Thursday, July 30, 2015

Week Six Picks

Season record: 8-12
Last week: 1-3
BC (2-2) at Winnipeg (2-3)
The opening game of week six features two West Division teams coming off ugly losses the last time they took the field. Bombers' quarterback Drew Willy will get the start despite a knee injury suffered last week and will be up against the league's worst-ranked defence. The Lions' pass-rush hasn't been able take pressure off their inexperienced secondary and, as a result, the Lions rank last in total yards-per-game, passing yards-per-game and second last in rushing yards-per-game. Winnipeg's defence, meanwhile, have improved drastically since the start of the season and put together another solid effort against Edmonton, where they held the Eskimos' running game in check on a wet turf. Their focus this week should be solely on stopping Andrew Harris, as BC's passing-offence ranks second last and seems to be trending downward. Travis Lulay has been forcing too many passes and his receivers aren't making enough plays to help out. Just as we saw against Montreal in week three, I think the Bombers respond with a close win at home after an ugly defeat the week prior that saw them lose their starting quarterback.

Pick: Winnipeg

Saskatchewan (0-5) at Edmonton (3-1)

Saskatchewan could have Darian Durant at quarterback and I'd still take the Eskimos in this game. But instead, rookie pivot Brett Smith will make his first career start against a dreaded defence and, with that, goes any marginal chance the Riders previously had at winning this game. Edmonton's defence hasn't allowed a regular season touchdown at home since week 12 of 2014, and there's a chance that streak continues against Saskatchewan. Offensively, expect Eskimos' running back Shakir Bell to run all over the Roughriders' awful run-defence and quarterback Matt Nichols will do enough against a depleted secondary to get the job done. They won't have to put up very many points to get the win.

Pick: Edmonton

Montreal (2-2) at Calgary (3-2)

Last time these two teams met, the legend of Rakeem Cato was born. The Stamps had no film on Cato and were certainly caught off guard, losing 29-11 to a rookie quarterback. But Calgary had no excuse for their own performance offensively that night, and Montreal's defence has not lost a step since then. The Stamps are also without the majority of their offensive line and star running back Jon Cornish, influencing me to favour Montreal's defence even more in this match-up. Cato hasn't disappointed since his first game against Calgary and is up against a somewhat underachieving defence that allowed Henry Burris to complete 65 percent of his passes for 389 yards and three touchdowns in Ottawa's big upset win. The Alouettes are less one-dimensional than Ottawa with Tyrell Sutton in their backfield, leaving me to believe the Stamps will have an even tougher time this week against Montreal. It should be close, but I think the Als upset the Stamps for a second time this year.

Pick: Montreal

Toronto (3-1) at Hamilton (2-2)

In easily the most anticipated game of the week, the Battle of Ontario returns to Tim Hortons Field for Hamilton's home-opener. Largely thanks to overachieving quarterback Trevor Harris, the Argos have been the league's most impressive team so far, winning three of their four opening games of their Western road trip to start the season. The Ti-Cats are finally getting healthy and could have all of Luke Tasker, Eric Noorwood and Ted Laurent in the lineup on Monday night. Both offences are equally as dynamic, however Hamilton has the advantage with their stingy defence. They'll force the Argos' offence to be one-dimensional, and while I still think Trevor Harris will play good, the Cats will get the necessary stops for Hamilton to win.

Pick: Hamilton

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Former CFLers are Going Camping

Former Alouettes' receiver Duron Carter will be trying his luck in the NFL with Indianapolis. (Photo: Brian Spurlock)

A different group of CFL players try their luck down south every off-season. This year, nine former CFL players from 2014 are going camping in the NFL.
Brett Jones (Giants), Delvin Breaux (Saints), Brian Peters and Jalil Carter (Vikings), Matt O'Donnell (Bengals), Ian Wild and Shawn Lemon (Steelers) and, finally, Duron Carter and Ben Heenan (Colts) all earned invites to main training camp with their respective teams.
But they aren't all expected to make it past training camp, of course. Only a select few make the final roster, and even fewer become a starter at some point in their career. And then there's the rarest bunch, and they are the Cameron Wake's and the Brandon Browner's, who go from CFL stars to NFL Pro Bowlers.  
As it stands right now, there's only three players that almost certainly won't be back in the CFL any time soon: Breaux, Jones and Duron Carter. While nobody's spot is guaranteed, the remaining six will need an outstanding training camp in order to make the 53-man roster or the practice squad.
For his inspiring story on his comeback from a broken neck, Breaux is already well-known to the more passionate fans of his hometown New Orleans Saints. But they're also aware of his talent, and some are already going as far as calling him one of team's biggest finds in recent history.
The former Tiger-Cat has a great chance of not only making New Orleans' final roster, but starting in week one as well. The Saints had Breaux start at nickel cornerback in mini-camp as they like his size at 6'1", ball skills and quick hips. In that case, Breaux would be the third or fourth cornerback on the depth chart, seeing significant playing time while covering slot receivers. An All-Star at boundary-corner in the CFL, Breaux joined a poor Saints' secondary in 2014 and is a lock to make the 53-man roster.
While he isn't a lock to make the team like Breaux, Brett Jones has a good chance of sticking around with the New York Giants for awhile. The Giants have plenty of question marks regarding the interior of their offensive line, and while they have plenty of potential starting candidates, the door is still wide open for players like Jones to step up. With Weston Richburg expected to take over the team's starting centre role, expect the CFL's 2014 Most Outstanding Offensive Lineman award winner to battle with Dallas Reynolds for back-up duties while also seeing time as a reserve guard.
Jones, a native of Weyburn, Saskatchewan, has been praised by Giants' coaches for his work ethic and high football I.Q. New York's offensive line had a season to forget last year, putting the 2013 Stampeders' second round pick in a great opportunity to tag along with the Big Blue. Jones might have a long NFL career ahead of him.
And last, but certainly not least, to much fanfare from Colts Nation, former Montreal Alouettes' wide receiver Duron Carter will be with the Indianapolis Colts for training camp. The son of Hall of Fame receiver Cris Carter, Duron is slated as the fifth receiver on Indianapolis' depth chart, which is impressive given that it's one of the deepest receiving corps' in the NFL. Carter is a physical freak with undeniable talent, as shown by his CFL pedigree that includes 1,939 receiving yards with 12 touchdowns in two seasons.

