2015 CFL Preview: 5 to Watch

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The Canadian Football League is back for another year and the league looks to continue their steady improvement over the last decade.

No the competition hasn’t necessarily been the greatest, at least between coasts, but the league itself has never been stronger.

For most professional sports leagues that isn’t much of a big deal as they have been strong and continue to get stronger with the growth of sports in general.

For the CFL it is a different story as they have gone through multiple ups and downs and has been on the verge of extension more than once.

The CFL is an interesting league to look at in the bigger picture of professional sports in North America as it has consistently been a league on the fringes over the past few decades.

That being the case despite the fact that Canadian football has been organized longer than most with the roots dating back to the 1860s.

The 102nd Grey Cup will be awarded this year with the Stanley Cup only being awarded to professional teams two years before the first Grey Cup.

It is a sport with deep roots in Canada and yet there are many places that have yet to adopt it as a truly Canadian league.

That has been slowly changing over the last decade as a failed attempt at American expansion forced the league to truly look at their plans and scale back to eight teams.

With Americans teams gone the league began building it as Canada’s game, after all it is the only professional league with all Canadian teams.

That strategy has worked as teams are stronger than ever with new stadiums planned or finished in many markets and most teams staying strong.

A lot that had to do with the work of Commissioner Mark Cohon through his eight years at the head of the CFL.

Now the league is better than it has ever been and Cohon is moving on leaving this new and improved league to Jeffrey Orridge who will take over and look to continue the league on the right path.

It is not all easy though as the CFL still has some issues as the Toronto Argonauts are a team struggling, although a new owner and new stadium for 2016 might help, and the league could still grow.

It is far from a powerhouse league but the CFL is getting better and the competition will follow.

That is what eight teams are hoping for this year as the Calgary Stampeders try to be the next dynasty while every other team looks to knock off the champs for their own taste of glory.

It is a new season and everyone starts with a clean slate as teams have gained new talent and lost some stars but everyone has a chance to lift the Grey Cup.

No matter how much work has been done it comes to the players to play up to their potential for their team to move into the playoffs.

The West remains strong with plenty of great teams looking to stay great.

The East has improved and will look to prove that with a better showing this time around as they try to slim the gap between the divisions.

Whatever happens this year, two teams will end up in Winnipeg where a sign of the league’s progress, Investor’s Group Field, plays host to the 102nd Grey Cup and will see another champion enter the long and storied annals of the CFL.

rule-changes

The CFL has long been a much more offensively powerful league than the NFL with a concentration on the passing game. The bigger field has given the passing game a different importance in the CFL game which makes defending the pass extremely important. That got a lot tougher this offseason as the CFL approved new rule changes that could prove to be a big adjustment for defensive players. Last year already changed the way that defensive backs played the game when pass interference was made a reviewable play. That led to a lot more scrutiny over the contact made when two players went up for the ball, and also a slight lack of consistency. In the second year of reviewable pass interference the consistency should be better but a new rule will continue to keep the defensive backs on their heels. This year there will be new rules for the defensive backs, and the receivers, where there will be essentially no contact allowed past five yards. The rule states that there will be no contact that impedes or redirects an opponent before the pass is caught. In that definition the rule is relatively unchanged but the concern for many is that there will be almost no contact allowed between the receiver and the defensive back. If the rule is interpreted that way by the referees and it is meant to be taken that way the defensive backs could have a hell of a time trying to cover receivers. With no contact allowed past five yards it could be open season for the receivers, especially this year when they need to adjust on the fly to the new rule. That rule may hurt defensive football while other rules that passed will bring major changes to other aspects of the game. The extra point will be moved back to 32-yard line while the 2-point conversion line of scrimmage has been moved up to the three yard line. The no-yards call will also change on punts where the penalty will not be added to the end of the return or from the point that the ball was touched, whichever is better, making no-yards calls much more dangerous. These rule changes will have a dramatic effect on the game this year but none more than the change of the pass interference rule where there could be a dramatic shift in the constant battle of offence against defence.

