Friday 27 February 2015

A Condemnation of Rider Nation

All fanbases have their obnoxious fans. The ones who, no matter what, refuse to believe that their team is anything less than perfect. Their favourite team will go undefeated and win the championship every year, and any time they fail to do so, it is always someone else's fault.

I hate fans like that, and nowhere is that attitude better exemplified than with the people who make up "Rider Nation."

Earlier this week, the team itself sent out a tweet and in said tweet they referred to themselves as "Canada's Team."


Sorry to break it to everyone, but the Saskatchewan Roughriders are not, in any way, Canada's Team. In fact, NO team in the CFL is Canada's Team. To be considered the nation's team, one would have to be beloved by a vast majority of the nation. No team in CFL can claim anywhere near 50.1 per cent of the national population as being fans of their team. So just cut this Canada's Team shit out.

But it is not only this Canada's Team nonsense that irks many about the Riders are their fans. No, it goes deeper than that. And the sad part is, it wasn't always this way.

For quite some time, if you asked a CFL fan who they liked besides their own team, more often than not their answer would have been Saskatchewan. They were the plucky underdog, the lovable loser, the Chicago Cubs or Cleveland Browns of the Canadian Football League. The Roughriders WERE the identity of Saskatchewan (still are, frankly) and fans from around the country wished for nothing but good things for the team in green.

But then things changed. I don't know when it happened exactly, but that plucky underdog became a hypocritical, arrogant, insufferable juggernaut and fans turned. And I don't mean juggernaut off the field. Sure, the Riders have had plenty of success over the past decade or so, but no more so than any other team. No, it was the financial success of the team that turned their fans from fun loving into full-on jerks.

Now, I must stress that I am not trying to say every Rider fan is an asshole. This is about that segment of the fanbase that rational Rider fans probably despise.

Also, I do not in any way begrudge the Riders their financial success. I laud it, I cheer for it, as I would for any team (yes, even the Argos). I want every CFL team to be not just financially stable, but to be making money hand over fist. The better off each individual team is monetarily, the better the league is as a whole.

But it seems that once the Riders become the financial powerhouse that they are today, something changed. The fans become nastier, angrier and just downright rude to anyone who dared question Saskatchewan's superiority.

It is like they forgot that not long ago, it was their team that was on the brink of folding. It was their team that needed to hold a telethon in order to keep the lights on. It was their team that needed NFL money to help keep their team from going under.

And now, because they found stable footing and are rolling in money – again, good for them – they turn their noses up at the Hamiltons and Torontos of the league who have gone through tough times. You would think, or at least hope, that a group of people who so identify with their team would not wish the same on others. But yet, whenever someone dares say that the Riders aren't the be all and end all, one of the first things they thrown in your face is how much money they have.

Another point they love to make is how attendance goes up when the Riders are in town. There is no denying that Saskatchewan has a lot of fans nationwide, but so does every other team. I personally know Tiger-Cat fans in BC and PEI. I know of Cats fans who span the globe, be it in Taiwan or England (and these are just the ones I know personally, I am sure there are more). But the dirty little secret that Rider fans don't like to talk about is that all these fans around the country are not in Saskatchewan because they were forced to move to find work years ago. Saskatchewan is now a booming economy – and again, good for them – but that was not always the case. Many residents needed to move out-of-province in order to provide for their families. And they took their Rider pride with them.

But it is not just the arrogance, it is also the hypocrisy. The CFL has a salary cap, or more accurately a Salary Management System, and because it is not a hard cap, teams have exceeded the cap. In the seven years where data is available (the numbers from 2014 have not been released yet) there have been six violations of the SMS: one by Montreal, one by Winnipeg and four by Saskatchewan.


What also needs to be explained is that one of the teams who pushed hardest for some type of salary cap was...

The Saskatchewan Roughriders!

The Riders were so concerned that they couldn't compete financially that they essentially demanded that the league implement some type of salary cap to balance the competition league-wide and allow for more parity. They wanted to take away the competitive advantage from teams like the Eskimos, who routinely would just paid for all the best players, and make the league more equitable.

How the worm has turned.

Now that Saskatchewan is the financial workhouse of the league, you will often find Rider fans scoffing at the notion that they should have to play by the rules. And their four cap transgressions in seven seasons shows that their management is in lockstep with that idea. It is a horrible attitude and one that infuriates fans of the other eight teams.

So what you have is a team that cried poor and demanded some type of system that made it easier for them to compete becoming the one to basically say, "To hell with the rules, they don't apply to us because we're rich!"

And maybe the craziest thing is, they still think everyone loves them. They remind me of Red Sox fans. When the Sox were going through their 86-year championship drought, many opposing team fans quietly cheered for them. When they finally broke through and won it all in 2004, a lot of people were happy. But then the arrogance kicked it. For some insane reason, they thought everyone loved them because people cheered for them in '04. They thought everyone was a Red Sox fan. That by not being the Yankees, they were seen as the good guys. They were the scrappy underdog taking it to the big, bad Bronx Bombers. But the '04 run was a one-off. It was not the beginning of a growing of Red Sox Nation, it was simply people who felt sorry that they went over 80 years between championships cheering for them one time. And with the Red Sox trying to make themselves out to be the anti-Yankees, it made them look like hypocrites. The Red Sox are exactly like the Yankees. They spend obscene amounts of money to lure the best players to Boston in the hopes of maintaining their winning ways. They became the very thing they fought against all those years. Sound familiar?

I am already prepared for the backlash this will create. Normal, well-adjusted fans of the Riders will likely view this and go, "Yup, he's right. We do have a bunch of assholes in our fanbase." To those people, let it be known that I am not talking about you.

But to the other side – the one who will claim I am a hater or that I am jealous or some other such nonsense – bring it on. There is a comment section below that you are free to fire back at me. But do me one favour, don't be a coward. Put your name on it. You want to be the big, bad bully, then don't comment anonymously.

So have at me, Rider Nation. I'm not backing down.

Thursday 26 February 2015

Hamilton's Running Back Riches

The recent re-signing and contract extension of two of the Tiger-Cats' talented tailbacks – Nic Grigsby and C.J. Gable, respectively - naturally sparks the conversation of what Coach Austin will do with his spoil of running back riches.

Before we discuss the options and potential deployment within this critical roster position, let us take a look at what Austin has with Gable, Grigsby and Mossis Madu.

The All-Rounder

Although Gable had an injury interrupted 2014 campaign, when you look back at the two dozen games he has played during his time in Hamilton there is little doubt that the former USC Trojan is one of the most complete running backs in the league today. Balance is not only the key to Carl Junior’s nifty running style, but also his contribution to the offense with an almost equal 991 yards rushing and 901 yards receiving. Equally adept at totting the rock as well as swinging out of the formation as a receiver, C.J.’s best attribute however may be in his stout pass protection blocking skills and blitz pick-ups.

Gable is the every-down, all-purpose back that can continue to be the main feature of Hamilton’s offensive attack.

The Rusher

Nic Grigsby was well on his way to contending for Most Outstanding Rookie before his time in Bomber-land came to an abrupt end. While the former Arizona Wildcats’ 4.56 yards per carry is not exactly what you would consider award worthy, his nose for the first down line and end zone is a quality that the Tiger-Cats desperately needed last year. Nic was the best league-wide with 50 carries that moved the sticks as well as leading all running backs with 11 rushing touchdowns. To put that into perspective, a little more than once in every four carries does the former centre-fielder convert for a new set of downs.

Grigsby can be the Hammer in Hamilton’s running game and be that key ingredient needed to salt away and preserve victories late in games.

The Receiver

Mossis Madu definitely made his mark in his inaugural CFL season coming out of the backfield. The former Oklahoma Sooner had an impressive average of 11.32 yards per reception in his 14 games played in black and gold. But even more impressive was his 347 yards after catch which works out to 7.89 per reception or nearly 70% of his receiving yards gained after the ball settled into his soft hands.

Madu can be that matchup nightmare coming out of the backfield or out of the slot position that will keep opposing defensive coordinators up at night.

The Reality and Solution

The roster restrictions in the CFL make it difficult to have three international running backs dressed on gameday. Training camp competition and potential injuries could very well make that a moot problem, but barring that head coach and general manager Kent Austin is faced with a difficult juggling situation.