Carter can contribute to this team as a red-zone target behind veteran Andre Johnson and also on special-teams as a returner, where he got some looks during mini-camp. He has little competition for the fifth spot at receiver and could even move up to no. four, where he'll battle for reps with 2015 first round draft pick Philip Dorsett.

Carter could have been in the NFL already if it weren't for some off-field issues, but if he's left those issues in the past, he'll have found a place to stay in Indianapolis.

The future's much more cloudy for the remaining bunch of former CFL players looking for employment down south. With a good pre-season, I thought former Stampeder Shawn Lemon had a chance to stick around in Pittsburgh due to his versatility at outside linebacker, however he'll open up training camp on the Physically Unable to Perform list, further affecting his marginal chances of making the team.

The chances of Jalil Carter, John Chiles or Brian Peters of making it past the first round of cuts aren't very promising either, while I'm almost certain current Steelers' safety Ian Wild will be back in Winnipeg with the Blue Bombers for the Banjo Bowl. Offensive linemen Matt O'Donnell and Ben Heenan have a good opportunity with their new clubs, but I won't be surprised if either are cut before September.

If this is the case, Labour Day weekend could include an in-season free agent frenzy.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

10 Thoughts I Have From Week Five

We're five weeks into the 2015 CFL season and it's still almost impossible to seperate each team from another. Four teams have three wins while another four have two wins, and we've learned that everyone is capable of beating everyone. Parity- or mediocrity- was the story of the week once again.

1. How can you hate the 'New CFL'?
The league has been under much scrutiny for their recent rule changes, but the on-field product in week five should silence a lot of critics. Penalties continue to decrease, as I said they would, and Friday night's doubleheader included the best consecutive games the CFL's had in years. And those fans who claimed the new rules take away the integrity of the game and a defender's ability to defend should stop, as week five displayed plenty of good defensive plays and pass break-ups (see Ottawa's 'DBlock', who officially registered seven, though there were more). The adjustment period for defensive backs is seemingly taking less time than expected and, as a result, defences are holding their own. Nearly every game is close this season and so many have come down to the wire. Are you not entertained?

2. DBlock is the league's top secondary
Before the season started, I claimed Ottawa's defensive backs could really breakout in 2015. They proved to be a serviceable unit in the team's inaugural season despite having every starter but Jovon Johnson play as a CFL rookie and have since taken a giant step of progression in year two. After three impressive performances against three rather lacklustre passing offences, 'Dblock' made me look smart against one of the league's best receiving corps in Calgary's, holding Bo Levi Mitchell to a mere 56% completion rate, one passing touchdown and several coverage sacks.

3. Chris Williams is back
After his performance Friday night, I think we can officially say Chris Williams is still the same exciting player he was back in his Tiger-Cats days. Up until week five, Williams was having a rather quiet season despite being in the top-5 for receiving yards and on-pace to equal his career-best single-season receiving total. But he exploded against Calgary, catching seven passes for 162 yards, with a large chunk coming on a huge 84-yard catch-and-score after toasting cornerback Buddy Jackson. This was the type of game I was used to seeing from Chris Williams in 2012 and it's good to see him finally proving to be worth every penny the Redblacks are paying him.

4. Adam Bighill is the early season MODP favourite
It's still early, but Adam Bighill has been the league's top defensive player thus far, in my opinion. Bighill has a league-leading 36 tackles in four games (on pace for 162 tackles) and has been extremely versatile in an unconventional role in BC's defence, lining up all over the field and occasionally even playing defensive back as a 230-pound linebacker. Bighill is having a monster season and has impressed me more than any other defensive player this year.

5. Mike O'Shea can learn from Chris Jones
Chris Jones will pull his backup quarterback, Matt Nichols, for a lack of production despite him completing 68% of his passes and the Eskimos winning. Mike O'Shea, meanwhile, will continue to play his back-up quarterback, Brian Brohm, despite him only completing 47% of his passes with two interceptions. Brohm, who has never thrown a touchdown pass at the professional level, has done nothing in his career for his coach to display such faith and confidence in him. O'Shea is either extremely stubborn or delusional, as the Bombers will never win a game with Brohm at the helm.

6. Marcel Bellefeuille is the league's worst OC
Marcel Bellefeuille has taken over the title as the league's worst offensive coordinator, which was previously held by former Redblacks' OC Mike Gibson. Bellefeuille's Blue Bomber offence has scored just fifteen points in twelve quarters against the Edmonton Eskimos' aggressive defence, which is beyond unacceptable. Bellefeuille's inability to assemble any sort of a game plan for a blitz-heavy defence like Edmonton's or Hamilton's is both sad and embarrassing, however his biggest issue is as simple as his general scheme itself, which is both vanilla and predictable. It seriously seems as though the Bombers' offence rotates through five different formations with five pass plays and five run plays each and every week. I understand why GM Kyle Walters kept Bellefeuille after his poor season last year, but he'll have no reason not to can the former head coach after 2015.

7. The Eskimos can beat any team with that defence
Even with an average offence, the Eskimos are still legitimate Grey Cup contenders with the league's best defence that's allowed a league-low 58 points and 313.8 yards per game. The Eskimos can beat any team with Chris Jones' blitz-happy defence, and they'll be unstoppable if the offence gains some more traction. This is a defence that hasn't allowed a regular season offensive touchdown at home since week 12 last year, which, in case you didn't know, is simply unbelievable. And while they are full of talent, all credit should go to Chris Jones and his scheme, whom very few teams have solved before.

