With Christmas morning closing fast, I couldn't help but wonder what the CFL office and the individual clubs would have on top of their Christmas lists as we head into 2012.
Actually in all honesty, I was asked the question on Friday morning by Andrew Dawson of the CJME radio morning show in Regina and thought that it made for an interesting topic of discussion. Basically, the question is: if each team could pick one thing that they would like for Christmas, what would it be?
Most of the lists will focus on players and new contracts; however, there are some teams that may have some problems signing those players before they get their coaching staffs finalized. So here then is a team-by-team look at what may top the Christmas lists in each CFL city and what may also be a pleasant surprise for each team under the tree this year.
We will start with the Grey Cup champion BC Lions, where Wally Buono made the announcement quickly that he would be handing the coaching responsibilities over to Mike Benevides in 2012. While the former defensive coordinator was not guaranteed the job at any point over the last couple of years, the decision was not a surprise and now the focus for both the new head coach and GM is to sign three key free agents. So you have to believe that on the top of the Lions' Christmas list are the signatures of Kahlif Mitchell, Paul McCallum and Aaron Hunt on new contracts before they get to free agency in February. Benevides may have to fill some coaching vacancies, including his own DC roll, as the off-season continues but unlike other teams, this likely won't be an issue for the Lions' free agents. Generally speaking, when a player is coming off a Grey Cup year, they would have to see an amazing offer to leave a team that has just won the championship. A pleasant surprise under the tree for the defending champs may be another free agent that is currently on the market. With the emergence of Canadian Andrew Harris at the running back position for BC, the signing of Edmonton's Calvin McCarty would be a nice addition to the roster. The Vancouver native could provide Canadian depth and another player that can contribute.
Speaking of the Esks, it is not going out on a limb to think that general manager Eric Tillman has a confident and consistent Steven Jyles on the top of his list. After making the blockbuster trade of the off-season that sent Ricky Ray to Toronto, many in Edmonton are still trying to figure out if Tillman is a mastermind football genius or just completely losing his mind. One thing is certain, Jyles will get an opportunity. The trade looks awful for Edmonton if Jyles does not emerge as a starter and even that may not be enough depending on what happens in Toronto. Now, the Esks do have some money to spend in free agency due to this trade and a pleasant surprise under the tree could be a big name signing like say, Andy Fantuz? Fantuz is in wait-and-see mode in Saskatchewan, it will take a lot to pry him out of Regina, but you never know?
In Calgary, John Hufnagel has got to deal with his coaching staff first and then get to some other player issues, the most important of which may be dealing both Joffery Reynolds and Henry Burris. It is the sign of a good organization when your assistant coaches are in demand for promotions but heading into 2012, Hufnagel has already replaced Chris Jones who is in Toronto and still may have to find someone to replace Dave Dickenson who is still in the picture in Hamilton. A pleasant surprise for the Stamps and their fans may be the signing of a dominate pass rushing defensive lineman like the Ti-Cats' Justin Hickman, who is also a FA in Feb. A deal that in a perfect world for Calgary could include moving Henry Burris to the Steel City and getting good market value for a quarterback that still has lots of good football left in him.
Rounding out the West is Saskatchewan. Brendan Taman has taken care of the most pressing need with the announcement that Corey Chamblin will be the teams new head coach, but you have to believe that the Riders' Christmas list looks very similar to Calgary's. At the top of it is the naming of the new offensive and defensive coordinators. It sounds like players like Andy Fantuz are taking their time and waiting to see what the entire coaching staff will look like before signing a new deal. It is a different scenario than what is going on in BC because as mentioned earlier the Lions are champions, but also because Fantuz will demand big offers from a lot of teams so the money will not be that different elsewhere. And if the money is similar, the Canadian receiver could then consider which team has the best chance to win based on their coaching staffs. It will be tough to pry Fantuz away from Saskatchewan; he has said many times how much he enjoys playing there but anything is possible.
The Riders may have already got their pleasant surprise Christmas gift when city counsel voted positively to go ahead with plans to build a new stadium. We are entering a new era in Canadian football with new facilities across the country and as much history as there is with Mosaic, the Riders will want to keep up with the rest of the league.
