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After the first four weeks of the 2009 CFL season teams are starting to show their true colours. And while there are still some perennial powerhouses at the top, some stronger teams of the past are spiraling to the basement of the league as they struggle to find new identities amongst the changes they have made. Here’s a look at how I see the teams after the first four games of the year.
No doubt they are the class of the East, they always are. This year though they are clearly the class of the league, which couldn’t always be said in the past. The Als look balanced, consistent, and they’ve already knocked off two west opponents, including the Stamps. It’s amazing how the Als restock and reload year after year and never seem to “rebuild”. There should be nothing standing in their way of getting to the Grey Cup (again). Mark Trestman looks like his rookie CFL coaching debut was no fluke. He is respected by his players, and his peers and has his team prepared to play each and every week.
The Grey Cup hangover appears to be wearing off and the Stamps annihilation of the Lions Friday was impressive and decisive. Henry Burris looks confident, and in my opinion is he best QB in the league right now. The Lions offensive line had no answers for the Calgary pass rush led by Labinjo, and whether that is more of a reflection of the Lions themselves remains to be seen, but this is a solid group and I see the Stamps getting stronger as we go.
The Riders offseason changes on defense were supposed to set them back, but they haven’t missed a beat. Picking up Stevie Baggs from Winnipeg was brilliant and their new linebacking core is getting the job done. What’s hurting them is inconsistency on offense and turnovers. Sound familiar? QB Darian Durant looks great on one drive, average the next and downright brutal on others. The Riders have a great back in Wes Cates, outstanding receivers, and their defense is playing well but until they get solid production from the QB spot, they’ll continue to be an average team.
As a CFL fan I am loving the fact the Ticats are off to a better start this year. Their latest loss to Montreal was tough, but they were the first club to hold the Als under 40 points, under 30 for that matter, and it looks like O’Billovich is starting to add some nice talent, as we all knew he would after having the time to do so. Quinton Porter is a work in progress, but Kevin Glenn has added a nice backup option off the bench. The Ticat defense looks to be much improved as well, with Otis Floyd fitting in nicely from BC and providing some nice leadership as he did with the Lions. Western teams can’t be assured a cross-over spot this year, and a win over the Lions next week at home could propel this team to even bigger and better things in the East and possibly even a home playoff game which would be outstanding for their long suffering fan base.
Toronto went the route of the Alouettes and hired a coach with NFL experience in Bart Andrus in the offseason. They also tried to beef up their offensive line with the addition of Rob Murphy from the BC Lions. To date the results have been mixed, and that’s to be expected. Andrus has laid down the law in Toronto with Adriano Belli and more recently Arland “Terrell Owens” Bruce. That move resulted in a big win on the road in Winnipeg. I expect the Argos may continue to improve. They have some nice pieces to work with and a coach with fresh ideas and philosophy’s
The Eskimos barely avoided the “weak” category, and only did so with a gutsy character filled comeback in Regina yesterday. After getting it handed to them at home against the Lions, the Eskies could have easily packed it in after getting down 22-0 at Mosaic. But they stuck with it and battled back to take over the game and get a win in a stadium where it’s tough to do so. The Eskimos overhauled defense has been hot and cold. Their biggest issues remain on offense, but that could change if they finally clue in and use Calvin McCarty as their featured back. Ricky Ray has taken a lot of heat from Eskimo fans, but without an established running game, and an average offensive line performance he hasn’t had a chance to be effective.
New head coach Mike Kelly made a lot of enemies early on, and from day one I questioned the appointment of Stefan Lefors as the Bombers number one QB. To put all your faith in a QB that has never been more than a backup was dangerous move. Things have gotten so bad the Bombers are now airlifting in Michael Bishop at QB. Can Casey Printers be far behind? Four of the teams next five games are on the road, and if the Bombers don’t solve their offensive woes quickly, their season could be over quickly.
Last and possibly least, my own BC Lions. Yes, there have been a ton of offseason changes. But there are still enough veterans on this team that there should have been no excuse for the no-show at home versus the Grey Cup champs,who owned you last season. If they had put up a fight maybe they squeak out of the “weak” label. This team seems to have an overconfidence problem that is reflecting on it’s leadership. Turnovers, missed assignments, dumb penalties…you name it the Lions have done it this season. How many players does Buono have to axe to get his point across? At some point the players in the room have respond and take responsibility, buckle down and play inspired football.
