The ALSternative – 2019 Season Preview Part One

To say that the Montreal Alouettes have been living in interesting times has been an understatement.

This season marks the tenth anniversary of their memorable Grey Cup victory at Calgary’s McMahon Stadium, where a twist of fate led to the team’s sixth championship. This year’s contest will once again be played there and safe to say that there are very few people that believe the Alouettes could play in that game in late November.

When the Alouettes defeated the Saskatchewan Roughriders by a 28-27 score, they were THE model franchise of the Canadian Football League. They featured strong ownership by Robert Wetenhall, a brilliant general manager in Jim Popp, the remarkable coaching of CFL sophomore Marc Trestman and a quarterback who had new life breathed into him with Anthony Calvillo.

That season saw the Alouettes turn in a 15-3 season, a complete and utter dominance in the Eastern final and them winning one of the most thrilling Grey Cup games ever played. This team rode to the highest of the highs and did it all over again in 2010, winning another Grey Cup and leaving no doubt as to just how great this franchise truly was.

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Fast forward ten years into the future…..

Not only is that Montreal Alouettes team no more, there bears very little resemblance to that hand-built championship franchise. No longer the model franchise of the league, it has now become the punchline of many jokes from just about anyone who pays attention to the CFL.

As of this column being published, there’s no definitive word as to whether the Wetenhall family are still the owners or not. Jim Popp’s replacement at general manager, Kavis Reed, is looked upon by nearly everyone league-wide as an incompetent yes-man. And this team’s head coach, former NFL coach Mike Sherman, is also a CFL sophomore but with not nearly the same football pedigree or CFL success.

Gone also is Calvillo and in his wake lies a veritable laundry list of names that have failed to have even a fraction of the success in leading this football team. Whether it is former Heisman trophy winners, previous rivals joining Montreal from other teams or no-name pivots that attended schools that almost sound like they are made up, the number of triumphs in the post-Calvillo era have been few and far between.

As a result of this past half-decade of failure, Alouettes fans have started to reach their breaking point. Many have already abandoned ship, choosing to stay home and watch this team lose on TV versus coming out to the stadium. Being an Alouettes fan seems to evoke part sympathy/part mocking from others whose franchises isn’t currently dealing with such malaise (Although many of those fans clearly don’t remember their own team’s shortcomings. And trust me, EVERY CFL team has gone through their own hardships over the years).

The Alouettes were due for a low period after nearly two decades of relative success since returning to this league in 1996. But what is most troubling is that many of the missteps made by this team are self-inflicted and the feeling remains that despite being in a hole, this team continues to dig.

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This past off-season, the Alouettes made headlines and not all of them were good ones, much to the dismay of the remaining fans that still want to believe in this franchise.

After a dismal 2018 season that saw the team go 5-13, Alouettes ownership (led by Andrew Wetenhall, son of Robert) gave the vote of confidence for both Kavis Reed and Mike Sherman to stay in their respective roles as general manager and head coach. The belief from the Wetenhalls was that this braintrust was going into a positive direction, despite the poor on-field record. But that was tempered with the implication that a losing record in 2019 would not be rewarded with continued employment. Simply put, the Alouettes have to win or it’s time for another housecleaning.

There were some positives to end the 2018 season, most notably the defense led by Rich Stubler. This young unit finally gelled in the last few games and looked to be responding to the veteran coach’s guidance. It may have taken time but perhaps with another year with Stubler at the helm and some decent free agent pickups, this defense could really get people talking.

Then DeVone Claybrooks came calling.

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Newly hired as the BC Lions’ head coach, Claybrooks was given free reign to hire the people he wanted for his coaching staff. A privilege he allegedly would not have been given when he had interviewed for the head coaching position in Montreal the year before.  But BC was more than happy to let Claybrooks hire who he saw fit and one of those coaches would indeed be Rich Stubler.

Naturally, this left a sizable hole for Mike Sherman and the Alouettes to fill. There were some candidates available with CFL experience. But for reasons that we can only speculate upon, the Alouettes decided once again to import a position coach with zero CFL experience and expect to make it work.

Your new Montreal Alouettes defense coordinator? Bob Slowik.