I believe Gable is, and should be, the feature running back in Hamilton’s offense. I will just leave it there and direct people to the comments section to debate should you wish.

That leaves Grigsby and Madu. The simple solution is to dress one while stashing the other on one of the injury reserve or practice rosters. I doubt either player will spend any extended time willingly on the practice roster and would assume that there would be more than a couple teams that would make a claim upon their services, so using the PR is not a viable solution.

The issue then comes down to paying a player like Mossis or Nic while not getting any production if they are being sheltered on the IR. If you put either on the six-game IR, their salary does not go to Maximum Salary Expenditure Cap calculation, but their availability is severely limited. However, if they are inventoried on the one-game IR, their salary does count to the cap. Either way, you are not getting on-field production from either of these talented players.

A unique solution that would allow Hamilton to keep all three on the game-day roster and capitalize upon their differing skills would be to utilize Mossis Madu in the slotback position. The Norman, Oklahoma native reminds me of a slightly bigger version of former Ti-Cat Marcus Thigpen, current Eskimo Kendial Lawrence and veteran Argo slotback Andre Durie. In fact, he played his third season with the Sooners as a slot receiver before returning to running back for his senior season.

The options and variances of using all three players are truly very enticing.
  • The Great Grigsby establishing the ground game and converting in critical situations when everyone knows you are going to run. Play-action pass opportunities arise when the opposing defense brings more defenders into the box.
  • Able Gable keeping defenses honest by delivering that balanced approach. Getting the ball into C.J.’s hands via run or pass or sticking his nose into a pass rusher giving quarterback Zach Collaros that extra steamboat to go downfield to one of the other Ti-Cat targets.
  • Magic Madu coming out of the backfield in a two-back set with Gable or directly as a slot receiver creating a matchup problem for the opposition. Mossis is too quick for a linebacker to cover and too big for a defensive back to tackle.
The Ti-Cats need to get all three players into the game-day lineup and maximize the capabilities of their talented trio of resourceful running backs.

Tuesday 24 February 2015

Podskee Wee Wee, Episode 3

A lot has happened since the last time Mike and I picked up the mics. We get into the winners and losers of free agency, discuss specifically what the Ti-Cats have done, have a mutual love-in over the signings of C.J. Gable and Nic Grigsby, and answer some of your questions.

As always, you can subscribe on iTunes by clicking the button below. If you don't use iTunes, let me know which podcast directory you do use and I will see about trying to get it up on there.

And like last time, any reviews or ratings you leave on iTunes is greatly appreciated. Enjoy Episode 3 of Podskee Wee Wee.

Monday 23 February 2015

Monday Mailbag, Vol. 2

No need for a long intro, let’s get to the questions.

What are your thoughts on the Ti-Cats forum? It used to be better, but there are a few users that rip on everyone, so they leave.

I used to be a frequent contributor to the forum, but my visits there have been few and far between for at least a couple of years. I found it to be too combative and rude. Differing opinions were not welcome and things took a turn for the nasty. I am not innocent by any means; I was known to be a bit of a jerk when posting. But I tried my best to be respectful of others, but sometimes it can be tough.

So instead of interacting via the Ti-Cats or CFL forum, I use Twitter. Many of the CFL discussions are great. Yes, things can get a bit testy from time to time, but I find it much more cordial than the forum. I chalk that up to less anonymity on Twitter. Sure, we can hide behind screennames, but I find that more people use their real name and photo, which gives a more personalized touch and makes it harder to just troll someone or act like a jackass.

Twitter is also where I met my two fantastic blog contributors, Mark and Eric, as well as where I had the pleasure of meeting my podcast partner, Mike. So if anyone is looking for a way out of the forum and into more civilized discussions, hit up Twitter. You won’t regret it.

Do you think the average Ontario fan would watch more games if they were free online (without TSN GO)?

Online streaming is the way of the future, and one might even say it is the present. The CFL finding a way to offer high quality streams online, either through TSN’s website or via other means like YouTube, would be massive. I am sure that the television contract the league signed with TSN gives them exclusive rights to air games, so finding a digital platform while that contract still exists would be tough.

As far as whether it would increase interest in Ontario, I don’t know. There will always be those that look down on the CFL – and those people don’t just reside in Ontario – and no matter what the CFL does, and that won’t change.

Another thing to factor in is time zones. I run a blog dedicated to the CFL, so to call me a hardcore fan is probably not an understatement, but unless the Ti-Cats are playing, I am not too keen on staying up until a west coast game finishes around 1 a.m. Would online streaming of games change that? I don’t think so.

If the goal is to make the CFL a leader in online streaming, then that’s great. If it is to get more Ontarians to watch games, I don’t think it will make much of a difference. recently ran a poll that asked which East team had the best receiving corps. The runaway winner was the Ottawa RedBlacks. Thoughts?

My initial thought is that it’s wrong. The RedBlacks, while having a much improved receiving corps, is long on potential and short on actual results. Mo Price has all the tools to be a No. 1 receiver, but injuries have held him back. Greg Ellingson had a wonderful start to his CFL career, but then injuries slowed him down and allowed others, like Luke Tasker, to take his spot. Ernest Jackson has, if we are being honest, one great month at the right time, but who knows if he will build off that. And while everyone loves Brad Sinopoli, who is to say he will ever be anything more than what he already is. The RedBlacks already have a decent, though unspectacular national receiver in Matt Carter; is Sinopoli really that much of an upgrade over him?

So no, Ottawa definitely does not have the best group of receivers in the East. So you probably want to know who I think does. I think it comes down to two teams, Hamilton and Montreal, and I am going to say the Als.

While I like Hamilton’s group, I like Montreal’s just a little bit more. Hamilton does not possess a one-two punch like Montreal does with S.J. Green and the recently acquired Fred Stamps. Green is a bona fide No. 1 receiver and it can be argued that he is the best receiver in the game. Would someone say the same of Luke Tasker, who is essentially Hamilton’s top pass catcher? Probably not.

Hamilton does have the best national receiver, Andy Fantuz, and while Montreal’s duo of Sam Giguère and Éric Deslauriers isn’t as good combined as Fantuz is singularly, they do provide better depth than what Hamilton has behind Fantuz.

So while I know I will probably take some crap for not picking Hamilton, I think it is pretty clear that Montreal’s group is, at least on paper, the best in the East.

Who are your picks for 2015 East and West MOPs?

Wow! It’s only February and people are already asking for predictions. Well, no time like the present to make a fool of one’s self. In the West, give me Bo Levi Mitchell and in the East, give me Ricky Ray.

Mitchell will have some stiff competition from within (teammate Jon Cornish) and from the outside (Mike Reilly). But I think that Mitchell is ready to ascend up the quarterback ladder and be placed amongst the very best in the game. Last year’s division finals featured a combined one playoff game started by the four starting quarterbacks (Mitchell, Reilly, Montreal’s Jonathan Crompton and Hamilton’s Zach Collaros), so the future is now for the young guns at the game’s most pivotal position. With that, Mitchell will continue to grow and add to his trophy case that already features a Grey Cup ring and Grey Cup MVP award.

In the East, until someone can knock him off his perch, Ricky Ray is the odds-on favourite to take home the MOP nom for the third consecutive year. Ray was far from stellar in either of the last two seasons (an injury-shortened 2013 and a decent, though unspectacular 2014), but had the benefit both years of their really being not much competition for the nomination. I can see the case being similar for this year. Collaros could be in the mix if he plays 15-18 games in 2015, but I don’t really see anyone from Ottawa or Montreal challenging Ray. So picking now, I’ll give the East to Ray.

Would it be beneficial to have a player onside (besides the punter) for all punts?

This is a tough one to answer. The benefits of doing so are tremendous if executed properly (as seen in Hamilton’s season-finale win over Montreal last year), but doing it every time you punt might be overkill.

Much like halfback options or wide receiver passes, I think plays like these need to be used as conservatively as possible. When the winds are swirling and gusting, I say go for it, but on a calm July day, maybe it is best to keep this one holstered for another time.

