Football

2008 CFL preview

2008 CFL preview: Breaking down the strengths and weaknesses of the league's eight teams on the road to the 96th Grey Cup

Breaking down the strengths and weaknesses of the league's eight teams on the road to the 96th Grey Cup

B.C. boasts a potent attack keyed by CFL rushing champion Joe Smith, left, and leading receiver Geroy Simon. ((Jeff McIntosh/Canadian Press))

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A lot has happened in the Canadian Football League since the Saskatchewan Roughriders raised the Grey Cup trophy in Toronto last November, and not just with the CFL champions themselves.

Half of the league's teams have new head coaches, there's been a plethora of off-season player movement, and in Regina four major pieces of the Roughriders' championship squad have moved on.  And that's just the beginning. 

In the East, can Winnipeg, last year's Grey Cup runner-up, finish the job? Will Montreal quarterback Anthony Calvillo put up prolific numbers under new bench boss Marc Trestman and lead the Alouettes into the Grey Cup in front of a home crowd? Can the CFL's most outstanding player Kerry Joseph work his magic with the Argos? And will the Hamilton Tiger-Cats restore some pride to Steel Town after three straight losing campaigns?

In the West, will Calgary's defence step up and take the heat off Henry Burris and Joffrey Reynolds? Can Edmonton, the league's most storied franchise, return to the post-seaosn? And will the B.C. Lions maintain their dominance atop the division?

Before the 2008 season kicks off Thursday, CBCSports.ca takes a look at what to like and what to sweat about each of the league's eight teams: 

WEST DIVISION

British Columbia Lions

Last season: 14-3-1 (1st in West, lost West final to Saskatchewan)

Key arrivals: defensive co-ordinator Mike Benevides (spent past five seasons as team's special teams/linebackers coach)

B.C. Lions defensive lineman Cameron Wake (91) and Aaron Hunt (90) leave little room for opposing players, just ask Winnipeg's Charles Roberts. ((Richard Lam/Canadian Press))

Key departures: QB Dave Dickenson, defensive co-ordinator Dave Ritchie

What to like: Credit GM and head coach Wally Buono with resisting the urge to tinker with his team after its stunning playoff loss to eventual Grey Cup champion Saskatchewan. The Lions have finished with the CFL's best record for three years running, they've led the league in scoring for two years in a row, and last season boasted the West's stingiest defence. About the only category B.C. trails is in off-season moves, making the Leos a favourite to capture their second Grey Cup in three years when the championship game returns to Montreal's Olympic Stadium in November.

What to sweat: Veteran quarterback Dickenson returned to Calgary as a free agent, leaving Jarious Jackson and Buck Pierce to battle for the top job. Forgive B.C., though, for not panicking. The accurate but aging Dickenson attempted just 87 passes last year while Jackson tossed 18 touchdowns and No. 2 man Pierce connected on 64 per cent of his throws. Oh, and the Lions still have the CFL's reigning rushing, receiving and sack champions in Joe Smith, Geroy Simon and Cameron Wake, respectively.

Calgary Stampeders

Last season: 7-10-1 (3rd in West, lost West semifinal to Saskatchewan)

Key arrivals: QB Dave Dickenson, WR Nate Curry, LB JoJuan Armour, DB Dwight Anderson, DB Richard Karikari, general manager/head coach John Hufnagel

Calgary Stampeders quarterback Henry Burris, left, hands the ball off to running back Joffrey Reynolds in CFL action last season. ((Troy Fleece/Canadian Press))

Key departures: OL Jay McNeil, OL Garrick Jones, OL Bobby Singh, OL John Comiskey, LB Scott Coe, LB Brian Clark, head coach Tom Higgins, defensive co-ordinator Denny Creehan

What to like: Change was certainly in order on the heels of a disappointing 7-10-1 regular season followed by a narrow playoff defeat to Saskatchewan. To that end, Calgary brought back Hufnagel — a former Stamps quarterback and, most recently, NFL offensive coordinator with the New York Giants — to inject even more life into an attack that ranked first in total yards a year ago. Quarterback Henry Burris (CFL-leading 34 touchdown passes) and running back Joffrey Reynolds (1,231 yards rushing) stand to benefit from their new coach's high-octane philosophy.

What to sweat: It's tough for a quarterback to direct a high-flying offence when he's flat on his back, and Burris will be operating behind a revamped offensive line. The new bodyguards may have been a necessity after last year's unit surrendered the second-most sacks in the league, but there's precious little time to jell. Of even bigger concern is the defence, which got torched for a CFL-high 516 points in 2007. While Hufnagel has made his bones on offence, his ability to turn things around on the other side of the ball could decide his team's fortunes. The addition of Armour — third in the league with 84 defensive tackles for Hamilton last year — ought to help.

