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."

Thursday, November 17, 2005

B.C. announces starting QB for Canadian Football League West Final

Wally Buono has decided to go with the one who got him there, naming Dave Dickenson as the B.C. Lions starting quarterback for Sunday's CFL West final against the Edmonton Eskimos.
"Dave has been our starting quarterback all year, and has had a tremendous year, and has done nothing to lose his job," Buono, the Lions head coach and general manager, told The Team 1040 all-sports radio station Tuesday.
"There has to be a pecking order based on the whole season."
Buono used last week's three days of practice to make a choice between Dickenson and Casey Printers. He said Dickenson showed he had fully recovered from a Oct. 1 concussion which caused him to miss three games.
"The bye week proved to me, because the workouts were very intense, he's back to being 100 per cent," said Buono.

"He functioned at a level that he can do what we need to do to win. "
All last week there was speculation over whether Dickenson, 32, or Printers, 24, would get the start against the Eskimos on Sunday (6 p.m. ET). The winner of the game earns a berth in the Grey Cup.
Dickenson brings veteran experience and patience in the pocket. The more mobile Printers has the ability to scramble away from the rush and head up field when he can't find an open receiver.
Buono said he'd go to the bullpen if Dickenson wasn't getting the job done.
"The person that starts, if he finishes it's because we've done a great job," he said. "If he's not getting it done, we feel we have a tremendous luxury that you can put the other quarterback in and he's going to get the job done."
The Lions finished with a 12-6 record but backed into first place after the Calgary Stampeders defeated the Eskimos in the final game of the year. The Lions lost six of their last seven regular-season games, including two losses to Edmonton.
Both Dickenson and Printers are former league MVPs.
Dickenson played in 12 games this year, has better numbers and is a big reason why the Lions started the season 11-0.
He's completed 253 of 342 passes for an astonishing 74 per cent completion ratio. He's thrown for 3,339 yards, 21 touchdowns and just five interceptions.
Printers started the season hobbled by a toe injury that needed off-season surgery and didn't make his first start until August. He's also been bothered by a sore shoulder which kept him on the sidelines.
In the eight games he played he completed 132 of 217 passes for 1,767 yards, nine touchdowns and six interceptions

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Eskimos in Canadian Football League West Final

Jason Maas has quietly waited in the wings for the chance to prove he's deserves to lead the Edmonton Eskimos.
Sunday, the Edmonton quarterback proved his worth loudly, coming off the bench to systematically dissect the Calgary Stampeders and lead the Eskimos to a wild, 33-26 come-from-behind win in the West semifinal.
"I just hunkered down and had to have confidence in myself and my ability to come back and win the ballgame," said Maas, who relieved starting quarterback Ricky Ray after the first half and immediately began chipping away at the Stampeders' 23-12 lead.
"I'm going to relish this for a moment," said Maas, who went 15-for-18 for 144 yards and put the Eskimos ahead for good with a touchdown pass to Jason Tucker with 3:48 left in the game.
"This is the first (playoff game) I've helped us win in my six years as an Eskimo."
But it apparently wasn't enough to convince Edmonton coach Danny Maciocia that Maas has earned the starter's job for next Sunday's game.
"They're two great quarterbacks, great individuals and we can win with either one," said Maciocia. "This football team has the utmost respect for both those guys. I don't know if I'll ever coach another team player like Jason Maas - he's not said a word. That's why we haven't had a quarterback controversy all year. We're united, We speak with one voice, it's one heartbeat."
Ray, the CFL's highest-paid player, struggled in Sunday's contest and has not thrown a touchdown in the last six games.
The Stampeders were favoured coming into the game after winning seven of their last eight contests and appeared to be peaking at just the right time after an early struggle to the season.
But a 23-12 halftime lead evaporated as the Eskimos played error-free football and the Stamps stumbled.
Turnovers and special teams ultimately decided the game, as Edmonton kicker Sean Fleming finished with a whopping 20 points on six field goals, a single and a convert. Edmonton also avoided turning the ball over, while forcing three Calgary fumbles, an interception and a turnover on downs.
"I didn't expect to kick as much as I did," said Fleming, stressing the Eskimos may have trailed but were never out of the game. "But this time of year the kicking game is so important that every chance you get to score, you score."
Edmonton wide receiver Ed Hervey said the Eskimos never counted themselves out.
"We are a veteran team and know how to get it done," said Hervey. "It's all about character."
The momentum shifted once Maas entered the game to start the third quarter. He marched the Eskimos down the field, going seven-for-seven to four different receivers before fullback Mathieu Bertrand pushed in Edmonton's first touchdown of the game with just over six minutes left in the fourth.
Quarterback Henry Burris went 11-for-20 for 242 yards after spending much of the week sick with the flu. But it was the running game that kept the Stamps going early.
Running back Tony Stallings came off the practice roster to have 92 yards rushing on four carries, including a 63-yard run that set up Calgary's first touchdown. Stallings took full advantage of David Allen's call up to NFL's St. Louis Rams as the Stampeders opened a 9-0 first-quarter lead.
Joffrey Reynolds padded Calgary's lead with a two-yard run at 5:26 of the second quarter. Reynolds finished the day with 12 carries for 83 yards.
Burris added a one-yard plunge before half.
Outspoken Calgary receiver Nik Lewis, who had told the Eskimos to "respect my cockiness" heading into the game, wasn't a factor. Lewis, last year's rookie of the year, had 28 yards on two catches. That's a far cry from last week's game, when he carried the ball eight times for 145 yards.
Calgary coach Tom Higgins, who orchestrated the Stampeders turnaround after missing the playoffs for the last three seasons, said the Eskimos deserve credit for their comeback win.
"Jason's going to be given a lot of credit and should be, but the defence helped him as well as his receivers," said Higgins, who left Edmonton after 11 seasons.
"People forget, that's a very solid football team."
Higgins said the Stampeders gave away the game.
"It wasn't so much what Jason did as what we weren't able to do. They hung onto the football, we didn't."
Notes: Sunday's semifinal was the last on synthetic turf at McMahon stadium. A more grass-like field will be put in place for next season that is softer and more forgiving than the AstroTurf