Sunday 22 February 2015

Building a Grey Cup Champion

If you were a head coach of a CFL team heading into the 2015 season, what would you want your team to be best at, league-wide? What is that one factor that you will have painted on the locker room walls and emphasized at every opportunity?

If my goal is to make it to “The Peg” this coming November 29 and ultimately win the 103rd Grey Cup, that one factor, that one phrase and statement that I will scream from the mountain top would be simple:

Lead The League In Turnover Ratio!

Of the last 10 Grey Cup champions, six led the league in turnover ratio. That is an incredibly high percentage. Interestingly, though not surprisingly, that is also the exact same percentage last 10 division-final-winning hosts. Those are pretty good odds and ones that I would be more than willing to take if you ask me.

Outside of leading the turnover battle over the course of the season, another quality that I would want to instill in my team is being stout against the run. Teams that led the league in lowest yards-per-rushing-attempt have made it to the big game 60 per cent of the time and claimed the trophy five times in the last decade.

Overall, where did the last 10 Grey Cup champions rank during regular season when it comes to many of the most important statistical factors on the gridiron?

Upon collecting and analyzing the data, I did find a few things to be a little surprising.
  1. Leading the league in rushing the football does not appear to be very important.
  2. Protecting your quarterback is slightly more important than getting to theirs.
  3. Points scored upon you are more important than the points you score.
  4. Leading the league in Touchdowns is more important than total points scored.
  5. Putting up the most offensive yardage is not a recipe for success.
As far as overall rankings, who are the best and worst Grey Cup Champions over the last 10 years? Well, the 2009 Montreal Alouettes ranked first across the league in eight of 13 categories and second or third in four others. The worst statistically ranked team to hoist the Grey Cup in the last decade goes to the 2012 Toronto Argonauts, who only ranked first in the area of turnover ratio while ranking, on average, in the lower third of the league in all others.

So, what do you want your team to be best at during the 2015 CFL regular season?

I Turn It Over To You!

Tuesday 17 February 2015

Reinebold Staying to Finish Business

Jeff Reinebold is staying with the Hamilton Tiger-Cats.

After overtures from Simon Fraser University to become their new head coach, a move that had the support of alumni of the university, the former Blue Bombers head coach has decided to stay in Hamilton because, as he put it, he has “work to finish.”

Before I start lavishing praise on the man, a bit of mea culpa on my part. I BLASTED the hiring of Reinebold back in 2013, saying that I doubted he would do anything spectacular and that, at best, he would be a mediocre coordinator and how terrible of a hire it was to bring Reinebold in.

Boy was I wrong.

Over the past two seasons, Reinebold has led what is easily one of the top two or three special teams units in the CFL. Last season, three different returnmen (Brandon Banks, Quincy McDuffie and Terrell Sinkfield) won player of the week awards for their work on special teams. In 2013, Mark Beswick was the East Division nominee for Most Outstanding Special Teams Player. And let's not forget his ingenious designing of onside punts to counteract the winds at Tim Horton's Field. The success of the players under Reinebold’s tutelage speaks for itself. He may not have been great as a defensive coordinator in Montreal or as a head coach in Winnipeg, but he has become, quite possibly, the best special teams coordinator in the entire CFL.

With Reinebold spurning Simon Fraser to stay in Hamilton, he also saves Austin and Co. the unenviable task of trying to find his replacement. The pool of quality coaches is very shallow by this time in the offseason, so finding a guy who could replicate the great work Reinebold has done over the past two season would have been a near-impossible undertaking. But with Reinebold staying put, the Tiger-Cats can focus their energies on tryout camps, the upcoming draft and the start of the season.

It is never uninteresting with Jeff Reinebold around, so I look forward to seeing what new tricks he has up his sleeve so the Ti-Cats can finally finish business in 2015.

A Little Love for "Thick Nik"

I find it very hard to envision Nik Lewis sporting any other colours than the red, white and black of the Calgary Stampeders; however, in 2015, that may be a reality.

Stampeders boss John Hufnagel hasn't expressed very much interest in bringing the Stampeder great back. It doesn't appear as though many other teams are very interested either, as Lewis has been a free agent for an entire week now with very few rumours surrounding his name. The lack of interest in "Geronimo Jones" somewhat baffles me, as I feel like all nine teams should at least check the price tag on Lewis and give him an offer.

First of all, Lewis is one the best to ever catch a football in CFL history. While his production has certainly trailed off recently, he is still just two years removed from nine straight 1,000-yard seasons, something very few players have accomplished.

The biggest question surrounding "Thick Nik" is if he'll ever be able to bounce back from the his broken fibula that ended his season prematurely in 2013. This will be Lewis' first offseason since he suffered the injury where he won't be rehabbing his leg and can focus solely on his game, something he admits the injury prevented him from doing prior to the 2014 campaign.

Lewis has also stated that the injury affected his speed and route running at the beginning of last season, but he felt like he regained his step near the end and, as a result, played more snaps in October and November than he did in July and August. Even if Lewis' ankle injury is a thing of the past, what can teams realistically expect from him on the field?

While playing limited snaps thanks to Calgary's loaded receiving corps, Lewis managed to haul in 400 yards and three touchdowns in 2013 prior to the injury and followed that up with 37 receptions for 377 yards in 2014. Keep in mind, at 32 years old, Lewis isn't that old and could contribute a solid 500 yards on a team where he wasn't the odd-man out every time his team needed to start a Canadian because of ratio issues. Lewis is also known for his big blocks downfield, something that age or a broken fibula can't take away from him. Around 500 yards from Nik Lewis would be a bonus, as it's what he brings on the sidelines and away from the field that makes him worth the money.

You know exactly what you are getting from Nik Lewis away from the field as a teammate and a person: a winner, a well-respected leader, a motivator, a competitor and an outgoing personality that's always entertaining and good for a quote. Lewis would walk in on the first day of training camp and already have the respect of his peers. He'll be in a position to immediately mentor the younger players with 11 seasons under his belt and he's also a two-time Grey Cup champion that brings a winning attitude to the organization, something Winnipeg and Ottawa both could use. Best of all, you could get all this on a rental contract with a low price.

We know Nik Lewis is willing to accept a smaller role on another team. He sat in the backseat in 2014 with Calgary and not once did you hear the nine-time 1,000-yard receiver complain. Nik understands he's nearing the end of his career and his best days are behind him, so I expect his asking price to match his role as a depth receiver. That asking price also may have dropped by now with few teams expressing interest while Nik still wants to play another year. Lewis would slot in as the fourth or fifth receiver on most teams, which would make 500 yards from the big-guy very impressive and worth every penny.

While many teams have made it clear they don't plan on signing any more international receivers in free agency, I still fully expect Nik Lewis to find a new home come June. In fact, all nine teams should be showing interest in Thick Nik. There won't be any bidding wars over the 32-year old, but likely some offers from teams looking to go on a Grey Cup run or are looking for an experienced veteran that brings just as much, if not more, to the table off the field than on it.

As weird as it would be to see Nik Lewis playing a game without the horseshoe on his helmet, I can only hope it's my team, the Winnipeg Blue Bombers, that picks up the always entertaining, 240-pound pass-catcher from Southern Arkansas.

Nik Lewis provides more than just touchdowns and big blocks, and I assume other teams know that and take a chance on the Stampeders legend.

Monday 16 February 2015

Monday Mailbag

When the decision was made to re-start the blog, I wanted to make it different than the previous incarnation. One way I wanted to do that was through more interaction with readers. There has been some decent discussion in the comment sections, and some great conversations via Twitter, but I want to expand that and make you, the readers, even more involved than before.

So with that I bring you our newest feature, The BWW Monday Mailbag. If you want to get a question answered, you can tweet at me using #BWWMailbag or drop a question in the comment section. Every Monday, I will answer a handful of your questions. If you asked a question and didn’t get it answered, don’t worry, I will answer it in another mailbag.

Let’s get started with a question I have been asked on more than one occasion.

What are your thoughts on the Tiger-Cats’ new home, Tim Horton’s Field?

In one word: beautiful. But you want more than one word.

When I first entered Tim Horton’s Field back on Labour Day, I don’t think it is a stretch to say that my breath was taken away. It is a truly amazing stadium and has become a great place to watch a game. The upgrades over Ivor Wynne Stadium are many, and while that venue will always hold a special place in my heart, I have fully embraced Tim Horton’s Field.

