(Please welcome the newest contributor to the 55-Yard Line, former CFL offensive lineman Sandy Annunziata.)
On the eve of the 2011 CFL season, football pundits are once again looking for the Montreal Alouettes to dominate the East Division and build a Grey Cup dynasty with a third consecutive championship.
Well, what was supposed to be a coronation in the East has suddenly turned into a competition. And for all those suffering Argonauts and Tiger-Cats fans over the past few years, that's comforting news for two teams that have enjoyed little or no playoff success recently. Sprinkle in some Blue Bombers optimism, building on some feel-good stories in the Winnipeg sports landscape like the return of the NHL Jets and the groundbreaking of a new stadium, and the outlook for the 'Peg's football faithful is a sunny one.
The Bombers proved to be the biggest risk takers this offseason. Trading away potential starting quarterback Steven Jyles and pinning their hopes on an oft-concussed QB with a penchant for scrambling, Buck Pierce, seems like the perfect recipe for disaster. Bomber fans will know soon enough if the gamble pays off but with demanding fans and an unforgiving media where second chances don't come easily, expect heads to roll if the outcome isn't a positive one.
Defensively, they will continue to rely on their ball-hawking secondary and the pressure off the edges created by Odell Willis, who will no doubt miss sacking sidekick Phillip Hunt after the pair combined for 27 sacks a year ago. They'll need more consistency from their kicking game, especially with the swirling winds of Canad Inns Stadium. For a franchise that has always been the model of consistency in the kicking department, the revolving door seems more than strange and perhaps provides a better reflection of the woes that have plagued this team over the last few years. Channelling the spirits of Trevor Kennard, Bob Cameron and Troy Westwood may not be a bad idea, and for a rookie kicker (Justin Palardy) not familiar with the Winnipeg wind, any help would be most appreciated.
For new head coach Paul LaPolice, the pre-game speech will be a simple one and in every circumstance, directed at the big guys up front..."keep our QB safe and we'll have a chance". Given the oxymoronic nature of "safe" when used in the context of the playing style of Pierce, trying to reconcile the two for a winning strategy reads more like a liability.
Jim Barker (right, accepting the coach of the year award) and an entire Argos squad snuck up on a whole bunch of teams last year, racking up nine wins and a playoff victory before reality returned against Montreal in the Eastern final. The naming of Barker as the CFL coach of the year, the addition of QB Steven Jyles, and voila, the Argos are suddenly legitimate!� With their "underdog strategy" compromised, last year's game plan most likely wouldn't have worked this time around anyways. But if the desired effect was to provide some swagger and confidence in a team that clearly had it stripped away during the Rich Stubler/Bart Andrus experiments, mission accomplished. Their attention now must be on developing an offensive identity that will compliment the hardest-working defence and special teams in the league. And until that happens, this is an Argo squad that will be hard pressed to win games when they mean the most.
Look for the Alouettes and Ticats to renew hostilities, jockey for first overall and claim that much coveted first-round bye. Hamilton boasts an explosive offence, that when firing on all cylinders, very few teams will be able to defend. From the deep threat of Arland Bruce and the always dependable Dave Stala, to the running attack of newly acquired Avon Colbourne and the explosive contributions of Marcus Thigpen, the Ticats are loaded with scoring weapons at every position. Add the poise and leadership of QB Kevin Glenn and you have a team that has been built by Bob O'Billovich with one thing in mind...bringing the Grey Cup back to Hamilton.� Adding Stevie Baggs at the midway point of last season was the ultimate coup for an already solid defence. Built on speed and as hard as the forged steel that comes out of Steeltown, this year's edition will bring a smile to those fans that expect nothing less.
The only thing that can stop this squad is the ever-present spectre of complacency and underachievement, both of which have reared their ugly heads throughout the course of last season and into their very short playoff run.
The defending Grey Cup champions have waited patiently for someone to knock them off their perch. Being the most consistent, winningest CFL franchise of the past decade comes with a price... It means wearing a bull's-eye on your backs. If you're the Alouettes, it's something they, along with their chief architect Jim Popp, will continue to relish.
The head-hunting trio of Chip Cox, John Bowman and Etienne Boulay, along with the leadership of Anwar Stewart, will once again spearhead a rejuvenated defence with a take-no-prisoners attitude. This is a hungry bunch that continues its trend of being the stingiest defence in the league and has successfully crawled out from the shadow of its high-powered offence. A healthy Anthony Calvillo, who can now add "survivor" to his storied list of accomplishments, continues to defy the football gods and excel at his position despite his age. If he can produce career numbers, which will solidify his place in pro football history, manage a ground attack that combines the brute force of a dominant offensive line and the quickness of newly acquired DeAndra Cobb, then the makings of a three-peat are a very real possibility.
