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Why every CFL season brings intrigue, surprise


Canadian football is among the hardest sports to predict because when it comes to knowing the value of new players to the league, especially Americans unfamiliar with our league and country, teams never really know what they’re getting until the games begin.

Teams can scout players, or talk to their college or NFL coaches. They can watch and grade all the film they want.

But the human element is impossible to anticipate, and it really comes down to a few key questions that can’t be answered by watching tape: What kind of shape does a player arrive in? How much desire is he bringing with him? Has he underestimated the competition in Canada? How does he adjust to his new surroundings and the new game?

We’ve seen players with impressive college resumes or even substantial NFL experience arrive in the CFL with much anticipation, only to be jettisoned home in a few short weeks.

We’ve also seen unheralded players from smaller colleges, or guys who never got their NFL shot, come to Canada and bloom into stars.

Trying to anticipate on first glance who will be gone by Labour Day and who is destined for the Hall of Fame is what makes the CFL such an unpredictable league. For the most part, everyone arrives in this league as a nobody, given nothing but an opportunity.

My TSN colleague Milt Stegall is a great historical example of how this sometimes goes.

Stegall came to the CFL roughly halfway through the 1995 season with a resume that looked like so many others. He’d played at Miami of Ohio in the Mid-American Conference and been a late-round pick of the Cincinnati Bengals, making four catches in three NFL seasons.

By the time he retired after the 2008 season, he held a slew of CFL and Winnipeg Blue Bomber records, including most touchdowns in league history with 147.

But the day he arrived, no one could have anticipated that kind of success based on what he’d done to that point in his life.

There may not be another Stegall in this year’s crop of rookies (Milt would gladly tell you there is only one of him), but we can safely assume there are players unknown to CFL fans as the 2024 season opens who will become difference makers by November.

Unearthing those kinds of players can shift a team’s fortunes and allow it to far exceed expectations.

Last season’s Montreal Alouettes are a great example of this phenomenon.

The Alouettes headed into last season having lost several key players via free agency, including star receiver Gino Lewis, who’d been the most dependable playmaker in their offence for several seasons.

There was no great anticipation in early May when the Als announced the signing of Austin Mack, a 25-year-old receiver who’d made five catches over three seasons spent with three different NFL teams. But Mack was an instant hit, recording nearly 400 yards receiving and in his first four games and leading the Alouettes with 1,154 yards on the season.

Mack wasn’t the only previously unknown player who paid big dividends for Montreal last season. The Alouettes’ second-leading receiver, Tyler Snead, had been an undrafted free agent camp cut with the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2022. But in 2023, he finished second on the Alouettes with 788 yards and became a key cog for the offence.

Those two players, virtual unknowns when the season began, had a combined 10 catches for 154 yards and a touchdown in the Grey Cup game. The duo also racked up 22 catches for 317 yards and three touchdowns during Montreal’s memorable playoff run.

That’s why the CFL is such difficult league to predict.

Back when last year’s preseason Grey Cup predictions were flying around, no one could have guessed what Snead and Mack would mean to the Alouettes.

And as American rookies, who slot in at the very bottom of the CFL’s pay scale, their overall impact in a cap league was that much greater.

So remember just how much we don’t know when making those Grey Cup picks. The players who might put a team over the top this year may be someone you’ve barely heard of.

It’s all part of the magic and uniqueness of the CFL.