Monday, 31 December 2012

Ti-Cats Following the Double Blueprint

When teams fail to reach expectations, like the Tiger-Cats did in 2012, sometimes we look for silver linings. We try to find the little things that make the big things seem not so bad.

I could go on once again about the great seasons had by Chris Williams, Henry Burris and Luca Congi. Or I could try to shed light on some underappreciated seasons, like the ones had by Dee Webb, who started all 18 games and did not allow a player he guarded to score a touchdown, or Brian Simmons, who gave up one sack and was called for just three penalties all season.

But that is terrain we've trudged down before. This is something different. Maybe this is me grasping at straws, or maybe this is me just being ahead of the curve. But taking the Tiger-Cats 2012 failures into account, I am starting to wonder if they are following the path of their nearest rival.

Yes, I mean the Toronto Argonauts.

To put the Tiger-Cats terrible season into perspective we have to travel back to 2011. That was the year the current Grey Cup champions went a disappointing 6-12, lost five games by seven or fewer points, missed the playoffs and underwent a drastic makeover. In the off-season, that team acquired itself the head coach it had wanted for over a year, a quarterback that will be headed to the Hall of Fame when his playing days are done and flipped over a roster filled with underachievers. Things didn't go swimmingly at first, and they finished a rather pedestrian 9-9 in the regular season, but they got rolling at the right time and won the ultimate prize.

Now let's look at the 2012 season for the Ti-Cats. They finished a disappointing 6-12, lost seven games by seven or fewer points, missed the playoffs and then made a huge change at the top of the organization. So far this off-season, they have acquired a head coach they have been after for over a year and will go about making over a roster that needs a few tweaks, but no massive overhaul. They, unlike the Argos, don't need to go get a future Hall of Fame quarterback because they already have one, so the Ti-Cats may be better positioned to succeed in 2013 than the Argos were in 2012.

Maybe I'm just an optimist and 13 years of championship-less football hasn't dampened my spirits as much as others. Or perhaps I'm just a fool who tries reading too much into things during the downtime between the Grey Cup and free agency. But there are many similarities between the path taken by the Argos the last two seasons and the one the Ti-Cats look to be on. We'll find out in about 11 months if the end of that path is the same for the Ti-Cats in 2013 as it was for the Argos in 2012.

Sunday, 23 December 2012

The CFL Could Learn Something from the NFL


For those out there that don't watch the NFL, Detroit Lions receiver Calvin Johnson broke Jerry Rice's single-season record for receiving yards. Johnson topped Rice's 1995 record in Detroit's game last night. And what happened when Johnson broke the record?

Nothing.

Johnson went over to the sidelines, gave the ball to his dad and the game continued on as if nothing happened. Considering Johnson broke one of the records held by the greatest pass catcher in pro football history (don't bother debating this because Rice is the greatest ever and it is undeniable fact), so this was no small feat. This was something worthy of celebrating, but the NFL didn't stop the game to honour the milestone.

And that is the right thing to do.

One of my biggest beefs with the CFL is when a guy breaks a record, be it single-season or all-time, they stop the game to hold these elaborate ceremonies. It's awkward and, to be honest, comes off as a little bush league. When Chad "Look At Me" Owens aka "Overrated Owens" aka "The Cryin' Hawaiian" broke that meaningless record this past season, the Argos stopped the game to celbrate it. When Damon Allen broke the all-time passing yards mark, the game was stopped (and that game wasn't even played in Toronto; it was played at Ivor Wynne Stadium on Labour Day).

Contrast that to last night, and to when Brett Favre broke the passing yards and touchdown marks. A little acknowledgement, but no grandiose midfield celebrations. No stopping the game for 10 minutes to present either player with a plaque. A tip of the hat, likely an announcement in the stadium and the game went on as usual.

That's how it should be done. Stop halting games to recognize individual achievements, no matter how significant.

The CFL would be wise to take a page from the NFL's book on this one. The league needs to put its foot down and stop these game-stopping ceremonies. The next time someone breaks a record, I hope what follows looks like what I saw in Detroit last night and not what I saw in Toronto in November.

Thursday, 20 December 2012

Cats Hiring of Condell Not Surprising

The Ti-Cats announced the first addition to Kent Austin's coaching staff today, naming Tommy Condell the team's offensive coordinator and receivers coach.

This is no surprise given that Condell worked with Austin at Cornell while he was head coach there the last two seasons. In fact, Condell was considered the front runner by many to take this position after Austin was hired. Condell has one year of offensive coordinator experience in the CFL, with the Saskatchewan Roughriders in 2006. That year, the Riders were the third-highest scoring offense, behind only BC and Calgary, finished second in both rushing touchdowns, behind Montreal and receiving touchdowns, behind BC, and fourth in total yards. The Riders finished third in the West Division with a 9-9 record and made it to the West Final before losing to the eventual Grey Cup champion BC Lions. It's a small sample size, just like with Austin, but it shows he has been successful in the past in the position he will have with the Ti-Cats.

Now the team needs to act just as quickly in naming a defensive coordinator and special teams coordinator. I would hope that Jim Daley is retained by Austin since he did such a stellar job in 2012 and my wish is to see Greg Marshall return as the team's defensive coordinator. But who knows what Austin will do.

We'll hopefully know very soon who will fill those positions, but Austin acted quickly in naming his offensive coordinator (though that probably came because of their previously relationship), so hopefully he acts just as swiftly in filling out the rest of his staff.

Wednesday, 19 December 2012

Tebow Talk

The talk of the last couple of days has revolved around Tim Tebow's possible arrival in Canada to play in the CFL with the Montreal Alouettes (who own his CFL rights). It should be pointed out that this all stems from the New York Jets bypassing Tebow and naming Greg McElroy their starter in place of the benched Mark Sanchez. With a divorce from the Jets all but assured, the rumours of his possible relocation to Montreal have started anew.

Opinions vary widely on Tebow and he is probably the single-most polarizing player in North American professional sports. It seems that you either love him or hate him, so it is no surprise to see that there are two distinct camps when it comes to his playing in the CFL: those that like it and those that hate it.

Both camps make solid arguments, but holes can be poked into both as well. The idea that Tebow will get to work with a guy who has faith in him, Alouettes head coach Marc Trestman, is as good a reason as any to think that Tebow will be successful. And it bolsters Tebow's cause that Trestman is considered somewhat of a quarterback guru. But aside from coaching an already established Anthony Calvillo, none of us are too certain whether Trestman can develop a CFL-calibre quarterback. Trestman may have resurrected Calvillo's career, but he was already an elite player when Trestman arrived in Montreal in 2008. Whether Trestman can take a much rawer prospect such as Tebow and make him an elite player is something now one can answer.

The anti-Tebow camp likes to bring up his subpar statistics, which is a point that is impossible to argue against (his career completion percentage is a paltry 47.9). To play in the CFL you have to be a good passer, so it would seem that Tebow would not succeed in the CFL as he has never been all that dangerous throwing the football. But that doesn't mean that can't change. If you saw a career statline of 181 for 366 (49.5 per cent) with 15 touchdowns and 16 interceptions you'd probably conclude that that player wouldn't be a very good passer and would especially flame out in the CFL. Those were the career numbers of Doug Flutie during his first stint in the NFL. Not saying Tebow would ever become Flutie, but poor passing stats in a few NFL seasons does not mean that you can't become a good CFL quarterback.

I am probably the only person in the world who doesn't love or hate Tim Tebow. The only thing I don't like is when people say he's terrible and will always be terrible. He's in his third pro season, and hasn't played all that much, so I think it is too early to decide what type of player Tebow will become. He hasn't had the best coaching in the world either and that would change should he head to Montreal. I also don't like when people bring up things like intangibles and wins. Tebow might have a desire to compete and win, but so does every other professional athlete. And judging quarterbacks on wins is stupid, period.

I don't know if Tim Tebow will ever be a good quarterback, NFL or CFL, but that's the point. I don't know and, frankly, neither does anyone else. Tim Tebow could become the next Doug Flutie or he could be the next Timm Rosenbach or fall somewhere in between. But the fact of the matter is none of us know. And none of us will know until we see actually see him play in the CFL.

Monday, 17 December 2012

Ti-Cats Get Austin

Maybe this is coming a year later than the team wanted, but the Ti-Cats have finally secured the services of Kent Austin. Austin was named the team's head coach, general manager and VP of football ops today, just six days after the team fired George Cortez.

Everyone knows Austin's résumé, so I'm not going to give the rundown. We know where he has coached in the past and what his success has been. We know he's a Grey Cup-winning coach, the first to come to Hamilton since the team lured Ron Lancaster away from the Edmonton Eskimos back in 1998, and that he has no previous general manager experience. None of that means he'll be a success or a failure with the Ti-Cats.

When the Ti-Cats went on their coaching search last year, it took them almost six weeks to hire Cortez (who was under contract to the Buffalo Bills and whose season didn't end until January 1st). This year, the Ti-Cats took six days to get their man. It looks like Austin was the guy they wanted all along and they settled for Cortez.

Austin takes over a team that underachieved big time in 2012. The league's most potent offense was rendered almost useless by the league's worst defense. Finding a balance between the two sides of the ball will be key for Austin heading into 2013. If something on offense has to give to make the defense just a little bit better, that will make the team better overall and will be the difference between playing games in mid-November and watching them.

