2018 CFL Preview: 5 Storylines to Watch

cflpreviewThe new CFL season is just about here and there are plenty of stories to talk about as the new year begins.

There are new quarterbacks taking over and other teams still trying to find their own quarterbacks.

Some coaches are taking a step back and new coaches are trying their hands at a brand new league.

Players and coaches are adjusting to new rules and everyone is chasing the Toronto Argonauts to be the best in the league.

As the new season begins there will always be plenty to talk about but the entire league as a whole is going through some changes.

Football has been hit with some pretty serious issues over the past few years as concussions continue to be a growing concern and attention spans continue to shrink.

They aren’t the only league going through this as sports, in general, is running into issues throughout the world.

The old model of getting big TV deals and riding on that is beginning to fall apart as more people cut the cord.

Meanwhile, it is becoming tougher and tougher to keep the attention of younger fans with a three-hour game.

Add that to the fact that every hit is no longer just a hit and people know what kind of toll that takes and it is a recipe for issues.

Every league around the world is beginning to see ratings fall and all of them are looking for ways to stop the bleeding.

The CFL is in a different spot because they have never been a league that truly competed with the biggest leagues in North American.

When they went up against leagues like the NFL and NHL it can be tough for a smaller league to compete.

They don’t have the same deep pockets or exposure as those other leagues and in all honesty, they don’t have the talent.

There is a lot of talent in the CFL but the best football players will always head to the NFL where the money is just so much more.

So the CFL is constantly looking to play from behind and make up their deficits with a different style.

The league has often tried to go head-to-head with the NFL and then has gone the other way and tried to highlight their Canadian roots.

Both strategies have had mixed results and have never really built the league to a major spot on the sports stage.football-sidebar

The latest attempt has nothing to do with any of those as the league seems to be embracing the fact that it is different.

It doesn’t need to try to be different it just is different and although the best football talent still heads south they have talent.

The league is full of guys told that they were too small or not fast enough and they came to the CFL to prove otherwise.

They arrive here and they find their spot because that is what the CFL is all about, getting creative.

They may not have the biggest and strongest and fastest players in football but that doesn’t stop them from figuring out how to work the team around what they have.

That is what the CFL is all about as they make spectacular things out of what many consider to be spare parts.

They don’t get that same experience in Canada and the CFL is using that to sell that they have a league with plenty of excitement and talent.

A lot of people will be trying to learn that for the first time this year with some big names from the NFL making their way north.

Still, the CFL remains a unique league that is entirely different and great for being that different.

This year those differences will be on display and another great year of football is on its way with eyes on Edmonton.

manziel

He is the biggest name to play in Canada since Raghib “Rocket” Ismail decided to go from All-American at Notre Dame to superstar in the CFL. Johnny Manziel will take the focus throughout the season like he did for the entire off-season. He was a Heisman Trophy winner with Texas A&M and was supposed to be a saviour for the Cleveland Browns. He struggled on the field making the adjustment to a faster and better league and those issues on the field translated to issues off the field. He was simply a distraction and his play on the field wasn’t worth keeping him around so he was cut. The issues off the field continues throughout his time away from football as battles with alcoholism and accusations of domestic violence kept teams away. He had earned the reputation of a spoiled superstar that was never told no until he entered the NFL. Eventually things began to settle down but the NFL had moved on and so he looked to a path taken by a number of former NFLers but signing with a CFL team and working his way back. Throughout the off-season his criticism of the CFL contract rules led many to believe that he hadn’t changed much but the Ti-Cats remained the only team to deal with. Just before training camp he signed a two-year deal with Hamilton and the circus was on. The beginning of the season will likely be full of questions about when he will start as the Ti-Cats do have Jeremiah Masoli who is experienced and looked good last year. If he does get a start the spotlight will be bright and his ability to adjust to a completely different game will be tested. He has the skillset to be good but his commitment will be questioned as everyone knows he is only here for two years. With the turmoil throughout the offseason and his history there is a concern that he simply doesn’t care enough but one way or another he will be watched every step of the way as the biggest name in the CFL, regardless of how much he plays.

toduo

Before the 2017 season the last time Jim Popp and Marc Trestman got together they created one of the most dominant franchises in the CFL. The Montreal Alouettes were the beasts of the east for years while other teams struggled. A lot of that had to do with the fact that they had the league’s greatest QB in Anthony Calvillo. Trestman was widely considered one of the greatest coaches while Popp continued to find talent in rare spaces. When Trestman left for the NFL it started a fall as Calvillo then retired and Popp was left trying to hold everything together. The Alouettes fell off and began to fall in the standings as the Alouette era came to an end. In 2017 Popp and Trestman joined forces to bring the worst team in the league back to relevance. The Toronto Argonauts had struggled the entire 2016 season and had little excitement to show heading into 2017. Popp went to work adding talent even poaching a number of former Alouettes including S.J. Green and Bear Woods. Trestman went to work trying to resurrect the career of future hall-of-famer, Ricky Ray who spent most of 2016 injured. The combination turned out to be great as the Argos went from the worst team in the league to the only good team in the east. They eventually found their way to the top of the east and into the Grey Cup where they took home the title. It was a great turnaround and the biggest changes came with the fact that Popp and Trestman were back together. Now they are looking to create something like they had in Montreal where the Argos become a new beast of the east. They have a slightly changed ownership group as Rogers Communications has joined Bell Media and Larry Tanenbaum. That brings the full breadth of Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment, the largest sports entertainment company in Canada, to the Argos in an attempt to solve the unsolvable problem of CFL football in Toronto. A backup plan under centre is in place with the addition of James Franklin and the Argos are hoping that 2017 was just the start of a new reign.

