Things aren’t quite what they seem as CFL enters 2019

January 12, 2019 - 11:00am

The Canadian Football League deserves credit for attempting a PR strategy that Major League Baseball has done for years – keep the league in the news when the season is over.

The problem the CFL and NFL have is their offseason is a long one and the NFL has attempted to keep interest alive by publicizing their college player combine workouts, player draft and even the odd practice. The CFL has made its own inroads with the introduction of CFL Week two years ago, and combining that with the CFL player combine to make it a fan-friendly forum.

Of course this year CFL Week was cancelled due to concerns the players would boycott it because negotiations will soon be underway on a new Collective Bargaining Agreement between the league and the CFLPA. However, the CFL Winter Meetings where coaches and GMs gathered in Quebec were again open to the media and provided a lot to ponder as the final weeks of the NFL season play out.

CFL Commissioner Randy Ambrosie continued to sell his vision of the CFL 2.0 which will unfold with a players combine in Mexico to check out players and perhaps conduct a draft of players which might be ready to come to Canada. When the CFL schedule came out, a proposed game in Mexico City was not on the list, but in broad strokes the idea was to encourage Mexican players to come to Canada and Canadian players to go try Mexico to get valuable playing time.

On the surface of it, it seems like this is an idea coming from, say, Toronto, where a soccer guy is in charge of the Argos and when you are Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment, you tend to get your ideas indulged in every so often. While some say the CFL should be focused on building the CFL brand in Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver, others say the CFL looking to expand its brand internationally is not a bad idea.

What is interesting are reports the Edmonton Eskimos are not going to the League combine in Mexico City, feeling the whole venture is a waste of time and not likely to pay off. Which begs the question of the proposed CFL game in Mexico City and who will pay for teams to go down and what happens to the fans of the team that loses a home game?

The Riders for their part are sending Jeremy O’Day and Stephen McAdoo to check players under the mandate set out by Chris Jones to leave no stone unturned to find players. But then if other teams follow the Edmonton lead, one wonders what this does for the proposed Canada-Mexico football arrangement being pushed by Ambrosie.

The state of the league should not be an either/or proposition. While Montreal is closing down 5,000 seats in McGill Stadium due to declining fan interest, the real reason for the declining fan interest is the gong show that Kavis Reed, who gives perhaps the best job interviews of all time, and continues to get hired.

Toronto is starting at Ground Zero, more or less, and Vancouver is waiting for the BC Lions to change hands from David Braley to someone else. Braley is to be credited for writing the cheques that kept teams alive in Toronto and Vancouver, but he did that at the expense of putting money into the operation and promotion of the team.

What Ambrosie has been doing is putting forward some potential ways for the CFL to remain relevant and grow the brand, but there is another way that could address the long black hole that is the off-season, help provide Canadians, Mexicans and others with playing opportunities and also provide entry level coaching positions for Canadians and Mexicans.

The solution as I think would work would be a Canadian version of the Arena Football League. Think of an arena league where young Canadian, American or international players can get valuable experience learning the game, somewhat, while young coaches can get valuable experience in a professional setting and teams can see which coaches might be ready to move up.

I mention the coaches because the Football Operations Cap the CFL has placed on teams, likely because Marc Trestman probably made more money that the Argos took in last year at the gate, will have an impact in providing opportunities for new coaches to the league. Another factor to consider is that Canadian players tend to take two to three years to develop into contributing members of a team, especially if drafted from a Canadian university team.

Giving those players experience and coaching to help them get better prepared for a professional career can only be a good thing. It would also help the CFL teams in bringing players in who can contribute faster instead of being developed and potentially lost later on.

So how would this help the CFL build up fan interest? Well, you have local co-ownership with the CFL teams, Canadian content, and you can also place teams in areas that might help enhance interest in the CFL product. So let’s say you have teams in Vancouver, Kelowna, Edmonton, Calgary, Red Deer, Saskatoon, Regina, Brandon, Winnipeg, London, Kitchener-Waterloo, Hamilton, Toronto, Hamilton, Ottawa, Montreal, Quebec City, Halifax, Moncton and St. John’s.

Arena teams would have smaller rosters, due to the smaller playing surfaces, and the costs should in theory be reduced. Some cities would enjoy having another tenant for their buildings in the winter and if this league operated much like minor league baseball operates for Major League Baseball, then interest in following the players up to the CFL teams might translate into more fan interest.

It's not a perfect situation, the skill sets would be different, but then coaches who are good teachers would have an opportunity to help teach and refine players’ technique.  This is another approach to keeping the CFL in public view and build team interest.