8. Gable completely changes Ti-Cats' offence
Hamilton's offence was unrecognizable on Sunday, and that can be attributed to the play of CJ Gable and his skill-set. Hamilton ran the ball a season-high 24 times- 20 carries for Gable- and the former USC Trojan finally supplied this team with production on the ground in his season debut, rushing for 135 yards. Gable made Saskatchewan respect Hamilton's run-game and was also effective in the passing-attack, gaining 29 yards on three receptions. Gable was back in his 2013 form and proved tonight that he's the x-factor in this offence.

9. Saskatchewan's season is over
With that 31-21 loss to Hamilton, the Roughriders' season is over. While, mathematically, they're not done, I can't see this 0-5 team even coming close to making the playoffs now. The Riders were granted four of their first five games at home to start the season and did not take advantage, while they're also decimated by injuries and may have lost Kevin Glenn for a week or two in Sunday's tilt. And what about that terrible defence, which has given Riders' fans zero reasons to believe they'll ever figure it out, especially if Corey Chamblin keeps calling the shots? Is it May yet? The Riders are on the clock.

10. Players of the week
I only had nine thoughts this week, so instead I'll use the tenth spot to award my players of the week.

The CFL went away with their traditional Player of the Week awards to the dismay of many. As someone who favorited the old way more, I'll be continuing to do things old-fashioned and name my own Players of the Week- plus the top offensive lineman- at the end of each weekly recap.

Offensive Player of the Week goes to Henry Burris, who completed 28 of 43 passes for 389 yards and three touchdowns. He led the Redblacks to a huge upset win over the Stampeders and did a great job finding his targets after a shaky start.

There were plenty of candidates for Defensive Player of the Week, but Stampeders' defensive end Charleston Hughes takes it after his hat-trick sack-game against Ottawa. Hughes also had five tackles and a forced fumble, which is more than enough to best Adam Bighill, Jovon Johnson, Rico Murray and Jamaal Westerman for the title.

It was hard to not award Andrew Harris for the third time this season, but Winnipeg defensive end Jamaal Westerman did just enough to edge Harris' three-touchdown performance and earn my vote for Canadian Player of the Week. Westerman had his finest game with the Blue 'n Gold, recording nine tackles and a sack. The Eskimos had no answer for the former NFLer, who played a huge role in the Bombers stopping Edmonton's run-game.

Eskimos kicker/punter Grant Shaw had a great game in terrible conditions, punting 10 times with an average of 41 yards, pinning the Bombers deep numerous times. Shaw also hit his lone field goal attempt of the night from 35 yards out and was perfect on extra-points. Shaw's perfect game sees him earn Special Team's Player of the Week.

Centre Mike Filer and Hamilton's offensive line finally got an opportunity this week to flex their muscles in the run-game and did not disappoint. I like to signal out one great performance from an offensive lineman each week, and Filer, who had to communicate the signals in front of a rowdy crowd at Mosaic Stadium, did an excellent job. This week's top hog was Mike Filer.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Week Five Picks

Season record: 7-9
Last week: 3-1

Calgary (3-1) at Ottawa (2-2)

The opening game of week five features two teams trending in different directions. The Redblacks are starting to look more and more like the 2014 expansion team while the Stampeders just keep finding ways to win. Calgary finally got running back Jon Cornish going against Winnipeg and after seeing Ottawa give up 140 yards on the ground to Eskimos' rookie Shakir Bell in week four, the Stamps will undoubtedly feed the ball to the league's top Canadian early and often. They'll need Cornish to make the most out of his increased touches as Ottawa likely has the league's best secondary, in my opinion, and quarterback Bo Levi Mitchell simply hasn't been all that impressive through four games. Calgary will likely take over this game on defence, where they'll look to force turnovers from Henry Burris and shut-down his supposedly dynamic group of receivers, which in the last two games has looked anything but. If Ottawa loses the turnover battle due to multiple Burris interceptions, they'll stand no chance against the overpowered Stampeders.

Pick: Calgary

Toronto (2-1) at BC (2-1)

Part two of Friday night's doubleheader is likely the toughest game of the week to predict. Both of these teams are exceeding expectations to start the season thanks to two quarterbacks doing just the same. BC's Travis Lulay is re-gaining his 2011 M.O.P. form as shown by his six touchdowns to one interception ratio, while Toronto's Trevor Harris has done a remarkable job filling in for the injured Ricky Ray and has had an extra week to prepare for the Lions' defence. This game could come down to which signal-caller has the better game and, fortunately for them, they'll be going up against two questionable defences with BC's being ranked last in total defence and Toronto's inexperienced group struggling against the pass. With a new system in place being run by two offensive masterminds in George Cortez and Jeff Tedford, the Lions are improving every week and I think we've only started to see what this offence is capable of. They'll take the next step against the Argonauts.

Pick: BC

Winnipeg (2-2) at Edmonton (2-1)

The Bombers are coming off a heartbreaking loss against Calgary and haven't had any success against Edmonton recently, losing handily to the Green and Gold in both games last year. Winnipeg outplayed Calgary on both offence and defence but learned that against Calgary, that is not enough. Numerous errors on special-teams cost the Bombers the win and they'll have to clean those up against Edmonton. Winnipeg's much-improved offensive line will be tested against the Eskimos' ferocious pass-rush and should they bend but not break, they'll have done enough for quarterback Drew Willy, who's quietly had a fantastic season, to get the job done. The Eskimos should lean on running back Shakir Bell against Winnipeg's awful run defence after seeing the rookie and the offensive line surprisingly dominate Ottawa on the ground last week. Quarterback Matt Nichols has been unimpressive in his two starts and he'll have to protect the ball against Winnipeg, where another performance with multiple interceptions will cost his team against the Blue Bombers.

