With the Ottawa Redblacks stunning Grey Cup victory over the Calgary Stampeders just a few weeks ago CFL fans were in a state of elation. Now the shine of arguably one of the greatest Grey Cups of all time has faded with the realization that we won’t see anymore CFL football until June 2017. In an effort to help pass the long, cold off-season Last Word on Canadian Football will be reviewing what every team in both the East and West Divisions must do to improve for next year. From retaining players, to coaching changes, to signing the big names in free agency. How can each CFL East Division team improve?
How Each CFL East Division Team Can Improve
Ottawa Redblacks – Seize Control of the East
Yes even the Grey Cup Champs can improve for next year, especially when considering their sub .500 record and major underdog status throughout the playoffs. In a way, the relative weakness of the East Division proved to be a blessing for the Redblacks when they came out and shocked the CFL world in November. However, the time is now for Ottawa to build on their victory, and establish a foothold at the top of the East. Much like how the Calgary Stampeders have run the West division for the past decade, the Redblacks can establish their own dynasty by how they approach this off-season. This also worked well for the Montreal Alouettes in the opening decade of the 2000s.
Forget the Grey Cup, the unbelievable game, the parades, the story-lines. It sounds harsh but Ottawa must attack the off-season like nothing in the past two months had ever transpired. Ottawa has a large chunk of its talent set to hit free agency, and they must quickly move to re-sign as many impact players as they can. The team must then continue to hit on their draft picks like they have the past three years to keep up their stock of National talent.
Lastly, the team should move to diffuse what will become a major story before long, that being whether Grey Cup MVP Henry Burris will retire, take a back-up role, or push to start in 2017. If the Redblacks can keep up their momentum throughout the off-season, seeing Ottawa in the Grey Cup will continue to be a regular occurrence.
Montreal Alouettes – Shore Up the Offensive Line
Despite their disappointing 7-11 record, the Montreal Alouettes came on strong at the end of the season with three straight wins. First order of business in Montreal is to find a new general manager. After Jim Popp stepped down, the Alouettes have been conducting interviews for their second-ever GM. Expect someone to be named shortly.
The team also delivered some hope for the future in the form of intriguing young quarterback Vernon Adams Jr. and the enigmatic Rakeem Cato. Yet, regardless of who plays at quarterback, the biggest concern for the Als this off-season will be improving it’s atrocious offensive line play. Montreal allowed a league-leading 64 sacks on their passers, seven more than the next closest team. The Als rushing attack was also smothered more often than not with the third-worst total rushing yards and rushing touchdowns in the CFL. Finally Montreal had the worst time of possession on offence, evidence of the immense burden placed on their formidable defence.
While some of the above can be explained by the injury to last year’s leading rusher Tyrell Sutton, and the poor early-season-quarterback play, the Alouettes will need to reinforce the line for next year. Adams showed early-era Darian Durant-style ability to escape when under pressure, but neither he nor the less mobile Cato will last long if faced with the prospect of another 60+ sack fest in 2017. Whether by free agency or mining the draft, if the Als can keep pressure off their young gunners they will see increased success next yer.
Toronto Argonauts – Set the Tone for 2017
To say that the 2016 season was a disappointment would be an understatement for the Toronto Argonauts. Between lagging attendance at the team’s new home BMO Field, the mid-season housecleaning of receivers, and the mind-boggling trade for Drew Willy, the Argos had little to cheer about by season’s end. Whether right or wrong, the team’s actions were confusing and unfair to its fans. This must change for both Toronto and the overall CFL come June of next year in Canada’s biggest market.
First, the team must pick a vision for who they want to be and stick with it. Last year the franchise flip-flopped between contender and outright rebuilding project despite the playoffs being more than attainable. In 2017, the franchise needs to have a unified vision for who they want to be. The second part of this equitation is putting that vision into action with the players and coaches the team chooses to hold onto.
Is Willy the future? What about Ricky Ray? If the Argos choose to go with Ray then their mentality must be one of reaching the playoffs to make use of what is left of the ageing passer. If the team leans towards Willy or perhaps Dan LeFevour, then the message sent to fans should be one of patience and development. Lastly, the team needs to either step away or commit to General Manager Jim Barker and/or Head Coach Scott Milanovich sooner rather than later. If Argo fans know the direction of their team going into next year and that the organization will stick to it, they and the franchise will be better for it.
Hamilton Tiger-Cats- Commit to the Ground Game
First off, for the Hamilton Tiger-Cats to have accomplished what they did considering the onslaught of injuries they faced this year is very impressive. Few expected back-up Jeremiah Masoli to play as well as he did in star quarterback Zach Collaros’ absence. The offence found ways to score even when they were losing receivers at an alarming rate. Yet, if there is one major takeaway for the Ticats in 2017 it is this: Run. The. Ball.
The Tiger-Cats were dead-last in rushing this year, and it cost them dearly at times. With opposing teams having little concern for the threat of the running game, defensive players recklessly put pressure on Hamilton’s quarterbacks. Near the end of the season Collaros was too often thrown to the ground, even if he managed to get the ball away. Masoli constantly had to use his dynamic running ability just to keep himself out of harms way.
This doesn’t mean adopting a run-every-down strategy, but committing to some balance on offence. Adding few upgrades to the offensive line and running back position would work wonders for Hamilton’s fortunes.
What do you think your favourite team can do to improve for next year? Let us know in the comments below!