Austin has a tough task ahead of him, but I have to believe he is up to the challenge. The success or failure of this team will be based on the decisions Austin makes in his roles as head coach, general manager and VP of football operations. His first order of business will be to fill out his coaching staff. It'll be interesting to see who Austin brings in to run both the defense and the offense.

You can't help but get a little excited with the hiring of a new head coach, but a lot of people flipped their lids over Cortez's hiring last year and that turned out to be a disaster. For all involved, this better not turn out like that.

Sunday, 16 December 2012

Hamilton's Place Among Sports' Most Futile

The Ti-Cats have been one of the least successful franchises in pro sports over the past four decades.
As we all wait breathlessly for the Ti-Cats to announce Kent Austin as their new general manager and head coach, I figured we could touch on the reason why Austin will be the sixth different head coach to lead the Ti-Cats since the turn of the century: Hamilton's Grey Cup drought.

While not the longest in the league – Winnipeg hasn't hoisted the Cup since 1990 – it is one of the longest in team history and the Ti-Cats have won the Grey Cup just three times since the 1972, have played for the championship just five more times during that span and have missed the playoffs 12 times during that time.

So in the last 40 years, Tiger-Cat fans have been able to cheer for their team in a championship game, on average, once every eight years, would get to witness a parade once every 13 years, but would not get to enjoy playoff football once every three years. So where does that put the Ti-Cats in the pantheon of the truly futile franchises? Here is a list of some of the most futile teams in the five major North American sports leagues.

Winnipeg Blue Bombers (Last Championship: 1990)
Might as well start with the aforementioned Blue Bombers since their success and failure can be measure equally with the Ti-Cats. Tiger-Cat fans often point out that no matter how bad they are, at least people in their mid-teens can remember when the Ti-Cats last won a championship. The same cannot be said of Bomber fans. It's been 22 long seasons since the Blue Bombers last one the Cup, so one would think that they would be the hardest done-by team in the league. But since the win in 1990, Winnipeg has played in five Grey Cups and missed the playoffs eight times. Going back further than that and stretching things to the 1972 date I used as the cutoff for the Cats, Winnipeg has won three Grey Cups (just like the Cats), appeared in five more (just like the Cats) and have missed the playoffs 11 times (one fewer than the Cats). So aside from Cup drought of nine extra years, the Cats and Bombers are actually pretty even when it comes to futility.

Chicago Cubs (Last Championship: 1908)
The poster boys for championship droughts, the Cubs have not won a World Series, as everyone knows, since 1908. They haven't made the World Series since 1945 (yes, the same year World War II ended) and have made the playoffs just six times since then. It was, and is, much harder to make the playoffs in Major League Baseball than the CFL, but to make the playoffs just six times in over 60 years is tough for anyone to handle.

Toronto Maple Leafs (Last Championship: 1967)
The poster boys in Canada for championship droughts, the Leafs have not won the Stanley Cup since Canada celebrated their centennial in 1967. They haven't played for one since then either and have missed the playoffs 16 times since Hamilton last won the Grey Cup won the Grey Cup in 1972. The Leafs are in the midst of their longest playoff-less drought in team history, at seven years (they haven't made the playoffs since the season before the previous NHL lockout), so that skews things a tad bit.

Pittsburgh Pirates (Last Championship: 1979)
The Pirates, who haven't won a championship in over three decades, are also currently in the midst of the longest under-.500 stretch in professional sports history. The Pirates have not have a .500 or better record since they last made the playoffs in 1992. Do the math; that's 18 consecutive seasons of under-.500 baseball for the Bucs. The Pirates haven't played in a World Series since they last won one and have just seven playoff appearances since 1972. The Pirates nearly broke both their under-.500 streak and their playoff-less streak this year, but they fell short of both goals as they trailed off at the end of the season after a hot start. Pirate fans must be wondering if they'll ever see playoff baseball in the steel city ever again.

Detroit Lions (Last Championship: 1957)
It's tough cheering for the Detroit Lions. The Lions have made the playoffs just 15 times in their existence, and a mere nine times over the past 40 years. They are one of just four current teams to have never played in a Super Bowl and have won just one playoff game in the Super Bowl era (1991). The Lions also have the ignominy of being the only 0-16 team in NFL history. They wasted the talents of one of the best running backs to ever play the game (Barry Sanders) and just last year the team snapped an 11-year playoff-less drought. The Curse of Bobby Layne remains.

Cincinnati Bengals (Last Championship: Never)
Ah, the Bengals. A team so bad that fans took to calling them the Bungles. After a decent run in the 1980s that saw them make two Super Bowl appearances, losing both times to the San Francisco 49ers, the Bengals went without a playoff appearance for a decade and a half. They were a wild card team in 1990 and then didn't return to the playoffs again until they won their division in 2005. The Bengals have never won a Super Bowl nor did they win any championships prior to the Super Bowl era. Nine playoff appearances and the aforementioned two Super Bowl appearances since 1972 is hardly anything to write home about.

Los Angeles Clippers (Last Championship: Never)
The Clippers, who were formed in 1970 as the Buffalo Braves, have zero championships, zero championship appearances, have made the playoffs just eight times in franchise history and have been unfathomably bad over the course of their existence. They have been so bad that you wouldn't believe it if you didn't see it. They have been out of the first round of the playoffs just three times in their history. Three series wins in 42 seasons of basketball. I guess lucky for those Angelenos, they have the Lakers and their 16 championships to console them. And let's be honest, no one is a Clippers fan. They are currently building a very good team around youngsters Chris Paul and Blake Griffin, but we all know this team will bengal bungle it up at some point. It's the Clipper way.

Cleveland (Cavaliers, Browns, Indians) (Last Championship: 1964)
It seems as if the the teams in the city of Cleveland are almost deathly allergic to winning. There have been spurts of greatness in Cleveland, most recently when LeBron James played for the Cavs, but it has been 144 combined seasons between the Cavs, Browns and Indians since the Browns won Cleveland's last title in 1964. That number will stretch to 146 after the Browns and Cavs fail to make the postseason in their current seasons. The Browns have made the playoffs just once since their 1999 rebirth and have just 10 playoff appearances in the last 40 years. The Indians haven't won a championship since 1948, have made the World Series just twice since then and have a mere seven playoff appearances since 1972 (all of them since 1995). Then we have the Cavs, whose high-water mark was their lone NBA Finals appearance in 2007. They have 12 playoff series wins, with eight of them coming during the LeBron James era (2003-2010), and 22 playoff-less seasons since 1972. There can't be any worse place to be a sports fan than in Cleveland.

So what does this all mean? Well, for starters, naming your city's team after a jungle cat doesn't work out all too well. But seriously, it is hard to judge from sport to sport and league to league – for instance, 75 per cent of CFL teams make the playoffs, whereas now just 33 per cent of MLB teams make the postseason – but Tiger-Cat fans are not the only fans out there that have dealt with failure and mediocrity more often than not over the last four decades.

The last 40 years of mostly no glory have been tough for Tiger-Cat fans to swallow, but they aren't alone. In the CFL itself, the Cats have some company in the form of the Winnipeg Blue Bombers. The two team have almost identical success rates over the past 40 years. The Bombers have had better luck recently, but over the last four decades, the two teams have been remarkably similar. Draw your own conclusions about the other teams, but Winnipeg fans and Hamilton fans have a lot in common when it comes to their respective teams.

Maybe the probable hiring of Kent Austin will reverse Hamilton's fortunes, but even if it doesn't, Tiger-Cat fans have plenty of company aboard the misery train.

Saturday, 15 December 2012

Why I Chose Rebels

Tomorrow is the final day for people to submit names for the new CFL franchise in Ottawa. As anyone who has read me in the past knows, I want the team's name to be Rough Riders. I won't go into why it is ridiculous that it can't be, but I know it won't be so I had to come up with an alternative.

I want the team name to feature an 'R' just because it should. The classic white 'R' on the black helmet is still one of the coolest minimalist helmets in football. So I tried to come up with a name that incorporated the 'R' and had some historical significance. Then it hit me:

Rebels.

(Before anyone says anything, I am aware that The Rebel was the name of the short-lived NLL franchise in Ottawa.)

I think Rebels is a good name and fits in well with the two previous names, Rough Riders and Renegades, while also keeping the 'R' intact. And aside from it being kind of a cool-sounding name, it hits on the historical significance I mentioned earlier. And while I admit that this piece of history has almost nothing to do with Ottawa, it is an important event that is often overlooked when discussing Canadian history. I am of course referring to the Upper and Lower Canadian Rebellions of 1837.

People don't come here to read about Canadian history, so I won't go into all the details – if you do want to learn about it, I suggest hitting up the Wikipedia entry as it is actually very good – but the rebellions were significant in making Canada, well, Canada. The rebellions led to the Act of Union, the Act of Union united Upper and Lower Canada into one political entity and recommended responsible government, and those two things played a significant role in Confederation. That is a very simplistic synopsis, but it covers the basics. If you want to learn more about each, click the links. You can also leave a comment here (or on Twitter) and I'll be happy to discuss it or recommend stuff to read. (In case anyone didn't know, I'm a GIGANTIC Canadian history nerd.)