Pick: Winnipeg

Hamilton (1-2) at Saskatchewan (0-4)

While mathematically it might not be, this game in many regards is a must-win for Saskatchewan. Their schedule gets much more difficult after this and a loss to the Tiger-Cats will give them an 0-5 record despite starting the season with four of five games at home. Unfortunately for the Roughriders, Hamilton's defence is too good for Saskatchewan to simply win by putting 40 points on the board. They'll need to put together their first solid defensive effort of the season and will have to do so while missing several key contributors to injury. For that reason, I think Ti-Cats' pivot Zach Collaros will rebound from his poor showing last week with a stellar performance against a depleted Saskatchewan secondary. He also should have running back CJ Gable in the lineup to provide some sort of rushing attack against the Riders' seventh-ranked run defence.

Pick: Hamilton

CFL Best: Chad Owens vs Brandon Banks

The first installment of "Best in the League" on is all about the playmakers; a duel that features Brandon Banks and Chad Owens.

The CFL wants to know who the league's best playmaker is. 

Argos' slot-back Chad Owens and Ti-Cats' returner Brandon Banks are the nominees, and for good reason. The entertainment these two superstars provide on their own is enough to put fans in the seats on a weekly basis.  

Offensively, an elite playmaker is someone who has a knack for simply making big plays. Every time they touch the football, there's a chance they can go to the house. 

And that's why Brandon Banks gets my vote. 

Every time Banks gets the ball, people are on the edge of their seat. They hold their breath and watch the magic unfold. More times than not, Banks will make something happen. 

He had a remarkable year in 2014, proving his dominance on special-teams by returning four kicks for touchdowns. The former Washington Redskins' returner also contributed on offence, where he was on the receiving end for five scores while recording his first 500 receiving yard season in spot-duty. So far in 2015, Banks has continued right where he left off in the playoffs, running back two punts to the end-zone in only three games. He even had an electrifying kickoff return touchdown in week three, but it was nullified by a picky blocking-in-the-back foul on Bakari Grant. 

Sure, Chad Owens is the better player for the impact he makes on offence. Despite being limited to only 11 games in 2014, he managed to account for 86 catches, 979 yards and seven touchdowns. Had he stayed healthy, the former Most Outstanding Player award winner was on pace for over 1,600 yards receiving with eleven touchdowns. But as phenomenal of a player as Owens is, he doesn't strike fear into opposing coaches' eyes like a certain 5'7", 153 lbs speedster does. 

To put it all into perspective, Banks has 5 return touchdowns (six total) in his last seven games going back to week nineteen last year. And that doesn't include the three scores he's had called back since then. Chad Owens, meanwhile, has 5 return touchdowns in his career. 

I think that best sums it up. 

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Taman Won't Fire Coach Chamblin

Roughriders' head coach Corey Chamblin is on the hot-seat. (Photo: Jeff Gross, Getty Images)

According to CFL on TSN insider Gary Lawless, Saskatchewan Roughriders head coach Corey Chamblin won't be getting fired, at least not by general manager Brendan Taman.
Chamblin has taken a lot of heat from the fans and media of Rider Nation for his team's 0-4 start, but unless team president Craig Reynolds gives in to the pressure of the fans, Chamblin will play out the rest of the season.
And that's probably a good thing. Firing a head coach midseason rarely works anyway, and there's also so many possible negative effects that can snowball if a general manager or team president does indeed pull the trigger. For one, the fans might see it as a midseason sign of surrender and then stop showing up for games. There's also a chance the players won't respond well to a new voice, leaving some veterans discontent. And if one of the trusted coordinators is indeed promoted, the team will have to lift the interim tag off him in the off-season, otherwise he'll take another job elsewhere. There's usually no going back.
With that being said, the Riders probably should find another head coach if Corey Chamblin doesn't right the ship. From questionable coaching decisions to an inability to close out football games, Chamblin has underperformed as a head-coach. He's also in charge of the defence, which ranks last in nearly every statistical category. Bad injury luck hasn't helped matters, but it can't be used as an excuse as even with them, the Riders have still found ways to lose games as a result of poor coaching.
Chamblin has an even 29-29 record as the head-coach in Saskatchewan, and he'll be well below .500 by the end of the season at this rate. He still has the 2013 Grey Cup to show for, but that doesn't cover up what he's done recently.
Brendan Taman's job shouldn't be secure either. He committed to using the win-now-at-all-costs approach and will have created quite the ugly mess in the long-term should this team not find success this year. Taman has assembled the oldest team in the CFL and stated himself that he can't afford to look into the future.

"My long-term plan is to win right now. Everyone keeps talking about the new stadium in two, three years from now and I've gotta keep that in the back of my mind. There's no doubt about that. But if we can't go make a field goal next week you ain't going to be talking to me to get to the new stadium. Somebody else will be here so my goal is to win right now."

This has to be concerning considering Taman's jeopardizing the future of the team to win a Grey Cup this year. That's not always a bad idea if it actually works. Taman's tunnel-vision towards the short-term success of the Riders has seen him cut many up-and-comers in favour of other teams' scraps, most recently guys like Jamel Richardson, Geoff Tisdale and Alex Suber. He's left his potential successor in a difficult situation next winter.

If Chamblin and Taman are indeed joined at the hip, Reynolds will simply have to fire them both once the season passes if the team doesn't turn it around. Taman makes a good case to be fired anyway, while Chamblin's decision-making and defence should make it easier to deliver the pink slip. It would be the right move to make, but it should only happen when the dust has settled and the season is in the rear-view mirror.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Short-Term Pain Leads to Long-Term Gain (Just Ask the NHL)

Cory Chamblin's Saskatchewan Roughriders have had one of the roughest times adjusting to the CFL's new rules.

