Five burning questions for the Montreal Alouettes in 2019

As the Christmas decorations get put away for another year and we lay on the couch after gorging ourselves with too much food, we can now look ahead to the new year. CFL fans were once again gifted the 2019 schedule nice and early so plans can now be made for attending games both at home and on the road.

The Montreal Alouettes’ 2019 season looks to be filled with not only a slew of Saturday home games, but also a trip to the Maritimes to take on the Toronto Argonauts in the latest edition of Touchdown Atlantic. The Alouettes were one of the last teams to play a football game in the Maritimes in 2013 and the match itself was treated as an afterthought by locals and the league alike.

That likely won’t be the case this time around as the league will be looking to help showcase the East Coast to the rest of the country. Buoyed by the official announcement of the Atlantic Schooners ownership group at this year’s Grey Cup, the CFL wants to get people excited for Maritime football. They are hoping this Touchdown Atlantic event will prompt all levels of government to help get a CFL-capable stadium ready as soon as possible.

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That won’t be the only exciting news for Alouettes Nation. After teasing it towards the end of the season, the team itself will be launching a new identity the first weekend of February (Coincidentally enough, that will also be Super Bowl weekend). Sneak peeks have been made available throughout Montreal and all signs point to a new logo as well as uniforms for the Birds of Prey.

For a team that has had essentially the same look since they returned in 1996, this has the potential to be exciting and new. CFL fans typically don’t handle change well but perhaps a refresh of this team’s on-field look will help reset the mindset of everyone who perceives this team to be a collection of failures.

But another road trip and new threads don’t hide the fact that this team has been through a major downwards spiral over the past 4 seasons. In that span, they’ve missed the playoffs every year and even when this team manages to crawl out of the muck, they either get pushed back in or trip over themselves to fall even deeper in. The current braintrust consisting of lead governor Andrew Wetenhall, president Patrick Boivin and general manager Kavis Reed have won EIGHT games out of the last 36.

Most organizations would consider a 22% success rate grounds for dismissal but the Alouettes have given these men, along with first-year head coach Mike Sherman, the vote of confidence to carry on. The team did slightly improve their record in 2018, but their two extra wins came at the hands of an Argonauts team that may be a bigger internal mess than the Alouettes and a Hamilton Tiger-Cats team that rested its starters for their regular season finale, only losing on a missed field goal with no time left on the clock.

Simply put, 2019 is put up or shut up time for the Montreal Alouettes.

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It’s clear there are a lot of questions to be answered for this team. So let’s take a look at some that are surely on the minds of CFL fans both in Montreal and coast to coast:

1. Who will be the starting quarterback for the Montreal Alouettes in June 2019?

“Duh, Johnny Manziel! What a stupid question!”

But is it?

Yes, the Alouettes effectively blew their brains out to land the services of this much ballyhooed football “star”. With many of the league’s talking heads effectively hanging off his jock, the hope was that Manziel was finally going to be given the opportunity to resurrect his fledgling football career in a city that has gone through a literal laundry list of quarterbacks. Manziel’s name was added to the pages-long list of names that the Alouettes were banking on to replace the legendary Anthony Calvillo, who has his career ended back in 2013 (!) due to concussion and old age and has proven to be difficult to replace.

Overall, Manziel’s numbers in 2018 were okay at best. Hardly reflective of the incessant hype afforded to this player, who many throughout North America fully expected to dominate this league. With his first season in the books, now we are left to wonder just how badly Manziel wants to return to the CFL and how dedicated he is to succeeding in this league.

He is contractually obligated to the Alouettes until the end of the 2019 season and a lot can change this upcoming year. Manziel claims to be committed to playing for the Alouettes and that he has enjoyed his time in the 514, but the prospect of returning to play in the NFL still remains a belief of his. There are also two upstart football leagues in the USA that is prepared to pay in American money and is closer to the style of football Manziel became a star in. That may be a more attractive option to the still-young QB, rather than trying to reinvent himself for a league that hasn’t exactly made his star shine brighter.

The Alouettes also re-upped on several of their other quarterbacks like Antonio Pipkin (who led Montreal to two of their five victories in 2018), Vernon Adams Jr., Matthew Shiltz and Jeff Mathews. Perhaps this was done to hedge their bets in case Manziel decided that life in Canada isn’t worth it. But this makes five potential quarterbacks all in their mid-twenties that aren’t exactly looking to be holding a clipboard.

Competition will be fierce when training camp starts and just because a lot of people bought those #2 MANZIEL jerseys doesn’t guarantee that Johnny Football will be QB1 when the Alouettes head to Edmonton for their season opener.

