Despite its best efforts, the Canadian Football League is having a season this year! You may be an existing CFL fan, a neophyte looking to broaden your horizons, or just a straight-up CFL hater, but I'm here to sit you down and let you know everything you need to know in order to enjoy this upcoming season of thrilling three-down football.
So kick back, crack a Labatt, put on some Neil Young, grab a big bowl of poutine, and get ready to absorb everything you need to know about the 2014 CFL season.
Back up a bit: the CFL's having a season "despite its best efforts"?
It's a minor miracle this season is even happening - even as of a couple weeks ago, the league's labour relations were on thin ice. (Note: if you felt a bit of a twinge at reading "labour" spelled in its proper Canadian form with a U, buckle up, because the Canadianness only gets cranked up to 11 from here on in.) Let's get right back to basics: the CFL is not exactly a league of riches and glamour.
The Canadian Football League can trace its roots back to the 1880s, and really, to the very tiniest of roots that would later grow up to be the massive, money-growing tree of modern American and Canadian Football. Teams like the Toronto Argonauts and Hamilton Tiger-Cats can trace their history back to the 1860s & 70s, while only 2 of the league's 9 teams came into the league after the 1950s. The Grey Cup, the ultimate prize in Canadian football, has been awarded 101 times.
At the same time, for all of its stiff-upper-lip pride of being so very historic and important, the CFL will always be a small fish swimming alongside the huge-ass whale that is its unfathomably larger brother, the NFL.
As a simple matter of economics, the CFL has always operated on a smaller scale. That means fewer teams, less money, and lower salaries. This isn't necessarily a bad thing. This enormous chip on the CFL's shoulder gives Canadians a proud talking point you'll hear a lot whenever the CFL is discussed: these players are here because they want to play.
A lot of the CFL's players came out of top US college programs, and likely could have been the third-string backup warming the bench on an NFL team (for about half a million dollars a year) before being cut after a season and retiring, or they could have a long, fulfilling career in an exciting, fast-paced foreign league where they would be greeted as superstars (for roughly the same wage as a bus driver). That, in a nutshell, is the mindset that drives the CFL's unpretentious, proletarian mentality. "We're smaller and kinda poor, but hey, fuck you, NFL - we've got our pride!"
Got it. League culture, background information, great. Skip ahead to the "season almost not happening" part.
With their existing CBA expiring this year, the CFLPA started making noise about a potential strike if their demands weren't met. One of the main sticking points was, of course, money. The CFL minimum salary is $45,000, which is probably around what most forklift drivers or Chipotle managers make. Comparatively, the minimum salary for NFL rookies is $420,000, and it rises astronomically from there.
The money's so bad that most CFL players at the bottom of the pay scale have day jobs, ranging from construction to real estate to bartending.
Alongside the money issue, there were a bunch of other union gripes - player safety, pensions, the usual - and for much of this winter and spring, the CFL and the CFLPA were so far apart in their offers that it looked like this season wasn't going to happen. There was serious talk that if the players' association called a general strike, CFL fans might have to open their doors to the league's suddenly broke-ass unemployed athletes and let players crash on their couches for a while. The Canadian Football League!
But GOOD NEWS, football fans! Negotiations kept going. (I'll spare you all of the boring details, but if you're a lawyer interested in the intricacies of labour laws and how they differ between Canadian provinces, this story has been your Woodstock.) And now, we're going full-steam-ahead into the 2014 season this week!
I'm glad they're not locked out! But why should I care about the CFL at all?
Glad you asked! Canada's #2 favourite hobby in the whole world is explaining to Americans why the CFL is superior to the NFL. (Hobby #1 is beer.)
At this point, most CFL defenders can just rattle these same talking points off like they've had the same debate a hundred times. CFL fans are like any other derided, niche fandom - Trekkies, country music listeners, soccer nuts, vegans - take a swipe, and we've got a half-dozen neatly-packaged comebacks.
Here are all of the main points you will hear from CFL defenders whenever a dumb CFL vs. NFL discussion comes up at a bar, or in a Yahoo comment thread.
- Having 12 players on the field instead of 11 makes the Canadian game more dynamic, or strategic, or something. Adding that extra slotback to a formation? That's a recipe for some exciting mayhem right there. 12 is a larger number than 11, QED CFL > NFL.
- Having three downs instead of four makes the game faster and more pass-oriented! No anticlimactic 2-yard rushes to burn a first down, no boring drives that go on forever, you either go big on every single down or you're toast in this league! Canadian toast, full of whole-wheat fibre.
- A wider field (65 yards vs. 53.5 yards) and a longer field (110 yards vs. 100 yards - hello, 55-yard centre line!) means more lateral play and wide-open spaces, because there's just so much room for activities! Also, gigantic endzones can make for crazy deep touchdown passes. And the goalposts are at the front of the endzone, so... you can run into them and shit. Anyways, it's just a much better field layout in every possible way.
- Rouges? Fuck yeah, rouges. Rouges ALL DAY.
- Players in the offensive backfield can move as much as they want before the snap. Running backs can just jump and sprint and twitch like tweaked-out hobos. The RB and SB can run towards each other and then recreate the lift move from Dirty Dancing as a distraction before the ball's snapped, totally legal.
- The ball itself is ever so slightly larger because CANADA'S BALLS ARE BIGGER.
- Uh... some stuff about the fair catch rule and punts... (at this point the CFL defender is too drunk and tired from defending his point, he doesn't need to get into the minor, technical stuff.)
Anyways, that's the standard argument roundup. Then again, there's always the NFL counter-argument that gets pulled out as the trump card:
"NFL players are objectively better, and the level of play is higher, and really everything is just better in the NFL."
This is a pretty good argument, but how's this for a counter-argument: fuck you.
