N.B.: There’s a lot to cover, so this is being split into two posts. Be sure to check back tomorrow for the second part.
Without question, this has certainly been an interesting season in Alouettes Nation. Finishing with a 6-12 record and missing the playoffs for the first time since returning in 1996, it surely didn’t go the way that most had expected it to. That could be said for the entire league in general, as upheaval and new beginnings were the order of the day. Rule changes and injuries to superstar players stole the headlines this year in the Canadian Football League.
There was a changing of the guard as both Ottawa and Edmonton rose from the ashes and became the cream of the crop in this northern league of ours. These two squads faced off in Winnipeg for the 103rd Grey Cup and the Green and Gold prevailed over RNation in a thrilling battle of wits, returning the Grey Cup to the City of Champions.
This season had several highs, many lows and enough changes that required someone to pay attention. Lucky for you, that someone is me. As painful as it might seem, let’s take a look back at 2015 and how the year unfolded for the Montreal Alouettes.
When the 2014 season ended the Alouettes had come close to returning to the Grey Cup game, buoyed by the remarkable play of Jonathan Crompton and the elite defense put together by Alouettes defensive coordinator Noel Thorpe. There was a sense that Montreal had finally found the heir apparent for Anthony Calvillo under centre and that with the addition of a few weapons, this team could be a powerhouse in the CFL once again.
General Manager Jim Popp went about his business in constructing a winning team. He acquired long-time Edmonton Eskimo Fred Stamps in a trade for young upstart Kenny Stafford, potentially as a failsafe should he not been able to re-sign then free agent S.J. Green. And when free agency rolled around, Popp was very unconventional; not only did he lock up several key free agents within his own ranks such as the dynamic Green, he went on a shopping spree!
Popp added names such as Samuel Giguere, Nik Lewis, Khalif Mitchell, Dan Lefevour and Stefan Logan to the roster. Many of these moves took a lot of people by surprise, me included. It was clear that Popp wanted to field a strong, competitive team. But you can’t buy your way to a Grey Cup; you also have to be able to draft wisely as well.
No one knows that better than the architect of this franchise and this GM got creative right away, swinging a deal with the Hamilton Tiger-Cats that saw the Alouettes acquire an additional 1st and 3rd round draft pick in exchange for OL Ryan Bomben. This allowed Popp to stockpile all kinds of talent and take some chances including drafting Canadian-born quarterback Brandon Bridge, who had garnered some interest amongst some NFL teams. Much to the chagrin of francophone fans, he bypassed names like Byron Archambault and Karl Lavoie for guys like Nick Shortill and Quinn Lawlor.
When all of these off-season moves were said and done, Popp had assembled quite the war chest in preparations of going beyond what was accomplished in 2014. But there was one move that got everyone talking for a multitude of reasons and stole the headlines just before 2015 training camp opened in June: The signing of former SEC Defensive Player of the Year Michael Sam.
At the time, this was very exciting news for the Alouettes and the league. Sam had tried to make it as a football player in the NFL, but just couldn’t get any serious playing time south of the border. The idea was that he’d be given every opportunity to showcase his talents in Montreal, which he never got while with the St. Louis Rams and Dallas Cowboys. When Sam was introduced to the Montreal media he was all smiles and said all the right things, stating that he was committed to helping Montreal win a Grey Cup. It would seem that the only people who had negative things to say would be those narrow-minded sorts who didn’t agree with his lifestyle choices.
But Michael Sam is indeed a very talented individual; he managed to take all the focus away from his sexual preferences and instead have the spotlight shine on his inability to play football at a professional level, all while collecting a paycheque and having his primadonna attitude tolerated by team management.
Sam left training camp midway and eventually returned, but when he did it was clear that he was in no way prepared for the rigors of a job in any professional football league, much less the CFL. When he finally did partake in a game for Montreal, he saw a limited number of plays and was schooled quickly by Ottawa’s Henry Burris, a man nearly 20 years his senior. Sam’s conscience must have finally gotten the better of him as he decided to stop stealing paycheques and returned home to Texas, his brief foray into the Canadian Football League stopped before it ever really started.
You’d think this experience would have humbled him, but instead this young man went on national radio in America and denigrated the Alouettes organization, claiming that his time here in La Belle Province made him a worse football player and that he was instead going to focus on a return to the NFL.