After seeing scoring and offensive production take a hit in recent years, the Canadian Football League's Board of Governors knew it was no coincidence that both TV ratings and attendance were down as well. 

In an attempt to enhance the on-field product and, ultimately, the appeal of the game to fans, the league announced several new rule changes in April that were designed to spark scoring and, as a result, the entertainment level of CFL games as well. 

Through four games of the 2015 CFL season, scoring numbers have indeed increased. Teams are averaging a combined 47.6 points per game compared to last year’s average of 45.5. In fact, the average after week three was actually 53.5 points per game, however a couple rainy affairs this week in Ottawa and Regina brought the overall number down. 

There's also a whopping 12 receivers on pace for 1,000 yard seasons, an incredibly high amount considering last season only saw 3 pass-catchers eclipse the millennium plateau. 

But despite all this, the fans are still upset with the rule changes. Rather, they're terribly upset with what the on-field product has become. Some can't handle the increase in penalties, while others feel like the league is taking away the integrity of the game by penalizing any sort of defence. 

It sounds all too familiar, doesn't it? 

Remember when the NHL introduced a plethora of rule changes skewed toward offence following the 2004-2005 lockout season? It was their own attempt to enhance the appeal of the game to fans by emphasizing entertainment, skill and competition on the ice. 

Similarly to the 2015 CFL season, the 2005-2006 NHL season featured significant increases in the amount of goals scored and penalties called per contest. Their increases were much more dramatic, however, as the average amount of goals scored per game jumped 19.84% from 5.14 to 6.16, while penalties sky-rocketed from 9.9 minor penalties per game in 2003-2004 to 12.76 in 2005-2006, a 28.75% increase. 

I can recall so many hockey fans being disgusted with the so-called "New NHL".

They felt the rule changes diminished what once was a terrific game, mostly a result of the changes supposedly encouraging offence, flashy-plays and individual-efforts over defensive hockey and team play. And to some degree, they were right. The rule changes absolutely favoured offence, much like those of the CFL's do. 

The NHL introduced a zero tolerance policy to "obstruction", which includes hooking, holding, slashing and any other infraction that a defensive player might use to slow down an opponent. It was believed during the 2005-2006 season that there was nothing a defender could do to defend anymore without being penalized. Players on the attack seemed to often embellish, knowing that diving will likely result in a penalty for the opponent more times than not with how hard officials were pressing to enforce the new rule changes. 

Hockey was supposedly ruined. The integrity of the game was lost.

Now that has to sound a little familiar, no? 

The CFL's new interpretation of illegal contact is very much relatable to the NHL's enforcement of obstruction infractions. Gone are the days of defensive backs clutching and grabbing to impede a receivers' route. There's a zero tolerance policy to this rule too, as it seems an official will throw an orange flag should a defender even breathe on a potential pass-catcher past the five-yard contact zone. 

The NHL implemented several other rules in favour of offence, such as prohibiting goaltenders from playing the puck outside the new trapezoid, permitting two-line passes and decreasing the maximum size of goaltenders' equipment. Many thought every game would be played like an All-Star game, becoming a contact-free, wide open, high-scoring and overall boring game. 

But that was not the case, and after a season of adjustments in 2005-2006, the NHL's rule changes began to really pay off. The average amount of penalties per game has steadily decreased to this day, while as of the 2013-2014 season, the average amount of goals scored per game nearly came back down to what it originally was 10 years prior. However as the NHL had originally hoped, the game is still more open than before and the product is much more entertaining. The upset fans came back long ago and since that, the NHL's reaped from the financial success that ensued. 

It's the perfect example how short-term pain will lead to long-term gain, something the CFL has stressed since announcing the new rule changes a few months back.

That's been their moniker, and with penalties drastically increasing since last season, the short-term pain is definitely there. 

But as the NHL has shown us, we have to trust that it'll all sort itself out in the future and penalties will then return to the norm. The NHL hardly has a "zero tolerance policy" towards obstruction infractions anymore, as officials now give the players a longer leash and, sometimes, the benefit-of-the-doubt when deciding on whether to call a penalty or not. 

NHL players adjusted to the new rules and we should trust that those of the CFL will do the same. As coaches move farther away from the physical defensive backs that formerly excelled in impeding a receivers' route to the now-desired speedy cover-guys, we'll see more good defence and the return of man-coverage. 

The officials will improve too, and they'll give defenders more rights once they finish drilling the new rules into their heads first.

Also to be noted, a very large majority of the penalties called such as offside, illegal procedure and holding have nothing to do with the rule-changes, but rather the players themselves making bad mistakes and paying the price. Penalties are typically higher at the start of the season anyway, so you can certainly expect to see a decrease in the amount of preventable penalties as the weeks go on.

So keep the faith, football fans. The CFL is simply in an adjustment period, and it's a period the NHL experienced in 2005-2006 following their own rule changes. 

Soon enough, the steady decline in the amount of orange nylon flung per game will noticeably become a drastic decrease, while it at the same time, defensive coordinators will return to calling games closer to the way they did before. They'll no longer be limited to almost exclusively running zone coverage in fear of the poor results that ensue in calling man-coverage.

A new wave of defensive backs will arrive and the officials will grant them a little more freedom. Offences will still have more space and open-field like the league desires, but the mentality of "defence wins championships" will return as well. 

The CFL expected penalties to increase when they decided to alter the rule book. They knew it would frustrate fans and possibly drive some away from the game. But they also knew that in the end, it would be worth it.

Ask the NHL and they'll reiterate the same thing: short-term pain leads to long-term gain. 