Edmonton Eskimos

Last season: 5-12-1 (4th in West)

Key arrivals: QB Jason Maas, WR Brock Ralph, DE Fred Perry, CB Jordan Younger, DT Dario Romero, P/K Noel Prefontaine, KR Keith Stokes, offensive co-ordinator Rick Worman

Key departures: RB Tyler Ebell, WR Trevor Gaylor, LB A.J. Gass, DB Omarr Morgan, P/K Sean Fleming, offensive co-ordinator Jacques Chapdelaine

Edmonton Eskimos quarterback Ricky Ray grimaces after being sacked during CFL action last season. ((Ian Jackson/Canadian Press))

What to like: The Eskimos appear set under centre with Ricky Ray, who completed a career-high 69.9 per cent of his throws last season before going down with a separated shoulder in Week 14. On the other side of the ball, rush end Perry and cornerback Younger highlight the off-season remodelling project made on a defence that coughed up 24.6 points per game — third-worst in the league. Perry racked up a career-high 70 tackles last year with Saskatchewan, and his eight sacks would have led Edmonton. Younger is a two-time CFL all-star who excels at shutting down opposing receivers.

What to sweat: A horrid 1-9 record against West foes and a season-ending six-game losing streak ensured Edmonton of a second consecutive season out of the playoffs. Now Danny Maciocia's squad, which scored a division-low 400 points, will have to make do without its top rusher after Ebell was shipped to Toronto in the off-season. While a healthy Ray should mean more points, the Eskimos could still use another playmaker to take the pressure off their quarterback and his favourite target, 1,000-yard receiver Kamau Peterson.

Saskatchewan Roughriders

Last season: 12-6-0 (2nd in West, won Grey Cup)

Key arrivals: RB Quentin Griffin, OT Glenn January, QB Steven Jyles, DB Omarr Morgan, DE Ronald Flemons, head coach Ken Miller, offensive co-ordinator Paul LaPolice

Top receiver D.J. Flick may have to carry more of the offensive load in Saskatchewan as he adjust to a new quarterback. ((Troy Fleece/Canadian Press))

Key departures: QB Kerry Joseph, RB Corey Holmes, DE Fred Perry, LB Reggie Hunt, head coach Kent Austin

What to like: Um… those retro uniforms are still pretty snazzy. Good thing, because the guys underneath may bear little resemblance to last season's upstart squad that brought the Grey Cup back to Regina for the first time since 1989. Gone is CFL most outstanding player Kerry Joseph, along with star pass rusher Fred Perry and steady linebacker Reggie Hunt. There's also a new head coach in Ken Miller, the former offensive coordinator who replaced Kent Austin after the latter accepted the offensive coordinator's position at the University of Mississippi, his alma mater. Miller may have to lean heavily on an airtight rush defence that allowed just 88 yards per game in 2007.

What to sweat: You mean besides the exodus of top-shelf talent? The unenviable task of filling Joseph's shoes — the ones in which the agile pivot rushed for 737 yards last season — belongs to Marcus Crandell. The erstwhile backup was named Grey Cup Game MVP with Calgary in 2001, but since then hasn't finished a season with a passer rating north of 80. Crandell performed serviceably over the last two years, but it'll be interesting to see what effect his promotion has on the three-headed receiving threat of D.J. Flick, Andy Fantuz and Matt Dominguez.

EAST DIVISION

Hamilton Tiger-Cats

Last season: 3-15-0 (4th in East)

Key arrivals: QB Quinton Porter, WR Tony Miles, WR Pat Woodcock, RB John Williams, DB Markeith Knowlton, LB Michael Botterill, offensive co-ordinator Marcel Bellefeuille, defensive co-ordinator Denny Creehan

The health of quarterback Casey Printers is of chief concern for the Tiger-Cats. ((Frank Gunn/Canadian Press))

Key departures: WR Brock Ralph, WR Nate Curry, OL Pascal Cheron, DB Tay Cody, LB JoJuan Armour, DB Dwight Anderson, offensive co-ordinator Mike Working, defensive co-ordinator Ed O'Neil

What to like: A solid running game anchored by big-play threat Jesse Lumsden, plus the addition of former CFL most outstanding player Casey Printers for a full season at quarterback gives the Ticats dual threats on offence. Optimism also surrounds the sidelines as head coach Charlie Taaffe directs a new staff that includes former Alouettes and Roughriders offensive co-ordinator Bellefeuille and ex-Stampeders defensive co-ordinator Creehan.

What to sweat: Where to start? The Tabbies are coming off three straight seasons in the East basement, averaging four wins over that span. But big changes to the front office — Bob O'Billovich is in at GM — and the coaching staff combined with the always raucous crowds at Ivor Wynne Stadium could help mould a positive attitude on the field. Whether Steeltown sees results in the win column may depend on the ability of Lumsden and Printers to stay healthy.