That’s not to say the stadium doesn’t have some flaws. The biggest one being that it wasn’t completed for any of the games that were played there. I also am not a fan of the concourses, as I found them small and hard to maneuver through. Of course, that might also have been due to the unfinished nature of the place.

With the stadium only being partially completed last year, I obviously cannot give a comprehensive evaluation. I think when it is 100 per cent finished, it is going to be one of the best places to watch a game in this country.

What offseason coaching change(s) will have the most impact in 2015?

The easy answer to this one is obviously Jeff Tedford’s hiring as head coach of the BC Lions. When a team replaces the guy in charge, that move is likely to have the biggest impact of any change any team made.

But outside of Tedford, the one hire that has me the most curious is one he made for his own staff: hiring George Cortez as offensive coordinator.

Say what you want about Cortez’s disastrous one-year tenure as Hamilton’s head coach, or the seemingly acrimonious split he just went through with the Saskatchewan Roughriders, but the man knows how to run an offense. The 2012 Tiger-Cats, a team that finished a dismal 6-12, had one of the most explosive and exciting offenses in the CFL that season. He won a Grey Cup in 2013 with the Riders and might have gone to another one with them had Darian Durant not gotten hurt midway through last season.

BC’s offense is loaded with weapons – Andrew Harris, Manny Arceneaux, Shawn Gore, Courtney Taylor – and a fully healthy Travis Lulay guiding a Cortez-installed offense should have Lions fans salivating at what they can accomplish. Cortez has his faults – he really does not know how to handle backup quarterbacks – but the positives outweigh the negatives. Watching what he does with the Lions offense provides the most intrigue for me.

What is the problem with Hamilton in the red zone? Is it scheme or personnel? And why do they seem to be so predictable?

This seems like a question that has been asked by Tiger-Cats fans for the better part of a decade. It seems no matter who is calling the shots or who is on the field, the Tiger-Cats just can’t execute in the red zone. The clichéd answer is that executing near the goalline is a matter of will. That the offensive line must dominate at the point of contact to allow the running back to find a hole or give the quarterback enough time to go through his reads.

Over the years we have seen flashes of red zone efficiency, but last year’s unacceptable 40 per cent success rate is hopefully the nadir of red zone ineptitude. Short yardage has been a bit of a struggle for the Cats over the last two seasons, especially, and a lot of Hamilton’s red zone woes come from their inability to punch it in from short distance, like Jeremiah Masoli’s goalline fumble on Labour Day.

It can’t be scheme or personnel or predictability because these problems have existed for years with major changes to all three areas. It might simply be a matter of the team just not executing when given the chance. But this is definitely something to keep an eye on in 2015.

Will the Argos take another step back in 2015?

As long as Ricky Ray is piloting that offense, they have a chance to win any game they play. A return to health for Andre Durie, Chad Owens and Anthony Coombs will certainly help their offense, and Ricky Foley should help take pressure off last year’s top rookie out of the East, Tristan Okpalaugo. So the Argos do have some nice pieces that might be able to keep them from falling.

However, the problem stems more from the outside than the inside. Hamilton and Montreal have surpassed the Argos. Both teams have reloaded and Ottawa has made some big moves in the hopes of bettering their two-win performance from last year. Add in a rejuvenated Winnipeg, a potential explosive offense in BC, the Stamps and Esks looking like they will still be top-level clubs and it doesn’t look good for the Argos. Even Saskatchewan was able to retain a lot of their top players, as well as acquire a really good one from Toronto.

While I won’t say that the Argos will finish in last place, it is entirely possible. All the teams around them have made changes to get better, while the Argos have pretty much stood pat. Not a wise decision for a team that missed the playoffs in 2014.

Bakari Grant… still in limbo. Why the dance? No other team interested? Cats want a bargain?

I think the answer to this is three-fold. For starters, I truly don’t think Bakari Grant wants to leave Hamilton, especially if, as rumoured, the main team interested in him is Toronto. I know that football is a business, and that he does not have to have any loyalty to the Tiger-Cats, but we are talking about a guy who put on an “ARGOS SUCK” t-shirt after the Ti-Cats beat the Argos in Toronto in the 2013 East Final.

Secondly, the Tiger-Cats are very high on Joe Anderson, who spent time on the practice roster last season. Anderson will also be playing for a salary that will probably be half of what Grant will command. By letting Grant go, they can put a player on the field that they are very high on and save a little money in the process.

But at the end of the day, money is the biggest factor. The Ti-Cats have done a lot of work trying to fit everyone into their budget, while also being mindful of future contracts they will need to extend. Adding another multi-year, six-figure deal might not fit into Hamilton’s salary structure. This is one of those times that I envision Kent Austin the general manager arguing with Kent Austin the head coach. Grant might end up being a casualty of the general manager’s future-planning prudence overriding head coach’s short-term desire to field the best possible team.

Sunday 15 February 2015

Are Hamilton Fans Too Preoccupied With the Sack?

I can understand why Hamilton Tiger-Cats fans love a ferocious pass rush. That scintillating image of an opposing quarterback being taken to the turf is one all fans enjoy. Memories of Grover Covington and Joe Montford rushing off the edge and “getting home” with a sack are amongst the strongest for Tiger Town faithful. These iconic reflections also happen to coincide with the last two Grey Cup victories for the Black and Gold – in 1986 and 1999, respectively – thus cementing them in Steeltown lore.

Yet, is sacking the quarterback a necessity in the pursuit of hoisting Albert’s, the 4th Earl of Grey, shiny Cup? The simple answer is no, it is not!

As you can clearly see illustrated in the chart above, only once in the last 10 years has the team that led the league in quarterback sacks gone on to win the league’s championship.

In fact, sitting atop the quarterback takedown leaderboard has only resulted in one other Grey Cup participant. To put this in perspective, only 10 per cent of the time has leading the league in sacks resulted in the chance to contend for, and ultimately claim, the 106-year-old trophy.

A little further, the average ranking of Grey Cup victors in the area of quarterback sacks is 3.8. The average ranking for the losing team in the finale is fourth. For those teams that did lead the Purolator Tackle Hunger program, they had an average divisional finish of second.

By no means am I saying that exerting pressure on the opposing quarterback is not a good thing. Of course, hurrying the opposition’s signal caller and making him uncomfortable can only benefit a team’s success. And there are few aspects of the game that bring fans to their feet and pumping their fists quite like a sack!

But it is clear that it is not the only thing, or even remotely near the most important aspect, in the makeup of today’s championship teams.

So, perhaps Hamilton Tiger-Cat Fans need not be so preoccupied with quarterback sacks. It may be time to leave the memories of Montford and Covington in the past, when the game was played and structured differently.

Yet, the more obvious question is “What are the key and common ingredients to the championship teams of today?” We shall continue to look for that elusive answer as we further our dissection and look “Inside the Numbers!”

Saturday 14 February 2015

Can Crompton Be "The Guy" for Montreal?

The Montreal Alouettes have had a great offseason. They brought in Fred Stamps; re-signed the vast majority of their pending free agents, including S.J. Green; and upgraded some areas through free agency. But despite all that, there is still one question that lingers over the Alouettes and it is one that will likely decide where they finish in 2015:

Is Jonathan Crompton good enough to lead the Als back to the Grey Cup?

It is interesting to note that this happens to be the same question that many asked prior to the 2014 season, just with a different name. At the conclusion of 2013, Montreal appeared to have their heir apparent behind centre with Troy Smith, who looked capable of taking over the reins of from future Hall of Famer Anthony Calvillo. Well, we all know how that turned out as the former Heisman Trophy winner failed miserably at the start of 2014 and ultimately was replaced before the seventh game of the season.

General manager Jim Popp has done a superb job of retaining essential veterans that were to become free agents this February. He has also signed what many considered to be the top prospect from the 2011 CFL Draft in former Baylor Bear and Denver Bronco, Philip Blake. Add to that a trade with Edmonton that landed perennial all-star Fred Stamps, the acquisition of national receiver Samuel Giguère, and it is arguably the most productive offseason of activity by any team in the league.

