The ALSternative — 2014 Year in Review

With 2014 but a mere memory now, it’s time to take a quick look back at the season that was and start slowly preparing for the upcoming 2015 campaign. This past Canadian Football League season was an unforgettable one, to say the least.

The looming threat of a labour strife between owners and players was dealt with before any serious damage was done. The Ottawa RedBlacks took the field for their inaugural season in the CFL. Mark Cohon announced that he will not seek any further terms as this league’s commissioner. And the Calgary Stampeders outlasted the Hamilton Tiger-Cats to win the 102nd Grey Cup in a game that won’t soon be forgotten by those in attendance.

This was also quite the season for the Montreal Alouettes football club. Several highs, many lows and enough changes that required someone to pay attention. Lucky for you, that someone is me. Let’s take a look back at 2014 and how the year unfolded for the Birds of Prey.

2014 AC (After Calvillo)

There were several off-season stories leading into the 2014 campaign but none were bigger than the retirement of Anthony Calvillo this past January. Although he had recovered completely from the concussion symptoms that ultimately ended his storied career, Calvillo chose instead to put his family first and be content with his place in CFL history. The Alouettes’ legendary signal-caller said goodbye to his playing career, but not to the team that made him the legend that he is.

At the time, Calvillo stated he was taking 2014 for himself but would eventually like to return to the Alouettes as a coach in some form. He interned for their scouting department and finished his university studies, which meant he couldn’t just simply slide into a coaching role immediately after retirement. Instead, AC went on a bit of a farewell tour around the league and on October 13th, Anthony Calvillo received a tremendous honour when his #13 was retired by the Alouettes.

AC’s departure was one of many steps into a new direction for Montreal, including who would be in charge on the sidelines…..

New Sheriff In Town….Again

Alouettes owner Robert Wetenhall is not typically a hands-on owner, content to allow his football people to run the show. But in order to allow general manager Jim Popp to focus on his specialty of finding new talent, he went ahead and found a new head coach. Having been burned by the Dan Hawkins hire, Wetenhall sought a coach with CFL experience who could help restore, “The Alouette Way”. This past February, Mr. Wetenhall found his man.

Former head of CFL officiating (and former Eskimos/Stampeders head coach) Tom Higgins was hired as the head coach of the Alouettes. Higgins brought in some new faces to help lead the Alouettes in 2014 but retained Noel Thorpe as defensive coordinator and Mark Speckman as running backs coach while Ryan Dinwiddie went from coaching intern to QB Coach. Most notable though was the lack of a special teams coach, a task which Higgins would oversee personally.

Some notable new faces were added to the players’ roster via the draft (Andrew Lue, Jeff Finley) and via free agency (Dave Stala, Larry Taylor). But one new face joined the Alouettes via a very unconventional route….

Do we say Ocho-Cinco or Huit-Cinq?

For the past several years, there’s always been at least one notable ex-NFL player invited to attend Alouettes training camp. More often than not, that player is lucky to survive the first week then is shown the door as time had clearly passed them by and they have nothing left in the tank.

Based on an idea hatched on Twitter, former NFL superstar WR Chad Johnson decided he wanted to play in the CFL. At 36 years of age and with some legal troubles in his back pocket, no NFL team would give him the time of day. But the man known as Ocho Cinco wanted to leave pro football on his own terms and if that meant coming to Canada to play out the remainder of his career, then so be it.

He had the BC Lions in mind, but they weren’t interested. Jim Popp was curious enough to see Johnson in action so he invited the former Cincinnati Bengal to mini-camp. Chad impressed enough to get a contract and when training camp opened in Lennoxville in June 2014, there was Johnson wearing his famous #85 for the Alouettes.

Ultimately Chad came in hot, made everyone fall in love with him and then was stymied by injuries and trying to park his car in Montreal. I suppose it’d be unfair to call him a complete bust since I wasn’t expecting very much from him in the first place, but rather an “incomplete”.

According to Johnson, he’ll be back for the 2015 season. If that is the case, my advice for Alouettes fans regarding #85 is to keep your expectations low and you’ll rarely be disappointed.