Now to the East where out of respect for the Eastern Champion Blue Bombers, we will start in Winnipeg. Paul LaPolice and Joe Mack have some coaching vacancies to fill and some key free agents to sign, including all three of their quarterbacks. With that in mind, I will suggest that on top of the Bombers' list this Christmas will be the wisdom to make the right decisions when it comes to their QBs. The organization will respect what Buck Pearce accomplished this year, but do they look for more insurance and try and make a deal for Henry Burris? With all due respect to Buck, who proved this year he can go a season and can lead a team to the big game, there are some interesting decisions that have to be made at the most important position on the field in Winnipeg this off-season. A pleasant surprise for Winnipeg this year would be a long shot but would be if Doug Brown changed his mind and came back for one more run at a championship.
In Hamilton, Bob Obillovich has a similar wish list as the Bombers with one glaring difference. The Bombers know who their HC will be in 2012 and the Ti-Cats are still searching. There were three head coaching opportunities available at the end of this year and Hamilton will be the third and final team to fill the spot. That is number one on the Christmas list for the organization; find a quality head coach that will take them that one more step in the East. After that, a pleasant surprise would be quarterback clarity. I know it is getting old for Hamilton fans to hear it, but Kevin Glenn is still a very good QB and Quinton Porter took major steps forward in his development last year. However, a pleasant surprise for Ti-Cat fans could be another QB added to the mix that shows well enough to, at worst push Glenn and Porter to be better, and at best is so good, that he becomes the starter. Hamilton's duo last year was good enough to beat Montreal on the road in the Semi-final; that says a lot about how close they are.
In Montreal, Marc Trestman and Jim Popp likely have less urgent items on their list but no less important. The Als slipped last year on defense and will need to put the improvement on that side of the ball at the top of their list. Injuries were a big reason for the drop off over there but that doesn't change the fact that the team will have to improve on 'D' in 2012. Historically, Jim Popp has not been a GM that goes crazy in free agency, but this year there are some very good defensive players on the FA lists that could be of interest to the Als. A pleasant surprise under the tree could be elevated play out of back up quarterback Adrian McPherson in 2012. McPherson has looked good at times in the limited action that he has seen but with this almost certainly being Anthony Calvillo's last year, I'm sure Montreal fans would like to see McPherson light up some scoreboards this coming year in what will likely be a lot more playing time.
And finally we move to the team that this off-season has quickly become one of the most interesting squads in the game as we look ahead to the 2012 season; the Toronto Argonauts. They have a new coach in Scott Milanovich, whom many thought was the number one candidate in the league for a promotion, and quickly added a future Hall of Famer in Ricky Ray at quarterback for the new HC to work with, so all of a sudden a great young offensive mind is working with a championship caliber QB who is still in his prime. So, number one on the Argos' list has got to be someone for Ray to throw to. There are a couple of keepers currently on the roster like Spencer Watt and Maurice Mann, but Milanovich is used to working with powerhouse receiving corps in Montreal and I'm sure has pass catchers as his number one priority. As far as a pleasant surprise goes, well I'm going to go off the map here and go with the announcement that owner David Braley is going to build the team a state of the art practice facility. It would be a gift that would take a while to build but is long over due and would truly send the message to new potential Argo fans that Braley is in it for the long haul and so is the team in Toronto.
As for the league office itself, it was a pretty good year but as has been said many times in sports; if your not improving and moving forward you are moving backward, and the CFL head office does not want to lose any momentum. So you have to believe that number one on their Christmas list would be to hammer out a new long term TV contract. Now I should first say that while I work for TSN, I am not privy to any of the conversations or meetings with regards to the new TV deal. That is all business that is conducted on a floor of the offices that I never venture into. However, it makes a ton of sense for the CFL to get a new TV deal (with whomever may be involved) done sooner rather than later. It would add instant stability to the league and would give the member clubs an increase in revenues right away rather than a year or two from now. Beyond that, a nice surprise gift for the league office may be the final announcement that the shovels are officially going into the ground in our Nations Capital. It is time for Ottawa to cut through the final bit of red tape (there seems to have been miles of it) and get a team with the right owners up and running.