Yet, questions still remain with respect to the pivotal signal calling position. Will the former Tennessee Volunteer falter like the former Buckeye or will he be a gem like the former Aggie from Utah State?

While it is nearly impossible to predict such an outcome, we can take a look back at what Crompton was able to accomplish last season once he took over at the helm of the Montreal offense.

Put simply, it improved. And it improved quite dramatically.

Touchdowns were up 167 per cent, while interceptions were down 25 per cent. Quarterback rating was up 57 per cent, while overall passing offense increased 26 per cent from the first eight games to the final 12, when they settled upon Crompton behind centre.

Not that any of these numbers would come as a surprise to anyone as they almost certainly had to go up from where they were under the misdirection of Troy Smith and Alex Brink.

I then decided to take a look at correlations – there’s that word again! – to see if the Montreal offense improved so much that it accounted significantly for their later season successes. The major factors that contributed to the turnaround in the Alouettes’ season from Labour Day Weekend onward were on the defensive side of the ball, takeaways being the major contributor. Now some of this can be attributed to the offense, as their own ball security and drive continuation obviously helps a defense.

So with these statistical analyses not providing much in the way of answers as far as whether we think Crompton can be “The Guy” to lead Montreal to the 103rd Grey Cup, I decided to simplify things and go a little old school.

Below is a ranking of the nine quarterbacks that took the majority of the snaps for their respective teams during the 2014 CFL season. I looked at all the statistics or factors that are commonly used to evaluate pivot performance. In order to level the playing field I broke the numbers down on a per start basis in order to look at things objectively.

As we can see, the hirsute wonder achieved a group-leading top ranking in the areas of passes for second down conversion, 30+ yard completions, sacks taken and sacks per drop back. He was ranked in the upper half of the quarterbacking class in the areas of pass attempts, passing yards, yards per pass attempt, touchdowns and touchdown percentage.

Crompton did however not rank well when it came to completions and completion percentage, as well as interceptions and touchdown-to-interception ratio. This obviously resulted in a bottom quartile ranking in terms of overall Quarterback Rating.

There were a few things that jumped out at me when looking at these numbers. The former five-star recruit from Tuscola High School was quite a bit better at converting when he was put into a passing situation on second down than I had thought. His ability to connect on long passes also came as a surprise to me.

Overall, at the end of this analysis I would have to conclude that Montreal is in good hands at the quarterbacking position going into the 2015 CFL season. He was better than I had thought once he was given the keys to driving the Alouette offense. A full training camp, stability in the coaching ranks and the tutelage of Turk Schonert will undoubtedly help the NFL-turned-CFL veteran.

The key to me is in the area of the short pass. His completion percentage should increase significantly if he can get the ball out of his and into the hands of playmakers like Green, Stamps, Rodgers, Giguère, and Gilyard. Instead of relying on the long ball as much, focusing more upon the short to mid-length pass will greatly improve his effectiveness and Montreal’s prospects for the upcoming CFL campaign.

Should Crompton continue do what he did well in 2014 and clean up a few little things in 2015, I have no doubt that he can be the guy to lead Montreal to the 103rd Grey Cup.

Friday 13 February 2015

CFL Releases Schedule in Most Annoying Way Possible

Today was the day!

As we found out late yesterday, the CFL was going to unveil their 2015 schedule today. Everyone rejoiced! We were finally going to find out what our summer and fall was going to look like.

Then, instead of just putting the schedule out at a predetermined time, the CFL made what might go down as one of the stupidest social media moves in history.

In their infinite wisdom, the CFL posted a question on Twitter: "Who do you think will win the 103rd Grey Cup?" They then waited until they received 10,000 tweets answering the question before they released the schedule. It took nearly three hours from when the question was initially posed until they shared the schedule with everyone.

Pardon my French, but this was f**ing dumb!

I am not even sure I can put into words how frustrating and annoying this whole thing was. Fans like to have the schedule out as early as possible so they can plan their summers and maybe try to travel to a road game or two to watch their favourite team. Holding them hostage like this just makes people angry. It doesn't increase brand awareness, and any gains the league made by #CFLSchedule being a "trending topic" was counteracted by pissing off those that are most loyal to that brand.

And to top it off, it now seems like it was a shame!

Instead of today being a day to celebrate and analyze – I will take an in-depth look at the Tiger-Cats' schedule this weekend – we are forced to shake our heads at the collective stupidity of the people who thought this social media experiment was a good idea and the ones who gave it the go ahead.

So, if anyone at the CFL offices is reading this, please, next year, just release the damn thing without all this nonsense. Not everything has to be a popularity contest or a hashtag. Just put the schedule out and let us see when our favourite team will be playing. Thank you.

Thursday 12 February 2015

Hickman Stays Put, Woodson Comes Aboard

The Ti-Cats made a couple moves over the last two days, both of which will have a significant impact on the team in 2015.

The first occurred yesterday when the team announced the signing national running back Anthony Woodson.

Woodson was selected in the fourth round of the 2010 CFL Draft by Winnipeg, but spent the last two seasons in Toronto. He hasn't seen the ball much in his career, but he is a very good special teams player and will be a fine addition to Jeff Reinebold's crew. I also think that Woodson can contribute on offense, both as a runner and receiver, so he adds another dimension to the Ti-Cats multi-faceted system.

The second move the Ti-Cats made occurred this afternoon when the team announced they had reached a new deal with defensive end Justin Hickman.

Hickman returned to Hamilton last season after spending the previous two seasons in the NFL with the Indianapolis Colts.

While Hickman did not immediately return to his 2011 All-Star form, a full offseason and training camp will help him immensely. He admitted himself that his body was not right for the CFL last season, and with his desire to remain in Hamilton and make the CFL his home, I doubt very highly that it will be a problem in 2015.

What will be a problem, however, is Hamilton's defensive line. A HUGE problem for opposing teams, that is.

The Ti-Cats defensive line is a stacked crew and is in the conversation when it comes to discussing the best d-lines in the league. The Cats will have 2014 East Division All-Star Eric Norwood, Justin Hickman and Antonio Coleman (who has tremendous upside and could end up being a major contributor) to rotate in at end and Brian Bulcke, Bryan Hall and 2014 East Division Most Outstanding Canadian Ted Laurent manning the middle in another stellar three-man rotation. This is going to be one defensive line that is going to give opposing offensive lines, and offensive coordinators, fits.

So in the first three days of free agency, the Ti-Cats have bolstered their Canadian content with two very good signings and kept one of their prized free agents from heading elsewhere. It may not have garnered the headlines other teams' moves have, but Hamilton has quietly had a very good couple of days.

Wednesday 11 February 2015

Bombers, Redblacks Make Big Splash on Day 1 of Free Agency

February 10, 2015 was a good day for fans of the Ottawa RedBlacks and Winnipeg Blue Bombers.

As expected, both teams made a big slash Tuesday by signing a combined nine players on Day 1 of free agency. Winnipeg started the day off by signing national linebacker Sam Hurl from Saskatchewan and followed that up by bringing in slotback Darvin Adams from Toronto. Then they picked up back-to-back All-Star left tackle Stanley Bryant and former Hamilton Tiger-Cat tackle Marc Dile to bolster their offensive line, while also upgrading their Canadian talent on the defensive line by adding former Toronto Argonaut Ivan Brown.

The RedBlacks won the bidding war for solid left tackle SirVincent Rogers and upgraded their dreadful receiving corps with the acquisitions of Ernest Jackson from BC, Brad Sinopoli from Calgary and Greg Ellingson from Hamilton. There is no denying that both teams took a positive step forward in their rebuilds and are better football teams than they were just 24 hours ago.

It is difficult to say if there was a clear victor on the opening day of free agency as, simply put, both teams were. The Blue Bombers turned their weakest position group, offensive line, into one of the league's best, while the RedBlacks went from having the worst receiving corps in the CFL into having, at worst, an average group. More impressively, neither team necessarily mortgaged their future in free agent signings to load up for next season, particularly the Bombers.