The future's bright, people.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Week Four CFL Picks

Returner Brandon Banks and the Hamilton Tiger Cats will head to Montreal to take on the Alouettes, highlighting week four action. 
Season record: 4-12
Last week: 1-3 

Hamilton (2-1) at Montreal (1-2)

The Tiger-Cats are two weeks removed from their utter beat down of the Winnipeg Blue Bombers at Investors Group Field. They entered their bye week on a high note, however despite the time off, didn't get much more positive news on the injury-front.

No matter how sensational Rakeem Cato might be, giving Ti-Cats' Defensive Coordinator Orlando Steinauer two weeks to prepare for a rookie quarterback is almost unfair. He'll make Cato's first experience against Hamilton hell, sending all kinds of blitz packages and different looks. I expect Hamilton's defence to create turnovers and get the ball back to Zach Collaros and the offence. 

If Montreal can protect the football, they'll have a chance to win this game. But their main priority should be special teams, where their lacklustre unit is facing the most dangerous returner in the CFL: Brandon Banks. Banks is scorching hot and had two punt return touchdowns the last time the Alouettes and Tiger-Cats clashed in the Eastern Final. If punter Boris Bede out-kicks his coverage, it's game over for Montreal. 

For the second straight week, I think the Alouettes will fall short due to their opponent being better on defence and special teams; ultimately winning the game with those units. Banks will have a monster game while Hamilton's defence will create havoc against rookie quarterback Rakeem Cato. 

Pick: Hamilton 

Edmonton (1-1) at Ottawa (2-1) 

Edmonton was far and away the better team when these two teams squared off last week in Commonwealth Stadium, but keep in mind they had the benefit of a week off to prepare for Ottawa, who by contrary was on a short week and also had to travel. For that reason, I don't think this game will be a blow-out. Not even close. 

Dumb penalties, missed tackles and other small mental mistakes cost Ottawa in last week's game. They'll be better prepared on offence and will know what to expect on defence in round two of this go-around. If head coach Rick Campbell can get this team to be fundamentally sound in all three phases, the Redblacks have a chance to win at home. 

Eskimos quarterback Matt Nichols was rather underwhelming in his first start of the season, only completing twelve passes in a 43 point effort. But he took advantage of Ottawa's mistakes and ultimately put the ball in the end zone, throwing three touchdown passes. His best decision was to get the ball to Adarius Bowman, a well known Redblacks-killer, who had 5 catches for 120 yards and a touchdown. 

While I still believe both teams match up really well, I think it'll once again be Edmonton's defence who'll prove to be the difference in this game. Ottawa quarterback Henry Burris can't afford to start slow for a fourth straight week or turn the ball over, which I think he'll do given the pressure Edmonton's defensive line generates. The Redblacks will put together an excellent defensive effort of their own, but it won't match Edmonton's. Eskimos win a low scoring affair. 

Pick: Edmonton

BC (1-1) at Saskatchewan (0-3)

Despite having the league's best offence, the Riders are winless due to a terrible defence and numerous awful coaching decisions by Cory Chamblin. Saskatchewan can't stop the pass at any cost, and that's largely due to a scheme that doesn't allow their defensive line to reach their maximum potential and a group of porous defensive backs. That group of defensive backs will be without their only reliable cover option, Weldon Brown, who's done for the season with a torn pectoral muscle.

To be completely fair, the Lions probably should be 0-2 right now. But they're not, and now have an opportunity to separate themselves in the standings from Saskatchewan with a win at Mosaic Stadium. You may disagree here, but despite quarterback Travis Lulay's exceptional stat line (34/44 passing, 404 yards, 3 TDs), he didn't seem to play as good as those numbers would indicate. But he was much better than he was the week prior against Ottawa, and as long as the 2011 M.O.P. continues to improve as the weeks go on after hardly playing since late 2013, Lions fans can rest-assured. 

With how their defence has played, the Riders might need Kevin Glenn and co. to put up 40+ points each week for their team to win. However, I expect BC's tandem of Soloman Elimimian and Adam Bighill to take exception and be the first team to slow down Saskatchewan's offence. BC's offence, meanwhile, is improving each week and should carve up this Saskatchewan defence minus Weldon Brown. The Manny Arceneaux show will be in town.

Pick: BC 

Winnipeg (2-1) at Calgary (2-1) 

Despite this game featuring a battle for sole possession of first place in the West Division, the Stampeders are heavily favoured, and for good reason. But don't expect them to walk all over these Blue Bombers. Not at all. 

The Stamps seem to be finding their stride after two questionable outings to open the season. Their defence stepped up big time in Monday's win against Toronto, while their offence did enough in the first half to win the game prior to losing both of their starting offensive tackles.

The Bombers, meanwhile, finally found a way to win without needing quarterback Drew Willy to pass for 300+ yards. Their defence showed up against Montreal, lead by nickel linebacker Chris Randle, who looked much better after his slow start to the season since switching positions from boundary corner, while the defensive line ahead of him finally displayed some signs of life. 

That same Winnipeg defensive line will be a major factor in this game as well. They're going up against a depleted Calgary offensive line and have no excuse to not bring the heat on Bo Levi Mitchell. They also have the task of stopping Jon Cornish, which doesn't seem to be as difficult right now considering how invisible the league's reigning leading rusher has been to start the season. And as I just eluded to, Cornish won't have Dan Federkeil or Edwin Harrison blocking for him either. I fully expect Winnipeg's defence to hold their own at McMahon Stadium, leaving their offence under the microscope. 

The Bombers moved the ball against Montreal but ultimately didn't put it in the endzone. They can't settle for field goals against Calgary and have to establish a run game. Calgary's defence played great against Toronto and are sound at defending everything an offence can offer them. If Winnipeg wants to win this game, they'll need to match the Stamps on defence, be effective on offence in the red-zone and, ideally, need some big plays to go in their favour.

