Like the Riders, the Montreal Alouettes went through a bit of upheaval in the off-season. QB Anthony Calvillo had a much-publicized battle with thyroid cancer. All-star receiver Ben Cahoon retired, and running back Avon Coburne was lost to Hamiltion as a free agent. But in their home opener June 30 against a tough B.C Lion team, the Als looked inpressive, winning 30-26.
The Riders, of course, stunk in their home opener, losing 42-28 to the Edmonton Eskimos on July 3.
For today’s game at Mosaic Stadium against the two-time defending Grey Cup champs the defense will be bolstered by the return from injury of three veterans. With linebacker Jerrell Freeman and DBs Chris McKenzie and Tad Kornegay in the line-up the Rider defence should stiffen considerably after the debacle last week where they were shredded by QB Ricky Ray and the rest of the Eskimo offense.
As for the Riders’ problems on offense, they may not be so easy to solve. The receiving corps has a lot of new faces, and QB Darian Durant is working behind a revamped line that has yet to gel. And with four turnovers, Durant did little to assuage the concern of Riders fans that he is prone to poor decision-making and failing to protect the ball. Still, when Durant is on, the Rider offense is more than capable of putting up points.
The Montreal Alouettes are a lock this season, I think, to represent the CFL East in the Grey Cup in Vancouver in late November. And if the Riders can get their act together, they have a decent shot at representing the West in the CFL title game. If they and the Als were to meet it would mark the third-straight Grey Cup they’d contested against each other. Not since the 1950s has that happened.
Between 1957-59, the Winnipeg Blue Bombers and Hamilton Tiger Cats played three straight Grey Cups. The Bombers, who were coached by the legendary Bud Grant and led offensively by QB Kenny Ploen and running back Leo Lewis, lost the first game to the Ti-Cats 32-7. Then they vaniquished the Ti-Cats, who were led on offense by QB Bernie Faloney and on defense by DT Angela Mosca, in the next two games by scores of 35-28 and 21-7.
Were the Riders and Als to have their own three-peat, that would be the preferred scenario from the Riders’ perspective. Montreal’s batting two for two. If the Riders lost a third time they’d be in the same ignominious company as the 1954-56 Montreal Alouettes. Led by Hall of Fame QB Sam Etchevery, receiver Hal Patterson and running back Pat Abruzi, the Als were an explosive team. Unfortunately, they had the misfortune to face off three straight years in the CFL title game against an Edmonton Eskimo juggernaut led by QB Jackie Parker and running backs Normie Kwong, Johnny Bright and Rollie Miles. By scores of 26-25 in 1954 (the infamous Chuck Hunsinger fumble game); 34-19 in 1955; and 50-27 in 1956; the Esks won all three times.
After today’s game, the teams meet again in Montreal on July 24. Then that’s it, they’re done with each other for the rest of the regular season. So while today’s game is a litmus test, it’s still extremely early in the season and a lot can change — injuries, free agent signings, players enjoying break-out seasons. For the Als, one thing that definitely works in their favour is the relatively weak state of the CFL East. Based on last year’s performance, their closest competition in the division, the Ti-Cats and the Toronto Argonauts, would have to improve significantly to mount a serious challenge. The Riders, meanwhile, seem destined to end up in another dogfight with the Stampeders, Lions, and maybe even the Esks. That type of competition keeps a team sharp, but it also takes its toll physically and mentally as the season progresses.
One wrinkle in the potential Riders-Als Grey Cup troika is that while the first two Grey Cups were played outdoors in Calgary and Edmonton in tolerable, but far from optimum, late November weather conditions, the 2011 Grey Cup will be indoors in refurbished B.C. Place Stadium. With a fast track and perfect conditions, that tilts the balance a bit in favour of speed and finesse.
Game time is 2 p.m. Forecast high is 23, so it’s not going to be a scorcher.