If you’ve heard of him, then you’re likely a Green Bay Packers fan from the Brett Favre era. Slowik was the DC under Mike Sherman many years ago in the NFL. Slowik was also fired by Sherman after a less than stellar record. Which begs the question, why would you choose to work with this individual again? Especially in a position that is not exactly the same as you previously held, despite a similar sounding title.

The Alouettes hiring former NFL/NCAA coaches with zero CFL experience is nothing new. In fact, it feels like an annual tradition as several of these position coaches come here to Montreal with their expertise in NFL football. As a result, they end up looking to put a square peg into a round hole, stealing a paycheque in the process. After all, “football is football”, right Dan Hawkins?

I’ve come to accept this as par for the course when it comes to hiring coaches for this team. But most disturbing is that while Slowik does have experience as a defensive coach, he hasn’t been coaching anywhere in the past six years.

You read that right, folks:

SIX. YEARS.

Not coaching NFL, NCAA, Arena football, high school or even Pop Warner. For all we know, Slowik has probably been watching football games on TV but as far as being in ANY team’s locker room? We got nothing. Instead of finding a way to hire a young, sharp mind to craft a defense for the long-term future, the Alouettes have an older coach that I’m doubtful can relate to today’s football players.

Yes, the Alouettes did sign some defensive studs in free agency but if their coach doesn’t know this Canadian game any better than they do, I can’t see how this would be considered a success. It’s like buying a Lamborghini and not being able to drive a stick shift nor having driven any vehicle in a long period of time.

I’ll be honest; this particular hire doesn’t fill me with a whole lot of confidence. I sincerely hope to have my doubts proven wrong and be forced to eat my words.

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There’s also the matter of this team launching a new identity. Perhaps in hopes of helping people forget about the past few years of failure, the Alouettes debuted a new look and identity on Super Bowl weekend. A process that has been in the making for some time, the Alouettes will take the field in new uniforms and with a new logo on their helmets.

They will also seek to re-establish themselves in the eyes of Montreal sports fans, eager to support a winning franchise once again. The Alouettes sought to honour their past while creating a look that will go well into a hopefully successful future in the 514. Many will argue that the organization didn’t need to focus their attention on new uniforms until they became a more successful team on the field.

Many Alouettes fans even despise the new look. But they are many fans that see this as a re-birthing of sorts, to establish something positive with a fresh new look. Only time will tell if that look will be associated with winning or will it be still the same dismal product but in a new package.

This football team needs to win games, regardless of what they wear on game day. That’s been my affirmation from day one and it hasn’t wavered in the slightest.

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At this aforementioned special event, many Alouette players were in attendance to model these new uniforms. Montreal’s quarterbacking corps was in attendance except for one in particular. He was in town and did an interview for local TV, but this particular quarterback was nowhere to be found for this event or anything else the team did as part of this new identity launch.

After all the Alouettes did to acquire the services of one Johnny Manziel, one would think that having him at this event would be paramount. But instead, he called in sick and was released by the team a month later at the behest of CFL Commissioner Randy Ambrosie.

The official word was that Manziel had violated terms set forth by the league for him to continue his football career. The Alouettes released Manziel and the remaining CFL teams were put on notice that any attempt on their part to sign Manziel would not be recognized. Essentially, the man who many media types expected to come in and dominate the CFL was told to stay home and never darken their doorstep again.

The Alouettes gave up a significant amount to get Manziel in red/white/blue, including sending the 2020 and 2021 first round draft picks to the Hamilton Tiger-Cats. And all that they have to show for it was a QB that was simply not interested in becoming a part of the CFL.

Manziel went to the fledgling Alliance of American Football, dressed for two games and fared no better in that league than he did with the Alouettes. The league folded without even completing a season and once again, Manziel finds himself without a football team to call his own. It’s highly unlikely that any of the 32 NFL teams will even bother to give Manziel the time of day, especially when he wasn’t able to “dominate” the CFL with his style of play.

Johnny Manziel will likely get a chance to play in the XFL next year. And he will probably flounder there as well because he simply doesn’t want to improve himself or let himself be coached. Nor will most people even want to try to help him as he cannot seem to even help himself. All Manziel has is his infamous name to sell autographs and selfies with. But that well will eventually run dry and much like Tim Tebow before him, all people will have to remember him by are some outstanding college football highlights followed by utter failure in the pros.

