Although it feels like a lifetime ago, when I take a moment to reflect on last season, I recall an Edmonton Eskimos team that surprised everyone except themselves, a dominant Winnipeg Blue Bombers defence, three Canadian running backs that emerged as stars and a British Columbia Lions team that emerged from rags to riches and concluded the season by hoisting the Grey Cup as CFL champions.
There was no shortage of topics to talk about around the water cooler this off-season when it came to the CFL. Talk about shuffling the deck! After filtering through the craziness, I have come up with 10 things that I am looking forward to this season:
1. Simon as CFL all-time leading receiver
I won't need to wait long to enjoy this. Yes, I will be in the crowd this Friday when the Lions open their season against the Blue Bombers. Yes, I will be expecting "catch history" as Geroy Simon only needs 67 yards to surpass Milt Stegall as the all-time leading receiver in the CFL. Like Stegal, Simon is a receiver that has that deceptive extra gear. It looks so effortless when he needs to stretch the field and make ridiculously difficult catches. Knowing Simon, he wants to break this record as early in the season as possible to eliminate it as a distraction. As a competitor, he will also love to accomplish this against the team that feels like the Grey Cup was stolen away from them last year and in front of his home crowd.
2. It's not how you start but how you finish
When I played, I always divided the season up into four parts: solidify a job for the year in training camp; stay healthy through the summer; come together as a team in the fall; leave it all on the field in November. As you witnessed last year, it is not how you start the season, but rather how you finish that counts. 50 per cent of the teams in the league this year have a new head coach. Whenever a new head coach is hired, typically, wholesale changes in the organization occur. When there is wholesale change, their is always a learning curve on how to become a good football team. The team that I believe will evolve the most this season and the team that I am most interested in watching is the Toronto Argonauts. General manager Jim Barker has done a fantastic job of bringing together very talented coaches and players to round out his team for this season. It will be interesting to see if these individuals come together as a good football team by November to make a push for the 100th Grey Cup in Toronto.
3. Offensive line is essential to success
Many may feel that a football team is only as good as the player who holds the ball. Many will focus on a team's quarterback, running back or primary receiver. I am of the opinion that your football team is only as good as your offensive line is. If your offensive line is poor, your running back has nowhere to run. If you don't have a good offensive line, the quarterback doesn't have enough time in the pocket to deliver a pass. If your offensive line can't pick up a defensive blitz, your quarterback is going to get hit. Typically, year after year, you will see a level of consistency on the offensive line of teams moreso than any other position as coaches know that consistency in personnel is a building block to a strong unit. Looking through the rosters of each team, I was struck by the lack of consistency. Either due to early season injuries or simply a juggling of personnel, every team is starting 2012 with an inexperienced group. The team that is able to bring together a cohesive offensive line the quickest may prove to be the team that has the most success this season.
4. Year of the backup quarterback
Unfortunately, I have a feeling that questionable offensive line play is going to test the depth of teams at quarterback this year as starting quarterbacks may take some big hits. Anthony Calvillo is able to still play at the age of 40 because he knows when he needs to throw the ball away. Does Buck Pierce? Ricky Ray will play a critical role in the success of the Argos this season. Will he have time in the pocket? Henry Burris is an athletic quarterback that has the natural instinct to run with the ball when pressured. Can he still take the hits that he took when he was 28 years old? I believe that it is going to be critical this year that teams have a solid Plan B. Every team looks pretty solid with their back up position, except Saskatchewan.
5. Playing with a chip on his shoulder
Burris is one of the great quarterbacks in the CFL. Last season in Calgary, he was shoved aside and replaced by Drew Tate, who led the Stampeders on their playoff run while Burris stood on the sideline holding the clipboard. The entire episode was embarrassing and insulting. I had a chance to get to know Burris during my time in Calgary. He is definitely a guy who wants to prove people wrong when they tell him that he can't do something. Burris has landed on his feet in Hamilton with a great situation. He has been reunited with (head coach) George Cortez, who basically introduced Burris to the CFL game early in his career and he is surrounded by a solid group of offensive players. You don't typically see a veteran quarterback take off with the football and willingly take on hits in pre-season games. However, you did both times that Burris took the field this year. Burris is out to prove that he still has what it takes to be successful and this motivation will go a long way in bringing success to the Ticats this season.
