We received a treat this week with some amazing football, including three of four games decided by less that three points. After five weeks, the 2012 CFL season looks like it is going to, once again, be a tight race as teams challenge each other for a chance to win the historic 100th Grey Cup in November. There are only two things that can make a season more favourable for the league office than parity: the host team playing in the Grey Cup; and engaging, competitive football games played in Southern Ontario.
Hold on to your boot straps because the dream season is about to unfold.
If I believed in conspiracy theories, I would have to conclude that CFL commissioner Mark Cohon set up a conference call in the off-season with the general managers in Edmonton, Calgary, Toronto and Hamilton and laid out his master plan to move Ricky Ray and Henry Burris out east, where they would be able to lead the league's two Southern Ontario teams to the East Final. I am not sure how all of the stars aligned, but there is great football being played in Southern Ontario and I would not be surprised to see either Toronto or Hamilton represent the East in this year's Grey Cup.
If this year can't get the football fans in Ontario excited about the CFL, then I don't know what will. Forget about the Buffalo Bills coming to town. The back-to-back Labour Day rivalry games in September between Toronto and Hamilton are going to be amazing to watch.
Although the Argos and the Ticats have battled through losing cultures over the past few years, I would suggest that these teams are favoured to reach the East Final, which will be a dream come true for the CFL. I would not be surprised to see the TV audience numbers go through the roof this year because of the favourable matchup.
Currently, Ray and Burris are at the helm of two of the top offences in the CFL and both on pace to throw for over 5,000 yards this season. Offensively, Hamilton has scored more points than any other team in the CFL and, coming off a 23-20 victory at Montreal, Toronto looks like it has a very good chance of finishing strong.
Yes, the Argos and Ticats are the cream of the crop in the East. Who'd a thunk it possible?
"Guys are playing and not thinking. We're playing fast and fluid," Burris stated this past week, referring to the confidence that the Ticats are playing with.
With a Calgary-sized chip on his shoulder, Burris is leading the charge in Hamilton. I know that there is nothing more that Burris wants more than to prove the naysayers wrong. When asked to comment on his performance this season this week, Burris said, "I can still run with the best and throw with the best in this league."
When Burris is confident, he is dynamite. When he lacks confidence, he explodes like dynamite. He needs to understand how to control his confidence. I don't think I am the only one that is concerned about his continual choice to dive head first for first downs when he scrambles. The Ticats can ill afford to have Burris injured on the sideline -- slide legs first, big boy, before you get 'slapped.'
Offensively, Hamilton has started to hit on all cylinders. Obviously, Burris and head coach George Cortez should get some credit for the success offensively, but I would like to mention receivers coach Jermaine Copeland as well. Copeland is the perfect fit to complement the duo because of his familiarity with both during his time in Calgary. Having someone to translate the offense X's and O's into receiver language is a tremendous asset.
And Onerea Jones is a keeper. Jones is a big, possession receiver who complements Andy Fantuz and helps to create space for the lighting-fast Chris Williams. Jones is a great find out of Hampton University and impressed me this week when he held onto the ball after taking a solid hit from Saskatchewan Roughriders safety James Patrick.
The Ticats are putting up big points on the scoreboard offensively, but they are also allowing big points defensively. Hamilton's defence has allowed, on average, 33.3 points per game. There are only two defences in the league with poorer defences -- Montreal and Winnipeg. 'Nuff said. The Ticats have also given up over eight yards per pass completion. The closer a team is to 10 yards per catch, it means that you have a secondary that is giving up the big play. Until Hamilton can get a decent pass rush, I would suggest that they stay away from playing so much man-to-man coverage.
I understand that Cortez had a well-scripted response for why he went for the end zone on third down with 2:52 remaining against the Riders, who led 33-28. However, my gut tells me that he, not unlike Winnipeg Blue Bombers head coach Paul LaPolice, who made a similar decision in Week 2, has very little confidence in his defence to make a stop. If Hamilton is going to make a push for the Grey Cup, its defence is going to have to step up.
TORONTO IS THE NEW BLUE
I love the above phrase coined by Argos linebacker Brandon Isaac. The evolution of the Argos will be a lot of fun to watch all season. Rookie head coach Scott Milanovich has brought an offence to Toronto that is tough to beat. Yes, it is a tough offence to grasp, but Ray has climbed the learning curve extremely well and currently has the second-most proficient passing attack in the CFL. Based on what I have seen so far, I would have to say that the Argos have a great chance of playing in the Grey Cup in their own backyard.
Offensively, this team is still working to bring all of the pieces together and still needs to learn how to capitalize on majors rather than continually settle for field goals. Thank goodness they were able to ink kicker Patrick Swayze after Noel Prefontaine went down with a season-ending injury. Swayze has shown that he has the leg to hit the long field goal and win the battle of field position. Not only did he kick two 50-yard field goals this past week, he also averaged 66 yards per punt. Nice.
Montreal Alouettes quarterback Anthony Calvillo was the first player that Ray contacted after being traded to Toronto this past off-season. Calvillo's advise to Ray: "Study your playbook!" The complexities of the offence that Milanovich has brought to Toronto are extensive. However, if there is a quarterback with the capacity and work ethic to make it work, it is Ray. I am sure that Ray was frustrated when he heard the news that he was traded to Toronto from Edmonton. However, when he found out that he would have the opportunity to learn an offensive system that has had so much success in the past few years, I am sure that he was excited about the challenge. If he can grasp this offence, there is no reason why Toronto can't become a strong contender this season.
The Argos have all of the pieces required to rack up points. They have the top rushing back in the CFL (Cory Boyd) and a receiving corps that is both dynamic and skilled. If their offensive line can give Ray some time in the pocket, they will be tough to stop.
MAKING THE PLAY
While Hamilton's defence is struggling to make the play when it counts, the Argos have a defence that can step up and make a play when they need to close out a game. For example, a timely sack by Isaac closed the door on the Als with 28 seconds left.
If I had to say who had the upper hand, I would have to say the Argos because their defence is simply better than the Ticats defence.
Toronto's defence has been built to beat Montreal -- and why wouldn't they? As the class of the East, the Grey Cup, typically, went through Montreal. In order to match the size of the Als receivers, the Argos have assembled a secondary with physical size, none bigger than 6-foot-5 cornerback Patrick Watkins. I am not sure where defensive coordinator Chris Jones finds these big defensive backs. It is very rare to find tall players with the lateral quickness necessary to play the position well. You were able to see the effect that this size had this week when Watkins was able to outfox 6-foot-2 Jamel Richardson for the football in the end zone late in the second quarter. Calvillo has had success in the past by simply tossing the ball to the back corner of the end zone and expecting Richardson to have the size advantage over a defensive back and outjump them for an easy touchdown.
Not any longer.
Jones has inserted a perfect defence that challenges veteran quarterbacks, like Calvillo and Burris, by placing on the field versatile, fast athletes who have the ability to play several positions. The Argos defence will continually rotate players between positions to deliberately confuse quarterbacks as they attempt to get a clean read on what the defence is doing. The defence is designed to get the quarterback to second-guess what he sees and force him to hold onto the ball or to consistently throw the ball underneath to the shallow outlet-pass option.
Toronto's defence is definitely coming around quickly. Defensively, the Argos are leading the CFL with a stingy 6.8 yards allowed per completion. This means that they are doing a fantastic job of keeping everything in front of them.
Finally, we have good football being played in the East and there is no one smiling more than the CFL head office.
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