Quite frankly, I can’t imagine any organization kowtowing to Michael Sam the way that the Alouettes did. And quite frankly, why would they? If Michael Sam was as good at playing football as he was at making excuses, he’d EASILY be the next Lawrence Taylor or Ray Lewis. Instead, he will ultimately go down as yet another in a long, long line of NFL players who couldn’t hack it in the CFL, the so-called “amateur” league where everyone’s grandma could make the team. Insert eyeroll emoji here.
Training camp saw a multitude of events take place. Head Coach Tom Higgins was given some new coaches to work with, including Kavis Reed as special teams coach and legendary quarterback Anthony Calvillo as his receivers coach. Higgins retained Turk Schonert to head up the offense and draw up a playbook that would maximize the potential of his young quarterbacks, a slew of talented receivers and a pair of deadly running backs in Tyrell Sutton and Brandon Rutley. On paper, this Alouettes team had the potential to be an offensive juggernaut.
Except….well, there were a few snags along the way.
One major bombshell dropped early on when wide receiver Brandon London decided to announce his retirement after only a few camp sessions. Despite being a mere 30 years old, London didn’t feel like the fire to play football burned as brightly as his desire to conquer the entertainment world. So he hung up his pads and headed for Hollywood.
The injury bug bit several players in 2015, but it first sank its teeth into quarterback Tanner Marsh during camp and it had a ripple effect on this young Texan’s season, as he missed several weeks and was in tough to find his groove in Montreal when he did eventually return to the lineup.
Between these events and the drama surrounding Michael Sam’s first abrupt departure, somehow hope had remained strong that Montreal would piece it all together and retain its status as an elite team in the CFL. Youngsters got a chance to shine and veterans gave the coaching staff a lot to consider before the final cuts were made. The end result was a team that was prepared to compete and show the rest of the league that the Birds of Prey. The first test that stood in their way came in the form of the Ottawa RedBlacks; who finished their inaugural season at 2-16 and also had plenty to prove themselves.
The Montreal Alouettes opened the season at home against Ottawa, with the football world watching on TSN and ESPN2. Could this Alouettes team display the same magic they had when they finished the 2014 campaign? Could they show everyone that the “Alouette Way” was back and better than ever? Could they finally put to bed the fears that this team was only good because of people like Calvillo and former head coach Marc Trestman?
As it turned out, the answer to those questions would be…..”Uh, not quite”.
In what seemed to be a recurring theme in 2015, the Alouettes showed flashes of brilliance and then a series of unfortunate events made them lose control of the car, so to speak. In that first game versus the RedBlacks alone, the Alouettes were dealt two mighty blows. Jonathan Crompton was sidelined after some underwhelming play and eventual injury, which led to Dan Lefevour coming in relief. This former Central Michigan pivot was coming off ACL surgery and spent the lion’s share of training camp on the sidelines. Yet somehow, just him being there managed to convince several people that he could be the next Ricky Ray if given the chance.
Those hopes were dashed at a breakneck speed, as Lefevour managed just three plays in an Alouette uniform before getting his shoulder driven into the turf by an Ottawa defender. In one fell swoop the former Tiger-Cat saw his 2015 season derailed by this errant blow and now that he is a free agent again, I doubt that Lefevour will even get a sniff from any of the other CFL teams.
This left Tom Higgins with little recourse but to turn to his young Canadian quarterback Brandon Bridge, who came into the game colder than the other side of the pillow. In what would be the ultimate theme for the first part of the 2015 season, the Alouettes let a lead slip through their fingers and they snatched defeat from the jaws of victory.
Strangely enough, there was a positive vibe from that first defeat. With Crompton, LeFevour and Marsh on the injured list, this could finally be the time for a Canadian-born QB to become a starter in the CFL! It was a small sample size, but could Bridge be the answer the Alouettes were waiting for all along? Could this young man lead this Alouettes team into a still young season and be a starter in this league?
As it would turn out, Tom Higgins had one more trick up his sleeve. It did involve giving a rookie quarterback a chance to lead this Montreal team, but this particular rookie quarterback was NOT born in Canada.
So who the heck was Rakeem Cato?
You would be forgiven if you had missed this enigmatic wonder on the first day of training camp; he wasn’t there. Passport issues prevented this young man from joining his new team from the get-go; when he arrived, he wasn’t given too much attention as the focus was on the Alouettes QBs who have actually played CFL games. What few reps Cato got were decent enough, but I don’t think anyone watching had an idea of what to expect from this former member of Marshall University.
