For the better part of a decade, fans and pundits alike have been pining for a more competitive CFL East Divison. Too often of late, the division has been a foregone conclusion both within and without.
Aside from a few one-off challenges from Toronto and Winnipeg, the Montreal Alouettes have had the division under wraps by the end of September each season. And the other three teams in the East have been looking over their shoulders at looming crossover teams from the West.
While the numbers suffered a slight correction in 2009 with the Als and Hamilton Ticats winning the majority of their East/West battles, those cross-divisional match ups have pretty much been Nolo Contendere in recent memory.
If the first three weeks of 2010 are any indication, though, it looks like the East might just be back in business with a vengeance. And that’s both in terms of its own race and in its ability to compete with teams from the West.
Now that I’ve had a chance to watch each team both home and away, here’s my take on what I’ve seen:
Well, it’s safe to say the Ticats showed up this past weekend primed and ready to kick off the 2010 season against the Winnipeg Blue Bombers. Unfortunately for Ticats fans, this past weekend was week 3 of the 2010 season!
After being pegged by many pundits as a legitimate threat to the Als’ eastern dominance, the Ticats sleep-walked through a 49-29 week 1 drubbing at the hands of the Bombers. Week 2 saw an improved performance against the Stampeders, but the result was the same, a tough 23-22 loss.
In week 3, though, the team most people thought would open the 2010 campaign finally showed up. The Ticats offence operated with great tempo and efficiency behind Kevin Glenn sizzling 29 of 36 passing display for 336 yards and three majors.
Hamilton’s aggressive secondary shut down Winnipeg’s deep passing game, and the Ticats front seven held Buck Pierce in check on the ground, finally pushing him to the sidelines with a knee injury.
With Dave Stala coming back to form, Mo Mann looking like he’s finally back to full speed, and Marquay McDaniel and Arland Bruce III moving chains regularly, the Ticats certainly proved they can be as dangerous as any team in the league offensively. And when you consider DeAndra Cobb has yet to get untracked this season, things can get even better.
After last Friday’s 16-12 win at Empire Field, the Als managed to come out of a grueling three-game road trip to open their season with a 2-1 record. Instead of earning rave reviews for their toughness and resiliency out west, though, the Als are currently receiving fire for their “slow start.”
While I’d have to agree those two victories were of the ugly variety, don’t count me among those pundits prepping Montreal’s eulogy just yet. Both wins came against teams absolutely desperate to avoid 0-2 losing streaks at home this season, not to mention how difficult it’s been for Montreal to come out of Commonwealth Stadium and any venue in Vancouver with Ws for the past several years.
And the Als’ one loss, a 54-51 double-overtime instant classic in Regina, came at the hands of a team with absolutely everything working in its favour to open the season with a win—a rabid, sell-out home crowd, the burn of last season’s Grey Cup loss, and host of big-play talent healthy and ready to rock and roll. Even with all that tilting the field towards green, the Als gave the Riders all they could handle for 60 minutes and some change.
All that said, there are a few storm clouds looming over the defending champs. The Als’ secondary, particularly Billy Parker, Etienne Boulay, and Jerald Brown, have shown a propensity for giving up big plays and bigger penalties in man coverage. The front seven has failed to generate the pressure you’d expect from guys like Anwar Stewart, John Bowman, and Shea Emry. And the inability to get Avon Cobourne off has caused a few hiccups in the redzone.
With Anthony Calvillo showing no signs of a drop-off, however, and receivers like S.J. Green, Jamel Richardson, Ben Cahoon, Brian Bratton, and Kerry Watkins making plays, you’ve got to figure the Als will be in the mix come November. Plus, they’ll have the experience of eking out a few wins early to fall back on when the competition heats up heading into the playoffs.
The real surprise of the 2010 season in the East for me, though, has to be the Argos cohabitating in first place with Montreal after three games.
As soon as Toronto flushed its previous coaching staff and cadre of QBs, I knew this season would be full of positives steps. I’d be lying if I told you I thought the Argos would be 2-1 after facing Calgary and Hamilton to open their campaign, however.
Considering it had been a while since Jim Barker had been behind the bench and the fact that the Argos were going with Cleo Lemon at QB, the learning curve was sure to be steep. Add to that mix opening the season with games against two teams picked by some to be Grey Cup Contenders, and it would have been better than par for Toronto to earn platitudes for new-found discipline and competitiveness with a scrappy 0-3 start.
Instead, the Argos have made solid decisions on and off the field since Barkers hiring, and the results have come quickly.
Despite opening the season on the road against probably the toughest defensive coordinator a CFL rookie QB could face in his first outing, Lemon and the Argos managed to enter their last possession of the game down only a single score with a good chance to tie things up before Chris Jones dialed up the perfect blitz to cause a turnover and end the game.
In wins over Hamilton away and Calgary at home, Lemon has proven to be a quick study, learning protection schemes and escape routes on the fly. RB Cory Boyd has also proven to be a beast, leading the league with 283 yards on 47 carries.
Watching how quickly the Argos have gotten themselves together this season, I’d have to agree with Coach Barker—they’re no longer the free space on the bingo card for their opposition.
Winnipeg Blue Bombers
There’s been quite an about-face in Winnipeg, too, this season. Out is the rudderless Mike Kelly administration. In is Paul LaPolice and a staff of well-prepared, media-friendly coaches who’ve changed the whole feeling around Big Blue, not to mention installing a pro offence that’s improved the product on the field considerably.
Even sitting at 1-2 on the year so far, it’s clear all the changes have given the team some traction, starting first and foremost with new pivot Buck Pierce.
Pierce jumped out of the gate in his first two games for Winnipeg absolutely on fire, passing for over 600 yards and five TDs while rushing for 192 yards and two TDs. No doubt, he showed up in the Peg ready to play as advertised.
As B.C. Lions fans can attest, Pierce deserves to have his picture in the dictionary next to “fiery competitor.” And watching the Blue Bombers play the first three weeks this year, it’s pretty clear that attitude rubs off on teammates quickly.
Unfortunately, as Lions fans know all too well, Pierce should have his picture installed under “brittle” as well. All those running yards took a toll on his shoulder forcing him out of practice, and a knee sprain picked up in last weekend’s loss to Hamilton is going to knock Pierce out of action for at least a week.
Winnipeg’s defence has shown it has the ability to put pressure on the quarterback, and their secondary has shown a nose for the ball. But without Pierce, it remains to be seen if that’ll be enough for the Bombers to keep progressing under the new regime.
Ex-Riders QB Steven Jyles will be under centre in week 4. My money had him winning the starting job outright in camp, so I’d expect the team to be in games with or without Buck Pierce. It may even give Fred Reid a chance to break out with his first 100-yard effort.