ambrosie

The start of last year was full of uncertainty as the commissioner of the CFL had stepped down and no replacement had been announced. It left the league with a bit of an uncertain future as nobody knew what was to come with nobody leading the direction of the league. The last choice for the league was not a great one as Jeffrey Orridge never seemed to really fit in with the CFL. He was never a football person and instead came from a media background. I theory he was going to help the league in exposure with new ideas about media and how to get the CFL more exposure. That never really happened and although he did play an important role in CBA negotiations he bowed out after only two seasons. It left the league without a leader and the Board of Governors searched for his replacement coming up with a slightly more popular decision. Randy Ambrosie was announced as the new commissioner a few weeks into the season. He was a former player and a Winnipeg Businessman so for many it was a great fit as he was a Canadian who played the game and brought a business background. He could relate to the players but also understand the decisions needed to make the CFL a better league. Although it was assumed that he would take some time to get his feet under him in his first season, Ambrosie made changes right away. Only a few months into the season he made the decision to decrease the amount of challenges from coaches. He took a challenge away leaving every coach with one challenge and a second if they won the first challenge. It was a big change but he didn’t stop there later limiting padded practices and announcing that the 2018 season would add a week to give players more rest throughout the year. His changes have been pretty important and his decisions on Johnny Manziel and Art Briles have been met with an overall acceptance. Now he has already gone through a full season and must be steady on his own two feet. That leads to the question, now that he’s comfortable as the commissioner what else is he going to change?

bridge

It has been a major storyline since Russ Jackson announced his retirement in 1969 an left the CFL without a Canadian under centre. It wasn’t considered a major problem back then because there would surely be another Canadian to come along at some point. The worry only grew as the years went on and no quarterback seemed to be able to break through. The wealth of talent south of the border didn’t help as superstars began to make themselves known in the CFL. It just became something that was common for teams as they signed players from the USA and ignored Canadians coming through the University system. Only recently has it become more of an issue as the only league that involves all Canadian teams with Canadian players hasn’t seen a starting Canadian in the most important position for more than three decades. The league has taken steps to try to get there as every team is now asked to invite young Canadian QBs to training camp but still Canadians have struggled to break through. This year before the season another hopeful for the first Canadian QB to start dropped out of the race altogether. Andrew Buckley had a lot of promise when he entered the league after being drafted by his hometown Stampeders. The biggest issue was that he was stuck behind the best quarterback in the league in Bo Levi Mitchell who was just in his prime. He was never really going to get a shot and so he retired from the game which leaves one Canadian in the position and he isn’t getting much of a shot. Brandon Bridge was the first Canadian to take a snap and the first Canadian to start a game at quarterback since the 1990s putting his name in the history books. He is now looking to be a legitimate starter but as a member of the Roughriders might have a tough time. With the signing of Zach Collaros he is staying as the back-up although he still has a chance if Collaros struggles. Bridge has all of the talent to start but getting that shot seems to be tough but with Michael O’Connor entering the league in 2019 the wait might be over soon.

sherman

It has been a struggle in Montreal ever since Marc Trestman and Anthony Calvillo left the Alouettes. They went from the most feared team in the east to a team that is constantly on the bottom of the standings. They have struggled to find replacements for both men, who are now in Toronto as coaches. They continue to rotate through quarterbacks with nobody really able to take charge of the position. Calvillo is a hard act to follow but they haven’t even found a serviceable quarterback no matter how they try to get there. Some of that struggle has been the decisions made by management and by their endless coaching carousel that seems to make it that much harder. When a quarterback continues to see new coaches come in and out it is hard for them to get comfortable and find a groove. From 2008 to 2012 it was Marc Trestman’s team but since then there have been four coaches as well as two stints from Jim Popp who was the GM and took over as the coach after firing his head men. That is six coaching changes since the 2013 season making it extremely difficult for every player. They have looked everywhere to try to find that leader but nothing has worked and so they are now going back to an old bag of tricks. Mike Sherman was named the head coach this season and his appointment brings more questions. When Trestman left the first replacement was Dan Hawkins, a long-time NCAA coach who was taking his first shot at Canadian Football. Sherman joins the CFL after years as a coach in the USA for both NFL teams and NCAA teams. He certainly has more experience dealing with pros than Hawkins did but he comes in with the same amount of experience in the Canadian game. Taking over as a head coach with no experience in the Canadian game is a difficult thing as this game is so much different. The rules are different and the offences and defences are built different so trying to get used to all of that is difficult. He will need to learn the new game while trying to lead an entire team as the head man leading some to wonder if he will crash and burn or fall in love with the Canadian game and lead the Als out of the basement.

 

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