And while the rebellions happened nowhere near Ottawa, I still think the name is appropriate. I view Ottawa as almost the epicentre of all that is Canadian history and I think the team, needing to use a name that isn't Rough Riders or Renegades, would do well to choose a name that hits on something important in Canada's history.

Rebels hits on everything I would like the new Ottawa franchise to incorporate in their name. Obviously, this name won't be universally accepted (though I doubt it will be as reviled as Ottawa Rush), but I think this is a pretty decent choice and one I think a lot of people would get behind should it ultimately be chosen as the team name.

One thing is for certain: Ottawa Rebels has got my vote.

Friday, 14 December 2012

Three Questions: Canadian Football League

The off-season is underway and every team faces questions. Today, I look at three questions concerning the Canadian Football League.

1. Will there be any rule changes?
The off-season usually brings about a batch of rule changes, but that might not be the case this season. The only real change I could see coming is expanding automatic reviews to include turnovers. Right now, all scoring plays are automatically reviewed, but with the NFL going to automatic reviews of turnovers this season, I could see the CFL following suit (they've piggybacked on NFL rule changes a lot in the last couple of years). But other than that, I don't see any rules changes, major or minor, coming into effect for next season.

2. Will they reup solely with TSN?
The television contract that made TSN the sole carrier of CFL games expires after this upcoming season. TSN has an exclusive negotiating window until January of next year to reach an agreement to keep all the games on TSN. If TSN gives the CFL the money it wants, they'll be staying with Canada's Sports Leader. But it might be in the best interest of the league to find another partner willing to broadcast a game or two a week. TSN has been awesome for the league, but by sticking with just one network, the league and TSN have become synonymous. CFL coverage on The Score and Sportsnet is almost nonexistent and bringing one of them into the mix would increase the league's profile. Right now, neither network has any stake in covering the league because all they are doing is promoting their competition. This is a really difficult decision for the league to make and I am glad I'm not the one making it.

3. Will we see the CFL video game?
Rumours about a CFL game pop up all the time, but for the first time in a long time, it actually seems like it could be a reality sooner rather than later. Commissioner Mark Cohon talked openly about a potential CFL video game during his Fan State of the League address during Grey Cup weekend. From the sounds of Cohon's comments, it might not be a traditional game on a platform like XBox or Playstation, but maybe a mobile game. He kept the plans pretty close to his vest, but this is the first time I had ever heard the commissioner talk about a CFL video game. Maybe after years of hoping, fans might finally get a chance to take the virtual field as their favourite CFL franchise.

Thursday, 13 December 2012

Three Questions: Ottawa Franchise

The off-season is underway and every team faces questions. Today, I look at three questions concerning the Ottawa franchise that will begin play in 2014.

1. What will the name be?
We know it can't be Rough Riders (though it should be) and it won't be Renegades, but hopefully it will be something that starts with an 'R.' We know the colours will be the traditional black, red and white (and I shudder to think what colours they would have been if the owners in Calgary were as selfish as those in Regina and wanted to protect "their" brand), but we don't know what the name will be. The ownership group is taking suggestions from fans until December 16 on what to name the new team. So you can have your say if you want. I'll be interested to see what the name ends up being.

2. Who will they hire as general manager?
The team will have a new general manager sooner rather than later. The ownership group has targeted February as the month they hope to have their general manager in place. Three names have been bandied about more than most: Marcel Desjardins, Joe Womack and Marcel Bellefeuille. Desjardins is currently the assistant GM in Montreal, Womack has a similar position in Hamilton and Bellefeuille's most recent job was as head coach in Hamilton. Desjardins is the only one of the three that has previously held a GM position in the CFL (he was the GM of the Ti-Cats in 2007), but Womack has had plenty of success finding talent in his role and Bellefeuille is an Ottawa resident and former Vanier Cup-winning coach at the University of Ottawa. Another candidate could come up that will blow them all out of the water, but I fully expect the general manager of the new Ottawa team to be one of those three men.

3. Who are the head coaching candidates?
A lot of this will depend on who becomes general manager and this question won't be answered until well into next year, but there are a few coaches who could be in line for the gig. Aside from Bellefeuille (who could be in the running if he doesn't become the team's GM), there are plenty of others, such as former Saskatchewan head coach Greg Marshall, Calgary offensive coordinator Dave Dickenson, BC offensive coordinator Jacques Chapedlaine, former Winnipeg head coach Paul LaPolice and Toronto special team coordinator Mike O'Shea to name just a few. The team will have plenty of options when selecting their first head coach and it will be interesting to see what direction the team decides to take as they embark on their inaugural season in 2014.

Wednesday, 12 December 2012

Three Questions: Hamilton Tiger-Cats

The off-season is underway and every team faces questions. Today, I look at three questions concerning the Hamilton Tiger-Cats.

1. Will Stala return?
He's not a free agent, but after the way the 2012 season played out, one has to wonder if Dave Stala has played his last down as a member of the Hamilton Tiger-Cats. From a personal perspective, I hope Stala is back next season and the team's firing of George Cortez makes Stala's return possible. This past season was Stala's worst season statistically since arriving in Hamilton from Montreal in 2009. His catches and yards were Hamilton lows, and he scored half as many touchdowns as the year before. Stala was relegated to a backup role out of training camp and seemed to be someone, like Avon Cobourne, that the new coaching staff just never warmed to, but with another new staff coming in this year, it is possible Stala could find himself back in lineup. Stala produced when called upon, but his number was called too infrequently to have any impact. A new coaching staff may feel differently, so while I was doubtful that Stala would return two days ago, I think he'll be back for at least one more year in Hamilton.

2. Can they finally get the first pick right?
The one bright side about finishing with the worst record in the league is that it means you get the top pick in the draft. The downside to that for the Ti-Cats is that their history with first-overall picks (or first-round picks in general) is spotty at best. The Ti-Cats have had the first pick in the draft five times in the last 10 years; they traded one of those picks to Edmonton and the other four players they selected (Wayne Smith, Chris Bauman, Dylan Barker, Simeon Rottier) no longer play for the team. The team has not picked in the first round of the draft since taking Rottier with the first pick in 2009 and just one player they've selected in the first round since 2003 is still with the team (Sam Giguère). With serial pick trader Bob O'Billovich no longer calling the shots, the prospect of the Ti-Cats making the selection went up considerably. Now they just have to nail the pick. Their recent draft history is as terrible as any team in any league in any sport and explains why the Ti-Cats have had ratio issues the last couple of years. If the Ti-Cats hope to take advantage of their horrible 2012 season, they will need to nail their draft picks this year, but none more so than the first pick.

3. How much turnover will there be?
With the firing of George Cortez and the removal of Bob O'Billovich as VP of football operations, the Ti-Cats will have an almost all-new front office structure next season. There will be a new general manager who will hire a new head coach (or perhaps the new GM will also be the head coach) and they will put together a staff and evaluate the players on the roster. There could be a lot of new faces in Hamilton next year both in the office, on the sidelines and on the field. It is entirely possible that Henry Burris has played his last game as a Tiger-Cat or that Avon Cobourne could be the favourite, not Martell Mallett or Chevon Walker, at running back. Anything is possible with a new coaching staff. We saw veterans like Cobourne and Stevie Baggs released last year that likely would not have been let go had Marcel Bellefeuille not been fired. So there will be some players let go that we don't expect and they will likely be some big names on par with both Baggs and Cobourne.

The Replacements

Smiles no more: both George Cortez (left) and Bob O'Billovich (left) were relieved of their duties yesterday.
Now that George Cortez and Bob O'Billovich have been relieved of their duties, it's time to look at some people that might be the next head coach and/or general manager of the Hamilton Tiger-Cats.

For coaches, we have the usual suspects/leftovers from last year's coaching search in Kent Austin and Greg Marshall, and new candidates such as Toronto defensive coordinator Chris Jones and deposed Blue Bomber head coach Paul LaPolice.

As for general manager, Austin could become the GM/head coach and, of course, Eric Tillman. Duane Forde's name has been thrown out there as well.

I'm going eschew making a prediction as to who I think it will be. I am never right about these things (Last year, I called Cortez a "dark-horse candidate"), so I only set myself up to look foolish. That said, I think the team would bring in Kent Austin if he is willing to leave Big Red (Cornell University) to come back to the CFL.

If Austin passes, I'd stay in-house and name Joe Womack the new general manager. Womack is being courted by Ottawa to run their football operations and I think he would be a tremendous choice for the Ti-Cats. I would also give serious consideration to bringing Duane Forde in. That guy is going to run a team someday and the team that gets him will be getting a guy as knowledgeable about the CFL, especially when it comes to Canadian players, as anyone. Even if he is not offered the GM role, I would recommend highly that the team find a way to bring Forde in for some job.

So if Austin decides he doesn't want the dual role or says he doesn't want to solely be the head coach, I'd make Marshall my head coach and bring in LaPolice as the offensive coordinator. I'd then hire Orlondo Steinauer away from the Argos to be the defensive coordinator, while retaining Jim Daley as special teams coordinator (no need to make a change there). Marshall was given a raw deal in Saskatchewan and LaPolice could do some pretty good things with the offensive talent this team has. I have mentioned Steinauer as a possible defensive coordinator before and I still think he's as good a candidate as anyone else out there.

