Reviewing the Wacky, Riveting and Predictable 2016 Season

With the another season in the books, its time to take a look at how, aside from the Grey Cup game, the 2016 campaign came with minimal surprises for Eric, who nailed his season predictions top-to-bottom in both divisions. Here’s a brief look at what went wrong and what went right for each team in another odd year of Canadian football. You can read Eric’s West Division predictions from June here, and his East Division predictions here. 

1. Calgary Stampeders
Projected record: 12-6, 1st in West
Actual record: 15-2-1, 1st in West

Johany Jutras/Stampeders.com
Johany Jutras/Stampeders.com

Coming off a 14-4 season, the Calgary Stampeders were expected to decline given the off-season departures of Jon Cornish, Eric Rogers, Keon Raymond and Frank Beltre. Maybe they’d still win the West, some said, without head coach Jon Hufnagel and defensive coordinator Rich Stubler. But no one expected Calgary to come one win shy of being arguably the greatest CFL team of all-time.

And, one week ago, no one expected the Stamps to become the greatest CFL team to not win a championship. Led by 26-year-old QB Bo Levi Mitchell and rookie head coach Dave Dickenson, the Stamps breezed through the regular season, losing their first game of the season since week one in their final regular season game. Mitchell, unanimously voted the league M.O.P., had a career season largely thanks to the protection and time he was afforded. An offensive line anchored by LT Derek Dennis and RG Spencer Wilson, the Stamps allowed a league-low 20 sacks and boasted the league’s leading rusher, Jerome Messam.

Defensively, rookie defensive coordinator DeVone Claybrooks maintained the philosophy of Stubler, his predecessor. The Stamps weren’t blitz-heavy, instead relying on their loaded front-four to bring pressure – and Charleston Hughes, Ja’Gared Davis, Cordarro Law and Micah Johnson took care of that. Calgary’s secondary ran through its veteran triangle of safety Josh Bell and halfbacks Jamar Wall and Brandon Smith, who tackled most of the more difficult mental responsibilities, which allowed for young corners Tommie Campbell and Ciante Evans to play a simpler game with less thinking. It’s a zone-heavy scheme that’s not much different from that of Richie Hall or Mark Nelson. The difference is that the Stamps are outstandingly disciplined in their communication and tackle extremely well.

The 2016 Stamps were a team with no weaknesses. The Grey Cup was simply a complete team meltdown, as Mitchell was unable to adjust to some surprising wrinkles in the Ottawa defense – he threw three interceptions despite throwing just 8 all season – the offensive line gave up more pressure to Canadians Arnaud Gascon-Nadon and Connor Williams than they have all season, and the secondary lacked communication and made a lot of mental errors. Wall, specifically, made a couple huge mistakes in coverage, while Campbell simply struggled in his one-on-one match-ups. In the end, though, despite the Stamps bringing their ‘D’ game against Ottawa’s ‘A’ game, the 104th Grey Cup was decided on a third-down play in overtime.

Regardless, without a championship banner, the 2016 Calgary Stampeders, like the Montreal Alouettes and Saskatchewan Roughriders, were ultimately unsuccessful.

2. BC Lions
Projected record: 10-8, 2nd in West
Actual record: 12-6, 2nd in West

Johany Jutras/CFL.ca
Johany Jutras/CFL.ca

One of the biggest moves of the off-season was an internal move in the Lions’ organisation – handing the coaching reigns back to Wally Buono. There was a complete culture turn-around in the Lions’ locker-room that seemed so drastic it was hard to believe that this team was not yet one year removed from a tumultuous 2015 season under an uncommitted coach, Jeff Tedford.