Winnipeg went into the day with tons of cap space and likely left with still more money to spend. Stanley Bryant's reported salary of $160,000 isn't cheap for an import offensive tackle, but isn't outrageous either considering he's the league’s best at his position. Winnipeg also stocked up on crucial Canadian depth in signing Brown and Hurl, the latter being a strong contributor on special teams and will compete for their starting middle linebacker role in camp. Marc Dile's signing also adds depth to the offensive line as he'll join Devin Tyler and Jace Daniels as Winnipeg's three potential starting Right Tackles. Depth and a lack of competition plagued the Blue Bombers offensive line last season and Dile's signing immediately gives them more options. And finally, Darvin Adams will be given every opportunity to step up and fill in as Drew Willy's third receiving option. At 6'2” and 182 pounds with good speed and sure hands, Adams draws comparisons to former Bomber Terrance Edwards. While only time will tell if Adams can turn into anything like Terrance Edwards, he's in a perfect situation to achieve such a feat with young gun Drew Willy chucking the rock with confidence behind that offensive line.

Possibly the best part about Adams and the rest of the new signings are that they are all young and under 30. Winnipeg would surely love to win the Grey Cup on home turf in 2015, but I see these as signings that help the Blue Bombers in the long haul as well.

The same can also be said for Ottawa as the best is likely yet to come for Brad Sinopoli, Ernest Jackson, Greg Ellingson and even SirVincent Rogers. Ottawa saved a few years of developing receivers and will push to give their new talent some more playoff experience next season.

There is still work to be done for both teams in the upcoming days of free agency. Ottawa needs Canadian depth all over the field and an established pass rusher, leading me to think they will be in contact with Brandon Boudreaux of the Riders or Justin Hickman of the Ti-Cats.

I don't think Winnipeg is finished either. They need more linebacking help and may send offers to Brian Peters of Saskatchewan and/or Rennie Curran of Edmonton, who the Eskimos have reportedly parted ways with. Don't be surprised if both Ottawa and Winnipeg lead the way in Day 2 as well with how deep their pockets are.

There was no clear-cut winner on Day 1 of free agency, but both franchises took big steps forward in their respective rebuilds and are undoubtedly better teams now than in 2014. As stressed numerous times, the Grey Cup is not won in February, but expectations have certainly risen for Winnipeg and Ottawa.

Tuesday 10 February 2015

Watt Trades in His Double Blues for Some Black and Gold

The Ti-Cats entered free agency with very few needs, but one of their needs was addressed midway through the opening day of free agency when they signed former Argo receiver Spencer Watt to a two-year contract.

Watt spent five seasons in Double Blue, amassing 1,715 yards on 135 catches while also hauling in nine touchdowns. Watt’s numbers aren’t as plentiful mainly because he played the wide-side receiver position, which is a spot not known for huge production. But he was fairly consistent during his time in Toronto and his deep speed will be an asset to a Tiger-Cat offense that is starved for a deep threat.

Something in Watt’s favour is that he has some experience playing with Ti-Cat quarterback Zach Collaros. When Collaros was with Toronto and took over for an injured Ricky Ray in 2013, Watt had at least one catch in every game he played with Collaros. That familiarity might allow Watt to pick up the complex offense the Tiger-Cats run quicker than other players the Ti-Cats could have signed.

Watt’s signing also means that Sam Giguère’s time with the Ti-Cats is coming to an end. While Giguère’s numbers eclipse Watt’s since 2012, when Giguère entered the league, Watt’s reported salary ($120,000/year) and contract length (two years) is likely lower and for less time than any deal Giguère signs. If that turns out to be true, the Ti-Cats acquired a player who will post similar numbers at a lower cost, which will allow them to use those savings elsewhere.

This move also means that the Ti-Cats will not have to make any ratio adjustments to their starting lineup. The team will start two National receivers – in this case Watt and Andy Fantuz – as they have done for the past two seasons. This is significant because it means the Ti-Cats can continue to start three International players along the offensive line, a rarity in the CFL, and means that Brian Simmons can continue to play guard. Simmons excelled playing inside after moving from tackle in Week 2. Simmons ended up being an East Division All-Star – and, quite frankly, should have been a league All-Star as well – after making the switch, so it would have been a shame to move him back outside when he proved to adept at playing guard. But with Watt in the fold, and occupying a fourth National starting spot on offense, the team can keep Simmons at guard and have a much better offensive line because of it.

While other teams made splashier headlines – the battle is currently between Winnipeg and Ottawa as to who “won” free agency – the Ti-Cats opted for a different strategy, one they hope will keep them atop the East Division for a third consecutive year.

Monday 9 February 2015

Reed, Coleman Are Back in Black

With all the hoopla over the Brandon Banks signing and the start of free agency, I neglected to talk about a couple of pretty significant re-signings by the Ti-Cats. The team made the heavily rumoured extension of Taylor Reed’s contract official, while also announcing an extension for defensive end Antonio Coleman.

Bringing Reed back was a no-brainer. He was the team’s Most Outstanding Rookie nominee last season, finishing with 62 tackles, eight sacks, an interception and a fumble recovery. He played in 15 games in his rookie season, taking over at middle linebacker in mid-July.

Getting Reed backs means the Cats will have all three of their starting linebackers back for at least one more season. Reed manned the middle and formed a formidable trio with Simoni Lawrence and Erik Harris. Hamilton has long been home to some of the best linebacking corps in the CFL – Otis Floyd, Jamall Johnson and Markeith Knowlton, and Johnson, Knowlton and Rey Wiliams were both great units – and the Lawrence-Reed-Harris triumvirate is starting to establish themselves alongside those great threesomes of years past.

There was a lot of vitriol aimed Reed’s way following his penalty in the Grey Cup that wiped out Brandon Banks’ potential game-winning, 90-yard punt return touchdown. But Reed was a solid player in 2014 and one play will not define him. He could have taken the easy road and signed elsewhere, but he chose to return to Hamilton and that speaks volumes. I expect big things from Reed in 2015.

The Coleman signing isn't getting as much publicity, but it might end up being one of the most significant ones the team makes this offseason. During a truncated 2014 campaign, Coleman notched 11 tackles and three sacks in just five games. His season was cut short by an Achilles injury suffered in a September game against Montreal. Not long after, the team brought back Justin Hickman.

And it is with Hickman in mind that the Coleman’s signing becomes that much more intriguing. While rotating players is always a solid idea – look at Hamilton’s stellar interior defensive line for a prime example – signing Coleman means the Cats don’t need to go as hard after Hickman. A Coleman-Norwood tandem might not be as flashy from a name perspective as a Hickman-Norwood duo, but the production could be just prolific. And Coleman likely comes in at a much lower cap number than Hickman will command should he remain unsigned when free agency opens tomorrow, so the team might be getting Hickman-like production at a fraction of the cost. That's not to say the Ti-Cats won't bring Hickman back, but the need isn't as great now that Coleman is back for another season.

Certain signings don’t garner the headlines that others do and the Coleman signing is one of those. But when all is said and done in 2015, we might be looking back and saying that re-signing Antonio Coleman (and Taylor Reed) ended up being amongst the biggest, best and most-important moves the Tiger-Cats made this offseason.

Where Will the Top 20 Sign?

The time has come, football fans!

No, it's definitely not yet June. But rather, the second most exciting time of the offseason: free agency! There is a little more than 24 hours to go before players can put pen to paper with new clubs and, thankfully, a decent crop of free agents remain.

Since a staff writer at completely bombed their ranking of the Top 20 free agents still available – backup running back Kendial Lawrence was atop the list, while Kevin Glenn, a BACKUP quarterback, was listed ahead of two-time All-Star tackle Stanley Bryant – so I decided to take matters into my own hands and come out with what I believe is a more accurate list of the top 20 remaining free agents and where I think they may be heading.

(1) Brett Jones, Centre, Calgary
Only the Calgary Stampeders could afford to lose a player like Brett Jones and hardly suffer the next year. Jones, the 2014 Most Outstanding Lineman, is reportedly still drawing interest down south and, fortunately for Calgary, they have 2014 first-overall pick Pierre Lavertu ready to replace the 23-year-old phenom. Should Jones stay up north, expect Saskatchewan to go all out in pursuit of the Regina native. After losing Ben Heenan to the NFL and releasing former centre Dominic Picard for salary cap reasons, the Riders could really alleviate the consternation in Rider Nation by picking up Jones. Despite the Riders' room for Jones' salary and the Stamps being prepared to lose him, my gut feeling tells me Jones won't be able to leave the Stampeders just two years into his career. It will be close, but the Stamps will retain Brett Jones.