Remember, these aren't predictions, this is just what I would do. I think the team will go hard after Austin, so if there is any prediction anywhere, that is the one. But if Austin were to pass, my decision would be to go with the Womack-Marshall tandem.

Tuesday, 11 December 2012

Cats Fire Cortez

Well, so much for that quiet off-season I was hoping for. In what has to be classified as a stunning move, the Ti-Cats fired head coach George Cortez today after just one season as head coach.

So raise your hand if you thought this would happen. Anyone? You in the corner over there? No, you're just scratching your head? OK.

I was stunned by this move. Absolutely stunned. I didn't expect in a million years that Cortez would be turfed this off-season and I'm not entirely sure if the move made was the right one.

Cortez made a lot of mistakes in his first year as a head coach – hiring Casey Creehan as defensive coordinator, sitting Avon Cobourne, not using Dave Stala enough, etc. – but he also did a lot of things right and led the best offense in the CFL. I thought the good outweighed the bad with him and didn't think for a second that he wouldn't be back next year.

Cortez had a rough first year, but most first-year coaches hit rough patches. One of the biggest problems for Cortez, however, was the success of his fellow 2012 first timers. Mike Benevides led the BC Lions to the best record in the league; Corey Chamblin took over a Saskatchewan that finished 5-13 in 2011 and turned them into a playoff team in 2012; and Scott Milanovich, as we all know, won the Grey Cup in his first year with the Argos. I figured Cortez would learn from his first-year mistakes and become a better head coach in 2013. I truly believed he had the wherewithal to lead the team back to the Grey Cup at some point during his tenure. I was wrong.

At the same time the team announced Cortez's firing, they also announced that for all intents and purposes, Bob O'Billovich has been let go as the team's vice president of football operations. Obie has been offered a consultant role with the club and has not yet decided whether he will take it or not. That means the team is also searching for a new general manager (the team didn't have anyone with the title of general manager last season, with Cortez basically acting as the de facto GM last season) as well as a new head coach.

And just like last year's firing of Marcel Bellefeuille – which, in hindsight, looks like one of the worst moves this franchise has ever made – the team is last out of the gate and will have to work fast to replace both Obie and Cortez (not to mention allow the new head coach a chance to put together a staff). A lot of Hamilton's 2012 failures were blamed on Cortez's mid-January hiring. Many felt that was too late to put together a good staff. Well, the Cats fired their coach later this year than they did last year; so if last year was too late, what does that make this year?

With a new GM and head coach will come new coaches on the coaching staff and likely a lot of player movement. I suspect the Ti-Cats will be in the news a lot this winter. I was really hoping that this off-season would be one of the quietest in team history; instead, it is likely going to be one of their busiest.

Three Questions: Winnipeg Blue Bombers

The off-season is underway and every team faces questions. Today, I look at three questions concerning the Winnipeg Blue Bombers.

1. Will they finally make a quarterback decision?
The time has come for the Bombers to pick a quarterback and go with him. They so desperately want that guy to be Buck Pierce but he just isn't reliable enough to be Winnipeg's starter in 2013. Joey Elliott showed some flashes during his time on the field, but he doesn't look like the answer either. Alex Brink was handed the reins and did pretty much nothing. I think he played himself out of the derby, and maybe out of the league, with his poor performances last year. If Elliott is not the guy going forward it is because Winnipeg went and signed Mike Reilly, Adrian McPherson or Quinton Porter. I've already said I think the Eskimos will go after McPherson, so that leaves Porter and Reilly. After five years in the league, Quinton Porter is what he is: a decent QB, but not a guy you can rely on game in and game out for 18 weeks. Reilly is the unknown, having played sparingly this past season. I think the Bombers make a play for Reilly and name him the starter going into camp. I think Pierce remains with the team as a backup and Elliott goes back to the No. 3 role.

2. What will they do at running back?
Like Edmonton, the Bombers have a running back conundrum of their own. Do they stick with Chad Simpson, who was marvellous in 2012, or do they go back to Chris Garrett, who was going to be the starter in 2012 before he was lost for the year in training camp? This isn't an easy decision, but I expect the Bombers to either bring both to camp or go with Simpson. Garrett looked great filling in for former Bomber Fred Reid a the tail end of 2011, but Simpson was much better in 2012 and the team could ride him like they did Charles Roberts for all those years in the early and mid-2000s. I think if they have to choose one, they should choose Simpson.

3. Will Joe Mack actually do anything this off-season?
Winnipeg's oft-criticized general manager took a beating last off-season for sitting idly by while other teams grabbed players during free agency. Members of his own team blasted him on Twitter for his supposed dithering. When the Bombers got off to their 0-4 start, the calls for Mack's head began. They finished the season tied for the league's worst record with Hamilton at 6-12. But Mack got a reprieve and will get a chance to run the Bombers once again in 2013. But will he change his philosophy and sign some free agents? Will he find a way to not lose some of his own free agents, like Johnny Sears and Jonathan Hefney? Mack used the Bombers 10-8, first-place finish as a reason not to go after guys in free agency, but he doesn't have the afterglow of a Grey Cup appearance this off-season to deflect criticism. I expect the Bombers to be players come mid-February as they attempt to rebuild a team that fell off in 2012.

Monday, 10 December 2012

Three Questions: Toronto Argonauts

The off-season is underway and every team faces questions. Today, I look at three questions concerning the Toronto Argonauts.

1. Can they build on Grey Cup win?
I don't mean on the field, because they seem to be doing a good job of that. But I wonder if the Argos can build their fan base following a championship-winning season. Getting fans to pack the Rogers Centre SkyDome has always been difficult for the Argos. They had the second-lowest attendance average in 2012 and they are only ahead of the Als because Montreal's regular season home holds fewer seats than Toronto's. If the people of Toronto were ever going to fully embrace the Argos, now is the time to do it. They have a talented young head coach and a quarterback still in his prime, so the Argos look like they will be contenders for at least the next half decade. But like everything in Toronto sports that isn't connected to the Maple Leafs, I feel that those who became Argo fans during Grey Cup week will not be there at the start of next season and we'll be back to the same conversation about why Toronto doesn't support the Argos.

2. Will they be able to re-sign Kackert?
A concern that never would have come up a year ago is all of a sudden priority no. 1 for the double blue: can they ink running back Chad Kackert to a new contract? After the release of Cory Boyd, Kackert assumed the starting role and performed more than admirably. In the playoffs, he was a force and was named the MVP of the Grey Cup MVP. The price for his services went up big time after that and he might now be too rich for the Toronto's blood. But they must re-sign him, even if it means cutting players to do so. Kackert may not be a transcendent player, but he is a key cog to what the Argos want to do and they made room for him by releasing, at the time, the league's leading rusher. To let him walk now would be a huge mistake. The Argos need to sign Kackert and I think they probably will.

3. Can they fix their discipline problem?
Despite winning it all, the Argos spent most of the year accumulating penalties at an alarming rate. They employed some of the dirtiest players in the CFL – Ejiro Kuale, Brandon Isaac and Adriano Belli to name just three – and even had a player (Belli) ejected in the Grey Cup! Toronto may have won the Grey Cup, but if they don't fix their discipline issue they won't win a second one next year. With Belli retiring and Kuale being released, it looks like the Argos are serious about cleaning up their act. Isaac will probably remain, but most teams employ at least one line crosser. Cutting ties with the others is a step in the right direction.

Sunday, 9 December 2012

Ti-Cats Neg Lister Johnny Manziel Wins Heisman

Johnny Football is now Johnny Heisman and in the future he could be Johnny Tiger-Cat.

On Saturday night, Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel became the first freshman player to ever win the prestigious Heisman trophy. Manziel made history by beating out fellow finalists Manti Te'o and Collin Klein.

With three year's of eligibilty remaining, Manziel could go down as one of the greatest players in NCAA history. Having already won the Heisman, Manziel could end up becoming just the second player in history to win that award twice. Ohio State running back Archie Griffin won it in back-to-back years (1974, 1975). The future looks bright for Johnny Football.

And that future could involve the Hamilton Tiger-Cats.

Like Tim Tebow and JaMarcus Russell before him, Johnny Manziel has been added to the Tiger-Cats negotiation list.

Now before everyone starts getting their "Manziel No. 2" jerseys done at the TigerTown store, remember that it is highly unlikely that Manziel will ever suit up for the Tiger-Cats. And even if he did, it would be a good five years before he ever sets foot on the field at the former Ivor Wynne Stadium. It's fun to think about, but the reality is that Manziel will sit on the team's neg list for a couple of years before being taken off after he gets drafted in the NFL.

But even if the chances of Manziel playing for the Ti-Cats is remote, I imagine Texas A&M's ratings will see a jump in the Hamilton market over the next few years.

Saturday, 8 December 2012

Give Someone Else the February Grey Cup

While free agency doesn't start until February, the CFL's releasing of their players up for free agency has already prompted discussion about who could be available and who the Tiger-Cats should chase. There are a number of potentially high-profile players free to peddle their wares to the highest bidder come the 15th of February that could help improve a Tiger-Cat team that finished a league worst 6-12 in 2012.

