Who's leading the CFL MOP race?
The Canadian Football League has crossed the midway point of its abbreviated 14-game season and, well, there’s been a little bit of everything.
The football hasn’t always been pretty, which is what you might expect after a year away and no pre-season games. In one way or another, every team feels like a work in progress – with the exception of the defending Grey Cup champion Winnipeg Blue Bombers, who have picked up where they left off.
Head coach Mike O’Shea and his team deserve a lot of credit for their 6-1 start, given the amount of time off, overall turnover across the CFL, and other variables introduced by the pandemic.
Without further ado, here are my “So Far” awards, recognizing the best, worst, and oddest from the first half of a unique CFL season.
Game of the Year: Saskatchewan 31, BC 24 (Week 8)
Two quarterbacks each throwing for more than 250 yards in a game that ends with a touchdown on the final play. A great showdown between two teams with aspirations of overtaking the Blue Bombers in the West.
Worst Game of the Year: Hamilton 24, Ottawa 7 (Week 8)
Two teams riddled with injuries, one starting a backup quarterback and the other a third stringer. Played in a rainstorm, it featured a combined total of 239 passing yards, and Ottawa played a receiver at quarterback for its final series.
Weirdest Game of the Year: Ottawa 16, Edmonton 12 (Week 1)
A team that passed for 333 yards and rushed for 110 yards lost to a team that passed for 71 yards and rushed for 56.
Most Shocking Game of the Year: Ottawa 34, Edmonton 24 (Week 9).
Ottawa quarterback Caleb Evans stuns the Elks by throwing for three touchdowns and no interceptions. Neither Evans nor backup Taryn Christion had ever suited up for a CFL game.
Best Comeback: Zach Collaros
It’s strange that a quarterback who led his team to a Grey Cup win the previous season should be recognized for a comeback season. But given where Collaros’ career appeared to be during the 2019 season while he waited out the effects of a concussion, he deserves the nod. Collaros threw for just 221 regular-season yards in 2019, seeing action during the first week of the season and the last. This season he’s second among CFL passers with 1,731 yards, and 10 touchdowns against four interceptions for the 6-1 Blue Bombers.
Biggest Controversy: Depth charts
The CFL spent the first two weeks of the season fending off criticism when one team – the BC Lions – failed to start the quarterback listed as No. 1 on its depth chart. The issue surfaced just as the CFL is venturing into the sports betting space. The league then introduced the use of “GT” (game-time decision) on its depth chart to indicate a player who may or may not play.
Most Surprising Player: Lucky Whitehead
Whitehead couldn’t make the Winnipeg Blue Bombers lineup at the end of last season. But the second-year CFLer has been a breakout star with the Lions so far this season. Whitehead, a former Dallas Cowboy returner, leads the CFL in yards, yards per catch, plays of more than 30 yards and 100-yard games. He leads in yards after catch as well, an illustration of his ability to escape in space. One year after former NFL returner Brandon Banks led the CFL in receiving and yards after catch, another former NFL returner is on pace to do the same thing.
Most Disappointing Player: Bo Levi Mitchell
Mitchell has set a very high standard for himself during his career with the Calgary Stampeders. It’s a standard he’s failed to meet during most of this season. It’s not that Mitchell has been terrible, his first ever four-interception game aside. He just hasn’t been Bo. More poor throws, fewer dazzling plays, and a shocking touchdown to interception ratio of 2:7.
Biggest Story: The Edmonton Elks’ COVID-19 outbreak
The CFL had its only postponed game to this point occur back in August when 13 Elks players tested positive for the virus. Edmonton’s game against the Toronto Argonauts, which was to be played on Aug. 28 will now be played Nov. 16, three days after the Elks play at Saskatchewan and three days before they play at B.C. That’s three road games in a period of seven days.
Most Bizarre Story: The Elks release of OL Jacob Ruby
Ruby, a starting offensive lineman, was released after misleading his team about his vaccination status. Ruby had been able to exist among vaccinated players for a time prior to the Elks outbreak. Ruby was released on Aug. 31, and the league issued a directive banning any team from signing him through the remainder of this season.
Business Trend That Should Encourage the League
Television ratings have been consistently up, an indication that the year off did not diminish the CFL’s fan base.
The Business Trend That Should Worry the League
Crowds in the East Division have been poor.
The 2019 Football Trend That Continues Into 2021: Injured quarterbacks
The 2019 season featured several backup quarterbacks moving into the spotlight due to injuries, and 2021 has seen more of the same. Only Saskatchewan, Winnipeg and Montreal have started the same quarterback every game. Two teams – Hamilton and Ottawa – have already reached for their No. 3.
The Biggest Football Trend: Scoring is down
It’s been a good season for those betting CFL unders, and a bad one for those who like high-scoring shootouts. CFL teams averaged 22.84 offensive points per game in 2019. That number is down 13.6 per cent to 19.73 this season.
The 2021 Trend We Didn’t Expect: Fighting after the whistle
Every week it seems we have a game or two that features players pushing, shoving, or punching after the whistle. No one can say why the CFL has had so much bad blood this season. Perhaps it was all the frustration of missing a season?
The Player Whose Name You Didn’t Know at Season’s Outset: Jake Maier
Maier began the season on the Calgary Stampeders practice roster. He’s now the only quarterback in CFL history to begin his career with three consecutive 300-yard passing games. Maier was a surprise starter when Calgary head coach Dave Dickenson elevated him past No. 2 Michael O’Connor. It’s hard to argue with that decision now.
The Off-Season Decision That Looks Bad: Redblacks signing Matt Nichols over Nick Arbuckle
In what was purely a football decision, the Redblacks felt more comfortable with the veteran Nichols, who had a history with head coach Paul LaPolice. The problem is Nichols still isn’t right after surgery following the 2019 season. And at age 34, it’s uncertain he ever will be.
The Off-Season Decision That Looks Good: The other side of the Nichols decision
Toronto opted not to pay Nichols an off-season bonus he was due this past winter, setting him free to sign in Ottawa. The Redblacks made a similar decision with Arbuckle, freeing him to sign in Toronto where he’s had a promising start to the season amid injuries that have limited him to four starts.
The Story We’ll Be Talking About in the Second Half: Unvaccinated players unable to fly on airplanes after October
It’s the elephant in the room, the unknown variable that could cripple some CFL teams at the most important time of year. With the federal government expected to ban unvaccinated individuals from flying by the end of this month, teams will have to manage a unique problem.