2. Who will lead the Alouettes’ defense?

The BC Lions hired themselves a new head coach in former Alouette DeVone Claybrooks. He was given free reign to hire his own staff and proceeded to add some high-profile names to his staff. One of those names is Rich Stubler, who was the Alouettes’ defensive coordinator in 2018 after Khalil Carter decided that he would rather be a scout than lead the Alouettes’ defense.

Under Stubler, the Alouettes defense struggled to find its identity in the first part of the season but then came alive and looked extremely solid to finish out the season. The one prevailing thought that came through when speaking with multiple members of this defensive corps was that they were buying what Coach Stubler was selling. That it wasn’t his schemes that weren’t working, it was their failure to execute when the time came.

Now with Stubler gone to the Lions, who will be the one who now leads this group of Alouette defenders? Certain names are being tossed around such as now former Lions DC Mark Washington as well as Mike Benevides, former Edmonton Eskimos DC. The new football operations cap may ultimately determine who will end up being hired, as now teams have to abide by new limits and conditions when it comes to their coaching staff.

After claiming that the Alouettes defense led by former DC Noel Thorpe was not elite, the bar is set pretty high for Kavis Reed to find a replacement. Especially when Thorpe’s allegedly non-elite defense in Ottawa just participated in the most recent Grey Cup match while Reed and his staff watched the game on TV.

This defense does have the potential to be a force should certain pieces remain in place. The undisputed leader of this defense on the field is John Bowman and he had stated earlier in the season that he was “98% sure” that 2018 was going to be his last in the CFL. But based on the last two games played, there was the sense that perhaps this wasn’t John’s last kick at the can. Nobody wants to go out on a losing note and Bowman showed that age wasn’t necessarily a factor in 2018.

But Father Time remains undefeated. If Bowman does decide that the 98% becomes 100%, a new on-field leader will have to rise. Who will assume the lofty mantle that #7 may leave behind? Only time will tell.

3. Who stays and who goes when CFL Free Agency hits?

In addition to stating that Reed and Sherman will be back to assemble the squad, the Alouettes so far have retained pending free agents such as Kristian Matte, Tony Washington and Eugene Lewis. But they still have work to do leading up to February 13th, when CFL free agency kicks off.

On offense, the quarterback position certainly seems filled and running back is in good hands with William Stanback, Ryder Stone and Lawrence Pittman in the Alouettes’ backfield. But the receiving corps could have a whole new look in 2019. Who will remain with Eugene Lewis when training camp opens up?

Also, this offensive line of the Alouettes remains a real work in progress. Adding younger pieces like Trey Rutherford and Tyler Johnstone (who the Als gave up their 2019 first round pick for in the supplemental draft) is good but they will need time to properly develop and grow. Luc Brodeur-Jourdain may be slowly transitioning into more of a coaching/mentorship role, so the Centre position is one that needs to be addressed. And no, Kristian Matte is not the answer despite the Alouettes’ best efforts to make it so.

When free agency hits, I fully expect Kavis Reed to truly shore up this area above all else. Putting unprepared youngsters in the crucial role of protecting the quarterback has blown up in this team’s face time and time again. True veteran presence is desperately needed here in order to keep Montreal’s quarterback upright and not constantly running for his life.

The Alouettes will also need to consider the defensive line and its linebacking corps when free agency and the draft roll around. Henoc Muamba and Glenn Love did some terrific work in 2018, but they can’t do it alone. And while he managed to regain some respectability in 2018, I wonder just how much Chip Cox truly has left in the tank. He can still be disruptive to an opposing offense, but his speed is not close to where he was in his prime and he still manages to take some bad penalties at the most inopportune times. If there is another Alex Singleton out there, Reed has to find him and get him on board to let Cox leave this team in better shape than he found it.

4. Will the fans come back to Percival Molson Stadium?

Alouettes fans have certainly suffered considerably. They are constantly made the butt of everyone’s jokes league-wide. For many, the idea of shelling out their hard-earned money to buy season tickets and merch after years of consistent failure has simply become too much for many fans to bear.

So they slowly stopped coming to the stadium. And the Alouettes themselves have tried a myriad of promotions and ideas in order to get butts in seats, with little to no success. Not even the hyping of Johnny Manziel as the second coming of Christ by the Alouettes was enough to sustain box office success. It did give the team a slight bump at the cash registers but once fans realized that Johnny Football was reduced to just another quarterback, they stayed away again.

Now this team is going back to basics when it comes to the promotion and selling of this once-proud franchise. After expanding Percival Molson Stadium by an additional 500 seats in 2010, the team will now be trying to make it a more intimate atmosphere by closing off some sections and forcing fans closer together.

When this stadium is sold out and these fans are given something to cheer about, it does get extremely loud on the mountain. With this team’s new identity and hopefully the right pieces in places, perhaps the Alouettes will finally win back many of these deserters. And while they haven’t come out and said it, I feel that if this team can start winning and put forth an exciting product again, those seats that will be tarped off will suddenly become available.

