Well, this is not how I expected to be writing a column in May 2020….
In a perfect world, Montreal Alouettes training camp would already be a week old with this weekend hosting the annual scrimmage game. This blog would have already featured the usual in-depth season preview and we’d be getting to know all the ins and outs of this football team.
Instead, Percival Molson Stadium sits empty and the Alouettes players are still at home, staying in shape and like us, hoping for some good news to eventually come out. The COVID-19 pandemic has truly put us over a barrel and affected just about everything we hold dear, including Canadian football.
Instead of daily training camp reports, we get statements from CFL Commissioner Randy Ambrosie, including him making the sobering announcement that we all knew was coming. IF (and that’s a very big IF) the CFL has a season, it will be a shortened one that is likely starting in September. Both Touchdown Atlantic and this year’s Grey Cup Festival (slated to be held in Regina with the actual championship game) have been cancelled. As a matter of fact, the only way that a Grey Cup game is played in Regina this year will be if the Saskatchewan Roughriders qualify for the Grey Cup match along with having the best regular season record.
In a very unusual twist, this means that any team could be the Grey Cup hosts in 2020, including the Montreal Alouettes! But if you’re expecting a major shindig to celebrate Canada’s greatest game, you’ll have to wait until next year in Hamilton. There remains so much up in the air and until we actually get a season off the ground, a lot of it is hearsay and what-ifs.
But back to the Alouettes. After their renaissance last season, there was a lot of anticipation for 2020 camp to open. This team’s front office went through a major upheaval in the off-season while maintaining the vast majority of the team that shocked everyone on the field last season.
This time last year, so many questions were waiting to be answered. Khari Jones was merely the team’s offensive coordinator while Vernon Adams Jr. was FOURTH on the QB depth chart, due to politics from the previous administration. As camp ended, it was becoming clear that these two men were the true leaders that this organization had been seeking for some time.
The dismissal of then head coach Mike Sherman led the way for Khari to become the field boss while an injury in the season opener to projected starter Antonio Pipkin allowed Adams to assume the role that many felt should have been his since late 2016: starting QB for the Montreal Alouettes.
As the season progressed and the wins kept coming (10 in total for the 2019 campaign!), a lot of people wondered if the Alouettes could maintain this momentum going into 2020. Had camp started last week as it was supposed to, there would be ZERO doubt as to who the Alouettes on-field leaders would be.
In addition to having the interim tag taken off his title, Jones was able to maintain the majority of his coaches during the off-season, losing only Marquay McDaniel and the briefly hired Marcel Bellefeuille. The remaining coaches were eager to get started back to finish the work they’ve put in already.
Adams is without question this team’s starting quarterback, with Matthew Shiltz as his backup and Hugo Richard as a potential third option. This season would see the start of only two quarterbacks listed in the starting lineup for CFL teams, so the Alouettes would have to find a creative way to get the Vanier Cup winner Richard in the lineup.
Another question needing an answer would be that of the ground game, as sophomore star William Stanback turned his remarkable 2019 season into a 2020 NFL contract. With backups Jeremiah Johnson and Ryder Stone taking their retirements, this left a major hole in Montreal’s backfield.
Free agents James Wilder Jr. and Tyrell Sutton were signed to contracts in the off-season and both are proven winners. Wilder had bigger football aspirations in mind but has since returned to earth and he is ready to dominate in an offense that is suited for bruising tailbacks. Sutton, who started his career in Montreal, came back home and his solid play during last year’s Grey Cup run for Hamilton proved that Tyrell still has some gas left in the tank.
The Alouettes also have some young running backs that will also want to make their mark in camp. Shaquille Murray-Lawrence and Jeshrun Antwi are both speed demons that can break plays open if given the chance. The Alouettes also drafted a Swiss Army knife with their last pick in this year’s CFL draft in Colton Klassen and his measurables are the kind of stuff coaches and scouts dream of.