Heisman or He’s The Man?

For the first time since the year 2000, another man was going to be behind centre full-time for the Montreal Alouettes. But who could possibly be expected to replace a man that is simply impossible to replace?

Based on his solid play towards the end of 2013, it was looking like the first leader of the post-Calvillo era was going to be former Heisman Trophy winner Troy Smith. Never truly realizing his potential in the NFL, Smith was content to return to his alma mater Ohio State University as an employee until Jim Popp convinced Troy to take one last shot at pro football with the Alouettes.

With his feet wet from 2013, a strong off-season of training and a coaching staff led by the newly-hired Tom Higgins ready to tailor an offense completely around him, the stage was set for 2014 to be Troy Smith’s year. Unfortunately, this potential thoroughbred tripped right out of the starting gate and never fully recovered.

Smith was injured during training camp and never truly got into form. He tried to fight through his passing inaccuracies but this former Raven/49er pivot just couldn’t get anything going on offense. Opposing defenses were easily able to fluster Smith, forcing several two and outs which also kept Montreal’s vaunted defense on the field for long stretches of time, tiring them out.

That glaring lack of offense lead to a 1-7 start, the worst in recent memory for the Alouettes. By the time Montreal reached that dubious mark, fans were completely dismayed at everyone from this franchise both on and off the field. Smith was mercifully put on the 6 game injured list to stop the on-field bleeding, which then led to the question; If it wasn’t going to be Troy Smith who would lead the Alouettes in the post-Calvillo era, then who would it be?

Could it be Tanner Marsh, the youngster who came out of nowhere in relief and wowed everyone in 2013? Or Alex Brink, the former Winnipeg Blue Bomber brought in to provide valuable CFL experience? Or as some online keyboard warriors suggested Jeff Garcia, the 41 year old former CFL/NFL QB who was brought in as a consultant mid-season to help revive this zombified corpse of an offense?

Who could possibly step up and save the 2014 season at quarterback for the Montreal Alouettes??

Another JC Rises To Save Us All!!

What if I told you that the saviour of the Montreal Alouettes’ 2014 season would be a virtual unknown who’d start the year as a fourth-string quarterback on a rival squad? That the play of this mysterious man would take a 1-7 team and lead them to within one game of the league’s championship match?

Sounds absolutely crazy, right? As though it was a plot cooked up by some lazy Hollywood script writer for a cheesy sports movie? Well folks, in 2014 that’s EXACTLY what happened.

Cast aside by the Edmonton Eskimos, a young quarterback by the name of Jonathan Crompton was signed by the Alouettes on July 15th and put on the team’s practice roster. After Smith tanked horribly and both Marsh & Brink failed to wow anyone with their play (though I blame that more on those QBs having to work with a dumbed-down playbook that wasn’t going to impress anyone), the QB from Asheville, North Carolina with the flowing locks of hair was given the chance to play. And what happened?

Crompton won his first CFL start versus Ottawa on August 29th. And won again. And again. In fact, he ended up winning several games for the Alouettes. They were not pretty wins by any stretch, but they were wins all the same. Suddenly, all the snickers and snide remarks disappeared when the discussion turned to Montreal.

The offense, which was a complete disaster, managed to right itself and get back on track at the best possible time. With the help of Jeff Garcia (at this point serving as quarterbacks’ coach) who was able to capitalize on both Crompton and Marsh’s mobility, Montreal’s offense was no longer the butt of anyone’s jokes. Crompton was able to shine and restore the Alouettes’ chances of making the 2014 Grey Cup playoffs.

The First Noel (Thorpe Defense!)

Now, it wasn’t all doom and gloom in 2014. Had it not been for DC Noel Thorpe’s brilliant work with the Alouettes’ defensive corps, this column would have had a much more dreary tone. For years, Montreal has been seen primarily as an offensive juggernaut. But with both Anthony Calvillo & Marc Trestman no longer on board, the Alouettes have re-invented themselves as a powerhouse on defense.

This past season was no exception, with the usual names like Chip Cox, John Bowman, Kyries Hebert and Marc-Olivier Brouillette leading the way and making life hell for the opposing offense. But two names were added to that list that got fans fired up and ready for more; Bear Woods and Alan-Michael Cash.