The Lions were re-fueled with Jonathon Jennings, who came on strong as a rookie, entering training camp as the day-one starting quarterback. Jennings was a huge spark for the entire organisation and the team wouldn’t be a 12-win team without him. With that being said, having a young, inexperienced quarterback was the main reason why the Lions couldn’t overcome the league’s elite teams on a consistent basis. Jennings went through many growing pains – he was pulled in a week 7 loss to the Argos, threw just 10 completions in 60 minutes in a week nine loss, and turned the ball over 7 times in 3 games against the Bombers – but certainly showed that his rookie season was no fluke and that he has all the tools needed to be an elite quarterback in the future.

The Lions’ defense was much aided by the recovery of LB Soloman Elimimian from a career-threatening achilles injury. He had the best season of his career, winning his second-career Most Outstanding Defensive Player. Thanks to a bounce-back season from Alex Bazzie, who notched 11 sacks in his third campaign, the Lions tied the Stamps for a league-leading 52 sacks. With Adam Bighill staying healthy and flying all over the field, the Lions were strong inside the box. They were the league’s worst team at creating turnovers, though, despite allowing the fourth-least amount of passing yards – a testament to Mark Washington’s defensive scheme. With a plethora of young defensive backs starting – as well as the Lions being without CB Ronnie Yell down the stretch – BC left plenty of room for improvement in their defensive backfield.

Jennings’ inexperience and growing pains – coupled with some occasionally shoddy pass-protection, pass-defense and field goal kicking- ultimately prevented the Lions from competing with the Stamps in the West Final.

3. Winnipeg Blue Bombers
Projected record: 10-8, 3rd in West
Actual record: 11-7, 3rd in West

Winnipeg Blue Bombers quarterback Matt Nichols (15) celebrates his touchdown against the Saskatchewan Roughriders during the second half of CFL Banjo Bowl action in Winnipeg Saturday, September 10, 2016. THE CANADIAN PRESS/John Woods
Winnipeg Blue Bombers quarterback Matt Nichols (15) celebrates his touchdown against the Saskatchewan Roughriders during the second half of CFL Banjo Bowl action in Winnipeg Saturday, September 10, 2016. THE CANADIAN PRESS/John Woods

Matt Nichols was a revelation for the Blue Bombers, who started 1-4 with Drew Willy at quarterback. The Bombers are an easy team to identify, feasting off turnovers, great offensive line play, the tutelage of Andrew Harris and game-managing play under-center. Oh, and the kicking – how could we forget the kicking?

Justin Medlock put together one of the greatest kicking seasons ever, booting through 88.2% of his kicks despite attempting more than any other kicker and having the longest average attempt. Medlock was perfect on his extra points, and accounted for the largest percentage of his team’s points of all kickers.

The Bombers’ down-fall came largely from a defense that was great during the middle of the season but faltered down the stretch. The Bombers’ pass-rush struggled, and the secondary struggled with discipline in communicating and executing their assignments in zone-coverage. Though Nichols didn’t always maintain his efficiency level down the stretch, he did everything he could have done to win the West Semi Final at BC Place. The Bombers’ offense put up two field goal drives in the second half, which should have been more than good enough for an offense playing with the lead and entering the third quarter with a three-score lead.

The Bombers’ defense will need to be addressed in the off-season, as the turnover-rate they maintained likely won’t carry over into next season. And where would this defense be without their ridiculous ability to create turnovers?

4. Edmonton Eskimos
Projected record: 8-10, 4th in West
Actual record: 10-8, 4th in West

Frank Woods/THE CANADIAN PRESS
Frank Woods/THE CANADIAN PRESS

The Eskimos’ season went exactly according to plan, and it should be seen as a positive year for a rebuilding team. Unsurprisingly, the Eskimos started the season tremendously slow on defense. What else did you expect out of a team that didn’t have one returning coach from the previous year? But, as the back half of the season rolled around, the Eskimos got their ground game rolling and their defense began to gel and play respectable football. Ultimately, they were legitimate contenders come November. That’s a great accomplishment considering the massive turnover this organisation experienced in the personnel department.

