For the first four weeks of the regular season, the Montreal Alouettes - led by arguably the greatest quarterback in CFL history - struggled badly offensively. It was unfamiliar territory for a team and star quarterback when you consider that this team has had the top-rated passing offense for three of the last four years, and the only year they haven't been rated first during that time was last year when they were second. It has been a high powered offense that has led the Als to four first place finishes in the East in the last five seasons.
During those five years, Marc Trestman was the man in charge. A quarterback expert, who upon his arrival in Quebec handed the keys to the franchise to Anthony Calvillo. In 2008, in one of his first meetings with the TSN crew, he explained his philosophy when it comes to the starting quarterback on a football team.
"Everybody matters in an organization but the quarterback is the most important person, including the owner," said Trestman. "Your quarterback gives your entire organization hope."
It was Trestman's system, with input at the time from Scott Milanovich, and AC's job was to execute the plan; which is exactly the way Calvillo likes it. Have the coach call the plays and the quarterback executes them, and it produced three Grey Cup appearances and two championships in five years.
When Trestman took the job as the head coach of the Chicago Bears this off-season, it was assumed by many that the new boss, Dan Hawkins, would simply ask Calvillo to make a copy of the playbook he had been using for the last five years, give it to offensive coordinator Mike Miller and they would hit the ground running on day one of training camp. In theory, it was a good plan. AC had to know it well enough to teach the finer points to the coaches, who could then teach it to the rest of the team. It was a theory, however, that had one major flaw - it would require one of the best quarterbacks in CFL history to also become one of the best coaches. Trestman's student would now have to become the teacher and that is something that Calvillo is just not ready to do at this point in his career. This week, AC recalled those first three days of camp, saying, "the plan was to keep as much of the old playbook as possible, and in the first three days we tried to do that," he said. Then slowly shaking his head said, "but I could tell after three days that it wasn't going to work."
The old book was put on the shelf and now already at day four of a two week training camp, AC and the coaching staff would sit down and chart a new course of action. The consensus was; it would be easier for AC to learn a new system then to try and become a player-coach and implement the old one. This, however, didn't put the offense behind the rest of the league by four days, but by months when you consider all off-season you are working on your playbook. So, it shouldn't come as that much of a surprise that Montreal struggled out of the gate.
The Als started the season with a 1-3 record and the offense over that one month span barely had a heartbeat. Football fans across the country thought that the solution to the problem was a no brainer and quickly pointed fingers at Dan Hawkins, and maybe more specifically OC Mike Miller. Most could not figure out why Miller wouldn't just run whatever Calvillo was comfortable with and let him do what he has done for the last five years. However, as previously noted and again according to Calvillo, the team did give Trestman's system a shot and realized it wasn't working.
Also, what if after trying the old way and asking the quarterback what he wanted to run, the QB said out of respect for his new offensive coordinator that he's good with running your offense? What if AC asked Mike Miller to implement his system and also made it very clear that he would prefer that Miller call all the plays?
After four weeks of the season, Miller had become an easy target for frustrated fans and quietly took the heat. The perception was that Miller was forcing AC to run plays he wasn't comfortable with, and that perception was reinforced when Calvillo showed his frustrations outwardly in the first couple of weeks of the season.
The truth is, when Calvillo was asked by Miller what he would like to run offensively, AC deferred to the former Arizona Cardinals coach and asked Miller to install his system and began to commit himself to learning it. When things didn't go well out of the gate, AC became frustrated because this was new territory and a very unique circumstance. In the meeting this week without being prompted, the all-time passing leader in football said, "you know most of the time when a coach, leaves he is fired because things are going so badly. But in Trestman's case, our offense was running well when he left, so when we started from scratch and struggled early, it was really frustrating."
AC also discussed all the great things he can see in Mike Miller's style of offense and prior to the Als second win of the season vs Edmonton said, "it's time to stop making excuses and time to buy into this new system. This stuff is solid and I have to learn it."
In the final analysis, Hawkins and Miller tried the old play book and AC was the first to admit it wasn't going to work. Miller also asked AC to be part of building a new system. However, Calvillo respectfully declined and would rather run the plays than write them up. Miller is a Calvillo fan and in our meeting, first took full responsibility for the slow start by saying "I am the OC and I am fully accountable for what has happened so far and I'm not happy."
Miller went on to praise not only what AC has done in the past but what he believes he is still capable of accomplishing and said "Anthony is a great quarterback, but an even better person, and this offense will get better."
Although a lot of people, especially in Northern Alberta, believe that Edmonton should have won that game, the win versus the Esks was a step in the right direction. The Als scored 31 points and AC was able to kick-start Brandon Whitaker (162 rushing) and Jamel Richardson (leading receiver) on the night.
It remains to be seen how long it will take for everyone to learn the new way of thinking in Montreal, but one thing that was clearly evident in our meetings this past week was that there is great mutual respect between Anthony Calvillo and Mike Miller. Miller's philosophy on the starting quarterback is not much different than Trestman's - they both understand the importance of the position. What is different is the system and now it is up to AC and the rest of the offense to, as Calvillo put it, "stop making excuses and learn it."