Als advance to Canadian Football League East Final

For the sixth straight year, it's back to the drawing board for Saskatchewan Roughriders head coach Danny Barrett and general manager Roy Shivers after their team fell to the Montreal Alouettes 30-14 in the CFL East Division semifinal Sunday.
Since Barrett and Shivers came aboard before the 2000 season, the Roughriders have failed to reach the Grey Cup despite making the playoffs in each of the last four years.
"We were one of six teams to make the playoffs, now all we have to do is find a way to be better," Barrett said after Sunday's loss, noting he didn't feel his team took a step back this season because of all the adversity it had to face.
The disappointment of failing to advance against the Alouettes was just another in a long line of season-ending losses Barrett and Shivers have witnessed for the Roughriders over the last few years.
Saskatchewan fell in the East semifinal to the Toronto Argonauts in 2002, and have lost to the Edmonton Eskimos and the B.C. Lions in each of the last two Western finals.

A streak of near-misses like that might cause some coaches to worry about their future with the club, but Barrett didn't appear too concerned Sunday.
Though he wouldn't address the possibility that he will lose his job, Barrett did say he plans on being back next season, along with the rest of his coaching staff.
"I signed for two (years) with an option last year," Barrett said. "I'm a man that fulfils his contractual obligations."
Barrett's players appeared to want their head coach back on the Roughrider sidelines next year.
"I love Danny for giving me an opportunity to come here and get a chance to play again," said quarterback Marcus Crandell, whose three interceptions proved costly. "I hope those guys are here, because I love playing for him, he's a great coach and he deserves to be here."
Running back and kick returner Corey Holmes said the continuity of having the same guys at the helm year after year is a big positive for the team.
"They started this and you can't ask for nothing better," Holmes said. "We've been to the playoffs four years in a row, and they're our leaders. They've been doing a great job every year."
As is usually the case in playoff football, Sunday's game was decided by turnovers. Both Crandell and Barrett said the turning point was an interception just short of the Montreal end zone near the end of the first half. A Roughrider touchdown at that point would have made it 21-7 for the Alouettes, but instead Montreal marched downfield for a field goal to make it 24-0.
"Our nemesis all year has been turnovers, and that showed up again today at the most inopportune time," Barrett said. "If it's a two-possession game you have an opportunity to win, but it was a three-possession game because of the turnover."