2016 CFL Preview: 5 Storylines to Watch

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The CFL season is right around the corner and the league is ready to head in a new direction as they begin looking to the future.

The CFL has one of the richest histories in North American sport with the 104th Grey Cup this year.

To put that in perspective the NFL just celebrated their 50th Super Bowl, the NHL will hand out their 86th Stanley Cup despite the trophy being far older, and the NBA will be handing out their 66th championship.

There are few leagues that have been intact for as long as the CFL and the stories of the league are endless.

The league has been playing up that history for years as they continued to look back and celebrate the past.

That was until the 100th Grey Cup when the league celebrated their history throughout the season like never before.

That was the turning point though as the CFL began turning things to the future as they attempted to change their attitude.

They got some help from their teams as they began moving out of the past and into the future.

For both the teams and the league old stadiums were no longer acceptable especially if the CFL wanted to be taken seriously.

The Blue Bombers led the charge moving out of Canad Inns Stadium where they had been playing since 1953 and into the brand new Investors Group Field, opened in 2013.

A year later the CFL introduced the Ottawa REDBLACKS to the league and opened TD Place Stadium.

The Toronto Argonauts will move from Rogers Centre where they have played since 1989 and will begin playing at BMO Field, opened in 2007 and just renovated this year.

The Saskatchewan Roughriders are set to open a new Mosaic Stadium in 2017 while plans have been submitted for a new stadium in Calgary.

For most fans the investment into new stadiums isn’t a big deal but it is a sign of where the league is headed.

They are looking to the future and hoping to not rely on their future instead looking to rely on the talent and excitement of the league.

In that respect, the league will see plenty of changes this year and it all started right after the 103rd Grey Cup.

That is when the league changed their logo, their marketing, and their website.

It was a sign that the league is ready to move on to the future and that the league wants to move on.

As important as their history is the league is right to want to highlight the great aspects of the league.football-sidebar

The fact is that the CFL is often forgotten among professional leagues in sports-obsessed North America.

The league is considered a joke by many and some see it as, as close to amateur sports as you can get.

That is so far from the truth though with plenty of talent and excitement throughout the league.

Anybody who loves football can’t help but love the CFL despite maybe not having the best football players in the world.

The CFL will never be able to compete with the NFL for those top players that are simply built to play football.

The NFL has too much money to pay those players but those prototypical players are not the only people who can play football.

The CFL is full of great players that might not meet those standards in their measurable.

They may not be the tallest or the biggest but they can flat out play football and that makes what they do so much better.

A player like Chad Owens scares NFL teams off standing at only 5’8” but in the CFL teams give him a chance and he becomes one of the best receivers in the game.

That is what the CFL is all about as they simply find players that can play football and find ways to make them great.

It is far different from the idea that those that can’t make it in the NFL can go down a level to the CFL, see Michael Sam.

The CFL knows that they have this talent and they are looking to those great players to lead them into this new CFL era.

That era begins in 2016 as new and old faces lead their teams with everyone trying to earn a trip to Toronto and be crowned the 104th Grey Cup Champions.

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Rivalries are the lifeblood of many leagues but in the CFL they are slightly different as the league has fueled city rivalries that don’t exist in other sports. For many of the cities in the CFL, there is no other opportunity to feed that rivalry that already exists between them and another place. The CFL gives them that opportunity with big rivalries that have been a part of great CFL stories for years. Some of those rivalries will be getting some extra fodder though as this year an unprecedented number of teams saw big names switch sides in the off-season. One of the most legendary rivalries in the CFL is that between Hamilton and Toronto, considered the oldest rivalry in North American sports. This year there will be some extra hate between the two sides as a key piece to the Argonauts’ team has moved down the QEW to Hamilton. Chad Owens was the straw that stirred the drink for the offence in Toronto as one of the most dynamic receivers in the game. This year he was a free agent and Toronto didn’t offer him the contract he wanted, Hamilton did. So Owens goes from a Ti-Cat killer to a member of the Ti-Cats. In response, the Argonauts went out and signed a number of key pieces to the Ti-Cat defensive line including Brian Bulcke, Bryan Hall, and Justin Hickman. Both of those changes are only going to fuel a great rivalry and have fans booing old heroes. On the other side of the country, one of the fiercest rivalries has been the Saskatchewan-Winnipeg rivalry with the Banjo Bowl at the centre of the fight between provinces. This year the Bombers went after it in free agency and that included adding some old enemies. Weston Dressler has been a Rider legend for years while Ryan Smith was quickly becoming a fan favourite in the province. Now both will be on the other side of the Banjo Bowl playing for the Bombers. Not to be outdone the Riders replaced at least one of the open receiver spots with Bomber veteran, Clarence Denmark. It was an interesting off-season for a few teams and the two biggest rivalries in the league gained some extra fire. When Labour Day comes around and these rivalries reach their biggest level there is sure to be mixed feelings for some fans as they see old heroes wearing different colours and doing everything they can to hurt their former teams.

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Following legends is always a tough thing for players and something that is rarely done successfully. It is a lot of pressure for a player to step into a position played by a fan favourite and be as good if not better than that player. It is tough to live up to and the pressure can be huge, which is why there are still positions on teams trying to be filled from years ago. Now take that pressure and focus on the sidelines where the league’s longest-tenured head coach and fan favourite is stepping down. Not only is he stepping down but he will be working as the GM and watching your every move as the coach of one of the most successful and consistent teams in the league. That is what Dave Dickenson faces this year as the former quarterback will take over as the head coach of the Calgary Stampeders. It has been the plan for a number of years as Dickenson has been on the Stampeder staff since 2009 and has been the offensive coordinator since 2011. Last year John Hufnagel announced that 2015 was to be his last as the head coach and that he would remain the general manager. For seven years Hufnagel had guided the Stamps to plenty of success including two Grey Cups as a head coach. The announcement came with a second announcement that Dickenson was to take over as the head coach. There are some big shoes to fill for Dickenson but he is in a unique spot as a rookie head coach. He inherited a team that can win a Grey Cup right now, something that most rookie head coaches need to figure out. Dickenson is also familiar with the team after receiving his mentorship from Hufnagel and likely getting a better look into head coaching last year. So the only question is whether or not Dickenson can keep this team at the level that they have been used to for the last few years. On one hand any success will likely be associated with the ground work laid by Hufnagel while any failures will be put on Dickenson. If they don’t remain a top team this year, Dickenson will be a failure as a head coach. He takes the reigns this year and looks to be one of the best rookie coaches in the history of the CFL as he certainly has the talent around him to do just that.