Player movement to the NFL has taken precedence over the impending CFL free agency and the negotiations over the Collective Bargaining Agreement which might start at the end of February or beginning of March. Duke Williams of Edmonton was let go to pursue NFL opportunities and signed with the Buffalo Bills.

Kicker Tre Long of the BC Lions has signed an agreement with the Arizona Cardinals, Calgary linebacker Alex Singleton signed with the Philadelphia Eagles, Edmonton Receiver Bryant Mitchell signed with Arizona, Saskatchewan linebacker Sam Eguavoen signed with Miami and Lirim Harjirullahu worked out for Seattle.

The future location of Bo Levi Mitchell has yet to be decided. He has been making the rounds of various NFL teams and Calgary Coach Dave Dickenson held out the possibility that Mitchell could return to the CFL if he doesn’t like what he sees and hears south of the border.

Mike Reilly of the Edmonton Eskimos has been in discussions with that CFL team, but media reports indicate there are some potential scenarios for Reilly as he also approaches free agency. Reilly is making $500,000 more or less, and could be in the market for a salary at $600,000. However, Reilly may be willing to forgo some of that if the money goes towards strengthening that team and therefore making him competitive for another Grey Cup.

The Riders extended Chris Jones’ contract through to 2020 although if he has an opportunity to leave for an NCAA or NFL job, he can do so. The addition of Paul Jones, who brought Chris Jones into the CFL, as the Riders scout seems to lay the groundwork for the future if Chris Jones decides to leave with Jeremy O’Day likely to take over the GM job and Paul Jones doing the scouting.

The Riders may also lose receiver Jordan Williams-Lambert and are facing a black hole at quarterback with third stringer David Watford the only quarterback under contract. Chris Jones said the team would do its due diligence on who would quarterback the team, with Zach Collaros not likely to collect $430,000 considering his tendency to go out with concussions, but not ruled out either.

Interestingly enough, Jones would not rule out Brandon Bridge coming back which would not make many fans happy considering the step backward Bridge took last year. However, with the Toronto Argonauts signing former University of Regina Ram Noel Picton, and Montreal signing Laval QB Hugo Richard, it appears the CFL will be allowing Canadian quarterbacks playing in a game to count against the ratio as part of the new collective agreement.

If Bridge and this is a big if, has worked on his mechanics and has learned that while some physical skill is needed at quarterback, there is also a place for having the smarts to recognize defenses and make reads quickly, then maybe his career has been salvaged. Bridge in 2018 seemed like a guy who had a promising 2017 and thought the next year would be as easy. The problem is once teams have film on you, they work on how to defend you better and unless you work to improve your game - your career is going nowhere.

The ironic thing is after winning coach of the year and having his contract extended, Chris Jones finds himself having to improve his game if his career is going to be more than just a pretty good defensive coordinator. A comprehensive search for a competent quarterback and back-up is essential if the Riders want to win the Grey Cup in 2019.

The table may never be set better than it is this year with Calgary looking at the loss of their quarterback, middle linebacker, various receivers and defensive coordinator; Edmonton is trying to keep their quarterback around despite losing at least three receivers to the NFL; Winnipeg may have to jettison some pieces to afford bringing back Adam Bighill and BC has a new coach, uncertainty at quarterback, an aging defense and perhaps some character players moving on.

The Riders for their part will need a new linebacker, a quarterback and capable backup, determining in what shape their running game is in, whether their offensive line can actually block and who is around in their defense.

On Friday the Riders announced their coaching and football operations staff for 2019 - Vice President, Football Operations, General Manager & Head Coach - Chris Jones; Assistant Vice President, Football Operations & Administration - Jeremy O’Day; Assistant General Manager - Paul Jones; Director, Player Personnel - Mike Davis; Football Operations Coordinator - Jordan Greenly; Assistant Head Coach & Offensive Coordinator - Stephen McAdoo; Special Teams Coordinator - Craig Dickenson; Quarterbacks Coach - Steve Walsh; Running Backs Coach - Kent Maugeri; Receivers Coach - Travis Moore; Offensive Line Coach - Stephen Sorrells; Defensive Backs Coach - Jason Shivers; Linebackers Coach - Cam Robinson; Defensive Line Coach - Merritt Bowden; Special Teams Assistant - Mike Scheper; Manager, Equipment - Gordon Gilroy; Assistant Manager, Equipment - Mike MacNeil; Manager, Football Analytics & Scouting  - Chad Hudson; Football Video, Research & Development - Alex Smith Jr.; Football Video, Research & Development - Nick Bowley; Head Athletic Therapist - Ryan Raftis; Assistant Athletic Therapist - Trevor Len; Strength and Conditioning Trainer - Clinton Spencer; Head Physician - Dr. M. Heroux; Team Doctor - Dr. W. Dufour; Team Doctor - Dr. M. Nicholls; Orthopedic Surgeon - Dr. J. Fraser; Orthopedic Surgeon - Dr. J. Buchko; Team Dentist - Dr. D. Zimmer and Team Chaplain - Jared Lacoste.