But while dreams of JC Sherritt, Solomon Elimimian and Adrian McPherson dance in many fans' heads, I'm of the opinion that the team needs to do very little come free agent time. That's not to say that they should do nothing – upgrades at spots are obviously needed – but I don't want to see another batch of mid-February posts and articles about how the Ti-Cats "won" free agency. Hamilton has been the winner of the most unofficial Grey Cups in the month February more times than I can remember and that has brought exactly zero actual Grey Cups to Hamilton.

Last year, the team went out and spent big money on Andy Fantuz. The year before, they signed Avon Cobourne. In 2010, the big move was acquiring Sandro DeAngelis. Some worked out better than others, but none of them proved to be the missing piece to the championship puzzle.

The less said about DeAngelis the better. He was an abject failure for the Ti-Cats; he knows it, we know it, so it's best to just move on.

Cobourne, as far as I am concerned, was as close to a perfect pickup as the team has made the last three off-seasons. Sure, he never eclipsed 1,000 rushing yards and he was let go after just one season, only to be brought back, benched and then finally inserted into the lineup when injuries forced Chevon Walker out. But Cobourne has been a locker room leader and while I am fully for this signing (and how that might look contradictory considering I don't want the team to make a Cobourne-esque move this off-season), there isn't a Cobourne-like player available this off-season.

Fantuz was deemed a bit of a disappointment after a 72-catch, 971-yard, eight-touchdown season. Yet those numbers are probably the second best of his career and are better than his career averages – 58 catches, 851 yards, five touchdowns – and way better than his career averages if you take out his one monster season (2010). The problem is, that monster 2010 season was the reason Fantuz was so sought after last winter and why he is being paid reportedly close to $200,000/year. His 2012 numbers weren't as good as his 2010 ones (though he did miss games and scored more touchdowns in 2012 than in any season prior) and that shows the perils of luring high-priced veterans to town. You pay more than you should and rarely get a return on the investment.

That's not to say the team shouldn't bring guys in, but if you think about all the players the team has acquired, either in the winter or after via free agency or by trade, the ones who have been the some of the team's best players over the last three or four years are the guys who came to the team with very little fan fare. There was no big press conference when the team traded for Markeith Knowlton or when they signed Jamall Johnson and Otis Floyd or when the dealt for a player off Saskatchewan's negotiation list named Chris Williams.

Sometimes big free agent signings can work out, but the Ti-Cats have too often tried to build their team through free agency and it clearly doesn't work. If it did, the team would have taken all those February championships and turned them into one or two November ones.

Friday, 7 December 2012

Three Questions: Montreal Alouettes

The off-season is underway and every team faces questions. Today, I look at three questions concerning the Montreal Alouettes.

1. What will Calvillo do?
The No. 1 question every off-season in Montreal always revolves around the status of Anthony Calvillo. I think every year since about 2007 we've openly wondered whether we just saw his final game or not. Many will point to his advancing age (41) and how the Als haven't dominated like they used to, making the playoffs but losing in their opening contest two years in a row (the Semi-Final last year to Hamilton and the Final this year to Toronto). But through it all, Calvillo keeps coming back. I expect no different in 2013. Anthony Calvillo proved he can still play at an elite level and I expect him back under centre for the Alouettes next season.

2. Will they re-sign McPherson?
Montreal has another quarterback question to ask this off-season at this one revolves around Adrian McPherson. McPherson has been a backup in Montreal since 2008 and is set to become a free agent in February. He has made it known in the past that he feels he is ready to be a starting quarterback in the CFL and he will be 30 when next season begins. Time is running out for McPherson to take a team on his shoulders. That makes me think that if Calvillo does return, McPherson will find employment elsewhere. The two potential destinations are Winnipeg and Edmonton. I'll put my money on McPherson leaving la belle province for the green (and gold) in Edmonton.

3. Can they reclaim their spot atop the East?
It seems odd to pose this questions when Montreal just finished atop the East Division in 2012 and haven't missed the playoffs since they came back into the league in 1996. But the last two playoffs have yielded zero wins and the teams in the East seem to no longer fear the Als like they once did. Hamilton, despite a down year, beat the Als in two out of three contests and their lone loss was by just two points. Toronto showed no fear in going into Olympic Stadium and erasing a 10-point first quarter deficit in the East Final. Even Winnipeg went into Montreal and got a win this year. Montreal used to be the big bully that everyone feared, but that's not the case anymore. While I still believe they are capable of winning a Grey Cup, they are no longer a lock for anything. They may be able to reclaim their spot, but they will have to earn it the hard way.

Thursday, 6 December 2012

Three Questions: Calgary Stampeders

The off-season is underway and every team faces questions. Today, I look at three questions concerning the Calgary Stampeders.

1. Glenn or Tate?
This one is a no-brainer; this is Drew Tate's team and this is Drew Tate's job. Now, Calgary would be wise to keep Glenn around in case Tate gets hurt once again – man I hope he's not going to end up being another Buck Pierce – because Glenn proved very capable in helping Calgary win 11 of the 17 games, including playoffs, he started. Both should be back in Cowtown next season and the pecking order should be the exact same as it was at the start of last season.

2. Can Cornish top his 2012 season?
Jon Cornish had, by many accounts, the best season a Canadian running back has ever had. He broke an over 50-year-old record for rushing yards and became the first Canadian to lead the league in rushing in almost 25 years. Cornish was the main catalyst in Calgary's run to the Grey Cup. Now what can he do for an encore? He is just 28 and this was his first year as a full-time starter, so his body is not as beat up as other backs his age. I fully expect Cornish to be at the top of his game next year. He may not eclipse the numbers he put up in 2012, but he'll still be a dangerous weapon and a key cog in everything Calgary does on offense.

3. Are they the favourites for the Grey Cup next year?
Before free agency, the draft and the annual coaching carousel, it is hard to pick who is the favourite to win the Grey Cup, but I'm going to do it anyway. I think Calgary is the favourite to get back to the big game and win it. The Stamps have the best 1-2 quarterback combo in all of football (perhaps only behind the San Francisco 49ers), a stud running back just hitting his prime, a talented defense that can play with anybody and one of the bets coaches in the game. It may be early, but don't be surprised if the Stampeders are hoisting the Grey Cup in Regina next November.

Wednesday, 5 December 2012

Three Questions: Saskatchewan Roughriders

The off-season is underway and every team faces questions. Today, I look at three questions concerning the Saskatchewan Roughriders.

1. Can they build off 2012?
The Riders went into the 2012 season coming off a nightmare 2011 campaign and finished 9-9 and took the eventual West Division champions to the wire in the first round of the playoffs. The ending was disappointing for Rider Nation, but the season was a big success for the team. Things should only get better in Year 2 of the Corey Chamblin era. Chamblin proved to be a better head coach than a defensive coordinator and turned things around in Riderville in one season. Now the goal is to build off that first season and turn it into a championship run in 2013.

2. Will they make it three for three?
The last two Grey Cup champions, BC and Toronto, won their championships at their home stadia. The 101st Grey Cup will be played at Mosaic Stadium in Regina, so you have to think the Riders want to make it three home wins in a row, and seeing as the last two champions lost in the semi-final (BC in 2010) and didn't make the playoffs (Toronto) the year before they won it all, it's entirely possible that the Riders could turn the trick as well. It is way too early to say for certain, obviously, but the Riders might be in prime position to extend the Grey Cup home winning streak to three.

3. Is Sheets the dark horse for MOP in 2013?
Before this season, did anyone have Jon Cornish or Chad Owens as the two MOP candidates? Did anyone have Owens winning the award? What about the year before; did anyone have Lulay winning it before the season started? It seems that guys who fly under the radar are emerging as MOP threats by the end of the season. Could Kory Sheets be that guy next year? Sheets had an amazing first year in the CFL. He was second in the league in rushing, tied for first in the league in rushing touchdowns and finished tied for second in total touchdowns with 13. Sheets was Saskatchewan's best player and don't be surprised if he takes home the MOP award next season.

Hamilton's Pending Free Agents

The CFL released their list of potential 2013 free agents and the Tiger-Cats have 14 players eligible to hit the open market this winter. There are some key names among the players whose contracts expire this February and more than a few that the team would be wise to ink to new deals.

The player I think the Ti-Cats need to go hardest after is offensive lineman Brian Simmons. Simmons was a guy that didn't get much ink in 2012 and that is a good thing. Simmons was probably Hamilton's best offensive lineman. He gave up just one sack and committed a ridiculously low three penalties all season. For a 10-year veteran that is good; for a second-year player guy, that is phenomenal. Simmons was great for Hamilton in 2012 and unless he is playing for an NFL team, Simmons better be in Hamilton next year.

After Simmons, the team needs to get Marwan Hage and Peter Dyakowski to agree to new deals. Both players had their 2012 seasons cut short due to injury, the second straight year that has happened for Hage, but both can still be solid contributors and provide a veteran presence along the offensive line. Dyakowski was a divisional all-star for the first time in his career and Hage can still dominate when healthy. Getting both players back should be high on Hamilton's priority list.

