Thursday, July 14, 2011

Five lessons from the Montreal-B.C. CFL opener

The CFL season got off to a great start Thursday night with a superb game between the Montreal Alouettes and B.C. Lions. It looked like it would be a blowout at first, with the Alouettes jumping out to a 27-10 lead by the half, but B.C. came on strong in the second half and only wound up losing 30-26. For a game that could potentially be a Grey Cup preview, that's living up to the hype. After the highlights below (which do have the score wrong in the title), five crucial takeaways from last night's game, and their implications for this season.

CFL coaches are still too conservative on third down: The B.C. Lions in particular could stand to read more 55-Yard Line. If they did, they'd realize that facing third down with five yards to go, as they did when down seven in the final minutes, isn't always that bad. CFL teams converted third-and-fives successfully 53.9 per cent of the time in 2009. Instead, B.C. opted to kick a field goal. Now, according to our down-and-distance chart, the position of the line of scrimmage (Paul McCallum's field goal was 46 yards, so the line was closer) doesn't necessarily make going for it on third down the right call in that spot every time; often, kicking from there isn't a bad decision.

What made B.C. head coach Wally Buono's decision to kick so bizarre was the game situation; his team was down by seven points with 1:32 left, so they needed a touchdown to tie. The field goal left them still needing a touchdown, and they never got the ball back. As with all alternate history scenarios, we don't know for sure that things would have worked out if B.C. had gone for it; they could have failed on the third-down conversion, got it and still failed to score a touchdown, or even tied the game and then lost on the next series or in overtime. Based on the probabilities and the game situation, though, B.C. would likely have been better off gambling here. (Speaking of gambling, the field goal did mean the Lions covered the spread of Montreal -6.5, probably ticking off a lot of people on that front as well.)

(It's worth noting that it's not just us writers and statisticians griping. TSN's Jock Climie also did an excellent job of taking Buono to task for this call on the post-game show. Hopefully, with time, coaches will spend a little more time researching the probabilities and make better decisions in these situations.)

Yonus who? What can Brown do for you? One of the Lions' concerns entering this year was their running and returning game thanks to the departures of Yonus Davis and Jerome Messam. It's a small sample size, but while the running game never really got going (B.C. fell behind so early that they elected to throw for most of the game), the return game looked to be in very solid hands with Tim Brown (not the former NFL star). Brown took a punt back 98 yards for a touchdown, getting the Lions back in the game and trending worldwide on Twitter in the process. The Lions certainly shown an ability to develop returners in the past with Davis, Martell Mallett and Stefan Logan; if Brown can keep this up, he might be the best on this list.

Yeah, this Anthony Calvillo fellow is good: Perhaps the best CFL quarterback ever demonstrated that his comeback from cancer is going just fine, thank you very much. The 38-year-old Calvillo blew up the B.C. secondary, completing 22 of 30 passes (an outrageous 73.3 per cent completion rate) for 312 yards and three touchdowns; a couple of those touchdowns were on perfectly thrown deep bombs, too. Receivers Jamel Richardson (nine catches, 162 yards, two touchdowns) and S.J. Green (six receptions, 88 yards, one touchdown) both had great nights, but Calvillo showed he can spread the ball around, find whoever's open and squeeze passes into tight windows. His second half wasn't as notable, but the Als shifted their focus to the run for much of it. Calvillo still has an appetite for destruction, and with him, it always seems like it's so easy.

Travis Lulay is who we thought he was: I stole this headline from TSN's Matt Dunigan's post-game comments, but he in turn is borrowing from Dennis Green, so it's all good. Lulay's performance was one to watch, though; he was great down the stretch last year, but still has to find consistency as a CFL starter. Despite early struggles (some due to bad drops by rookie receivers), Lulay (pictured at top under pressure from Montreal's John Bowman) did very well overall and gave his team a great chance to win. His final stat line had him completing 26 of 45 passes (57.8 per cent, which could use some work, but keep the drops in mind there) for a very impressive 366 yards and a touchdown. Even more impressively, he didn't throw a single interception. He also showed his mobility, taking off three times and picking up a team-high 27 rushing yards in the process. Lulay still has work to do, but he's looking pretty good.

This could well be a Grey Cup preview: I picked these teams to go to the big game in my season predictions, and I didn't see anything last night convincing me I was wrong. B.C. started slow, but turned it on in the second half and looked like a bona fide Cup contender. Montreal's second half wasn't great, but their first half was incredible, and they answered a lot of the questions. The ground game showed up in force, with Brandon Whitaker picking up 119 yards on 17 carries (7.0 yards per carry), the passing game was on fire and the defence ate B.C. up at crucial moments. Plus, Dwight Anderson is bringing not just his superb cover skills, but also a physical nastiness that wasn't that prominent in Montreal's secondary. Compare this video of Anderson trucking B.C.'s Jamal Robertson last night to the video of Calgary receiver Nik Lewis running over Mark Estelle and the rest of the B.C. secondary last year:

One of these things is distinctly not like the others, and it's appropriate that the CFL's top trash-talker is again backing that up on the field. For now, Anderson and the Alouettes remain tough to beat.

Diora Baird Laura Prepon Ashley Scott Michelle Behennah Julie Benz

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