In an interesting twist of fate, Cato was on the Saskatchewan Roughriders’ negotiation list until the end of the spring. With both Darian Durant and Kevin Glenn under contract, perhaps the desire to nurture a young pivot simply wasn’t there for the Riders. Jim Popp thought otherwise and quickly added this prodigy to the lineup. Having Anthony Calvillo as a coach, perhaps the long-term plan was to let Cato develop slowly, observe the Canadian game and if fate would allow it, take a few reps.
The injuries to Crompton, Marsh and LeFevour quickly fast-tracked Rakeem up the food chain. And when it came time to choose between him and Bridge as to who would be the starter versus the defending Grey Cup champion Calgary Stampeders in Week 2, Tom Higgins pushed his chips to the middle of the table and went with Cato.
On that hot summer day, that decision proved to be a masterstroke. Cato immediately took command and was picture-perfect on his first offensive drive, capping it off with his first professional touchdown pass to Sam Giguere. Cato finished the night going 20 of 25 with 241 yards passing and notching three TD passes and became an instant sensation within the CFL. It also helped that there was a frenzy of social media activity among fans of Marshall University’s Thundering Herd, as the Internet blew up with word of Rakeem Cato making his professional debut.
In the time it took to play that game, the football world was abuzz and the Alouettes breathed a sigh of relief that they may have found their next true superstar. And through it all, Rakeem never looked as though the moment was too big for him. You could say he was the antithesis to a Michael Sam; quiet, humble, working hard behind the scenes while biding his time. And when his number was called Rakeem Cato seized the moment, much to the delight of everyone in attendance at Percival Molson Stadium and beyond.
The next few weeks proved to be a trial by fire for the young signal-caller, as the Alouettes had many close games slip through their fingers. You could honestly make the argument that had one or two plays per game gone Montreal’s way, they would have started this past season with a record of 8-0. Instead, they struggled to get through the summer with some tough losses and when the wunderkind Cato didn’t turn in more outstanding performances, the blame shifted to the coaching staff for their mishandling of this rookie sensation. The bloom had come off the rose of Cato but Higgins and Schonert stuck with the youngster, even as Tanner Marsh recovered from his training camp injury and Brandon Bridge waited his turn by holding that proverbial clipboard.
Cato was instrumental in some solid wins, including ending the 15 year streak of losses at BC Place. But the rookie took his share of lumps, always holding himself accountable. Cato’s rookie season ended with a trip to the injured list due to a concussion, but overall he’s certainly proven his worth. With some proper coaching and maybe even a spell under AC’s learning tree, this young man has the potential to become a bonafide quarterback in this league.
It’s interesting to mention coaching at this venture because that was one area where there should not have been any issues in 2015, but this really was a season like no other. The new rules put in place league-wide meant that offense was going to be even more important than ever. And if you didn’t have a game plan, you were not going to be long for this league.
With Montreal boasting a 3-5 record at the halfway mark and with rumours of the locker room being divided, Alouettes owner Robert Wetenhall had seen enough and dismissed Coach Higgins. Despite being a CFL Coach of the Year nominee and helping turn the team around the previous season, it was time to make a change. And once again, Jim Popp was going to be asked to do double-duty as both GM and head coach of this franchise.
Popp’s first order of business was to fix the biggest problem of this team; its insipid offense. The play-calling of Turk Schonert was tired and predictable at best. He had two outstanding tailbacks and did absolutely nothing with them. Instead of taking advantage of his QB’s mobility, he had him overthrowing his targets and being susceptible to interceptions. Receivers ran routes as though they were in a dark room with zero light.
Schonert could be accused of also believing that the Canadian game was beneath him to be a part of, as he only took the Alouettes’ OC position when all NFL opportunities had passed him by. So instead of allowing him to steal another undeserved paycheque, Popp gave Turk his walking papers and immediately appointed both Anthony Calvillo and Ryan Dinwiddie as co-offensive coordinators, with Calvillo being the primary play-caller at field level.
At the time, I said that I wasn’t a fan of the move. I agreed that Schonert had to go, but I didn’t have much faith in this ersatz situation working out. My biggest fear with AC as a rookie coach was that this organization was going to fast-track him to the top by any means necessary and well before his time. They did it the year previous with Dinwiddie and it led to a 1-7 record to start 2014. Apropos of nothing, the record for the AC/RD duo in 2015? 2-6.
As painful as it was to bear witness to, there’s no question Jim Popp had to pull this trigger. Injuries piled up and this team struggled to put more points on the board than their opponents. Popp knew that more moves would have to be made in an attempt to salvage the season.
Be sure to check out Part Two of this Year in Review tomorrow!
GO ALS GO!!!