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New stadiums are not necessarily the biggest and most exciting stories throughout a season but there is one that is slightly more important than the others. The Toronto Argonauts have been one team that has struggled for decades in the CFL with little relief. They have been a team with ownership issues since john Candy was a part owner and since that time, they have struggled to get fans in the seats. That is not the best news for the league as a whole because Toronto is a key piece to the league. Whether other fans want to admit it or not, Toronto is the centre of much of the sports in the country. Both major sports networks are in Toronto and they have the biggest potential fan base in the entire league. The Argonauts failing would take this away and would also destroy a pillar of the league in a team that has been in the league since the start. The CFL could survive without them but it would be a far different league that would likely be more obscure than it is already. So the success of the Argos, at least off the field, helps the rest of the league and that is why their move is so important this year. The Argos finally found a solid ownership group in Bell Media and Larry Tanenbaum, two-thirds of Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment which is the biggest sports organisation in Canada. That ownership provides a level of stability that the team has never seen in their long history. It also brings them the one thing that has been the biggest complaint by the Argos and sports fans in the city. They get to move outside to BMO Field, on the site of their original Exhibition Stadium, in a fairly new field that has undergone major renovations in the last two years. For years, the Rogers Centre was the problem and a crutch that the Argos could lean on as the reason they couldn’t get fans. That excuse is gone and if the Argos can’t take full advantage of this new opportunity the Argos have very little left to do to get back to being a major draw in the city. The move to BMO is a big thing for the league as it could be the chance to solve the biggest issue facing the league in the past two decades and if it is a success the league will be in a better spot than it ever has been.

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There is no argument that the quarterback in football has become the most important player on any team in any league. There is no league where this is truer than in the CFL as the passing offence is key for every team. The bigger field and three downs making passing the ball both easier and more essential for teams to be successful. Those passing offences need a passer that can get the ball where they need to and push the ball down the field quickly. It makes the quarterbacking position all the more important as without a good player an offence is simply not good enough to compete. It can be a long haul for a team to find that quarterback as many teams have learned first-hand. Right now the Montreal Alouettes are learning how hard it can be to find a good quarterback. They were spoiled for years with Anthony Calvillo putting up massive numbers and becoming the best QB in league history. Since his retirement though the Als have yet to find a replacement that can bring them back to the Grey Cup. They have run through multiple quarterbacks in those two years including Alex Brink, Tanner Marsh, Jonathan Crompton, Tajh Boyd, Brandon Bridge, and Kevin Glenn. When the Als started training camp they had a total of nine quarterbacks on the roster including plenty of potential starters. Crompton and Glenn represented the veterans and may have had the best shot when training camp started. Then there were the youngsters in the second year QB Boyd, Canadian Bridge, and new arrival Vernon Adams who played for Oregon and was attempting to break through in professional football. At first glance, this is great as there are plenty of options but as the Alouettes have learned over the last few years they need to pick one. The Als have rotated quarterbacks before and kept some on a short leash and none of those ever work. When it comes to the younger quarterbacks they need to be able to make a mistake and still play. For the veterans, they just want to take control of a team without having to look over their shoulder. The Alouettes are continuing a QB carousel that fans will hope stops this year because without finding a QB the Als won’t be finding their way to the Grey Cup anytime soon.

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The Edmonton Eskimos were simply the best team last year as they finished atop the West and took home the Grey Cup. A big part of that team was head coach Chris Jones who was an emotional leader for the team and a great mentor. Nobody knew what to expect when Jones moved from Toronto to Edmonton to take his first head coaching job but from the start, he made a difference. After winning the Grey Cup last year Edmonton fans were likely looking forward to more years of success. After all, this team had a great head coach and a team that was not going to be broken up under him. Then Jones got an offer that he couldn’t refuse when the Saskatchewan Roughriders came calling. The Riders had been struggling over the last two seasons under Corey Chamblin sinking to the bottom of the league both years. The Riders are responsible to their owners, the fans, and in Saskatchewan missing the playoffs is a big no-no as there are massive expectations from the biggest fan base in the league. The Riders went about trying to find someone to bring in and help them turn things around both on the field and in the front office. After firing Chamblin and GM Brendan Taman rumours began to swirl that they were looking for someone to handle all of those responsibilities. John Hufnagel was a popular choice after deciding to step down as the head coach in Calgary. Then rumours began to swirl about the Riders taking a Grey Cup champion coach away from the team he just won the Grey Cup with. That is not a common thing as Grey Cup coaches are never allowed to leave and never want to leave a place where they can win another Grey Cup. The Riders gave Jones complete control over the team, in essence, a promotion that allowed Jones to leave Edmonton, and Jones turned out to be a man who loves challenges. It is something that won’t be seen for a long time but the fact is last year’s Grey Cup winning coach will be coaching for another team this year. He has already gone to work signing some of his favourite Edmonton free agents and rebuilt a struggling team. What could be more amazing, although still unlikely, is if Jones can guide two different teams to back-to-back championships?

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