Very few people saw the defending Grey Cup champions regressing in 2016, and they were right – at least in terms of the offense. Their defense never resembled the stingy unit that Chris Jones led over the previous two seasons. Again, that should have been expected considering their losses of Jones, Aaron Grymes, CB John Ojo, DE Willie Jefferson and LB Dexter McCoil.

Though I’m still not sure if I believe in Mike Benevides, Edmonton’s defense did improve as the year progressed. That’s largely thanks to the play of their defensive line featuring Almondo Sewell, Odell Willis and Philip Hunt, a huge late-season addition. The Esks still have some uncertainty in the secondary, however, as boundary defenders Patrick Watkins and Marcell Young have reached their expiry dates.

In the end, the Eskimos ran through their offensive prowess. Despite mediocre pass-protection at left tackle and right tackle, Mike Reilly had another outstanding season. Adarius Bowman and Derel Walker combined for 229 catches, 3350 yards and 19 touchdowns, likely making them the greatest single-season duo in CFL history. John White and Shakir Bell brought life to the ground-game as the days got colder behind the steady play of Justin Sorensen, who continues to rebound nicely after a failed stint in Winnipeg. With Brandon Zylstra also stepping up down the stretch, the Esks had all the makings of a championship offense.

Their pass-protection and defense, however, were not on the same level.

5. Saskatchewan Roughriders
Projected record: 5-13, 5th in West
Actual record: 5-13, 5th in West

darian-durant

I’ll never be able to fathom how even the most sane Riders’ fans thought this team would compete for a playoff spot in year one of the biggest rebuild I’ve ever seen. The Riders brought in a completely new coaching staff – be it one with a championship pedigree – and almost no continuity from the previous year.

Overall, the Riders weren’t nearly good enough – it’s really that simple. They had absolutely porous Canadian talent all the way across the board, and while they they discovered some quality international talent near the end of the season that will make them more competitive next season, they shuffled through far too many players to be competitive.

The Riders’ offensive line, in particular, was horrendous. First-round pick Josiah St. John had a rough start to his career compared to other first-round offensive linemen this year, and Darian Durant payed the price for his offensive line’s incompetence. With Shawn Lemon, Justin Capicciotti and Jonathon Newsom proving to be busts, the Riders’ defensive line was nearly as bad. Henoc Muamba and Willie Jefferson were game-changing late-season additions, but there’s still plenty of work to do on the defensive side of the ball and with the Canadian content.

The Kevin Francis project failed, and the Riders hurt themselves drastically by keeping the rookie converted receiver at safety for so long. It took the Riders until the last few weeks to discover a quality running back in Joe McKnight, and Durant seemed to have a different group of receivers every game.

When a team sets a record for the most players used in a season, its not a good recipe for success. Reaching five wins, with most coming in the last third of the season, Chris Jones probably overachieved in his first season in Saskatchewan based on the talent on his roster. The Riders have a bright future, but Jones and Co. need more time.

East Division

1. Ottawa Redblacks
Projected record: 12-6, 1st in East
Actual record: 8-9-1, 1st in East

THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn.
THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn.

For a Grey Cup winning team, the Redblacks sure had a lot of flaws. Like the Eskimos, they had not issues replicating their offensive success from 2015, but the defense took several steps back to start the season. In the end, though, Mark Nelson’s defense clicked in time for the second half of the season, and the Redblacks played beyond their week-to-week capabilities in the biggest game of the season. Credit to Rick Campbell for getting the absolute best out of his players in the Grey Cup.

Ottawa’s a talented team, no doubt, and their execution was absolutely outstanding, but I will say that the X-factor in the Grey Cup was how coordinators Jaime Elizondo and Mark Nelson out-schemed the Stampeders. Without these new wrinkles, Calgary likely wins that game – they’re simply that good. Instead, defensively, Nelson gave Bo Levi Mitchell something he hadn’t seen and couldn’t seem to counter-punch. Ottawa played their pass coverage zones looser than usual, resulting in Mitchell’s hesitation and his tendency to confusingly press the same read for so long. Elizondo, meanwhile, used a plethora of horizontal motion that had the Stamps hesitating along the edge, opening up the middle for Ottawa running backs and buying Henry Burris extra time.

