Most years it’s not much of a surprise to see the Calgary Stampeders sitting atop the CFL’s West Division as Labour Day begins to come into focus.
But it’s worth tipping our hats to the defending Grey Cup champions for managing to go 5-2 thus far, given the number of off-season departures and key injuries they’ve sustained since defeating Ottawa last November.
Calgary’s defence lost seven of 12 starters this off-season – including three to the NFL in defensive lineman James Vaughters and linebackers Jameer Thurman and Alex Singleton.
Singleton, in particular, was a massive loss given that he patrolled the middle of Calgary’s defence for three years as a Canadian. His replacement, 35-year-old Cory Greenwood, has held his own in his place.
The Stamps also lost defensive co-ordinator DeVone Claybrooks, whose work the past few seasons made him a hot head coaching commodity, snapped up by the BC Lions.
It hasn’t been all glory for the Stamps on defence, surrendering 30 or more points in three of their first four games. But things have been trending in the right direction for Calgary since, allowing 16, 16 and 18 points in wins over Toronto, Ottawa and, last week, Edmonton.
Offensively, among Calgary’s receivers, DaVaris Daniels, Marken Michel and Lemar Durant are all gone, and Kamar Jorden hasn’t played since suffering a knee injury last season.
And then there’s the quarterback – the league’s reigning MOP, last November’s outstanding player in the Grey Cup game and the guy with the second-highest salary in the league. Bo Levi Mitchell hasn’t played since a Week 2 win over the Lions, the end of which he watched from the sideline while Nick Arbuckle rallied his team to avoid an 0-2 start.
There’s not an obvious need on the Stampeders right now, but saving roughly $133,000 on the cap due to Mitchell’s injury provides some flexibility to add down the stretch.
And while Arbuckle’s play (completing nearly 73 per cent of his passes and a 2:1 touchdown-to-interception ratio) may bring suitors for the pending free agent this coming off-season, the Stampeders will soon have a healthy Mitchell and depth at the game’s most important position.
But first there is this week’s matchup with Winnipeg, the team the Stampeders held out of the end zone during last year’s West Division Final and that only two weeks ago was the league’s lone undefeated team at 5-0.
The Stampeders have been the Bombers’ kryptonite for the last several seasons. Despite all the changes in Calgary, Winnipeg still has to prove they’ve found some answers.
Coaching cap restricts moves
Every year there are teams that contemplate mid-season changes to their coaching or management ranks based on things not going as well as they’d hoped.
While the merits of mid-season moves in football are certainly up for debate, there’s no doubt that the CFL’s new coaching/management caps have made those changes much more difficult.
For one, most teams spend to the cap before the season starts, making it difficult to fire any member of the staff and replace them mid-season. But more critical is the fact that teams can no longer supplement their coaching staffs.
For example, two seasons ago, the Hamilton Tiger-Cats added June Jones to their staff as an offensive consultant, a move that ultimately led to him becoming head coach by mid-season and the team rebounding with a respectable second half. Similarly, in 2014, the Montreal Alouettes added Jeff Garcia and Turk Schonert to help their ailing offence, resulting in a turnaround that helped the Alouettes make the playoffs.
Both of those moves would be impossible under the current restrictions.
Teams can still fire a member of the staff and replace him, by amortizing a departed coach’s remaining salary over five years. But that has a punitive quality to it and often even underachieving coaches are retained for consistency, when new coaches are hired.
The easiest changes to make are those where a successor is promoted from within, like Montreal offensive co-ordinator Khari Jones taking on the head coaching duties when Mike Sherman was fired in early June or assistant GM Joe Mack taking over for the departed Kavis Reed in mid-July.
But not every staff has a logical successor in the fold.
All of this heightens the importance of teams making the right decisions with their staffs in the off-season. There is precious little room to fix things on the fly.
Argos’ QB situation
McLeod Bethel-Thompson’s performance in Toronto’s come-from-behind win over Winnipeg saved his job – for now.
But he’s about to face some competition for the starting quarterback job in Toronto after the Aug. 16 game against Edmonton, with James Franklin eligible to come off the six-game injured list in time to face Montreal in Moncton, N.B. on Aug. 25.
Then, of course, there is the recently acquired Zach Collaros. The Argos aren’t in a position to guess when he might be ready to play, coming off a head injury suffered during the first game of the season. Collaros will begin throwing the football and light exercise this week, but a return to full practice remains TBD.
It all makes for some critical decision-making over the next several weeks as Toronto tries to keep its season alive despite a 1-6 start.
Esks and Riders swap depth for need
It’s not often a mid-season trade includes two players capable of making an immediate difference, but that was the case with Monday’s swap that saw Saskatchewan send returner Christion Jones to Edmonton for receiver Kenny Stafford.
This marks the fifth time in seven seasons Stafford has changed teams. But with 30 receptions for 366 yards, the 29-year-old is having a career year. While he ranks tied for 10th in the entire league in yardage, he was third on his own team, which is part of why Edmonton was willing to deal him for Jones, an explosive returner who’d missed a couple of games due to injuries.
A former SEC special teams player of the year, Jones became expendable because Saskatchewan uses three players as returners – DB Loucheiz Purifoy, RB Marcus Thigpen and WR Kyron Moore – all of whom play other positions.
CFL to strengthen alliance with German League
Officials from the German Football League recently met with commissioner Randy Ambrosie in Southern Ontario to discuss how to grow the relationship between the two leagues.
Germany has the most advanced professional football league in Europe, with players from across Europe playing in the GFL, while more and more German players have been landing scholarships in the NCAA.
Roger Kelly, a Canadian journalist living in Sweden who writes about international football, detailed some of the things being discussed between the GFL and CFL here.
This includes finding ways to open the door for more German players to come to the CFL, as well as formalizing transfer agreements that could include CFL teams compensating German clubs for taking their best players. That kind of thing is common is standard in professional soccer but international gridiron football has no such agreements.
Perhaps creating such agreements with European federations could pave the way for CFL clubs to be compensated in some way when NFL clubs sign their best players. While the CFL has no desire to brand itself as a feeder system to the NFL, it makes sense for the league to compensate CFL clubs for players who are coached and developed in Canada.
2017 receiver draft class drops the ball
Montreal receiver Malcolm Carter made the first two catches of his CFL career during Friday’s loss to Ottawa. In his third CFL season, it’s taken the former Carleton University and Ottawa junior player some time to get up to speed. But that still puts the 45th overall pick of the 2017 draft ahead of most of his class, with just three receivers from that year still in the league.
In most years, teams can count on anywhere from two to five good receivers being available. But the 2017 class stands out for its lack of production, led by No. 3 overall pick Danny Vandervoort of McMaster who was released by B.C. this spring without making a catch.
Carleton’s Nate Behar was taken fifth overall by Edmonton, but after snagging 27 catches with Edmonton last season he’s yet to grab one for Ottawa this year.
The rest of the receiver draft class is gone from the league, most without a catch. The rare exception is Calgary’s Richie Sindani, a U of C product who has 19 receptions for 255 yards this season and last despite being taken with the second-last pick of the draft, 70th overall.