Als' Grey Cup 3-peat rests on offence
Coach Marc Trestman is curious to see how a bigger, faster group of receivers will perform when the Montreal Alouettes begin their quest for a third straight Grey Cup this week.
Ben Cahoon, the CFL's all-time receiving leader and an Alouette since 1998, has retired, and veteran Kerry Watkins will start the campaign on the nine-game disabled list with a sinus problem, so there will be new sets of hands reaching for veteran Anthony Calvillo's passes when they open the CFL season at home Thursday night against British Columbia.
And Avon Cobourne's jump to the Hamilton Tiger-Cats as a free agent has made his understudy Brandon Whitaker the starting tailback.
"We are a new football team offensively," said fourth-year coach Marc Trestman. "When you've got two new guys on the perimeter who are starting and a new running back, I mean, that's new.
"There are a lot of unknowns about our offensive team going into this game and I'm excited about it. I'm not concerned. I'm excited to see where we are, to find the base line of our offence as we go into the season and then get better."
S.J. Green, who has mostly been a backup in past seasons, has moved from wide receiver to Cahoon's slotback position.
Brandon London, who joined the team late last season, will likely be part of the starting group of receivers with returnees Jamel Richardson and Brian Bratton. Former NFLer Dallas Baker, ex-Saskatchewan Roughrider Preachae Rodriguez and Canadian Eric Deslauriers are also in the picture.
What's distinctive about them is height. Cahoon was about five-foot-nine, while Green is six-foot-two, Richardson and Baker are six-foot-three, London and Deslauriers are six-foot-four, and Rodriguez, who will miss the opener with an injury, is six-foot-five.
For years, Cahoon was Calvillo's favourite target, but he was already being phased out last season and the transition should be manageable.
"There are certain routes that Ben used to run great and now there are other guys trying to do the same things," said Calvillo. "That's something we're adjusting to, but we're going to call the plays that the players are able to run. And whether it's S.J. or Jamel, we'll have some big weapons."
It should be a special season for 38-year-old Calvillo, not only because he is coming off surgery to remove his thyroid gland.
Calvillo is only 4,200 yards short of Damon Allen's all-time record of 72,381 passing yards, 191 short of Allen's 5,158 completions and 14 short of Allen's 394 career TD passes.
In his 18th CFL campaign, much will depend on whether he can stay healthy. Whitaker may play a part in that.
Cobourne was a first rate blocking back, and Whitaker will be needed to help protect the quarterback on a pass-first offence.
The loss of the starting quarterback would gut any team, but the Alouettes at least have groomed a good backup in Adrian McPherson.
The all-Canadian offensive line is traditionally among the league's best and that shouldn't change despite the retirement of Paul Lambert. Luc Brodeur-Jourdain takes over at centre, with all-star Scott Flory and Andrew Woodruff at guard and Jeff Perrett and Josh Bourke at tackle. Prospect Ryan Bomben will start the season as the sixth lineman.
On defence, general manager Jim Popp moved to improve a secondary that was first against the run but seventh in the eight-team league against the pass.
Defensive back DeAudra Dix was cut, and Billy Parker moved into his outside spot, leaving prized free agent Dwight Anderson to move into a backfield with veterans Mark Estelle and Jerald Brown.
"Last year we had a good group but we did give up a lot of big plays," said Estelle. "I feel we've grown as a secondary, and we should do a lot better. We were seventh last year and I feel we'll change that from seven to one."
Safety Mathieu Proulx retired, leaving that position to Etienne Boulay, with newcomer Tad Crawford as backup.
Chip Cox, Shea Emry, Diamond Ferri and Ramon Guzman are returning linebackers, while Jermaine McElveen, Anwar Stewart, Eric Wilson and John Bowman return on the line.
A key change was at kicker, as import Damon Duval was let go and Canadians Sean Whyte and Sandro DeAngelis were signed. Whyte will start the season opener.
Tim Maypray is back as the main kick returner.
As he did last year, Trestman doesn't talk of repeat championships, claiming every year is different.
But his team will be favoured to win the East Division again after a 12-6 campaign in 2010. They defeated Saskatchewan for a second year in a row in the Grey Cup game.
Estelle said the three-peat was "the last thing on my mind.
"First we have to win on Thursday and then get in the playoffs and win that playoff game and then we'll get in the Grey Cup. We take it day by day."