There are questions about the coaches as well, including Buono himself, with many wondering if the game is passing him by. Is he too stubborn to change his ways? Why does he show such loyalty to his coaches, but is quick to axe his players? The defense under Mike Benevides hasn’t been the same since Dave Ritchie retired, and Jacques Chapdelaine continues to call the offense despite his title of receivers coach. At what point to the coaches become responsible?
The offensive line is struggling, there’s a new running back with promise trying to find his way, and QB’s who have zero time to set up not producing. The Lions need to figure it out quickly because at 1-3 and in the West division, there is not a whole lot of margin for failure. It will be interesting to see if the Lions can rebound in Hamilton like the Eskimos did in Regina after their embarrassing loss at home.
Well after the Lions 48-10 beat down at the hands of the Stampeders last night, hopefully we can enjoy and talk about a real football game this afternoon. Join us for today’s game at 12:45 to talk a little CFL football, and we can also dissect last night’s debacle under the dome.
I’ve been a CFL fan, and a BC Lions fan in particular, for most of my life. When I was a child, my parents took me to games at Empire Stadium. Later, I attended games at BC Place. My mother was an Edmonton Eskimos fan and used to torture the family by screaming as she watched them on TV. She must have been happy in those years, as some of my earliest CFL memories included the Eskimos hosting the Grey Cup. Unfortunately, none of my friends were interested in going to games and most of my thirst for the Lions and the League in general were satisfied through newspapers and television. That was until 2002.
It was in that year that I met other fans through the internet and in 2003 I was back under the dome, attending games. By 2004 I had bought my own season tickets.
One of the greatest pleasures I’ve experienced since returning to games has been the wonderful people I have met across Canada. I have made friends and acquaintances from, literally, every CFL city. Over the last few years, many of these people have become good friends, and we routinely visit each other throughout the regular season and every year during Grey Cup week.
This latest road trip took me to the province of Alberta – to both the Eskimo Empire and the land of the tailgate party in city of the Grey Cup Champion Calgary Stampeders. The following words and pictures tell that story.
Thursday July 16th
My flight is at 7:00 am so it’s up early. It’s funny how when you go on a trip you have no trouble waking up. The flight to Edmonton is great – just over an hour long. I am greeted at the airport by Brian Edwards, a long time CFL and Edmonton Eskimo fan. Brian and his wife Linda are gracious hosts every time I visit their city.
Our day starts with a little breakfast, followed by a trip across Edmonton’s high level bridge on an old Japanese streetcar. The streetcar was built in 1921 and then rebuilt in 1947. It remained in service in Osaka until 1990, before coming to Edmonton. The train leaves from a location near the old landmark Strathcona hotel. It travels over the High Level Bridge and back, providing a breathtaking view of the city and the North Saskatchewan River.
It was a hot trip, so from there it was a no-brainer that we hit Julio’s Barrio on Whyte Avenue for some lunch and a few Bulldogs. Bulldogs are double margaritas with a bottle of Corona placed upside down in the glass. Let me just say…tasty and potent folks! Julio’s is a must stop for me on every trip to Edmonton. I was also thinking that stopping for drinks on Whyte Avenue will be good karma for new Lions kicker Sean Whyte, who would start his first CFL game that night.
After returning home and having a brief rest…err letting the Bulldogs wear off, it was off to Commonwealth for the Lions vs. the Eskimos.
Dante Marsh sent a tweet this morning on Twitter that the team is ready and he’s preparing by riding the bike and doing some stretching. He calls tonight’s game “huge,” and I have to agree. You can now follow Dante on Twitter: @dantemarsh
The Lions have gone 2 and 2 at the games I’ve attended at Commonwealth. It’s a great place to watch a game and it’s supposed to be nice tonight, so sitting outside in an open air stadium will be a treat.
We arrive at Commonwealth around 6:30 pm. The atmosphere around the stadium is noticeably retro. The 60’s version of the Eskimos fight song is playing. Cheerleaders are dressed like they were in the 60’s – shiny gold suits with big belts and headbands. They look really good!
Inside the stadium, I see lots of Lions fans in orange and black. As I get my first view of the field, I see the Lions warming up and instantly become a fan of the retro uniforms. It is, hands down, the best look I have seen the Lions wear. My Eskimo hosts tend to agree, and their team looks sharp as well.
The game starts a bit slowly. However, after Buck Pierce goes out with an injury, the Lions pick it up with Jarious Jackson at the controls and go on to a big 40-22 win on the road. Despite the lop-sided win, the atmosphere in the stadium is great, the weather is awesome, and I realize on nights like this one outdoor football cannot be beat.
