It’s that time of year: the NHL play-offs are over, and the NBA play-offs are winding down. The MLB season has hit the dog days of summer and is nearing the all-star break. For many Canadians that means the countdown is on to the start of the CFL season. Let’s take a look around the league for the ANP Sports CFL Preview!
- Winnipeg Blue Bombers
- Hamilton Tiger Cats
- Montreal Alouettes
- Toronto Argonauts
In a year where the Grey Cup will be held in Toronto, the Eastern Conference has become a lot more difficult thanks to some major offseason moves by perennial also-rans. Two of the longest tenured QB’s in the league made the move from the West to the East when the Tiger Cats traded for Calgary’s Henry Burris, and the Argonauts added Edmonton’s Ricky ‘Frito’ Ray. This season will be the biggest test yet to see if the old guard in the East can hold off the up and comers.
Winnipeg Blue Bombers
The Bombers aren’t a flashy club, but last year’s Eastern Conference champs return mostly in tact from last season. Winnipeg’s offense isn’t flashy, but when quarterback Buck Pierce is healthy and playing they are competent and can compete against all but the top offenses in the league.
The Bombers are lead by a rock solid defense that finished with league leaders in interceptions (Jovon Johnson with 8) and sacks (Odell Willis with 13, a tie for first). The defense is back and should be as solid as ever this season as the Bombers try to make it over the hump and avenge a Grey Cup loss last season.
Make or Break Player: Buck Pierce, QB
For a team that doesn’t rely heavily on it’s offense, the quarterback position has been critical. Winnipeg has yet to add any true depth or contingency plan in case Buck Pierce goes down to injury, which is usually a matter of when and not if. When Pierce is healthy, the Bombers have a good enough offense. If Pierce is hurt, the Bombers don’t have a back-up in place that can win now.
Hamilton Tiger Cats
The Hamilton Tiger-Cats can be the most frustrating team in the CFL to watch. They have the kind of up and down offense and defense that can make and break a season. You don’t have to look any further than their play-off schedule last year. They met favorite Montreal in the Conference Semi-Finals and went on to win a 52-44 barnburner. Next week in Winnipeg they fell with an embarrassing 19-3 loss to the Blue Bombers.
With the exception of Avon Cobourne, the Tiger-Cats don’t have any proven consistent offensive threats. What they do have is a team buy-in philosophy that could push this team over the top if they ever find consistency. That’s why the Tiger-Cats made the major offseason move to try and finally solve their quarterback issues. Last year they were lead by the underrated and inconsistent Kevin Glenn. This year they’ll have MVP and former Grey Cup champion Henry Burris taking the snaps. Maybe this is the missing ingredient to making the offense more accountable.
Make or Break Player: Justin Hickman, DE
Tied for the lead in sacks last year with 13, Hickman is a critical member of the Hamilton defense. If he falls to injury or underperforms, the defense loses a valuable rusher on the degensive side of the ball. If that is the case, the new Henry Burris lead offense will need to gel far faster than if the defense was holding down the fort while they find their stride.
Is this the season that the ageless Anthony Calvillo finally comes down to earth? It’s hard to bet against the Alouettes QB, but after last season we could see the chinks in the armor and the possible end of the Alouette dynasty could be sooner rather than later. They got off to a slow start, and that’s a bad sign with a QB near the end of his career.
Yes, Calvillo ended the season as the passing yards leader. Yes, Richardson lead the legue in receiving yards. Yes, Whitaker lead the league in rushing yards. But the Alouettes are less than the sum of those parts right now. The Als should make the play-offs, but it will be a step backwards this year instead of a return to the finals.
Make or Break Player: Anthony Calvillo, QB
You can never count out the man who will be 41 in August. We did that once before, and he came back with a stronger arm than ever before. The Alouettes will live and die by this sword. If he goes down, the mystique surrounding the Alouettes offense goes with him and the team plummets back to earth.
Toronto Blue Bombers
The experiment is over and the Argos have decided to bring in an experienced QB this season to make a bid for the Grey Cup they’ll be hosting on home turf. Long time Eskimo and perennial top five QB Ricky Ray was brought over in the offseason in exchange for QB Steven Jyles and spare parts. It was an interesting move, and one that seems to have no immediate benefit for Edmonton. Toronto, on the other hand, are out of excuses at the QB position if this move doesn’t work.
Toronto’s offense has been anoemic for years, and their defense has been mediocre at best. Their hot streaks have seen them competing with other CFL clubs, while their average has been consistent losses.