Both debuted in 2011, but it took a while for both of these guys to crack the lineup due to injuries and the dearth of talent on this team. But once Woods was finally injury-free and Cash was paired up with Bowman on the D-Line, they caught fire and burned brighter than ever.

Bear’s play was simply incredible as he tore through opponents and created all kinds of havoc that favoured the Alouettes. Cash was no slouch either, racking up tackles and causing turnovers in his own right. Wisely, Alouettes GM Jim Popp has ensured that both of these youngsters will be wearing blue, red and silver for a long time.

Turn The Beat(down) Around

The Alouettes finished the season strong and nearly won the weakened East Division, but the Hamilton Tiger-Cats also started winning at the right time in 2014 and barely edged Montreal for the bye into the playoffs.

The Alouettes exorcised some playoff demons of their own and handily beat the crossover BC Lions in the Eastern Semi-Final at Percival Molson stadium, leading to a showdown in the East versus Hamilton. Sadly, the Alouettes’ 2014 season ended with a loss versus the Tiger-Cats in the Eastern Final. With their win over Montreal, Hamilton punched their ticket to the Grey Cup game for the second time in as many years.

A tough pill for the Alouettes and their fans to swallow but for those who kept the faith all season long, they were able to hold their heads high and feel hopeful for what’s to come this season and beyond.

Looking Ahead to 2015

So what can we look forward to this coming season, Alouettes Nation?

When the 2014 CFL season officially ended, the Montreal Alouettes wasted little time in announcing the triumphant return of Anthony Calvillo…… as a coach. His official title is that of “offensive coach”, to which no one is sure what that entails exactly. It should also be noted that Ryan Dinwiddie also now has that title, having gone from Quarterbacks Coach to Offensive Co-Ordinator to now this ersatz title.

In a move that the Alouettes are sure to regret, Jeff Garcia’s coaching services were not retained for the 2015 season. Tom Higgins was nominated for the 2014 Annis Stukis award for CFL Coach Of The Year and is a worthy candidate, but in my opinion Garcia’s work with the offense was the real reason for the Alouettes’ turnaround this past season.

While having Calvillo back in the fold lends itself to a feel-good story for Alouettes fans, great players don’t always turn into great coaches. Had Montreal made Calvillo their Offensive Quality Control Assistant Coach, I would have been fine with that as that position is generally considered an intro to coaching. People expecting Calvillo to design a winning offense on his first try at it are deluding themselves.

I have faith that AC will be a great coach one day, but look what happened to Dinwiddie and why fast-tracking a coach is never a wise solution; Dinwiddie cracked under the pressure and his offensives schemes were terrible, to say the least. He too may be a great coach one day, but it doesn’t happen overnight and certainly not in the span of one season.

More disconcerting is that there still doesn’t seem to be any plans to hire a stand-alone special teams coordinator. Again, need I remind this Alouettes team about a fella named Brandon Banks? Y’know, the little guy on the Ti-Cats whose special teams touchdowns sent Hamilton to the Grey Cup instead of Montreal?

Unless there’s an under the radar Special Teams guru in the college ranks that’s unable to commit to Montreal just yet, I’m not sure what the plan is going forward to address this glaring need for the Alouettes. Higgins is a good coach, but having multiple job titles went out when Coach Trestman took his talents to the National Football League.

And speaking of our esteemed former head coach…. No CFL fans, Coach Trestman is staying in the NFL despite the Chicago Bears foolishly dismissing him instead of their putrid quarterback. Trestman’s got 2 years of guaranteed income and another team will want him to run their offense. Dream all you want on his triumphant return to the CFL, but it’s not happening.

Our beloved former coach may come to Montreal again for a visit and take in an Alouettes game for old time’s sake, but that’s about it. We got five memorable years from this man, be grateful for that.

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What else can we fans expect in 2015? When it comes to the roster, thankfully a lot of the same! Jim Popp was busy in December, locking up some key pieces before they hit free agency. Most notable are names like Tyrell Sutton, Bear Woods, Eric Deslauriers and Winston Venable. But one major name for the Alouettes remains unsigned and that’s wide receiver S.J. Green.