It should be close, but that's a tough task for any team. 

Pick: Calgary

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

The Next Wave of Shutdown Cornerbacks

Winnipeg Blue Bombers' rookie cornerback Johnny Adams (far left) celebrates with teammates after his pick-six against Montreal in week three action.
Meet Johnny Adams, cornerback for the Winnipeg Blue Bombers, and fellow rookie corner AJ Jefferson, a member of the Toronto Argonauts. These two first-year players have burst onto the scene in the opening weeks of the 2015 CFL season, slowly leading a changing of the guard as to who are the league's top cover-men. You can expect to hear their name's quite a bit over the next few seasons. 

And you should probably know them by now anyway. Adams already has two interceptions for the Blue Bombers in only three career games while, not to be outdone in the same amount of starts, Jefferson has an interception of his own; one he returned 100 yards the other way for a touchdown in Toronto's 42-40 win over Saskatchewan in week two. They've both come in as rookies and earned starting jobs at short-side cornerback, a position typically occupied by a team's best cover-man.

Adams, signed by Winnipeg in early February, is a former Michigan State Spartan who bounced around the NFL from 2013-2014, suiting up for four games with the Buffalo Bills. In college, he was a three-time All-Big 10 selection (2010-2012) and earned first-team honours in his senior season after racking up 35 tackles with three interceptions and 10 pass knockdowns. His best season, though, came in 2011 as a Junior when he also earned first-team honours after collecting 51 tackles, 3 interceptions, 9 pass-defences and three sacks. 

Jefferson, meanwhile, has more of an NFL pedigree to his name. He's recorded 109 career tackles with three interceptions in four seasons split between Arizona and Minnesota, typically slotting in as the third or fourth corner for the Vikings in 2012 and 2013. The former Fresno State standout spent the 2014 season on the Seattle Seahawks' injured-reserve and following his stint with the NFC Champions, Jefferson was out of work until the Argonauts inked him to a contract on the eve of rookie camp this past May. 

Toronto Argonauts defensive back #24 AJ Jefferson
Adams and Jefferson been everything their respective clubs could've asked for from two rookies. And while it's still early, you could even very well say that, overall, they've been the league's top two cornerbacks this season. They certainly still have much to prove, however Adams and Jefferson are well on their way to All-Star selections in their rookie campaigns if they can continue to play at such a high level. 

Adams, who stood out at the Blue Bombers' mini-camp in Florida, already has 10 tackles and two interceptions for Winnipeg. His exceptional play in both mini-camp and training camp allowed the Bombers to move Chris Randle to nickel linebacker, a move that is starting to pay dividends after a slow start for the converted cornerback.

Jefferson was fantastic in the pre-season and had a terrific outing against Edmonton in week one, however struggled against Saskatchewan's Ryan Smith the following week. His interception return touchdown against those same Riders covered up some of his mistakes that game, however the 6'1", 190lbs rookie returned to form against his toughest opponent to date in Calgary's Jeff Fuller. Jefferson has nine tackles, an interception and a fumble recovery in three games with the Double Blue. 

They've been the best-of-the-best after three weeks of CFL action and are doing so as raw rookies to the Canadian game. And while it's likely too early to proclaim them as the top cornerbacks in their respective divisions, don't be surprised if they earn that title by the end of the season. With the league's latest rule changes and departure of some great defensive backs like Delvin Breaux to the NFL, the CFL is looking for the next wave of shutdown players.

Johnny Adams and AJ Jefferson might just be the next two up. 

Argos' GM Barker Finds More Diamonds in the Rough

Toronto Argonauts' defensive backs Devin Smith (#19) and Akwasi Owuso-Ansah (#9) are just two of the nine rookie starters that general manager Jim Barker found in the off-season.
There are actually three certainties in life: death, taxes and that Jim Barker will find great talent south of the border every off-season.

It's what the Toronto Argonauts' general manager has been known for ever since he joined the Double Blue in 2011. He doesn't sign international players in free agency and never has, instead opting to trust his scouts and find his own players south of the border. 

From receivers Chad Owens and Dontrelle Inman to defenders Marcus Ball and Jalil Carter, Jim Barker has a long list of star players he and his scouts found themselves and brought into the CFL. That list is getting a whole lot longer after the group of American rookies Barker brought to Toronto this year. And as a result of him finding all these diamond-in-the-rough players, the Argos are finding success while also building a tremendously bright future.

Barkers' Argonauts went through more turnover than any other team this off-season. They lost two key players (WR John Chiles and DB Jalil Cater) to the NFL and let the majority of their international free agents walk away, most notably left tackle SirVincent Rogers and receivers Darvin Adams and Jason Barnes. It's yet another example of Barker trusting he and his team's ability to find talent down south. And find talent they did. 

The boatmen have a whopping nine CFL rookies (if you include DT Euclid Cummings) starting in 2015 and despite this, have a 2-1 record and sit tied for first place in the CFL. Toronto's 'Big Three' of first year players at the receiver position- Vidal Hazelton (12-161-1), Kevin Elliott (9-124-2) and Tori Gurley (10-128-3)- have been crucial in Toronto having a top-four passing attack. They boast even more youngsters in their secondary, where potentially one of the league's top cornerbacks in AJ Jefferson is having a great rookie season along with Akwasi Owusu-Ansah, Travis Hawkins and Devin Smith, who's quietly been fantastic while collecting 14 tackles, an interception and a fumble recovery in three games. And what can I say about defensive tackle Euclid Cummings, who's racked up two sacks in his first season on the active roster after merely spending the final month of the 2014 season on the Argos' practice roster. 

Toronto's also received a major contribution from rookie international centre Greg Van Roten, who's done a formidable job so far filling in for the injured Jeff Keeping. Other depth rookies such as running back Henry Josey have impressed as well.

