The 2013 season, Jim Popp's 18th with the Montreal Alouettes
, could go down as his finest yet.
I can't recall a team that has gone through more changes from one year to the next than Popp's Alouettes in 2013. And yet they're in a strong position to win a post-season game as they travel to Guelph to play the Hamilton Tiger-Cats in Sunday's East semifinal
I'm not sure what's longer: the length of Popp's job title (head coach, vice president, general manager and director of football operations and player personnel) or his run of success as a CFL GM. The Alouettes are the most successful franchise of the last decade because of Popp.
The attribute that I admire most about Popp is his ability to understand which pieces will work, which pieces won't, and the confidence to pull the trigger to make a change. As Wally Buono once told me, a general manger gets paid to make the tough decisions -- just don't be wrong or you'll get fired.
After the Als' embarrassing 19-11 loss to the Bombers in Week 2 of the season, I jotted down a note to myself: "Popp will make a change before the start of September." It took him only two weeks to remove Dan Hawkins
as the head coach, install himself in that position, and expand advisor Doug Berry's offensive responsibilities.
Making changes to appease your boss or the fans is easy. Making appropriate changes that strengthen your football team to increase your chances of winning is a special skill.Subtle, smart moves
One of the most subtle additions that Popp made this summer was bringing defensive end Anwar Stewart
back into the Als locker room by signing him in August. This is one of the decisions that really speaks to the breadth of Popp's managerial skills. Talent alone can't win you games consistently -- building your football team around a culture of winning will. Popp needed some help to win back the locker room, and Stewart was the best guy for the job.
Another subtle decision that Popp made that I appreciated was bringing kick returner Bo Bowling
back to the team after he was "encouraged" to retire following training camp. You have to appreciate a guy who can admit when he has made a mistake. Popp has had high hopes for Noel Devine
ever since he was brought into the CFL last year, but unfortunately he remains a player with more potential than actual performance. With Bowling in the fold, Montreal once again has a solid return game and additional experienced depth on the roster. Although Popp is a confident guy, he does not allow his ego to get in the way.
The obstacles that Popp has been faced with this season are staggering. The loss of Brandon Whitaker
, Jamel Richardson
, Scott Flory
and Andrew Woodruff
should have eliminated Montreal from being a competitive team this season. And, oh yeah, the loss of one of the CFL's all-time great quarterbacks, Anthony Calvillo
, who has been sidelined
since mid-August due to a concussion and won't play again this year.
Popp had plenty of excuses at his disposal if he had decided to simply pack it in and start preparing for the 2014 season. Instead, he rolled up his sleeves and went to work.
Popp was able to replace Whitaker with Tyrell Sutton
, Richardson with Duron Carter
, Flory and Woodruff with Ryan Bomben
and Micheal Ola
. And, the big one, Calvillo with Troy Smith
.Smith gets comfortable
Keep in mind that Smith was signed prior to Calvillo's concussion. What was impressive to me is that when Calvillo was placed on the nine-game injured list, Popp did not choose to play Smith. Instead, he went with two young quarterbacks who he knew would give him a gutsy effort but were, at the end of the day, not what he envisioned as the future of the franchise.
Popp was biding his time in hopes that Calvillo would recover from his concussion in time for the playoffs. As a plan B, Popp allowed the coaching staff to work with Smith, in hopes that he would get comfortable enough with the CFL game to have success if he was needed at the end of the season.
Although Smith is still missing a lot of throws, he has the athleticism to be effective enough for Montreal to score points.
Finally, the hiring of Noel Thorpe as defensive coordinator may have been the best decision that Popp made this season. No one could have predicted that the Montreal defence would become the backbone of the team in 2013.
By sending an additional linebacker on every play, the Montreal defence forces opposing offences to make decisions under pressure, which has led to more turnovers than any other team in the CFL.
With arguably the best back eight players in the CFL, Montreal is a dangerous opponent in the playoffs, and I believe they'll defeat Hamilton to earn matchup with Toronto in the East Division final next week.
Coaches and players have come and gone over the past 18 seasons, but the cornerstone of this winning franchise has been Jim Popp. Congratulations to him on an amazing job.
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