Prediction: Re-signs with Calgary.

(2) Stanley Bryant, Left Tackle, Calgary
Bryant, a back-to-back All-Star in 2013 and 2014, will likely be in the middle of a bidding war between the Ottawa RedBlacks and Winnipeg Blue Bombers. Bomber general manager Kyle Walters has stressed numerous times that upgrading Winnipeg's offensive line is his No. 1 priority this offseason. Ottawa general manager Marcel Desjardins would also like to beef up his offensive line, but there are other large holes to fill as well. Bryant will be in for some good money wherever he signs.

Prediction: Signs with Winnipeg.

(3) Geoff Tisdale, Cornerback, Montreal
I expect BC, Saskatchewan, Toronto and Ottawa to all be in on the auction to sign Tisdale, the only No. 1 corner still available. The Leos made it known they were looking for an upgrade over veteran Dante Marsh this offseason, which is why I believe Tisdale will return to the West Division and line up across from Ronnie Yell in BC in 2015.

Prediction: Signs with BC

(4) Brian Peters, Linebacker, Saskatchewan
Peters remains an absolute must re-sign for the Riders. If Saskatchewan lands Brett Jones or Geoff Tisdale, then Peters will follow Richie Hall, his defensive coordinator in Saskatchewan, to Winnipeg. Since I have my doubts regarding the Riders actually signing one of Jones or Tisdale, I think they hang on to their leading tackler.

Prediction: Re-signs with Saskatchewan.

(5) Ernest Jackson, Wide Receiver, BC
All signs point to Jackson reuniting with his college quarterback Drew Willy in Winnipeg. The Bombers are in need of another international receiver and Jackson is the best of those available; however, Winnipeg made a splash by signing Nick Moore in free agency last year and just inked Clarence Denmark to an extension last September, so I don't think Winnipeg will want all three of their international receivers to be making north of $180,000/year. Ottawa would be Jackson's next best option as they are still starving for playmakers and can give Jackson the money he desires.

Prediction: Signs with Ottawa.

(6) SirVincent Rogers, Left Tackle, Toronto
Ottawa will have to "settle" for SirVincent Rogers at left tackle after missing out on Bryant. Rogers will still be a major upgrade over the revolving door of players the RedBlacks plugged in to protect Henry Burris' blindside last season.

Prediction: Signs with Ottawa.

(7) Tristan Jackson, Cornerback, Saskatchewan
Jackson's skills in coverage have come a long way since his early days in Saskatchewan, when he was primarily used a returner. Hamilton and Montreal are both in the market for upgrades at cornerback, but I think Montreal will win out on this as they may be looking for Geoff Tisdale's replacement.

Prediction: Signs with Montreal.

(8) Nic Grigsby, Running Back, Hamilton
No teams are currently in the market for a No. 1 running back this off-season, so the market for Grigsby’s services might not be that hot. Perhaps the Argonauts will give the 2014East Division All-Star a look, but even I don't think Grigsby would change allegiances for a third time in less than a year… would he? Grigsby will re-sign in Hamilton and form a pretty dynamic duo with C.J. Gable in 2015.

Prediction: Re-signs with Hamilton.

(9) Kendial Lawrence, Running Back, Edmonton
Lawrence, named the No. 1 free agent by, had an impressive first year with the Eskimos, playing both slotback and running back. John White, Edmonton's starting tailback, had a good year but isn't exactly cemented as the team's starter like Jon Cornish is in Calgary or Andrew Harris is in BC. For that reason, and because no other team is in desperate need of a starting running back or return specialist, I think Lawrence stays in Edmonton and has another good year as a feature player in Edmonton's offence.

Prediction: Re-signs with Edmonton.

(10) Sam Giguère, Wide Receiver, Hamilton
National players often move back home in free agency and I fully expect the Sherbrooke, Quebec native to continue that trend this offseason. The Als are in need of another Canadian pass-catcher and Giguère is the best one available. Giggy would be the icing on the cake to an already successful offseason in Montreal.

Prediction: Signs with Montreal.

(11) Rennie Curran, Linebacker, Edmonton
Curran played very well while filling in for the oft-injured JC Sherritt in the middle of Edmonton's linebacker corps. Curran is the exact type of player Bomber head coach Mike O'Shea wants in the middle of his defence: big, physical, vocal and a locker-room favourite. Winnipeg needs a MIKE linebacker and Curran meets the requirements.

Prediction: Signs with Winnipeg.

(12) Brad Sinopoli, Wide Receiver, Calgary
Just like Giguère heading home to Montreal, Sinopoli will head home to Ottawa and immediately receive a large role in the RedBlacks’ offence. The former CIS quarterback has been steadily developing as a receiver since arriving in Calgary and will look for his first big role in the nation's capital.

Prediction: Signs with Ottawa.

(13) Glenn January, Left Tackle, Winnipeg
Calgary and Toronto are both likely losing their starting left tackles, Stanley Bryant and SirVincent Rogers, to Winnipeg and Ottawa, respectively, and may be looking for new starters in free agency. Hamilton may also be in the market for an upgrade at tackle, but I expect them and Calgary to address that need in the draft. The eight-year CFL veteran will have options this year as a cheaper alternative to Bryant and Rogers.

Prediction: Signs with Toronto.

(14) Kevin Glenn, Quarterback, BC
Riders general manager Brendan Taman will get run out of Riderville if he doesn't bring in another quarterback and Darian Durant gets injured once again. Taman will turn to the league's best insurance policy to add veteran the depth behind Durant.

Prediction: Signs with Saskatchewan.

(15) Johnny Sears, Defensive Back, Winnipeg
Sears can line up all over the field and would be a useful player for many teams. The Bombers are reportedly close to re-signing the four-year pro, who would likely start at SAM linebacker for Winnipeg in 2015.

Prediction: Re-signs with Winnipeg.

(16) Dan LeFevour, Quarterback, Hamilton
LeFevour looked impressive last year before tearing his ACL in his fourth game as Hamilton’s starter. The Lions will look to the scrambling Central Michigan product to provide some certainty at quarterback as Travis Lulay's shoulder injuries continue to hang over the franchise.

Prediction: Signs with BC.

(17) Justin Hickman, Defensive End, Hamilton
Hickman hasn't played in very many football games over the last few years, serving mostly as a reserve player with the NFL's Indianapolis Colts before signing back with Hamilton midway through the 2014 season. The Ti-Cats need another pass rusher opposite Eric Norwood and will turn to the 2011 CFL All-Star in the hopes that he can return to form in 2015.

Prediction: Re-signs with Hamilton.

(18) Jason Barnes, Wide Receiver, Toronto
Despite an injury-riddled campaign in 2014, Barnes is still one of the league’s best red zone targets. The BC Lions may look to add another international receiver if Ernest Jackson leaves and, coincidentally, Barnes and Jackson are similar receivers. The Ray-Barnes connection is six-years strong, so I see Barnes returning to T.O. after testing the market.

Prediction: Re-signs with Toronto.

(19) Dan Clark, Guard, Saskatchewan
If Clark's blocking skills are anywhere near as good as his hands, he will start somewhere in 2015. Edmonton and Hamilton are both in the market for offensive guards and would certainly like to bring in a national like Clark to compete for a starting spot in 2015.

Prediction: Signs with Hamilton.

(20) Bakari Grant, Wide Receiver, Hamilton
Grant hauled in 69 passes for 947 yards in 2013 and would fit in nicely as a third receiver in Winnipeg or BC and would do so at a much more reasonable price than many other receivers both teams could target. Hamilton is deep at the receiver position and will let Grant look for a larger role elsewhere.

Prediction: Signs with Winnipeg.