Make or Break Player: Cory Boyd, RB
Cory Boyd, the one consistent threat on the Argonauts offense, needs to be great from the get go this season. Ricky Ray will take time to adjust to a new offensive system, and the Argonauts receiving corps will likely do him no favors. Boyd is the one man that can take the pressure off the new quarterback by starting the season with a solid ground assault.
- B.C. Lions
- Calgary Stampeders
- Saskatchewan Roughriders
- Edmonton Eskimos
They won it all last year, and then lost a lot in the offseason. Team faces Brent Johnson and Wally Buono are gone, but don’t look for the Lions to take a step backwards this season. Replacing Buono on the sidelines is new head coach Rich Stubler. If there was a man to follow up the legend, this is it.
The Lions are still guided by steady hand Travis Lulay at QB, and future hall of famer Geroy Simon will still be the #1 target. The defense is largely unchanged, a surprise due to the number of players possibly jettisoning for NFL that chose to stay. That staying is due to an organization that has prided itself on stability under the leadership of Buono. The only other team that has been this consistently good for this long is the Montreal Alouettes.
Make or Break Player: Solomon Elimimian, LB
Last years tackles leader, the Lions will rely heavily on Elimimian now that Johnson has left for retirement. Elimimian will not only be counted on for field work, but look for his role in the locker room to grow this season as well. The Lions defensive system will fall on his shoulders.
It’s true the Stamps have lost their best quarterback since the era of Flutie, Garcia, and Dickenson. But that shouldn’t be scary to fans, since Calgary has been quietly developing Drew Tate into an excellent athlete more than capable of leading this club. In fact, the trade that sent Burris to Hamilton brought back former starter Kevin Glenn, arguably the perfect back-up for Tate. If Tate falters, Glenn has more than enough experience to keep the team afloat.
Tate should benefit from a full season without Smilin’ Hank, though. After Tate took over last season, the Stamps got better. If not for Burris being another legitimate option, Tate would have been the starter for all of last season, and who knows how well the team could have done then.
Make or Break Player: Jon Cornish, RB
Lost in the Henry Burris shuffle last offseason was the fact that the Stamps also released long time star running back Joffrey Reynolds. It was the right move at the right time, and it freed the Stamps up to promote strong Canadian Jon Cornish to that role. Cornish is ready, but if he falters there is little protection behind him.
It looks like the era that saw the Green Riders go to three Grey Cups in four years (winning one in 2007) may be coming to a close. The chinks in the armor showed last year, and a team that has gotten by on guts for several years took a nosedive and finished last in the West with 10 points. That’s a full 12 points behind every other team in the West.
With that said, this team can’t be that bad. Every player the team has come to rely upon had an uncharacteristically lousy season, and even then they turned it on in the second half. Team and league defensive tackles leader Jerrell Freeman is gone, so the defense will have to man up. That might be the deciding factor in how Saskatchewan’s season goes, the ability of their defense to keep them in games if the offense struggles.
Make or Break Player: Darian Durant, QB
It always seems easy to pick the QB, but it’s definitely the case in Saskatchewan. Durant had been exceptional, even when serving behind Kerry Joseph, up until last season. The QB must regain his form for the Riders to have any chance at contending. Period.
Perhaps no team took a bigger step backwards this offseason than the Edmonton Eskimos. Just when it looked like they had taken positive strides rebounding from the Danny Maciocia era in Edmonton, with a 22 point finish that had them tied for first in the West, things went off the rails. In the offseason GM Eric Tillman traded away face of the franchise QB Ricky Ray for a series of spare parts. Coming back to the Eskimos: journeyman QB Steven Jyles, young kicker Grant Shaw, and a draft pick.
With that trade, the Esks are left with a massive void at the QB position and nobody to fill it. While many people have been calling for the Esks to get rid of Ray for many years, none wanted to see that deal made without an immediate succession plan. Steven Jyles, a former Eskimo, couldn’t crack the starting line-up the last time he was in Edmonton, and he struggled as a starter with a mediocre Argonauts squad. Combine that with the loss of star running back Jerome Messam to the NFL and Eskimos fans may want to prepare for a long season of rebuilding.
Make or Break Player: Defense
The Esks don’t have one make or break player this season. They still have star receiver Fred Stamps, but without an established player to get him the ball he could be negated this season. The defense will be the key for the Eskimos. On a squad that has, for so many years, had a strong explosive offense, the Eskimos will limp along this season without Ray and Messam. It will be up to the defense to keep this team in games, and head coach Kavis Reed better hope they have it in them.