The change that people were calling for in the secondary could happen as there are five defensive backs whose contracts are set to expire. Bo Smith, Carlos Thomas, Marcell Young, Geoff Tisdale and Chris Rwabukamba could all be playing elsewhere next season. I doubt the team will be able to re-sign them all, but one or two of them should be back next year. Smith has turned into one of the better cover guys since his return from an NFL tryout a few years ago. Both Young and Thomas have shown flashes of excellent play and each could be major contributors if they could stay healthy (both players spent time on the nine-game injured list last season). Rwabukamba is a young Canadian corner who started a few games for the Ti-Cats last season. Tisdale, who was reacquired from Calgary last summer is probably not going to be brought back.

The team also has a number of non-imports free to test the market. Yannick Carter, Jonathan Hood, Eddie Steele and Daryl Stephenson have all contributed over the years, with Hood and Carter playing key roles on special teams, Steele providing solid depth on the defensive line, and Stephenson providing solid blocking and becoming more and more involved in the offense. Though none of them are game-changing players, they all fill a role. It will be interesting to see which players the team tries to bring back and which they let walk.

A tough call the team will have to make involves what to do with Terry Grant. Grant looked great in limited action in 2011 before suffering a catastrophic injury in a late-season game in Montreal. Grant spent the entire 2012 season on the injured list. The team is loaded at running even if Avon Cobourne doesn't return (though I think he should). Chevon Walker looked good in spurts and Martell Mallett is expected to be back next season, so there just may not be any room for Grant. It will be a curious situation to watch.

And lastly, we have Quinton Porter. Porter saw extremely limited action in 2012 (just one pass attempt and eight rushing attempts for the entire season) and I have to think he is headed elsewhere for 2013. If Porter does sign somewhere else, that leaves the Ti-Cats with just two quarterbacks on the roster: Henry Burris and Dan LeFevour. That means the team will have to bring another quarterback in. Could a possible 2012 Hec Creighton award winner and 2011 Vanier Cup champion be headed Hamilton's way? I'm sure plenty of fans would be happy to see Porter moved out in favour of McMaster's Kyle Quinlan. But whether it's Quinlan or not, the Ti-Cats will bring in a quarterback or two to compete for the No. 3 spot in training camp if Porter does not get re-signed.

Tuesday, 4 December 2012

Three Questions: BC Lions

The off-season is underway and every team faces questions. Today, I look at three questions concerning the BC Lions.

1. Will Geroy go elsewhere?
In a world where Ricky Ray, Joe Montana, Wayne Gretzky and Brett Favre can be traded, nothing should surprise me, but the idea that Geroy Simon might not be in a BC Lions uniform next season is hard to fathom (I know he played for Winnipeg, but how many remember what Simon looked like in a Blue Bomber jersey?). But Simon is coming off perhaps his worst season as a pro and is 35 years old. It is obvious that his best days are behind him and the Lions might just part ways with the CFL's all-time leading receiver. Simon has said he wants to play next season, so if he's not in a BC uniform he will be in another team in 2013.

2. Who will they lose to the NFL?
There are very few certainties in this world, but one of them is that the BC Lions will lose a player or two to the NFL in any given off-season. Cam Wake, Martell Mallett, Ricky Foley, Stefan Logan and Solomon Elimimian are just a few Lions who have tried to make the NFL. Elimimian has declined to sign a contract extension, so the belief is that he's giving the NFL another go; receiver Shawn Gore is also free agents and has expressed interest in giving the NFL another chance, he had a cup of coffee with the Green Bay Packers in 2010, as well. But the biggest loss could be that of 2012 top offensive lineman Jovon Olafioye. The Lions took a step back in 2012, losing in the West Final, but they might take an even bigger step back in the off-season if they lose one or more of their players to the NFL.

3. Are the Lions still the team to beat out west?
The Lions were the favourites to win the Grey Cup, but as the season wore on it really did seem like the power shifted from BC to Calgary. When Calgary beat BC to get to the Grey Cup it didn't really surprise a lot of people, even though BC lost at home for just the second time since BC Place was renovated. It just seemed like the magic that the Lions had in their run to the championship in 2011 was missing. Now the Lions have to deal with a Calgary team that will enter 2013 with revenge in their hearts and a Saskatchewan team that will hope to build on their surprising 9-9 campaign in 2012. The Lions could be third in the pecking order in the West in 2013. But they are still a good team, plus they'll be better than Edmonton, so a playoff spot is not a concern. But they no longer look like the class of the West like they did just a few months ago.

Williams Named League All-Star

Chris Williams capped his amazing 2012 season by being named a CFL all star.

Williams was named to the league's all-star kick returner following a year that saw him break the league's single-season record for return touchdowns. While being a unanimous selection was impossible – fan votes accounted for part of the selection equation and some would have voted for BC's Tim Brown (remember, one person voted for Brown over Williams for special teams player of the year award last week) – Williams was probably the closest to a guaranteed pick of any player named.

While it is great that Williams was recognized for his spectacular special teams play, I don't understand why he wasn't also named an all-star at receiver. Williams has a case to be named at receiver as much as any of the players picked instead of him and maybe even more so in the case of two of them. Nik Lewis and Chad Owens were locks to make the team; Owens led the league in receiver yards and Lewis was the only player to hit triple digits in catches. But a case could be made to put Williams ahead of both Weston Dressler and Fred Stamps.

Dressler led the league in touchdown catches with 13, but finished just two ahead of Williams, who had 11. Dressler had more catches (94 to 83) than Williams, but Williams had more yards (1,298 to 1,206). Stamps finished with more yards than Williams (1,310 to 1,298), but Williams notched more catches (83 to 70) and more touchdowns (11 to 9). So Williams wasn't snubbed in the classic sense of the word, but it is surprising that he wasn't named at receiver. Perhaps it is just a case of five very strong receiver candidates (six if you count Winnipeg's Chris Matthews) and Williams being a lock for the kick returner spot. My guess is that the voters just didn't want to give Williams two all-star spots when there were equally deserving players at the receiver position.

The odd thing about the all-star selections is that Hamilton, which had the league's best offense, ends the season without a league all-star on that side of the ball. I don't care that they finished 6-12, the offense was the best in the league and to see it not rewarded with at least one league all-star spot is curious. Either voters held the team's last-place record against it or the unit was better than the sum of its parts, but to see the CFL's highest scoring offense get shut out on that side of the all-star ball is strange and likely something that has never happened before. Of course, not making the playoffs with the league's best offense doesn't happen either, but it did this year.

Monday, 3 December 2012

Three Questions: Edmonton Eskimos

The off-season is underway and every team faces questions. Today, I look at three questions concerning the Edmonton Eskimos.

1. Who will the next general manager be?
The biggest question facing the Eskimos is who to hire to replace Eric Tillman as the team's general manager. There are reported to be 13 candidates who have applied for the job, but only two are internal candidates, former player and current scout Ed Hervey and head coach Kavis Reed. We've heard a lot about the "Eskimo Way" since Tillman was ousted a month ago, so that tells me that Reed and Hervey are the two front runners. I don't see Reed getting the job because I don't think hes ready to leave the sideline just yet. So if I had to make a guess, and that is all this is, I'll think Hervey gets the job.

2. What will they do at quarterback?
The first order of business for the new GM will be to fix the mess that is Edmonton's quarterbacking situation. They started the 2012 season with Steven Jyles, but he proved as useful as a one-eyed wombat (and this is coming from someone who once had very high hopes for Jyles); then they went to 38-year-old Kerry Joseph, who had flashes, but showed every bit of age down the stretch; and then there was the very promising outings from Matt Nichols, but he suffered a gruesome injury in the playoff loss to the Argos and it is questionable whether he'll ever be able to return. The team also has former Oregon standout Jeremiah Masoli, but he saw no action in 2012. There are some free agent quarterbacks out there, such as Mike Reilly and Adrian McPherson, so Edmonton has options. I'd be surprised if Jyles and Joseph are still with Edmonton next year and with Nichols out for who knows how long, I expect them to go hard after one of the free agent quarterbacks. I think they hope to lure McPherson west and will do everything they can to get him in Green and Gold next year.

3. Will they be able to sign all their free agents?
One of the revelations following the Tillman firing was how many potential free agents the Eskimos have to try to re-sign before February. These aren't run-of-the-mill players either, we're talking guys like Marcus Howard, Chris Thompson, and reigning defensive player of the year JC Sherritt. The main reason given for trading Ricky Ray was to shed salary, so now the Eskimos will need to pony up some dough to ensure they don't sink even further in 2013.

Sunday, 2 December 2012

Future Ti-Cat Going (BCS) Bowlin'

The Hamilton Tiger-Cats selected a number of futures with their 2012 draft picks. Of those futures, two went to NCAA schools: Northern Illinois safety Courtney Stephen and Boise State defensive lineman Michael Atkinson. Both of those teams will participate in bowl games this season, but only one will play.

Atkinson's Boise State Broncos will take on the Washington Huskies in the Las Vegas Bowl on December 22. But fans hoping to catch a glimpse of the future Ti-Cat will be unable to since Atkinson was lost for the year with an ACL injury a month ago.

