided his time here in Montreal and watched himself be passed over as head coach for both Tom Higgins and Jim Popp. The recent carousel of CFL coaching changes may have truly lit the fuse for him to want more for himself and I certainly can’t blame him.
I’ve stated on numerous occasions that I wanted Popp to be head coach only so that he can groom Thorpe to be his eventual successor. With everyone begging for Anthony Calvillo to be the head coach (cheerfully disregarding that he’s only been a coach for one season) and now with Kavis Reed being named as an assistant head coach as well, it’s easy to see why Thorpe’s faith in the organization was shaken. Can he put that behind him and continue to be the defensive wizard that he is, if only to potentially showcase himself to other teams?
Or will all of this sound and fury be just the elaborate buildup that leads Thorpe atop the throne here in Montreal? Have I mentioned lately that it’s been an interesting year for the Alouettes?
Just when you think you have all the answers, they go and change the questions.
And thus, we come to the conclusion of the sordid tale that was the 2015 Montreal Alouettes season. But you good readers best be prepared for what 2016 will have to offer!
We’ve covered a lot of new ground here at 3 Down Nation and quite frankly, I don’t think we’ve begun to scratch the surface. I think as the CFL moves forward and evolves we are planning to be right at the forefront, providing fans with thoughts, insight and perspective like no one else can!
I’m very excited to see where we go as a web site and I am personally excited to see where The ALSternative will go as the winter months give way to spring. There’s a lot to discuss as we wait for training camp to open in June. Free agency is a few weeks away and I’ve got a few players that I’d like to see join this Alouettes team. The CFL Combine is where the league’s future will be introduced as they prepare to be drafted and continue their football journey.
And through it all, I am personally inviting you readers along for the ride! I do all this for you and I greatly value your participation. So I would like to thank you all for letting me be your guide throughout this past Montreal Alouettes season and beyond. I can’t help but feel like 2016 will be a truly epic year for us all.
I want to wish each and every one you the very best for the New Year and I hope you’ll continue to enjoy checking out The ALSternative this off-season.
So for one last time in 2015,
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.