Give credit to head coach Scott Milanovich for making it work on the field, but be sure to acknowledge his boss, Mr. Jim Barker, for once again saving money by doing a terrific job recruiting his own talent from the 'States. He continually shows why he's one of the best GM's in the country, and every win his young team strings together this year further supports that. 

From starting the season without quarterback Ricky Ray to playing their first five games on the road, the Argos have overcome a lot of adversity after three weeks of play. And did I mention they've done so with fourteen (yes, fourteen! And that doesn't include the injured Ray or Keeping!) new starters, while nine (yes, nine!) are rookies? 

So let's give credit to the often-cranky, often-salty, sideline-headache general manager who's fresh off a three-year contract-extension for the team he's assembled and exceptional rookie class he brought in. The Argos will only get better with experience, and that's why I think the 2015 Boatmen are indeed legitimate.

The Argonauts are starting hot, and Jim Barker and his scouts are one of the biggest reasons why. 

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Money Well Spent, Ottawa

Redblacks' receiver and member of the fab-five, Brad Sinopoli has been a major contributer to Ottawa's early season success. Photo via Ottawa REDBLACKS (@REDBLACKS)
They didn't come easy, nor did they come cheap, but the Ottawa Redblacks' off-season signings have so far proven to be worth every penny they've been promised in 2015.

The Redblacks, who missed the playoffs in their inaugural season with a 2-16 record, had no choice but to overhaul their passing-offence, acquiring five prized receivers- Chris Williams, Maurice Price, Brad Sinopoli, Ernest Jackson and Greg Ellingson- as well as a stout left tackle in SirVincent Rogers, formerly of the Toronto Argonauts. General Manager Marcel Desjardins identified those two positions as the team's weakest links and addressed them in the best, but most expensive way possible: free agency. 

Not every General Manager is a believer in using free agency to build a team. Many teams have sustained success by finding their own talent south of border and either re-signing or replacing them with a new diamond-in-the-rough player once their contracts are up; not by paying a high price for an established free agent replacement and/or upgrade. 

The Redblacks will one day boast a team deep enough to do that, although they had to start somewhere, much like how Kent Austin had to when he re-built the Hamilton Tiger-Cats after joining them in December of 2012. 

Austin signed numerous free agents in his first-offseason at the helm including DE Brian Bulcke and LB Marcellus Bowman. He then inked S Chris Butler, DB Brandon Stewart and WR Cary Koch to contracts the following off-season in 2014. Having successfully used free agency to kick-start the rebuild and put together part of the team he originally envisioned back in 2012, Austin is now aiming for year-to-year continuity now that something like only six players remain from the team he took over three seasons ago.

After literally and figuratively starting from scratch, this seems to be the approach Desjardins is taking with his own team. And while they didn't come cheap, Ottawa is absolutely getting their money's worth as this version of R-Nation has never seen better days after two wins in two weeks of regular season action.

The Redblacks looked good during their 20-16 win against Montreal, however injuries to Alouettes' quarterbacks Jonathon Crompton and Dan Lefevour undoubtedly helped matters. But any doubts regarding Ottawa's offence were erased in their impressive week two victory over the re-budding BC Lions, as Henry Burris and co. put up 437 total yards of offence while spreading the ball around to seven different receivers on route to 296 yards passing with three touchdowns and one interception. 

Ottawa's remarkable turn-around, having already matched their win total of their first season in the CFL, shouldn't be all that surprising given the amount of talent they brought in on offence to balance out what was already a solid defence on very a competitive team in 2014.

See, this Redblacks offence is totally night-and-day compared to last year. While having a new offensive coordinator and offensive line coach in Jason Maas and Byran Chiu have been huge, I still don't think the results on offence would be anywhere close to as good as they've been so far in 2015 without the additions of Rogers or
 any of the fab-five. Having numerous dynamic and experienced receivers have been huge, and they've all been contributing. 

Ernest Jackson was the go-to guy in week one, amassing 7 catches for 74 yards and the game-winning touchdown. National receiver and former Ottawa Gee-Gee star quarterback Brad Sinopoli was that guy in week two, hauling in 9 passes for 99 yards and a touchdown during his homecoming game at TD Place against BC.

The most highly-touted of the five, Chris Williams, has been Mr. Consistent, totalling 149 yards as the teams leading receiver while often piling up his yards in chunks as the big-play target, much like he was with the Tiger-Cats in 2011 and 2012. Rounding out the bunch have been former Stampeder Maurice Price (6 catches for 52 yards) and former Tiger-Cat Greg Ellingson, who has 5 grabs of his own for 74 yards with his first touchdown coming in the second half of Saturday night's game against the Lions.

The ball is being spread around evenly and everyone is making plays in this pick-your-poison system. As a result, quarterback Henry Burris appears to be turning back the clock and finding success, proving to everyone that a 40-year old quarterback can still be effective in professional football.

After tossing 14 interceptions versus 11 touchdowns last year, Burris has looked far more comfortable being able to trust his receivers and the scheme he's playing in. While he's already thrown four picks in 2015, much of last year's offensive-woes that resulted in Burris' worst statistical season of his career can be attributed to the poor group of receivers and offensive lineman he was surrounded with. 

Not anymore, however, as Burris is re-gaining his stride with five receivers who can actually catch, run the correct route and read defences at a fast pace. It's all coming together for Ottawa, and much of the credit has to go to Desjardins for going out and bringing his signal-caller some playmakers that make the job of Burris, and everyone else, much easier. 

So just how vital have Ottawa's off-season acquisitions been to the team's success thus far in 2015? 

Well, had they not opened up their chequebook and spent big money in free agency, there's a far better chance the Redblacks are staring at an 0-2 record rather than sitting undefeated atop the East Division. 

Rogers and the fab-five have just been that good. Money well spent, Ottawa.