Believe it or not, the news of Manziel’s release will likely be noted in history as the time when the Alouettes’ quarterbacking situation actually IMPROVED. This team has three bonafide passers with CFL experience that are eager to prove themselves and actually have worked together to improve their stock. When training camp opens, Alouettes fans will have Vernon Adams, Antonio Pipkin and Matthew Shiltz all vying for the QB1 spot in Montreal.

There’s also Jeff Mathews and former Laval Rouge et Or quarterback Hugo Richard that will be ompeting as well. Unlike Manziel, these QBs actually want to be a part of a CFL franchise and are working to assume that leadership role. With the offense no longer having to cater to Manziel and his “skills”, there is a great opportunity for the Alouettes’ quarterback clown car to finally stay in the garage.

These young QBs may not be the next Anthony Calvillo or Bo Levi Mitchell. But they will have a chance to prove that they belong on a field and help this team win some football games.

Johnny is gone-y and the opportunity for a real leader to emerge has arrived just in time.

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So Montreal hired coaches and created opportunities for their staff to improve their lot. They also signed some exciting free agents and drafted some potentially good National talent. But a lot of that is overlooked because of what has taken place off the field this past winter.

Word came out in March that the Wetenhall family was looking to possibly sell this team. At a town hall meeting for fans with Randy Ambrosie, Alouettes president Patrick Boivin was quick to get in front of such reports to deny them. But where there is smoke, there is often fire. In the coming weeks, a fair bit of smoke started to billow out of the Alouettes’ offices.

There’s been much speculation that the Alouettes would be sold to an ownership group with local ties. There’s also been talk that the league had assumed control of the Alouettes because the Wetenhall family no longer wanted to continue investing money in a losing venture. There was a wealth of information out there and nobody is willing to confirm what is true and what is not.

Speculation on who these ownership groups are came out in the weeks following these reports, with one group led by former Alouettes star Eric Lapointe and another group featuring local businessman Clifford Starke with counsel by Brad Smith, a former CFLer and son of Alouettes legend Larry Smith.

News has been quiet on this front in the past month, but it’s still something that hangs overhead and certainly can create doubt when it comes to wanting to invest in this Alouettes team in the form of buying season tickets or new merchandise. I can’t see this team relocating or suspending operations. But these things have happened in the CFL before and without any clarity from the league or the team itself as to what is actually going on, what else are people supposed to believe?

My belief and hope is that the league is actually overseeing the day-to-day operations to ensure that the team plays football in 2019 while they are vetting any future ownership group. As it stands right now, it’s clear as mud as to who actually owns the Montreal Alouettes.

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Oh, and because this column has been such a positive ray of sunshine so far….did I mention as well that there is a possible labour stoppage between the CFL and the CFLPA?

This Sunday, training camp is expected to open at Percival Molson Stadium. But there remains a very good possibility that the Montreal Alouettes’ players won’t be showing up as a result of this current impasse. The player’s union had taken a strike vote earlier and its members unanimously approved strike actions as needed.

All nine CFL teams are expecting their players to be at camp this weekend. But with no collective bargaining agreement in place as of yet, there’s a good chance that 5 of the 9 CFL teams will have no players on site (Ontario and Alberta labour laws state that you have to wait 72 hours before going on strike, so teams in those provinces may have players show up and then potentially walk out on day #4 of camp).

It’d be really disappointing to not have training camp start on time because of this labour dispute. The CFL last ratified a CBA in June 2014 and that hung overhead as that year’s training camp got underway. The players didn’t opt to strike then, but they likely don’t feel like they have a choice this time around. The league needs its players and vice versa. I remain hopeful, as do many people league-wide, that a fair deal for both sides will be done.

It may be a last-minute deal coming down to the wire but if it means CFL football is ready to go with no interruptions, I’m sure nobody will even remember the past few weeks of hardship.

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Still excited for this season of Alouettes football, folks?

Listen, I can’t promise it will be entertaining or successful. But I will say that on paper, this roster has the makings of something really special. I’m looking forward to seeing everything unfold and I am glad to be able to share it with you good readers.

I’ll be back tomorrow and throughout the week to start breaking down this 2019 Montreal Alouettes team, piece by piece. Be sure to follow along on Twitter for more info leading up to camp.

Until then and officially for the first time this Canadian Football League season,

GO ALS GO!!!