Canadian Football League

Saturday, November 19, 2005

Als Canadian Football League success?

These Als no dynasty
Despite regular-season success in last decade, just one Grey Cup victory `Model franchise' is feeling the wrath of Montreal fans, by Geoff Baker

Montreal Alouettes general manager Jim Popp had just been stumped by the one CFL trivia question nobody seems to know the answer to.
Popp was asked to name the CFL club with the highest winning percentage over any 10-year span and quite appropriately figured it to be the Edmonton Eskimos of the 1970s and early 1980s. But most fans would be as surprised as Popp to learn that it wasn't the Eskimos of Warren Moon and Tom Wilkinson fame, but the Calgary Stampeders of 1991 through 2000 who posted an all-time-best .711 winning percentage for any decade.
The reason few think of those Stamps, featuring Doug Flutie and Jeff Garcia as quarterbacks, in historic terms is because they won just two Grey Cups in four tries over the 10 seasons. Which brings us back to Popp and his Alouettes, whose 120 regular-season wins since 1996 are by far the most of any team during that period and the third most in league history for any decade.
But the fact Montreal has won just one Grey Cup in only three finals appearances during that time risks — like the Stampeders before them — turning the Als into a historical afterthought. In fact, should the Als lose tomorrow's East Division championship to the Argonauts, no team will have ever won as many regular-season games over 10 years while appearing so few times in a Grey Cup final.
"In my opinion, if we had won two, or maybe even a third when we had our chances as the favourites, we would have been known as a dynasty," Popp said this week of a squad that is 120-59-1 since 1996, with 20 more wins than the Argos, their nearest competitor. "I don't think there's any question about that.
"But I also think we've earned our respect,'' he said. "I think we've done a tremendous job as an organization and as a model franchise.''
The Als under Popp are one of only two teams in CFL history — those same Stamps being the other — to post five consecutive seasons of at least 12 wins.
And while Montreal football fans often hail the "glory years'' of the 1970s under coach Marv Levy, or the 1950s' squads quarterbacked by Sam (The Rifle) Etcheverry, they weren't nearly as dominant for so long.
With just one Grey Cup victory in 2002, it was only a matter of time before this era's Als were dubbed by one columnist as "the Atlanta Braves of the CFL.'' Even the football-rabid Montreal fans are losing patience.
"My own sense is that this was the first year the fans felt spoiled and showed it,'' said Rick Moffat, the team's radio play-by-play voice on CJAD since it relocated from Baltimore a decade ago. "Even the games they won at home this year, they were unusually quiet crowds.''
Fan confidence took a wallop last month when the Als were drubbed 49-23 by the Argos in front of 51,279 at Olympic Stadium. Moffatt said many fans essentially gave up on the season after that and it's no coincidence only 31,199 turned up to witness last weekend's playoff win over Saskatchewan.
Nobody figures the Als to be in danger of going belly-up like in 1987. But the lack of demand for playoff tickets, once unattainable, has caused concern.
"I think it was a reflection of ... the game before when they played the Toronto Argonauts in that key (game) deciding who was going to take first place,'' CFL commissioner Tom Wright said. "(Montreal) didn't do that well in it and I think that's part of the (problem).''
What really irks long-time Als watchers is knowing just how great this team could have been. Montreal's regular-season winning percentage of .667 from 1996-2005 is similar to the .688 posted by the legendary Esks in going 110-41-9 in the 10 seasons from 1973 to 1982. The difference is those Edmonton squads went to nine Grey Cup games, winning six of them.
It hasn't helped the Als that the CFL is a league where six of nine teams make the playoffs and getting hot in the final weeks can often be as important as finishing first in the division. But Montreal's luck may be changing in that regard this year, as they started much slower than in the past, but came on strong and nearly won the division.
"The win against Saskatchewan really gives them the chance to erase a lot of the bad stuff that's gone on," Moffat said. "Beating Toronto, I think, wipes away all of the ups and downs of their somewhat turbulent year."
The last seven Grey Cup losers had regular season records of 13-5, 13-5, 13-5, 14-4, 12-6, 12-6 and 12-6 and were beaten by squads with equal or inferior marks. After winning just two Grey Cups from 1991-2000 despite 128 regular-season victories, the Stamps went 8-10 in 2001 but managed to capture another championship.
Montreal failed in four attempts to reach the Grey Cup game, then got beaten by an 8-10 squad from B.C. in 2000. Popp said it was only after that Grey Cup appearance and two subsequent ones in 2002 and 2003 that the Als truly started earning respect locally.
Popp insists that he won't pool all his resources toward one season just to win a championship and then "put crappy teams" on the field after that.
"We are a winner and I think our fans know that," he said. "This year is different than a lot of years. I think our fans are frustrated because they feel we have the capability of winning more than we have. But our goal is to be in this position every year and we are. We are giving our city another chance to make it to the Grey Cup game."


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