Montreal Alouettes

Last season: 8-10-0 (3rd in East)

Key arrivals: WR Jason Armstead, WR Jamel Richardson, LB Reggie Hunt, DB Tay Cody, head coach Marc Trestman

Montreal Alouettes new head coach Marc Trestman (centre) poses with GM Jim Popp, left, and president Larry Smith, right, in January. Trestman, a long-time NFL assistant, will have his first taste of coaching three-down football this year. ((Paul Chiasson/Canadian Press))

Key departures: QB Jason Maas, LB Tim Strickland, DE Darion Romero, S Etienne Boulay, offensive co-ordinator Marcel Bellefeuille, defensive co-ordinator Chris Jones 

What to like: General manager Jim Popp is off the sidelines — replaced with ex-NFL co-ordinator Trestman — and back in the front office. Popp has an eye for talent, and with Montreal hosting the Grey Cup this year, it's a good bet he'll do the necessary wheeling and dealing to put the Alouettes in position for a championship run. He got off to a good start in the off-season with the addition of Hunt.

What to sweat: Anthony Calvillo's passing-yard totals have fallen in each of the past three seasons, so there's concern that the former three-time East Division most outstanding player is in decline as Montreal comes off its first losing season since 1996. Trestman — one of nine new coaches — is well pedigreed, having spent 17 years as an assistant coach and offensive co-ordinator in the NFL. But he's new to the Canadian game, meaning the learning curve will have to be steep if the Als are to make it to the Grey Cup Game on Nov. 23 at Olympic Stadium.

Toronto Argonauts

Last season: 11-7-0 (1st East), lost to Winnipeg in East final

Key arrivals: QB Kerry Joseph, RB Jamal Robertson, WR David Boston, WR Bethel Johnson, WR Johnnie Morant, P/K Mike Vanderjagt, head coach Rich Stubler, defensive co-ordinator Kavis Reed

Will quarterback Kerry Joseph's big-game experience rub off on the Argonaut offence? ((Frank Gunn/Canadian Press))

Key departures: RB John Avery, RB Robert Edwards, WR Tony Miles, CB Jordan Younger, P/K Noel Prefontaine, head coach Michael (Pinball) Clemons 

What to like: The CFL's best defence returns with little change. The Argonauts led 14 of 25 defensive categories, including fewest points allowed, fewest touchdowns allowed and most interceptions. Expect the same again this year from the likes of defensive linemen Jonathan Brown and Adriano Belli, linebackers Mike O'Shea, Michael Fletcher, Willie Pipe and Kevin Eiben, and defensive backs Orlando Steinauer, Kenny Wheaton and Byron Parker. While the Argos were offensively challenged at times last season, their defence was able to lift them to victory in close games with timely turnovers.

What to sweat: Though the addition of Joseph brings instant offensive credibility and a legitimate rushing threat, Toronto's lack of a running game (not helped by a season-ending injury to Tyler Ebell in the pre-season) is a glaring hole. Toronto tried to spice up its passing attack by adding ex-NFL receivers Bethel Johnson and David Boston, but it's too early to tell if they will have an impact.  With Clemons' fiery personality off the sidelines and in the president's office, how will the chemistry of the team change?

Winnipeg Blue Bombers

Last season: 10-7-1 (2nd in East, lost Grey Cup Game to Saskatchewan)

Key arrivals: S Sebastian Clovis, DB Jovon Johnson, P Duncan O'Mahony, K Alexis Serna

Blue Bombers slotback Milt Stegall has his sights set on the CFL's all-time receiving-yards record. ((Paul Chiasson/Canadian Press))

Key departures: WR Chris Brazzell, DB Davin Bush, S Kyries Hebert, DB Juran Bolden, P/K Troy Westwood, KR Keith Stokes, KR Albert Johnson III

What to like: The best three-pronged attack in the league in quarterback Kevin Glenn, running back Charles Roberts and (insert one of Winnipeg's three prolific receivers here — Terrence Edwards, Derick Armstrong or Milt Stegall). Glenn was nominated for the CFL's most outstanding player award last season after putting up a career-high 5,114 passing yards, while Roberts ran for 1,379 yards despite missing two games due to injury. Edwards, Armstrong and Stegall all hauled in over 1,000 yards receiving. Having come so close to a Grey Cup last season, Stegall — the league's all-time touchdown leader — put off retirement for another chance at the CFL championship, and a shot at the all-time receiving yards record. Meanwhile, the punishing duo of Barrin Simpson and Tom Canada return to anchor the defence.

What to sweat: With the release of 17-year veteran Westwood, the Bombers will rest their kicking game on the 23-year-old boot of Serna. The American rookie, who played collegiate ball with Oregon State, looked ready in the pre-season. In a June 20 game against Montreal, Serna connected on four field goals, including a 17-yarder with one second remaining in a 19-16 victory. He was good on 80 of 104 field-goal attempts (77 per cent) in college, which is promising considering Winnipeg's kickers were dead last in that category last season. Former Lion and Stampeder O'Mahony takes over punting duties from Pikula, though Serna may fill the job to start the season with O'Mahony on the limp with a stubbed toe.

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