But people who want to see Stephen play will get to do so and get to watch him play in one of the big bowls. Stephen's Northern Illinois Huskies will take on the Florida State Seminoles in the Orange Bowl in Miami on January 1.

For those that aren't aware, the Orange Bowl is one of the big BCS (Bowl Championship Series) bowls and NIU playing in it is a big deal. The Huskies won the MAC (Mid-American Conference) championship on Friday night in double overtime over the Kent State Golden Flashes. Northern Illinois, which finished their season at 12-1, is the first MAC team to play in a BCS bowl.

Stephen is expected to be in Tiger-Cat training camp next year, so if you want to see what a future Tiger-Cat looks like, tune in to the Orange Bowl on New Year's Day.

Saturday, 1 December 2012

Ti-Cats to Hold Town-Hall Meeting About Guelph

The uproar that has emerged following the renewing of season seats for the 2013 season in Guelph has reached a fever pitch, so much so that the Ti-Cats have invited fans to a town-hall style meeting to have their concerns addressed.

In a post on the ticats.ca message board, director of communications Scott McNaughton posted the following on Friday afternoon:
We’d like to invite any season seat holders on the forum to discuss the 2013/14 renewal process at a ‘town-hall style’ meeting at the Tiger-Cats business office (1 Jarvis Street in Hamilton) next Wednesday, December 5 at 6 p.m.

Please note that space for this event is limited. First come first served. If you’d like to attend this event, please RSVP with Mike Hardill (mhardill@ticats.ca) by 5 p.m. on Monday, December 3.

Thanks
The team has taken a lot of heat over the process for renewing season tickets in 2013 and what the implications will be for the 2014 season in the new stadium. I touched on it a couple of days ago and Drew Edwards did his own piece on the subject that was published yesterday (yours truly is quoted in the story).

Most of the anger stems from the tier 1/tier 2 designations for 2014 renewals and rightly so. A 37-year season ticket holder could find themselves behind a three-year season ticket holder because the former decides they can't make it to Guelph and the latter decides they can. I understand that the team wants to reward fans who make the trek to Guelph, and I don't have a problem with that, but this still doesn't seem like the right way to do it.

Will the team reverse course? I don't know. But they are taking heat from a lot of places and the fact that they aren't hiding from it is actually a good sign. So if you have the time on and want your complaints to be heard, you can arrange to be at 1 Jarvis St. at 6:00PM on Wednesday night.

Thursday, 29 November 2012

Adios Casey Creehan

And now we can say it is official. The Hamilton Tiger-Cats are in the market for a new defensive coordinator as Casey Creehan is off to Winnipeg.

When the rumours started to swirl back in November, I touched on some of the guys I thought would be candidates for the job. The list included Greg Marshall, Gary Etcheverry, Mike O'Shea, Orlondo Steinauer and Chip Garber. We can now add Jeff Reinebold to the list as well.

I won't go into detail on each of them, but I will say that Marshall, Etcheverry, O'Shea and Steinauer would be fine candidates. All of them have coordinating experience and that is something I would like to see in the next defensive coordinator. The last two hires the team has made, Casey Creehan and Corey Chamblin, cut their coordinating teeth with the Ti-Cats and neither had much success. I would pass entirely on Reinebold and Garber. They may have experience, but they haven't had success.

And if Dee Webb has his way, Orlondo Steinauer will be the guy. Webb took to Twitter earlier today to stump for the Argos defensive backs coach.

"Bring Orlondo Steinauer back to the jungle," Webb tweeted out at 9:35 this morning.

Of all the possible replacements I've named, Steinauer has the least amount of experience. He was the Argos defensive coordinator in the second half of the 2011 season after the Argos fired Chip Garber and moved back to DB coach when the Argos hired Chris Jones. I think Steinauer would make a great defensive coordinator and would support his hiring fully. He may lack the experience of the other potential candidates, but if you look at the work he did with Toronto's secondary this season, you can't help but be impressed.

Another name to remember is Tim Tibesar. He was named the defensive coordinator in Montreal last year before abruptly leaving that position to take up the same one at Purdue University. But with the firing of Purdue head coach Danny Hope, Tibesar is free. He might be a long shot, but he has CFL experience, so keep his name in the back of your mind.

Unlike last year's head coaching search, I don't expect this coaching search to last almost six weeks. The Ti-Cats will do their due diligence, but they probably won't drag this out. I don't know when a new defensive coordinator will be named, but I'd be surprised if we didn't know who he was before Santa comes down the chimney.

Wednesday, 28 November 2012

Renewing Seats for Guelph

By now, Tiger-Cat season seat holders have had their renewal information mailed to them regarding what the procedure is for renewing season seats for the 2013 season in Guelph. This information has been out there for a while, but I wanted to wait until I received my annual renewal form in the mail before commenting on the rumours.

The rumours are now indeed true: Tiger-Cat fans will be paying an extra five dollars per game for seats next season. The surcharge is to help offset the cost of erecting temporary seats at the Alumni Stadium.

There has been a lot of uproar about that, with many angry that they will be paying higher prices when promised no increase and that they will pay more for worse facilities. The increase when none was promised bugs me a but, but not all that much. I understand why others would be angry, since the team promised one thing and gave us another, and that does anger me, but paying the extra five dollars does not. The idea that fans will pay higher prices for worse facilities is, to me, a non-issue. I didn't pay my money, and I doubt any of you did either, at Ivor Wynne Stadium because of the world-class amenities. I paid my money so I could watch a football game live in person. I paid more money to watch games in Moncton and Montreal, and neither of those places had great facilities. Moncton was a bunch of portable toilets and food tents, while McGill's bathrooms and concession lines were no better than Ivor Wynne's. So paying more to get less isn't a big deal for me in this situation. If others are bothered by paying these prices at Guelph, I understand; however, it doesn't bother me.

That said, there are a couple of things that do bother me, and bother me quiet a bit. The first thing is asking us to renew by December 14th to ensure 2012 prices for our seats. That falls 10 days before Christmas, which is not exactly a time when many people have extra cash floating around. But that's just a small quibble about the timing. The bigger one is that they are asking for our money before we know when the games will be played. I know that is standard operating procedure, but nothing is standard about this upcoming season. The team should have given fans a chance to see the schedule before forcing anyone to make a commitment. With the extra commuting time, some who will put down money might wish they hadn't when the schedule is released sometime in February.

The other thing that bugs me is the tiered access to seats at the new stadium in 2014. When we all reupped in 2011 for 2012, the promise was that 2013 would have no impact on 2014; now they've pulled a bit of a bait and switch and are now tying 2013 purchases to 2014. This annoys me on a couple of levels. For starters, newer season seat holders could jump the queue over those that have held season seats for decades simply because they have no problem travelling 10 times to Guelph. Secondly, I sit in a large group, so if one or more of us do not decide to purchase seats for 2013 (which I am still on the fence about) we cannot be guaranteed seats with one another the following season. I'm more annoyed by the former than the latter, because I will simply not buy tickets in 2014 if my group cannot sit together. But people who have been loyal patrons of the Tiger-Cats for three, four, five decades shouldn't need to worry about whether or not they will have their seat in the new stadium.

I have been pretty supportive of the Ti-Cats in every stage of the stadium mess, but this I cannot support. The tiered access to 2014 seats and forcing fans to pay before knowing what the schedule will look like is just wrong. The promise going in to 2012 was that those purchases, not any potential 2013 purchase, would be the determiner for 2014 seats. Now they are saying something else. And by making fans pay six months in advance, they are treating this season as if it is no different than any other season. The problem is, that 2013 is completely different. I understand that paying for seats before the schedule is out is standard operating procedure, but there is nothing standard about this upcoming season in Guelph and the team needed to recognize that and adjust for it.

I am disappointed in the Tiger-Cats for what looks like outright lying to their fan base last season. When they didn't know what 2013 held, they were fine with making promises to their fans; now that they know where they will play in 2013, it seems is if they are fine with breaking those promises. They are acting as if this season is like any other when it is very clearly not. Circumstances changed and the team needed to be more flexible when asking for season ticket commitments. They did not and I find that very disappointing.

Monday, 26 November 2012

My Grey Cup Weekend

When it was announced that the Grey Cup would be in Toronto, I knew I was going. When tickets went on sale in May, I got them immediately. And when this past weekend rolled around, I was excited to take in some of the Grey Cup festivities more than I was to go to the game.

I attended events on two days, Saturday and Sunday. My weekend kicked off by going to Nathan Phillips Square for the pancake breakfast. A pancake and sausage round was given to everyone in line (and a cool paper cowboy hat, that I wore with no hesitation). It was exactly what you'd expect, but it was still good.

After that I headed down to the Royal York to attend Mark Cohon's Fan State of the League address. It was an hour and a half sit down with the commish, hosted by Rod Black. The place was packed and Cohon said that this was the most well-attended of his four Fan State of the League addresses. For the most part, Cohon seemed to have fun and the questions were mostly good – save one really odd one about keeping the footballs at a certain temperature – and Tom Higgins, the head of officiating, even came up to answer a question about the refs (and he made a comment that will definitely come back to bit him in the ass today, at least from my perspective). I had a question to Cohon about new media (Facebook, Twitter, blogs, podcasts, etc.) but didn't get to ask it. This might have been my favourite part of the weekend because this was the one thing that was most hardcore football thing there. The rest of the stuff was fun, but it was more geared towards the casual fan or families, whereas Cohon's powwow with fans was about the nitty gritty of the CFL.

