This year’s CFL divisional playoff round features four teams that traveled very different paths to get to this weekend.
There are the Calgary Stampeders, the perennial powerhouse that prefers reloading over rebuilding. The Stamps have been to three consecutive Grey Cup games and survived numerous departures to the NFL, free agency and losses to injury.
Yes, this is Bo Levi Mitchell’s game to win, but the reason the Stamps are where they are is just as much about Nick Arbuckle, the backup quarterback who steered the team through Mitchell’s two-month absence.
There are loads of new faces on this team, making the Stamps the new kids on the block and the old guard at the same time. By Stampeder standards, it’s been a season of ups and downs, with more challenges and setbacks than usual.
But they’re still the team to beat.
No one knows that better than the Winnipeg Blue Bombers, who return to the place their 2018 season ended, when the highest-scoring team in the CFL rode into Cowtown for the Western Final but couldn’t find the end zone even once.
The Bombers emerged from that disappointment looking like the dominant team during the first half of this CFL season, with a run-based offence that was efficient through the air and a defence that could knock you out or simply take the ball away.
There has also been a passing of the torch at quarterback in Winnipeg, where the underappreciated Matt Nichols gave way via injury to athletically gifted Chris Streveler, who then surrendered the same way to Zach Collaros, the unlikeliest of late-season heroes.
The Stampeders have always been a tough out for Winnipeg. There can be no moral victories for the Blue Bombers on Sunday – not in Calgary, not during the first round of playoffs.
In Winnipeg, that’s no longer good enough. Not when you’ve been knocking at the door as long as they have.
The same can’t be said for the Montreal Alouettes, who are back in the playoff dance after four consecutive seasons on the outside after riding an unlikely wave to a home playoff game.
The Als were taken over by league ownership before the season, and shortly thereafter fired head coach Mike Sherman and then general manager Kavis Reed. Factor in a new head coach with no previous experience in Khari Jones and no proven answer at quarterback to begin the season and the Als were the longest of longshots to be where they are today.
Montreal’s magical season was highlighted by the emergence of a legitimate potential superstar in quarterback Vernon Adams Jr., and the revitalization of the fan base feeding off a hungry group of young players who’ve managed to step out of the shadows of all those great teams of the past.
If underdogs are your thing, these Alouettes are your team.
And then there are the Edmonton Eskimos, the once dynastic team that these days seems stuck in the middle, a near .500 team in three of the past four seasons, never able to accomplish as much as the sum of its parts.
They have great players, great statistics and seasons full of highlights. But winning consistently has somehow evaded the Eskimos, which is why the only playoff door open to them is via the East.
This weekend is about four distinct storylines and the four new chapters to be written on Sunday.
Changes in Ottawa
The resignation of Ottawa head coach Rick Campbell was a move few saw coming, including the Redblacks leadership, which had determined that getting to three Grey Cups in four years was enough to bring back both Campbell and Marcel Desjardins, the only head coach and GM the organization has ever had.
Desjardins was on board with that idea, but Campbell was not. Now the Redblacks are looking for a new head coach.
It made you wonder how things could fall apart so quickly between two men who headed up what was being called a model organization just a year ago.
We didn’t have to wonder for long, thanks to Campbell being so candid on the way out the door.
The two have different management and communication styles, which required finding a way to make it work, at least from Campbell's perspective. While they were winning, everyone managed to get along.
But that changed this season for Campbell, who appeared to be struggling with the pressure that came with losing. So as his patience for his boss was wavering, the prospect of tighter scrutiny from the GM next season wasn’t going to work.
The immediate reasons for his departure aside, it’s hard to think Campbell doesn’t believe there is a better situation out there for him somewhere. In a league that suddenly seems to have a shortage of head coaching talent, it’s believed he won’t be out of work for long.
Meanwhile in B.C.
Let me say of the top that I hate the idea of firing head coaches one year into their tenure, especially when it happens during someone’s first head coaching job.
Unless someone is truly incompetent, it seems unfair, unproductive and bad for the profession. Who wants to enter a job where you work for years to achieve an opportunity that can be taken away in just a few months?
But in a gate-driven league, there is always pressure to unload a coach who becomes unpopular because of the win-loss record.
With DeVone Claybrooks having the persona of a player and a coaching staff made up mostly of inexperienced, recently retired players, something was missing in B.C. But Claybrooks deserved the opportunity to fix it, especially given that his team was 4-5 down the stretch.
You wouldn’t fire a head coach who was 4-5 at mid-season. So why fire one who finishes 4-5 instead of giving him the opportunity to show you next season what he’s learned?
Still With Coaches
With at least two head coaching openings and possibly more to come, the spit-balling of who ends up where has begun in earnest around the CFL.
A year ago, three first-time head coaches were hired in Orlondo Steinauer, Craig Dickenson and Claybrooks. That’s unlikely to be the case this year as, in the opinion of most, there simply aren’t that many CFL assistants ready to be head coaches.
Hamilton’s offensive and defensive coordinators, Tommy Condell and Mark Washington, will get consideration. But beyond that, there’s not much consensus about who is next.
That means we’re likely to see either the repatriation of some former head coaches – like Mike Benevides and Paul LaPolice – or the movement of some head coaches from one team directly to another, with Mike O’Shea having no contract for next season in Winnipeg, Jason Maas on the hot seat in Edmonton and Campbell already available.
Alouettes ownership situation
No one can say when the Montreal Alouettes ownership situation will be settled, given that for most of the season the league expressed confidence the matter would be put to bed well before the regular season was done.
But what’s been an uncomfortable situation for the league could get more critical once the Alouettes season ends because there are all kinds of decisions that need to be made swiftly for 2020.
All of those decisions are going to be very difficult without an owner in place.
The most important of those concerns the status of Jones, who is on a one-year contract based on him taking the job on an interim basis back in June. Jones has done a wonderful job with the Alouettes and the team wants him back.
While there have been preliminary discussions about extending him, Jones understandably would like to know who the general manager will be.
Interim general manager Joe Mack has let it be known he is not interested in the job beyond this season, preferring to live at home with his family in North Carolina, where he was stationed as the team’s assistant general manager before taking over in July.
Free agency is still months away, but the planning for 2020 needs to begin the moment their season is over.
Then there is the business side of the operation. Presumably a new owner would want a full off-season to be as prepared as possible to put its mark on the franchise and jump-start the fan base.
To say nothing of the fact the CFL’s other eight teams are anxious to stop paying the bills.
For all kinds of reasons, it behooves everyone to get this done as soon as possible.