Look for the intangibles to decide the fate of a very tight race in the East. Coaching and special teams when the wind is howling come November should decide who is crowned champion.� With the exception of the Argos and veteran kicker Noel Prefontaine, all the other teams in the East have gone through kicker makeovers. How that plays out in a league that's so reliant on the kicking game should be of keen interest as the season unfolds.� If the Ticats learn to put four quarters together each and every outing, I give them the nod to come out of the East.
In the West, Calgary and Saskatchewan continue their dominance in a division that has been as unpredictable as a Charlie Sheen interview.
The Eskimos will be in tough to finally get back to playoff contention, which not long ago was a foregone conclusion. If they can avoid self imploding early on, get some of the early victories that eluded them last season, GM Eric Tillman will make sure they at least make things interesting. Ricky Ray is coming off a dismal season by his lofty standards.� Ray, along with the rest of the Eskimo offence, will benefit from a consistent ground game led by the 1-2 punch of Calvin McCarty and Jerome Messam. Keep your receiving corps healthy and intact, which has been the biggest challenge for the Eskimos the last few seasons, rely on the defensive genius of new co-ordinator Rich Stubler,� and the Eskies may surprise some people.
The B.C. Lions under Wally Buono have been the best team in the West to never win a big game. A consistent, more mature Travis Lulay will be critical if the Lions hope to give Buono the ultimate farewell gift...a Grey Cup on home turf. This team is good. Whether they can execute for four quarters consistently over an 18-game schedule is the big question. Part of the answer will come from the veteran core who must show leadership and harness the 42 different personalities in a sometimes fractured locker room. If they can find those answers, then make the Lions your sleeper pick and expect the Leos to do what the Canucks weren't able to accomplish...bring home a championship for the city of Vancouver.
If history is any indication of future performance, conventional wisdom would suggest the fight for Western supremacy and a berth in this year's Grey Cup� once again should blow through the Prairies and have the Green Riders facing off against an overachieving Calgary squad. First, throw conventional wisdom out the window. After all, this is the CFL that has had two teams named the Rough Riders and presently, two teams owned by the same owner (see Braley, David).
A focused Henry Burris along with the most consistent running attack over the last half dozen seasons with Joffrey Reynolds should propel the Stamps to a date in the Western final. Add a swarming defence that rallies to the ball and makes a habit of getting to the quarterback in a very creative way, should confirm the Stamps as bonafide favourites. But I'm not convinced the Stamps can survive the slightest bit of adversity and this is a team that doesn't always play up to its potential in the big games. But they are blessed with a coaching staff that continues to emphasize the little things and have done an excellent job of replacing personnel and managing off-field distractions that in past seasons have sabotaged and derailed what should have been successful campaigns. Coach John Hufnagel's tactical skills are only rivalled by his ability to motivate. Look for him to rely on those skills heavily in order to achieve the success this team so desperately covet's late in November.
The Western final should once again pass through Saskatchewan. The Green Riders have emerged as one of the most exciting teams in the CFL and it's that excitement that has dominated Western teams looking to finally break through.� Durant's maturity as a CFL QB has come full circle. And if the entire Green Rider roster all share one heart beat, it's Durant's receiving corps, minus the hole left by the departure of Andy Fantuz, that all seem to share one brain. If Efrem Hill, Weston Dressler, Cary Koch, Jason Clermont and Chris Getzlaf can stay on the same page as their QB, expect huge gains all over that large CFL field. Wes Cates will continue to produce on the ground as long as the offensive line continues to excel. The most consistent unit of teams past may stumble early with the departure of team captain and long-time centre Jeremy O'Day. Add in the age factor of some stellar lineman and an 18-game schedule becomes a lifetime for an already beat-up body.
Rider Nation should rest easy though, as long as new head coach Greg Marshall recognizes his team's strength and doesn't deviate too far from the plan that has driven the success of the franchise these past few years...a Roughrider aerial attack that leaves� your head spinning and an uncanny ability to always score one more point than the other team!
Predicting the finalists and looking ahead to Grey Cup '11 seems a little tougher this year than in previous ones. But one thing is certain...expect the unexpected and get ready for another classic final.
A Grey Cup showdown between the Ticats and Roughriders is my early prediction and should stir some fond memories of there 1989 classic tilt that many CFL purists have called the greatest Grey Cup ever played. The difference this time around... Hamilton fans along with the entire 1989 Tiger-Cat roster will be drinking heavily for an entirely different reason.
Sandy Annunziata enjoyed an 11-year CFL career that culminated in back-to-back Grey Cup championships in 2004 and 2005. The former CFL All-Star will be writing for the 55-Yard Line on the league and everything Canadian about it. No stranger to covering the CFL before joining Yahoo! Sports Canada as an analyst for the Fan590 and Rogers Sportsnet, the former offensive lineman will take you beyond the field and inside the locker room as he examines the game, the health of the league, the business of sport and the sometimes fragile psyche of pro football players.