Other notable offseason signings:

Greg Ellingson, WR, Hamilton: Re-signs with Hamilton.
Nik Lewis, WR, Calgary: Signs with Ottawa.
Dante Marsh, CB, BC: Signs with Saskatchewan
Aaron Kelly, WR, Winnipeg: Signs with BC.
Curtis Steele, RB, Toronto: Re-signs with Toronto.
Spencer Watt, WR, Toronto: Signs with Calgary.
Edwin Harrison, RT, Calgary: Re-signs with Calgary

Saturday 7 February 2015

The Missing Pieces

It was beginning to seem as though the 2015 CFL free agent class was going to be the best crop in a long time.

Just like last year, where numerous blockbuster trades kicked off the offseason, teams were seemingly clearing up cap space and upgrading at positions that were occupied by upcoming free agents in the run-up to this year's start of free agency. With just under two weeks to go, CFL fans and teams were licking their chops after looking at how many star players remained unsigned… which lead to the final few days of January being real disappointing (depending on which team you cheer for, of course).

The dominoes began to fall on January 28 when the Alouettes locked up franchise slotback S.J. Green for three more years. It snowballed from there as Weston Dressler (Saskatchewan), Odell Willis (Edmonton), Luke Tasker (Hamilton) and Tyler Holmes (Toronto) all re-signed with their 2014 clubs. Those signings thinned out the top tier of the free agent class. The NFL didn’t help matters either, as they snagged Canadian offensive tackle Ben Heenan from the list, as well as Ian Wild, Delvin Breaux and Duron Carter, all of whom were expected to head down south when the 2014 season ended.

There is no denying that this year’s crop of free agents is no longer as exciting as last year’s group. Other than Calgary’s Brett Jones, who is expected to find employment down south, there aren't many big-name players who will be testing the market on February 10. Last year, players such as Shea Emry, Pat Watkins, Zach Collaros, Henry Burris, Nick Moore, Jamall Johnson and Drew Willy were all available to the highest bidder. This year, the group is nowhere near as bountiful.

While free agency alone is seldom used to build a Grey Cup champion, it can be used to plug in the final pieces of the puzzle for a team’s Grey Cup run. As we all know, Ottawa isn’t going to turn into East Division champions in one offseason, but those solid ‘tweener’ teams like Edmonton, Montreal or Saskatchewan certainly can. Even a team like Winnipeg, who I would expect to open their large wallet and steal plenty of free agents, can turn into contenders if they decide to take a risk and spend right to the salary cap.

Highlighting this year’s free agent list would be the bevy of receivers that could be available. That list contains BC’s Ernest Jackson, Winnipeg’s Aaron Kelly, Calgary’s Brad Sinopoli, Toronto’s duo of Jason Barnes and Spencer Watt, and Hamilton’s trio of Sam Giguère, Bakari Grant and Greg Ellingson. There are no No. 1 receivers now that Dressler, Green and Tasker have all re-signed, but plenty of second and third receivers in Jackson, Barnes and Grant, who are all good fits for Edmonton, Winnipeg, BC or Ottawa. Jackson, who was named October’s offensive player of the month, is the most talented out of the group while Barnes, 30, is still one of the league’s best red zone targets despite having an injury-riddled year in 2014. While Grant, Ellingson and Kelly are all talented receivers, they may not be as valuable to an offence as Giguère, Watt or Sinopoli because of their passport and team’s now dedicating a starting receiver position to a Canadian. Winnipeg and Ottawa are both in need for top national targets to balance out their ratio, which makes Giguère and Sinopoli two interesting targets as I don’t think either of them has reached their full potential. I’m certainly expecting the majority of these pass-catchers to collect some good coin with a thinner pool of receivers available this off-season.

Defensively, there are plenty of starters to go around. Alouette cornerback Geoff Tisdale is coming off two solid seasons as the shutdown corner in Montreal with 13 interceptions in his last two campaigns and will certainly get interest from a number of teams in need of a No. 1 corner. Saskatchewan’s Tristan Jackson is also a solid corner who would excel opposite of guy like Tisdale on a team like BC or Edmonton. The Blue Bombers will likely look to upgrade their linebacker core this February after losing Ian Wild to the NFL, and both Saskatchewan’s Brian Peters and Edmonton’s Rennie Curran are slated to be available. Peters, 26, led the Riders with 78 tackles and played under Winnipeg’s newly hired defensive coordinator Richie Hall in Saskatchewan. Curran, meanwhile, complimented the often injured J.C. Sherritt at middle linebacker and would be a big upgrade over Ejiro Kuale, whom Winnipeg released earlier this week.

After seeing the Tiger-Cats, Roughriders and Alouettes struggle through certain stretches of the year, the 2014 season proved the importance of depth at quarterback. The Lions have decided to part ways with Kevin Glenn and look for a younger and more promising signal-caller like Hamilton’s Dan LeFevour. LeFevour looked promising in 2014, making four starts while completing 68 per cent of his passes for 1,276 yards and 314 yards rushing, including a Week 5 victory over Ottawa which saw LeFevour win offensive player of the week. What LeFevour doesn’t have in arm strength, he makes up for with his ability to scramble outside the pocket and rush for first downs. Those skills are why I see BC signing LeFevour with Travis Lulay’s ongoing shoulder issues continuing to hang over the franchise.

Lulay’s old “backup”, Kevin Glenn, remains the league’s best insurance policy and would prevent another wasted season in Saskatchewan caused by not having a reliable backup if starter Darian Durant goes down. Second-string quarterbacks aren’t usually credited when a team wins a Grey Cup, but a solid backup that can step in for a handful of games may prevent a team from regressing during the 18-game regular season and maintain confidence heading into the post-season, a trait the Riders lacked last November.

The Stampeders will most likely be supplying everyone with lineman this February. There is still a chance 2014 Most Outstanding Offensive Lineman Brett Jones stays in the CFL this offseason. With an expected cap hit of well over $200k, the team that signs Jones will pay a hefty price, but one worth paying since he is a national and has dominated despite only being in the league for two years. Jones’ left tackle, Stanley Bryant, a 2013 and 2014 All-Star is an instant starter wherever he signs, while Edwin Harrison is a solid option at right tackle for Winnipeg or Hamilton. With Ben Heenan (NFL) and Tyler Holmes (Toronto) off the market, the demand for starting lineman has certainly increased despite limited options available.

It’s hard to predict which teams will open their wallet when free agency rolls around, and which teams will lay low and build through the draft and smaller international signings. It is safe to say that free agency this year is a bit of a letdown, but still carries a good amount of complimentary talent to round out the positional needs of contending teams. Unfortunately for R-Nation, the RedBlacks won’t be turned into the contenders Saskatchewan, Edmonton, Montreal and Hamilton are in one offseason but, after all, Rome wasn't built in a day, and neither were the Calgary Stampeders.

Thursday 5 February 2015

Take It to the Bank: Speedy B Staying in Tiger Town

No reason to bury the lede: Speedy B is staying put.

The Ti-Cats announced a few hours ago that Brandon Banks has signed a three-year contract extension that will keep him with the team until 2017. Banks' contract was set to expire in five days.

With the slew of re-signings last week, Banks was probably biggest free agent left... until today. His signing for three years is also not insignificant. He has committed to the team for the long haul and, at 27, he has likely decided to make the CFL, and Hamilton, is permanent professional home.

Banks' 2014 season saw him emerge as the league's premier returnman. He led the league in combined yardage and was twice named Special Teams Player of the Week. The diminutive speedster from Kansas State also was a threat on offense, finishing with 529 yards on 42 catches and tying for the team lead with five receiving touchdowns. The progress he made from year one to year two shows that he can be a significant contributor on offense to go along with his excellence on special teams. And if his role continues to increase in the offense, the sky is the limit for him.

And while some might point to the disappointing ending to the Grey Cup as their lasting memory of Brandon Banks, I think we need to look a week earlier when Speedy B took over the East Final against the Als with two of the most amazing punt return touchdowns I have seen in my 25+ years of watching football. Those two returns will be what I remember of Brandon Banks from the 2014 season.

With Banks and Luke Tasker both signed for the long term, the dominoes can fall regarding other players. Taylor Reed is apparently close to signing an extension of his own and there are a couple other players – namely Bakari Grant and Justin Hickman – who I would like to see brought back.

But we can worry about who else will be back if and when they sign. This is about Brandon Banks. And I think I speak for all of Tiger Town when I say: Welcome Back, Speedy B!