Dominance at quarterback has been the story of the Redblacks this season. Trevor Harris was spectacular in filling in for Burris, who suffered a finger injury in week one, and frankly, he probably never should have been relegated to being the backup again. For the second straight season, Ottawa had four 1,000-yard receivers, and each of their roles seemed to be more understood this season. Despite quite a few injuries along the offensive line – both starting tackles, SirVincent Rogers and Jake Silas, missed the Grey Cup – Ottawa’s pass-protection was solid. (It helps having Burris – the most fluent rover in the pocket – back there).

It took a while for the Redblacks’ secondary to find themselves without the likes of Jovon Johnson and Brandyn Thompson, two huge contributors to their success in 2015. Eventually, though, Jonathon Rose settled in and Abdul Kanneh regained his elite form. Injuries didn’t do this defense any favors either, as they spent stretches without Canadian pass-rushers Arnaud Gascon-Nadon and Connor Williams. Zach Evans was heart of the defense, and the mid-season addition of bruising middle linebacker Taylor Reed addressed a missing dimension in the group.

A team that battled injuries and lost a lot of close games, the Redblacks were always better than the 8-9-1 record they posted. Still, Calgary was the league’s best team in 2016, but Ottawa won the games when they mattered – and credit them for that.

2. Hamilton Tiger-Cats
Projected record: 11-7, 2nd in East
Actual record: 7-11, 2nd in East

Johany Jutras/CFL.ca
Johany Jutras/CFL.ca

Hamilton’s season will be remembered for the amount of injuries they went through, but they ultimately weren’t good enough and certainly didn’t have the adequate enough depth needed- and that’s the bottom line. Franchise quarterback Zach Collaros was limited to 10 games – he began the season recovering from a torn ACL suffered last season, and missed a chunk of games later in the year with a shoulder injury – but even in the games Collaros played when Hamilton was relatively healthy offensively, he just didn’t seem to resemble the quarterback that lit the league on fire last summer.

Some of that can be put on the offensive line, and some of that can attributed to the loss of offensive coordinator Tommy Condell before training camp – an underrated loss that was far more noticeable than most anticipated. But some of that can be blamed on Kent Austin, who for the second-straight year, turned a blind eye to CJ Gable and the run-game. The Cats’ offensive line was in no way dominant – they can’t find an adequate left tackle, and Pete Dyakowski’s end is near – but offensive lineman are in an awfully disadvantageous position when everyone and their dog knows that they’re dropping into their pass-sets on Hamilton’s next play.

John Chick and Adrian Tracy were both revelations on defense, while Ted Laurent and Drake Nevis could be the league’s best interior duo. The play of the secondary overshadowed Hamilton’s stout defensive line, however. Hamilton had a slew of injuries on the back-end, as Johnny Sears and Rico Murray missed virtually the entire season, while Craig Butler could not recover from an off-season knee injury in time to re-join the team late in the season. Regardless, it was still shocking to see just how porous the Ticats’ depth proved to be at defensive back.

While I’m sure Ticats fans would like to be able to forget this season and start new without the injuries, the harsh reality is that this team may not get another chance. Key personnel like Orlando Steinauer and Andy Fantuz may not return to Steeltown.

3. Montreal Alouettes
Projected record: 7-11, 3rd in East
Actual record: 7-11, 3rd in East

THE CANADIAN PRESS/Mark Nelson.
THE CANADIAN PRESS/Mark Nelson.

Its almost impossible for one to wrap their head around how much damage Jim Popp did to the Alouettes this season. The Alouettes didn’t have a terrible roster – at least in relation to the East Division – but Popp’s inability to control the locker-room lead to him ruining many relationships between players and the club. Popp hit rock-bottom when he cut young, talented pass-catchers Duron Carter and Kenny Stafford, who no longer bought into their coach. And they weren’t alone.