After that finished, I went to the Metro Toronto Convention Centre to see the Scotiabank Fan Zone. This wasn't bad, but it was very obviously set up for families. That doesn't bother me, but it wasn't football-y enough for me. I checked out all three floors and the Hall of Fame memorabilia was probably the coolest stuff I saw. The stuff in and around the convention centre would have been great if you had little kids, and that is exactly what I saw there Saturday afternoon.

I didn't, as originally planned, hit any of the team parties. As much as I hate to admit it, those things just aren't my bag. I'm not much of a party guy. I don't drink, I don't really like the style of music that these places play and I'm not much of a mingler. It just isn't my thing. From what I've read and heard, people who went had a blast, which is great.

So Saturday ended and Sunday arrived, which meant heading to my old stomping grounds at the University of Toronto to take part in the Grey Cup Fan March. While I was milling around before things got started, I was interviewed by CityTV. I was asked a couple of questions and answered them as best I could. I was caught off guard and maybe stammered a bit (I was literally tapped on the shoulder and interviewed live on TV), but being interviewed on TV was pretty cool. I also got a chance to get a picture taken with Steve Paikin (as you can see above). Everyone knows him mostly from moderating the federal leaders' debates, but I found out something that people might not know (or at least I didn't): he's a huge Tiger-Cat fan. He was wearing a blank gold jersey underneath his jacket (again, as you can see) and opened it up to take a picture with me. He chatted with me for a couple of minutes and he couldn't be a cooler dude.

Then it was the march itself. When I saw how many people were there, I didn't think there was any chance I'd get to hold the Cup and I was OK with that. It was still cool to be involved in something so massive (there were a ton of people there). But around the ROM, a man approached me and handed me a wristband to go hold the Cup. That was where the fun of the march ended for about an hour. The march was very unorganized and getting to the front to to hold the Cup was ridiculous. You needed a wristband in order to hold it and they didn't make that well known, so people were pushing to the front without wristbands in the hope of carrying the Cup. And you were trampled, pushed out of the way and you basically needed to be a jerk in order to actually get your turn. Lucky for me, I am a jerk and got to the front to hold the Cup. Another friend of mine got to as well, while the two other people I was with were constantly thrown around by security and other fans. It was a complete mess, and as cool as it was to carry the Cup down Yonge Street, I wouldn't do it again. The people at Sun Life (who organized the event) really need to do a better job in future years of organizing things. It was a mess and took a lot of fun out of actually getting to carry the Cup. Not all the fun of course, but the abuse I took and knowing the abuse that others took really put a downer on what should have been one of the coolest things I will ever get to do.

And that was it for the festivities for me and I headed to the game. And boy was it a let down. I was bummed that Calgary didn't win, didn't like that Toronto did, but I was disappointed more by the sheer dullness of the game itself. It was sloppy football all around and it looked like neither team wanted to actually win the thing. Calgary's play calling left a lot to be desired, and the Argos continued their year-long campaign to be considered the biggest goons in the CFL. Seeing the biggest buffoon of them all, Adriano Belli, get kicked out of what is hopefully his final CFL game was a highlight for me. I have made it no secret that I despise everything about Belli and think he is everything that is wrong with professional sports. He gives the league and the sport a bad name and no one deserves the ignominy of being ejected from the Grey Cup more than that a-hole.

But my biggest beef was with the absolutely terrible job the officiating crew did. I made mention of a quote from Tom Higgins at the Fan State of the League address and how it would bit him later. This is that later. During a question about how bad the officials in the CFL are, Higgins said that the crew that would do the Grey Cup were "the best of the best." If Sunday's crew is the best, I'd hate to see the worst. Not watching at home makes it hard for me to comment on certain penalties, like a facemask call on a dump-off pass to Chad Kackert in the first half that I didn't see (the facemask was obviously not on the guy who tackled Kackert), but there were two that will stick out in my mind as horrendously botched calls, both of which benefited the Argos. The first was a non-roughing call on the big Nik Lewis catch and run. Lewis was tackled by his neck and had his helmet ripped off his head, yet no call was made. Later in the game, a similar tackle took place on Jon Cornish and the refs did call it. I am fine with mistakes, but inconsistency has always bothered me. Usually, it is game to game, but this was within one game. Either they missed the first one or incorrectly called the second one, but it is clear that they did not get both calls right and that is something I cannot stand.

The second missed call still boggles my mind almost a day later, and that was the controversial Dontrelle Inman catch. Inman caught the ball and landed at the one-yard line. Toronto challenged that he crossed the goal line before being down, but the call was upheld. The problem with that call, however, is that Inman didn't catch the ball. He never had control of the ball and when he hit the ground, the ball came loose and landed on the turf. That's an incomplete pass and I don't understand how it could be ruled any other way, yet it was. The officials in this game should be embarrassed by their performance and if I hear Tom Higgins ever say that the CFL's refs are the best in North America, I will find a way to smack him in the mouth.

And because I was so disgusted by the product on the field, both by the two teams and by the officials, I did something I had never done before: I left the game early. I walked out of the Rogers Centre SkyDome at the three-minute warning as a personal protest to the garbage that took place on the field during the game. And my walking out early paid off as I was interviewed once again, but this time by a radio station that I could not identify (if you heard a guy blasting the officials, but praising the way Toronto hosted the event, that was me).

And I'd be remiss if I didn't touch on maybe the worst part of the whole weekend (and I think this will be universal): Burton Cummings' rendition of O Canada. That was probably the worst national anthem I have ever heard (yes, worse than the O Tannenbaum guy). He held the end of the French part way too long and he messed up the words! "We stand on guard, we stand on guard for thee"? No, you egotistical idiot, those aren't the words. He forgot "God keep our land, glorious and free" as well. The crowd was singing along and that is not the time to decide to take liberties with the anthem. Check that, there is never a time to take liberties with the anthem. Sing it the way it is supposed to be sung. Burton Cummings was a complete disgrace last night.

So while there were both highs and lows, I think my first Grey Cup experience was an overall enjoyable one. I think Toronto did an excellent job of hosting the event and if the Argos winning sparks new interest in the CFL in that city, then I guess that's a good thing. If the game had been better, I'd likely not be as negative as I am likely coming off, but it was a fun weekend and one that I will happily do again when the Cup is played in these parts (Hamilton, Toronto, Ottawa, maybe even Montreal) in the future.

Thursday, 22 November 2012

Williams Named Top Special Teamer

In what should come as a surprise to no one, Chris Williams was named the CFL's Most Outstanding Special Teams Player for 2012.

Williams was outstanding in every way in 2012 and he was especially so on special teams, where he set a league record for return touchdowns in a season with six. He is the first Tiger-Cat to be named the league's top special teamer.

Williams was thrice named the CFL's special teams player of the week and twice named the special teams player of the month. Picking Williams was a slam dunk... except for one person.

Williams received 56 of a possible 57 votes, which means just one person voted for BC's Tim Brown. I am curious who the joker was that voted for Brown. No offense meant to him, but seriously? Williams was the best special teams player by a wide margin (and I'd argue that the second best played on the same team, Tiger-Cat kicker Luca Congi). This strikes me as the same silliness as when a baseball player isn't named on 100 per cent of Hall of Fame ballots even if they are undeniably a Hall of Famer. Whoever didn't vote for Williams knew that Williams would win, so instead cast a pity vote for Brown. If there was ever a player who deserved to be an unanimous selection, it was Williams this year.

The league handed out their other awards as well. JC Sherritt was named the league's top defensive player, Jon Cornish was named the top Canadian, Chris Matthews took home the top rookie prize, Jovon Olafioye was named the best offensive lineman, Brian Bratton won the Tom Pate Award and the most overrated player in the CFL (whose name will no longer be mentioned here) was undeservedly named the Most Outstanding Player.

While Williams was great on special teams, I'd argue that he should have also been named MOP (instead of you know who). The argument against Williams has been that he played on a 6-12 team that didn't make the playoffs, but I don't think that criticism has a lot of merit in an MOP race. An MVP race, absolutely, but not an MOP one. Williams was more outstanding in every measurable way to the guy who won (and to Cornish) that it is stunning he wasn't the winner of the award. The guy that won the award put up a paltry six touchdowns to Williams' 17, had just 11 more catches and 30 more receiving yards than Williams, and only got as much publicity as he did because he broke what is one of the most meaningless records I can think of (after QB wins): a total yards record.

That player had over 3,800 total yards, but a whopping 1,588 came on kick returns. Getting a lot of return yards is not impressive. All that record proved was that the Argos gave up a lot of points and that allowed that player to put up those numbers by returning so many kickoffs. He had more kickoff returns than any other player, so even if he had a mediocre year returning the football (which he did, since he had no return touchdowns) he had more opportunity to put up yards. Yet somehow he is the MOP and Williams is not.

There is no question in my mind that Williams was the most outstanding player this year and I honestly don't believe that No. 2 was even close.