6. Jon Cornish is the real deal
Jon Cornish of the Stampeders was given his first start last season in Week 13, replacing all-star running back Joffery Reynolds. It seemed to me that the more responsibility he was given, the better he played. Cornish's amazing 7.3 yards per carry was the best in the league and a result of his ability to consistently keep his shoulders pointing north/south and his legs driving relentlessly for positive yards. His style of rushing the football is something that every young running back should work to emulate. Although Eskimos running back Jerome Messam took the hardware at the end of the season, Cornish established himself as an elite player in 2011. I look forward to seeing what Cornish is able to accomplish this season as the starting running back in Calgary.
7. Canadian Air Force
The Canadian talent over the past several years has been impressive. It has been a while since we have seen so many quality Canadian players at skilled positions. The Canadian Air Force nickname was introduced in 2009 and included three amazing non-import receivers from the Saskatchewan Roughriders -- Chris Getzlaf, Andy Fantuz and Rob Baggs. Having great Canadian talent goes a long way in your teams ability to deal with the pounding and inevitable injuries through the season. Having three impact receivers that happen to be Canadian is a luxury that doesn't come around that often. This year, we have both an East and West version of the Canadian Air Force. In the East, Hamilton has Dave Stalla, Samuel Guigere and Andy Fantuz. And in the West, B.C. has four very talented Canadian receivers in Shawn Gore, Akeem Foster, Marco Iannuzzi and Paris Jackson.
8. Can Swaggerville exist in Regina?
One of the major off-season deals saw Odel Willis, the Mayor of Swaggerville himself, traded to Saskatchewan. Willis has been creating headaches for opposing quarterbacks with his quickness off the line and relentless pressure. His first step is as good as I have seen since Joe Montford. What is confusing to me is how his playing time started to get cut down towards the end of the season last year. Was he hurt? Was he not fitting into the evolution of the defence? I am interested in seeing how he performs with the Riders, in seeing if he is an elite player or simply a high-paid free agent that has landed a job based on past reputation. Roughriders head coach Corey Chamblin has a history of grabbing hold of overpaid and underachieving rush ends. Stevie Baggs. Need I say more?
9. New dynamic players in the CFL
Every year, there is always a few players that emerge as explosive dynamic players. When they touch the ball, you simply shake your head in wonder and say to yourself, 'There is no way he just did that.' Two players that have caught my attention so far this season are Chad Simpson of Winnipeg and Corey Sheets of Saskatchewan. The explosiveness and field speed of these players makes me think we will hear their name often this year. One player that I have been waiting to see something from is Noel Devine of the Montreal Alouettes. The 23-year-old from West Virginia University has been hyped up as an explosive, all-purpose football player who has yet to show anything so far.
10. Yes, kickers do matter
All players like to joke about the kickers and how it is highly questionable that they qualify as athletes. I guess, in the loosest definition, you may be able to make an argument. But when the game is on the line and you need at least three points to win the Grey Cup, the kicker is your best friend. Kicking in practice and through the summer is one thing. Kicking in big games at the end of the season is completely different. Coming away with points inside the 30-yard line and maintaining field position are two crucial elements of any championship team. Four out of eight teams are starting the season with inexperienced kickers. Rob Maver in Calgary has been solid. but he is really only entering his second season after being injured early last year. Winnipeg and Saskatchewan have kickers with under three years of experience and Edmonton just brought in a new kicker, Swayze Waters, who is likely to start against Toronto this Saturday, according to Eskimos head coach Kavis Reed.
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