Safe to say that if a training camp does happen, there will be a lot to like when it comes to the tailback position.
Last year, we wondered just what Bob Slowik was going to bring to the Alouettes as its new defensive coordinator. After all, he hadn’t been coaching for six years and many wondered just how this CFL neophyte was going to manage in 2019. Turns out, he managed pretty darn well!
Having studs on defense like Henoc Muamba, Ciante Evans, Greg Reid and the ageless John Bowman certainly helped Slowik’s cause. It wasn’t always perfect, but this defense came to play every day and certainly put a lot of teams on notice with their aggressive, hard-hitting style.
Alouettes GM Danny Maciocia has had to retool this defense a bit, but the above players are still there and ready to continue stoking that competitive fire. At his introductory presser, Maciocia stated that the defensive line still remained a work in progress and that he was focusing on improving that during free agency and the draft.
Maciocia brought in proven players like David Menard, Junior Luke and Adrian Tracy to help bolster this unit. This year’s CFL draft saw names like Cameron Lawson, Benoit Marion and Brock Gowanlock taken to go along with young National players like Nathaniel Anderson and Michael Sanelli.
Add in sophomore stars in the making like Woody Baron, Antonio Simmons and Bo Banner and the potential for this defensive line to be a game-changer is certainly there. There’s a myriad of possible combinations that could be the right elixir for this supposed weak link of the team.
But the only way to find that magic formula is with honest to goodness training camp reps. Here’s hoping that IF there is a shortened season, that these players will at least get a real chance to compete in a true training camp environment.
The final question is, can and will the fans return? After years of apathy and irrelevance due to less than inspirational football, Montreal football fans fell back in love with the Alouettes and the game day experience. The diehard fans were always going to be there through thick and thin, but the winning and exciting game play of the 2019 Alouettes helped restore the noise in the Birds’ Nest.
By winning games in nail-biting fashion and engaging the fans like never before, Percival Molson Stadium became a great place to watch football again. While a lot of the fans in attendance still have a long way to go (like when it comes to the right time to make noise, for example) one cannot deny that these fans got behind its team in 2019. We’ve had several Alouettes players join Tim Capper and myself on the Alouettes Flightdeck podcast and whenever the subject of the Montreal fanbase comes up, there’s nothing but love for the energy and enthusiasm shown on game day.
Would this continue in 2020, especially with the changes made in ownership and the promise of the team’s new president and general manager to cement the Alouettes as “Quebec’s football team”? I’ve said in the past that fans don’t buy season tickets based on who the team’s front office members are. But the people in charge are expected to deliver on the promise of fielding a competitive, exciting football team while giving the fans their money’s worth.
Based on the moves made this off-season, there is certainly a lot to like and a lot that will need actual game time to see come to fruition. The Grey Cup isn’t won in May/June, but it can certainly be lost during those months. Especially if you don’t have the groundwork for success laid down and ready to be built upon.
With training camp in limbo right now, all we can do is speculate and hope that if a CFL season gets underway, that the moves made by these Montreal Alouettes were indeed the right ones.
That’s all for now. I really wish there was more that could be written about, but the thought of these beautiful sunny days without Alouettes training camp definitely makes this a difficult column to write. But I am remaining hopeful that we’ll get the word, sooner rather than later, that all players are able to report to a form of training camp to prepare for some sort of a CFL regular season.
Until then, make sure you’re following along on Twitter for any and all thoughts & analysis on this challenging time to be a CFL fan. And check out the Alouettes FlightDeck podcast to hear Tim Capper and myself talk Alouettes football, past present and future. You can find all 100+ episodes of the podcast by searching “Alouettes FlightDeck” on Podbean, Google Play Music, Apple Podcasts, Stitcher and Spotify.
Here’s hoping that our hard work during the summer to beat this pandemic will be rewarded with the chance to rekindle our annual true love of Canadian football.
As always, thanks for reading.