If Jacques Chapdelaine – or anyone who could maintain a decent image among his players – had been head coach all season, Kevin Glenn likely would have never been shipped out, and the Alouettes would have made the playoffs. (Ultimately, though, that would have landed Montreal nowhere, as Vernon Adams Jr. needed reps, and they needed to part ways with Popp as a GM, too).

The Alouettes were in no one’s mind a Grey Cup contender. Their offensive line was the worst in the CFL, and while Adams showed promise for the future, and Glenn was serviceable before SJ Green went down, they obviously lacked a good quarterback. Anthony Calvillo was clearly not ready to be an offensive coordinator either.

The Alouettes’ defense did not have the talent level it had last season, as John Bowman and Gabriel Knapton were both quiet, and their trio of rookie CBs – Jonathon Mincy, Greg Henderson and Ethan Davis – all experienced very noticeable growing-pains. Despite the Angry Birds finishing near the bottom of the league in most defensive statistical categories, I maintain that Noel Thorpe’s system is excellent – Popp didn’t provide his long-time defensive coordinator with the young talent to succeed.

There is good news for Alouettes fans. Popp is finally out of the picture, and Adams Jr. is three-for-three as a starting quarterback in the league. All will be fine in Montreal if Adams comes as advertised, even if their the roster is filled with holes. Building a younger, more talented team will take a fraction of the time and effort it has taken the organization to find Calvillo’s successor.

4. Toronto Argonauts
Projected record: 6-12, last in the East
Actual record: 5-13, last in the East

A lot was expected  out of the Argos this season, both on the field and off it. Ricky Ray was finally healthy, and the Argos were under new ownership in a small, more intimate venue: BMO Field. More people than not had the Boatmen finishing at or near the top of the East Division, and were surprised to see the complete disaster that was the Argos’ season. Perhaps this warm, fuzzy feeling about the Argos heading into 2016 was simply in good spirits and to spread positivity. Otherwise, I simply don’t know what mislead the public into giving Michael Copeland’s Argos these lofty expectations in year one.

Ricky Ray was 36 heading into the season having and had well-deserved the injury-prone label. It’s well-versed that it takes two good quarterbacks to win in the CFL, and the Argos entered the season with no proven no.2 on the roster. Ray dressed in just nine games – an inevitable situation considering his age, recent history and the offensive lineman in front of him.

Knowing that protecting the now-fragile Ray was their top priority, the Argos’ big free-agent coup was Canadian right tackle Josh Bourke. But the Argos’ offensive line gave up 47 sacks, and Bourke’s decline continued from his last year in Montreal – he is, after all, 34-years-old. Father Time also continued to conquer fellow Canadian tackle Chris Van Zeyl, unfortunately. The Argos could be without both Canuck book-ends next season.

The addition of long-time Stamps defensive coordinator Rich Stubler was a step in the right direction for a notoriously porous defense, but the talent-level was simply not at an acceptable level. Less mentioned, however, was the absence of experienced defensive coaches, and there was an understanding that really only Stubler understood the defensive system out of all the coaches on his staff.

The Argos really missed interior defenders Cleyon Laing and Euclid Cummings, who combined for 16 sacks last year. Aside from Shawn Lemon, a great early-season acquisition from Saskatchewan, the Argos had no pass-rush. The Justin Hickman signing was a bust, and Ricky Foley showed he’s past his prime at 34-years-old.

Copeland is expected to make sweeping changes very soon to a team that evidently lacked leadership this year. Head coach Scott Milanovich was unable to control the locker-room and the attitudes inside it. Milanovich and GM Jim Barker released four upper-tier receivers mid-season – Vidal Hazelton, Tori Gurley, Kevin Elliott – and the players didn’t seem to stand by Milanovich’s decision to ride out the season with Drew Willy at quarterback.

 

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