Fans have demonstrated that gimmicks like White-Out games and Singles nights don’t work in drawing fans, casual or otherwise. But if this team can start winning games on a consistent basis, fans will come back and the demand will be there as well.

In this instance, winning does fix everything.

5. Will Kavis Reed and Mike Sherman still be employed by the Alouettes in 2020?

I can’t answer that burning question. You can’t answer that question. Whomever the starting quarterback is for the Alouettes can’t answer that question. There are only two people who can answer whether Kavis Reed and Mike Sherman will be still in their respective positions in 2020.

Their names? Kavis Reed and Mike Sherman.

Fans of losing sports teams are constantly told to “trust the process” and “keep the faith’. After four years of failure to make the playoffs and having their franchise referred to as a constant joke, Alouettes fans are weary of hearing these oft-used clichés. It’s time to pay the piper and he only accepts wins as long overdue payment.

While everyone and their mother loves to blame Kavis Reed for everything bad that has happened in Montreal (and his previous CFL stops), he’s not completely at fault for the Alouettes’ woes. The abject failure to replace Anthony Calvillo at the quarterback position started with Jim Popp and his regime. Perhaps Reed thought he had the answers that Popp didn’t, but time proved thus far that he did not.

There was also the reasoning that as GM, Reed should be allowed to hire his own staff and not be saddled with Popp’s hires nor forced to be head coach either. When he was given the chance to name his own field boss, Reed elected to go with Sherman, who had success at the NFL and NCAA levels but had ZERO CFL experience.

When your first major hire is a man who has ZERO experience in the style of game he is expected to lead men into, the scrutiny can’t help but triple in size. Not to mention there is the underlying thought that more qualified candidates withdrew their interest in the position after meeting with Reed. There are only 9 head coaching positions in the Canadian Football League and when someone is looking for his break and decides that your opportunity simply isn’t worth the hassle, that’s very telling indeed.

Sherman did hire coordinators with CFL experience, but that alone doesn’t fix the problem. Also, when said head coach was participating in another ersatz football league while the Alouettes’ mini-camp was taking place, it simply leads to further doubt as to whether this coach is to be taken seriously. Other teams’ coaches live in the team’s city year-round and are given numerous opportunities to teach and learn this great game of ours.

Yes, as a former Alouettes head coach once said, “football is football”. But when this is your first chance to be a head coach again, wouldn’t it make sense to immerse yourself in this league and its intricacies as much as humanly possible? Blame for that lies with both Reed and Sherman and it’s little to no wonder why nobody outside of Montreal has any faith in the Alouettes.

To make a long story short, 2019 cannot be another rebuilding year or learning year for these men. They’ve used their get-out-of-jail-free cards and now the time has come for results. If the Alouettes don’t make the Grey Cup playoffs in 2019, neither one of these men should have any place in this organization. Andrew Wetenhall wanted to show that he could lead the Alouettes into the future and beyond.

He took a major risk in hiring inexperienced people at the very important positions and if it doesn’t pay off this coming year, he will likely have to pay through the nose in order to bring in a real experienced football person to restore this team back to glory.

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This isn’t meant to be a doom and gloom piece for the Montreal Alouettes. I do firmly believe that there are some good pieces in place already. But there have been far too many missteps and squandered opportunities, which has cost this organization dearly.

As this team embarks on a new identity and looks to re-establish themselves in this Montreal sports environment, things cannot stay status quo. There’s a lot that hasn’t worked and admitting that mistakes were made isn’t enough. The time has come to correct those mistakes and start making decisions that will lead to real change for the better.

The Montreal Alouettes cannot regress. It would be foolhardy to expect them to go 18-0 and win a Grey Cup this season. But there can no longer be questionable decisions from the leaders of this team. There can no longer be doubts as to who leads this team on game day.

No more jokes. No more dumpster fires. There was a time when the Alouettes were the league’s model franchise and that’s what has to happen when the calendar flips over to 2019.

In order to do that, the Montreal Alouettes need to address the questions I listed above and many more. This is a long off-season and the work has to begin in earnest once the confetti from the New Year’s Eve party is swept up.

The expression, “New year, new me” applies to this Montreal Alouettes team. The old team and their constant follies weren’t exactly much to write about. Believe me, I’ve tried numerous times.

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That’s all for now. I’ll be back throughout the off-season to weigh in on things like free agency, the combine/draft and so much more. I do want to thank you all for your constant support and dedicated readership of this blog. Knowing that people read and enjoy what I have to say is a very humbling experience and one that I don’t take lightly.

Here’s to you all and I hope that 2019 is a great year for us, in football and beyond.

For the last time officially in 2018,

GO ALS GO!!!

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