He’s played his whole career with the Alouettes and is their key weapon on offense. With Duron Carter heading to the NFL and again not expecting much from Chad Johnson, Green would be the centerpiece of an receiver set that also includes Brandon London, Kenny Stafford (who will benefit from his cousin Duron’s departure) and many more. However, S.J. may be tempted to see if the grass is truly greener on the other side (pardon the pun).

The Saskatchewan Roughriders were able to ink his buddy Jamel Richardson and those two together catching passes from Darian Durant would be a dream come true for Riders fans. The Ottawa RedBlacks also have a ton of cap space and desperately need some playmakers for Henry Burris and their new OC Jason Maas. Could either of those possible scenarios be what’s keeping the two-time Grey Cup champion from staying put in La Belle Province?

I’ve always been a big fan of what S.J. brings to Montreal. The highlight reel catches that he makes are like no other. He’s also got that veteran presence and youngsters like Stafford, Andrew Smith and Brandan Green could benefit from that tremendously.

It’s my hope that while “Soloman Junior” may be curious to see what else is out there, he also remembers what’s waiting for him in Montreal and that he stays in an Alouettes uniform for many more years. Thus cementing himself as one of Montreal’s elite athletes.

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Fans can look forward to seeing some new faces that will join the Alouettes in 2015. The Alouettes were finally able to bring in offensive lineman Philip Blake, their 3rd round draft pick from 2011 who spent the first three years of his playing career in the NFL.

He’s played with big names already, at one time being able to call guys like Robert Griffin III and Peyton Manning his teammates. Blake also attended Baylor University, where Brandon Whitaker played his college ball. And being Canadian, Blake will help ensure that the Alouettes’ all-Canadian offensive line stays just that. There is a ton of upside here!

It hasn’t been made official yet, but I have a good feeling that the Alouettes will bring Michael Sam in for training camp. He came very close to joining the team for the playoffs last season and while his ultimate goal is still to play in the NFL, some time spent up north might do him some good. Like Duron Carter, the chance to play full-time and contribute will be the best possible way for Sam to showcase his talents.

Jim Popp has stated numerous times that Sam is perfect for the CFL; his size and speed should translate easily for the Canadian game. I also don’t think Sam’s sexual preferences will be any more of a distraction to the Alouettes than Chad Johnson’s astounded tweets of Canadian Wal-Marts having McDonald’s inside of them.

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CFL Free Agency officially gets underway on Tuesday, February 10th at noon ET. Typically the Alouettes aren’t major players in this event, mostly choosing to develop their own talent rather than overpay for someone else’s. Many are expecting Hamilton’s Sam Giguere to sign with Montreal, especially if S.J. Green does leave. Personally, the Ti-Cat wide receiver I’d much rather see the Alouettes try to land is Greg Ellingson.

Also, just to get Rider fans in a lather I’d like to see the Alouettes make a serious offer to Weston Dressler. But he’s going to command a major price tag and I am sure the Als would just as soon let someone else overpay for Dressler’s services. There won’t be a whole lot of Alouettes talent available to the other eight teams by the time the free agent market opens for business, Popp has already seen to that.

I’m looking forward to covering that and the upcoming CFL combine as well. There’s no off-season here at The ALSternative!

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And so concludes the 2014 Year in Review as well as this quick look ahead to 2015. This upcoming season will be my fifth covering this Alouettes team as a blogger and I am grateful to have the opportunity to do so. I’ve gotten a lot of positive feedback from all sorts of football people and that feeling is never tiresome.

I truly appreciate that you’ve taken the time to read this and every other piece of literature I’ve put up for your enjoyment. I have some off-season blog ideas and I’ll have those up for you folks in the coming weeks.

I’m also planning an exciting new development in 2015 for you fans as well. It’s still in the early stages but details will be revealed in due time.

As always, your best bet for the latest on new columns and other developments/thoughts is to follow me on Twitter. Thanks again for your support and I wish all you Canadian football fans the very best in 2015.

GO ALS GO!!!