Missing in the list are the former quality control coaches who were basically interns handling things like game-planning, scouting etc. The quality control coach system is a good way to introduce coaches to the professional ranks and allow them to experience first-hand what it takes to operate at that level. Best of all, if you have a coach moving on, a quality control coach is ideally suited to take the next step.

The CFL Winter Meetings were notable for the information that Reilly might take less than $600,000 if the money he puts back on the table goes towards talent for other parts of the team.

The Riders will be in the Mike Reilly hunt, but one advantage they might have is explaining to Reilly what their plan is to win another Grey Cup. After all, what is a big contract if it doesn’t give you a Grey Cup? The Riders for their part may be able to return a number of their players to create a strong nucleus and if that is the case, then the Riders and Calgary are likely the only teams that can tell Reilly if you come here, you will be on a Cup contender.

What is interesting is what should have been a slam dunk negotiation bringing Trevor Harris back to Ottawa has so far not resulted in a contract. Harris came out of the Eastern Final on fire as a quarterback but then fell flat in the Grey Cup.

If Harris is to become available, then the Riders could well be interested, with some familiarity between Harris and the coaching staff. Harris is a rhythm quarterback who if he gets disrupted does not do much for the team, but when he is given time and is on, he can dissect teams with the best of him. He might be worth looking at if the Riders can’t land Reilly.

The BC Lions though after a promising start by DeVone Claybrooks have had news of the 90 day suspension of BC Director of Player Personnel and Development Torey Hunter who was suspended 90 days for using a burner account to torment his former team in Edmonton. Using Twitter to sow dissension amongst the Eskimos may seem petty, but in the age of social media, this is not unheard of. Bryan Colangelo was fired as president of the Philadelphia 76ers basketball team for using a burner account.

Some of the former members of Wally Buono’s coaching staff in BC who were let go appear to be headed towards Hamilton where Mark Washington who was the defensive coordinator in BC is expected to take that position with Hamilton and Jeff Reinbold who coaches special teams when he was not coaching the Blue Bombers, will take over the special teams position in Hamilton.

One loss in BC that will be felt more off the field than on was the death of Jim Taylor, who covered the Lions for the Vancouver Province. I first came across Taylor’s work when he co-wrote with Jim Young, the legendary Dirty 30 of the BC Lions the book – Dirty 30.

It was a hilarious book and Taylor’s love of the CFL came through in his writing. The problem is that there aren’t many left who seem to care about the CFL and talking about it so losing someone like Taylor means the Lions marketing staff will have to work harder to sell the games to a distracted public.

The CFL still hasn’t named a Grey Cup site in 2020, but no one can accuse the league of not helping Hamilton. Hamilton has not hosted the Grey Cup since 1999 and now that litigation over the construction of Tim Horton’s Field has been settled, the team is free to bid against Regina and Montreal.

But, the Tiger-Cats are having a closed door meeting with Hamilton City Council to review and maybe present the bid to the CFL without too many questions being asked. It seems the City and the team have no idea how many seats they can actually fit in for the game, but Commissioner Ambrosie seems willing to give Hamilton as much time as it needs to get its act together before announcing who will host the Grey Cup.

So even though it is January 11, the off-season has been fairly active and marked by the movement of players to the NFL. For those American players wondering if they should pick the Alliance of American Football or the XFL over the CFL, the changing nature of the offense in the NFL to reflect the CFL experience means players in the CFL get great exposure for potential employers south of the border.

The Alliance has already lost head coach Brad Childress of the Atlanta Legends who decided he wanted to spend more time with his family. With the Alliance season about to start in about a month, it is curious timing to say the least and maybe exposed the Alliance as perhaps not exactly the frightening monster it seems to be.

The next question will be free agency, which else is going to the United States, and how the quarterback market goes before the league and players sit down to discuss the CBA. What is offered and how the players respond will go a long way to determining if this season will be helpful or harmful to the league trying to juggle a number of balls and hoping to fumble none of them.

Well, good luck with that.

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