After the game, we head to a downtown pub called 1905 to discuss the game and have a bite to eat. We run into another happy BC Lions fan who chats with us for a while. He’s a transplanted Lions fan from BC with Eskimo season tickets, so tonight he celebrates (but states the Eskimos are his second favorite team).
After a nightcap back at my hosts’ place, it’s off to bed as tomorrow we drive to Calgary for Friday Night Football.
Friday July 17th
During the drive to Calgary, we were entertained by the comedic talents of Russell Peters on the radio. We talked about stories of past CFL road and Grey Cup trips. Don McAskill has joined Brian and I for the trip, and I look forward to meeting up with friends in Calgary at the tailgate party – a huge highlight for me on any Calgary road trip.
After checking in and waiting for our friend William “Hoof” Allen to arrive, I head over to meet friends on the west side of McMahon Stadium. As I stroll through the parking lot, the smell of barbeques fills the air – Canada’s best tailgate party is well under way. Elaborate tailgate setups are the norm here and there’s some serious grub being grilled throughout the lot.
Finally, I meet up with my old college friend, Brian Allan, his son Zach and his new wife Catherine. With them is Brian’s friend Ray, who’s been a regular at the tailgates for years and is known to put on a nice spread for friends and guests alike. I get to sample my first Spolumbo’s sausage, and it lives up to its famous reputation. TSN stops buy to do a promo shot of the sizzling grill and mock dust up between Ray and a visiting Argos fan. Thanks again to Brian and Ray for the hospitality they showed me that day and a great tailgate party experience.
I head into the stadium and find I have great seats courtesy of Ken and Jacky Smith, two Stampeders fans who have moved away from Calgary but still keep their season tickets. They can’t make it to the game, so there I sit on the 50 yard line. I am joined by my friend Hoof, Jacky’s sister Rande, Rande’s husband Mike and their friend Ryan – great people who made it a really fun night.
These two teams also look sharp in retro, although it took a while for me to warm up to Calgary’s. For some reason, the Argos were the only team with their names on their jerseys all weekend.
Much like the Lions and Eskimos, the first half of this game was close. However, the Stampeders opened the floodgates in the second half and shut the Argos out the rest of the way. In the end, it was another blowout, this time by a score of 44-9, setting up a battle of two 1-2 teams the following week when Calgary would visit BC
Ralph the dog tried to steal my Lions hat, but I head faked him, took my hat off and put it on his head (much to the chagrin of fans around me). You have to be quicker than that Ralph! I think you need to get on the same training regiment as Leo the Lion!
While in Calgary, I had the chance to visit another great CFL fan – Scott Oberg. Scott’s a great guy and I thank him for the hospitality he showed me.
Following the game and some parking lot mingling, it was off to the Big T Barbeque across from McMahon for some delicious pulled pork and more banter among friends. This was followed by a few drinks at the hotel. Another great day of CFL football fun for the books!
Saturday July 18th
After driving back to Edmonton, we watch the Hamilton vs.Winnipeg game, followed by parts of the Saskatchewan vs.Montreal contest before heading out to dinner. My BlackBerry revealed that a storm may be heading to Edmonton and, sure enough, I got to witness a good old-fashioned prairie thunderstorm – complete with lightening, rain, hail and wind. The storm knocked out power to the Edwards’ house and surrounding area. From a spectator’s point of view, the light show was spectacular and the storm very impressive, but unfortunately it caused a lot of damage throughout the city. After a late night, it was off to bed for an early flight back to Vancouver.
The best thing about being a CFL fan is the opportunity to meet other fans you from across the league, and then reunite with them, year after year, to share a common passion for Canadian football. At the end of the year, all of these friends gather at Grey Cup to celebrate the season, meet new people, develop new friendships and plan future road trips when we’ll meet again to enjoy the experience of the CFL.
Take a look at the trip through photos!
It came down to the wire, but Easy Park and the City of Vancouver finally showed BC Lions tailgaters a bit of love when they agreed to let us use their lot at Quebec and Terminal to hold our football tailgate parties prior to BC Lions games.
Thank you to everyone that came, and for all the cooperation and support you gave. If we keep it up, we’ll have a home for years to come!
Thanks to Easy Park, Councilors Andrea Reimer, and Kerry Jang, the parking lot security staff, and the police as well!
Here are some pictures from the party!