division-imbalance

The CFL went through a major reconstruction a year ago when the Ottawa REDBLACKS were created and the divisions got a new look. The Blue Bombers went West to create a five-team division while the East was left with four teams that now included an expansion franchise. The re-organization was needed and to many left an opening for another team in the east as expansion became a major topic of conversation. What some failed to see before the season started though was the change that was going to have a massive effect on the balance of power. Nobody could have expected it as the Bombers had not been great over the last few years and entered a division with the Edmonton Eskimos that had sat at the bottom of the league for the last few years. Then the new season began and the Bombers found that their pick-up of Drew Willy was paying off as they raced to the top of the division. The Eskimos also turned things around with a devastating defence that pushed them to the top of the division. They joined the Calgary Stampeders and Saskatchewan Roughriders as competitive teams in the league leaving the BC Lions to fight for some recognition. It also left the east with an expansion team as well as a team still trying to find a quarterback to replace a legend in Montreal. The Toronto Argonauts remained a strong bet while the Hamilton Tiger-Cats had found a new quarterback that could lead them. Then the season started and the Argos saw injuries pile up and began struggling while the Ti-Cats couldn’t get on the same page on offence. The Alouettes continued trying to find a quarterback and a head coach while the REDBLACKS could not score despite a good defence. Throughout the season the west began taking charge and the east fell behind as the gap between the two divisions grew to a massive point. The Ti-Cats took the east with a 9-9 record while the Stampeders fought off all challengers with a 15-3 record. The division was huge and the Lions took the crossover only allowing two eastern teams into the playoffs. The gap is as big as it has ever been and for many it means there is a time to do away with divisions altogether. The CFL is not about to do that though as they hope that this season brings balance back with teams in a much more secure place in 2015 and competition hopefully increasing.

canadian-qbs

The CFL has long had a major problem when it comes to the skill positions in the CFL as finding a skilled Canadian has proven to be difficult. Running backs have finally started to come back to the CFL but the passing game has been lacking in some major players. Specifically under centre where the CFL has not seen a starting Canadian quarterback since 1996 when Giulio Caravatta started for the Toronto Argonauts. There have been other Canadians who have shown promise with names like Jesse Palmer and Danny Brannagan spending time in the CFL but rarely taking any snaps. The CFL has attempted to take steps to improve that issue as they started the CFL QB intern program that makes CFL teams invite Canadian QBs to training camps. The hope is that experience with CFL coaching staffs will prepare them for a career in the CFL. This year another big step was taken as two Canadian quarterbacks were drafted in the CFL draft. With the last pick in the CFL draft the Calgary Stampeders selected Andrew Buckley from the Calgary Dinos. The pick was one that could produce a CFL ready quarterback but no time soon as Buckley will sit behind Bo Levi Mitchell and Drew Tate in the depth chart. If he is willing to hold out he could learn a lot from two great CFL QBs but he may not get a chance any time soon. The other pick was earlier in the draft and may have the best shot since Jesse Palmer to start in the CFL. Brandon Bridge received some interest from the NFL and attended Cowboys rookie camp but ultimately was too unpolished for NFL teams after a good career at South Alabama. During the CFL draft the Montreal Alouettes selected the duel threat quarterback in hopes that he can be made into a starting CFL QB. The Alouettes do have Jonathan Crompton but the jury may still be out on him as a true game-breaking starter that teams need to win a Grey Cup. Still Crompton is the starting QB and Bridge has some time to develop under the Alouettes new QB coach and greatest QB in CFL history, Anthony Calvillo. That tutelage under the man who holds every major QB record could transform Bridge into a starting QB and a competition may arise in the future but for right now Bridge remains the next great hope for a starting Canadian QB in the CFL.

hufnagel

The CFL has gone through many ups and downs throughout their time as a professional sports but nobody has had a better influence than Mark Cohon. The CFL Commissioner came into the league at a time where it was still recovering from a period where many teams were struggling. As they came out of the darkness under Tom Wright, Cohon took over and brought the league to new heights. Under his leadership the CFL continued to grow in popularity with record TV ratings and a growth of the game that had never been seen before. After eight years at the head of the CFL, Cohon decided not to seek a third term as the Commissioner. He left the league a better place than when he found it but wanted to find new opportunities and the search to fill some very big shoes began. In the end the CFL found Jeffrey Orridge to replace Cohon as the Commissioner as he takes over in a good spot but with some issues to fix. Orridge has a tough road ahead of him if only for the fact that he has some of the toughest issues to ix in the CFL. Although the league is stronger than ever before the Toronto Argonauts remain a question mark and a problem that Cohon could not solve in his eight years. Orridge has been a part of the right step forward though as the Argos were sold to Bell and Larry Tanenbaum, two of the three partners in MLSE, and will move to BMO field in 2016. It has long been seen as the solution to the Argos woes and next season it will be proven right or wrong. At the very least the Argos have stable ownership and a better stadium but whether or not they sell tickets remains to be seen. Orridge will also need to breach the question of expansion to the east as the CFL will likely want to add a 10th team but must be patient enough to realize that they can’t expand too soon. There is sure to be a new TV Deal and a CBA negotiation in the future for Orridge along with other issues that may arise. Orridge has a big hole to fill in the CFL offices and everyone will be watching to see if he can make his own impression on the league after Cohon did so much.

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