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Dave Naylor

TSN Football Insider

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No league is more difficult to accurately evaluate early in a season than the Canadian Football League.

Short training camps and loads of off-season roster movement (not to mention five new head coaches since the end of last season) forces the player evaluation stage to continue as the regular season begins. Meanwhile, the guys on the field are still trying to grasp new schemes and teammates.

The hard part is judging what’s real and what is not.

With that in mind, here are 10 knee-jerk reactions (in no particular order) from the first two weeks of the 2019 season:

1. Edmonton receiver Tevaun Smith is already an impact player

Of all the off-season moves in Edmonton, the one that received relatively little attention may wind up being one of the most impactful. In two games, Smith has seven catches and a touchdown, looking very polished. A Toronto native who played his college football at the University of Iowa, Smith slipped to eighth position in the 2016 draft because of interest from the NFL. He spent over three seasons with Indianapolis, Oakland and Jacksonville, dressing for two regular-season games with the Colts but never making a catch. Now, at age 26, the Esks are the proud owner of one of those draft-day gambles that paid off.

2. There’s been too much player movement since last season

It’s a shame that the CFL and its players association didn’t do more (anything?) to restrict player movement or give players an incentive to remain with the same team. Since the introduction of the one-year contract under former commissioner Mark Cohon, the CFL has become an annual job-swap meet, as is evident during the early weeks of each season when even dedicated fans are likely to be saying, “I’d forgotten he signed with …” In no season does that seem to be more the case than this one. As for why the league and union didn’t find a way to remedy this, here’s my guess: The league asked the players for some sort of restriction on free agency, the union asked for something in return, the league refused and the conversation ended. Just a guess.

3. Attendance is already a conversation topic

For once we’re not talking about attendance in the East. The Lions drawing 18,058 for Mike Reilly’s first start and the Eskimos with just 24,016 for his return are both head-scratchers. Meanwhile games in Calgary, Ottawa, Hamilton and Toronto have drawn about what we’d expect. Starting the season a week earlier than one year ago, attendance is down an average of 1,516 per game after Week 2. If there’s a good side to this, it’s that the league should put an end to the idea of moving the start of the regular season into mid-May and playing the Grey Cup in October. That push began a few years back after some disappointing playoff attendance at games in Western Canada. The thinking went that people would rather sit outside in May than November, so why not swap a month of late fall for a month of late spring? But habits are hard to break and starting even in mid-June (because of extra bye weeks) there’s a sense that people’s minds aren’t tuned in to football. The Raptors’ playoff run was a reminder of what can happen (imagine the CFL season kicking off in mid-May this year against the national obsession with the Raptors). And of course degrees of that are possible with any of Canada’s seven NHL teams. A start any earlier than mid-to-late June doesn’t do the league any favours.

4. Lewis Ward is still ridiculous

The Ottawa kicker, who as a rookie made 51 of 52 field goals last season, is nine for nine so far in 2019, including a six-field goal game a week ago in a three-point win over Saskatchewan. That’s 57 in a row, which means he sets a pro football record with every consecutive successful kick. He’s no small part of why the Redblacks keep winning.

5. Sean Thomas-Erlington looks like the next legit Canadian feature running back

With just 35 career carries over two seasons coming into this season, it was hard to see a breakout season coming for the 26-year-old Montreal native. But with 23 carries for 177 yards and six receptions for 91 yards, Thomas-Erlington leads the CFL in all-purpose yards from scrimmage. Not bad production for a player who was taken 66th overall in the 2017 CFL Draft.

6. The BC Lions offence is going to need some more balance

The Lions have run 74 passing plays and just 19 rushing plays so far this season. That's nearly 80 per cent passing plays. Eight of those pass plays ended in sacks. Of the 66 passes Mike Reilly has thrown, 50 of them have been directed at Duron Carter, Bryan Burnham and Lemar Durant. That doesn't leave much of a guessing game for opposing defences. 

7. Ottawa appears to be a whole lot better than most people imagined

The Redblacks have managed as many wins before July as some projected them to earn all season, given the off-season loss of their starting quarterback, star receiver, starting tailback and left tackle. Quarterback Dominique Davis has already passed for more yards this season than he did in the past two seasons combined, and doubled his career total of touchdown passes.

8. Things can only get better for the Toronto Argonauts

A 50-point loss and most points surrendered in franchise history is no way to begin a season – especially in a home loss to your fiercest rival, before a decent crowd. That said, there’s reason to believe the Toronto Argonauts can be better. Having 16 days off since their final preseason game didn't help and it was largely a slew of in-game injuries that turned a bad loss into a debacle. Still, it's impossible to ignore what a rough ride it’s been for the Argos since winning the 2017 Grey Cup. Since then, they’ve amassed a total of four wins, two by a single point, one by three points and another by four. So Saturday’s margin of defeat was more than five times as great as their total margin of victory for all their wins since 2017.

9. Edmonton-B.C. has become the league’s best rivalry

When you think rivalries in the CFL, we tend to think Toronto-Hamilton, Calgary-Edmonton or Saskatchewan-Winnipeg. But right now there appears to be more tension between B.C. and Edmonton than any other two teams. It starts with former Edmonton GM Ed Hervey and his acrimonious exit before surfacing in B.C. a year later. Add in 11 former Eskimos, a former Edmonton president atop the Lions organization, plus a marquee quarterback switching teams last off-season and the table is set. There’s no doubt the Eskimos had an extra gear last week against B.C., taking the Lions down in a 39-23 thumping. Seeing Lions’ defensive back Chris Edwards slap at the attempted handshake of Eskimos QB Trevor Harris postgame just added some spice. I can’t wait to see these teams go at it again in Week 5.

10. Matt Nichols sent an early message to his doubters

There may be no quarterback who divides opinion as much as Nichols. Ranked No. 21 on the CFL on TSN Top 50 players, he was booed by fans in Winnipeg last season and may have been close to losing his starting job during a four-game losing streak. But against B.C. in Week 1 he was an efficient 21 of 33 with three touchdown passes and zero interceptions. Nichols needs to keep the ball secure to be effective and prides himself on doing so. If he keeps doing that, there will be no quarterback conversation in Winnipeg this season.