I'm all for rule differences, but what I really like is sports leagues that are richly tied to a nation's cultural heritage, and what I need RIGHT NOW is a well-made, artfully-narrated video that sums up the CFL's history and what it means to its fans.
See, now that? That I can do for you.
If that video did nothing for you, honestly, I can't help you. That's the whole synopsis of the Canadian Football League right there.
Now that you're all amped up on patriotism and Canadian indie-rock, let's get to what you're here for: the team-by-team breakdowns!
Are you an American who occasionally stumbles on CFL games broadcast at 2 AM on ESPN 8, and you're looking for a team to root for, or hate on, until real football starts? Are you a Canadian who just enjoys all-purpose hating? This is your guide. Here's Part 1, the Beasts of the East.
The Hamilton Tiger-Cats
2013: 10-8, lost Grey Cup championship to Saskatchewan
Stadium: Tim Hortons Field
Nicknames: Ticats, Tabbies
The team got the redundant Tiger-Cats moniker in 1950 when two existing football teams, the Hamilton Tigers (est. 1861) and Hamilton Wildcats (est. 1941), decided to merge. They've won 8 Grey Cups as the Ticats, and were pretty reliable bets to make the playoffs in earlier decades, but since 1999 (their last Grey Cup win) they've generally been the punching bag of the East, reliably finishing in the cellar and getting the shit kicked out of them by the rival Alouettes and Argonauts.
The Tiger-Cats have deep roots and passionate fans in Hamilton. That's because, much like in Green Bay or Regina, the city just doesn't have a shit-ton else going for it other than football.
If you're not familiar with the city of Hamilton, a smog-farting industrial town about halfway between Toronto and Buffalo, imagine it as Pittsburgh without the culture.
Hamilton used to make steel. These days, what they mostly make is meth. There are a few nice suburban pockets that anyone with money moved to when the city's industrial and steelmaking base went to shit, but other than that, the whole downtown area's been left to rot over the decades like a rusted-out blight on the lakeshore. Every single person you meet in downtown Hamilton (a city nicknamed "The Hammer", by idiots) will either look like (A) someone who will stab you with a boxcutter if provoked, or (B) will have that tired, Frank Sobotka look on their face and that thousand-yard stare, as if the grind of living in Hamilton had finally defeated them.
The Ticats' old stadium, a rickety old grandstand called Ivor Wynne Stadium, was located in a particularly scummy part of town, rife with shady characters and drug dealers - and that was just on the Ticats roster. After hosting games for about 15 years past the point where it could have been deemed structurally sound, Hamilton finally decided to tear down the piss-soaked rust bucket that was Ivor Wynne last year, leaving the Ticats as orphans for the 2013 season.
Lacking a home field, last year the Ticats played in Guelph, a town about an hour outside of Hamilton where they played their home games at the University of Guelph's football field. Now, when I talk about a university football stadium, let's be clear that we're not talking about The Big House here. Guelph's got a small football program at a small school with a stadium that only seats around 10,000. When the CFL brags about having the 7th-highest attendance of any sports league in the world, they don't want you to think of scenes like this, with a franchise playing out of a stadium roughly the size of an average Texas high school.
But hey, with Ivor Wynne torn down and replaced, the Ticats are now back home in Hamilton in a brand-new stadium for this 2014 season. Their new digs are sponsored by Tim Hortons, naturally, and it looks pretty nice! (Although it's not exactly flattering to the ass sizes of your fanbase by boasting about having "the largest stadium seats of any outdoor facility in Canada" in your press release.)
Along with a new stadium, the team also went through a lot of change on the field in the offseason. Last year, star quarterback Henry Burris led them to the Grey Cup finals, but Burris is gone now, scooped up by the expansion Ottawa RedBlacks. This year the Ticats will be a team with a few intriguing components but no central unifying attraction, kind of like the city of Hamilton itself.
Two assorted Ticats tidbits:
- They were the only CFL team to ever defeat an NFL team.
- Their signature fan chant - "Oskie-wee-wee, Oskie-wa-wa, Holy Mackinaw, Tigers Eat 'Em Raw!" - performed by their superfan/unofficial mascot Pigskin Pete every game, is either a charming quirk or really dumb, depending on how you feel about both unofficial mascots and gibberish singalongs.
The Ticats, in a city run by the great wheels of blue-collar industrial progress and controlled by steel titans, are owned by... an open-source tech entrepreneur? Sure, alright.
Local businessman Bob Young, founder of open-source Linux operating system Red Hat and self-publishing site Lulu.com, decided to buy the Ticats when they were struggling. Between Linux and the Ticats, Bob Young seems to be into stuff that's fast and consistent despite the lingering stench of off-brand unpopularity.
Last year, they made it to the Grey Cup final without even having a single player make the end-of-year CFL All Star list. The Ticats come into this season with a roster cobbled together with young scrubs and spare parts.
This year, the biggest mess will be behind centre. Without Henry Burris, there are three guys all vying for the QB spot, and by the end of the year, any of the three could be starting. Dan LeFevour was a college stud, setting the NCAA record for most total touchdowns with Central Michigan, before flaming out with the Bears (it's incredible how many CFL players had brief, disastrous careers with the Bears) and landing in Hamilton. Well, probably landing in Toronto and renting a car to drive to Hamilton, since Hamilton's too shitty for an international airport.
Former Argonauts backup Zach Collaros was also poached by Hamilton in the offseason, and seems to be the favourite to start Game 1 coming out of the preseason. Finally, there's quarterback options #3, Jeremiah Masoli, who can study CFL game tape on the PROJECTOR HE STOLE FROM A FRAT HOUSE!!
Since they don't officially know who'll be receiving snaps for the rest of the season, they'll probably be relying on the run game a lot. Running back CJ Gable was explosive last year as an option on handoffs and short passes, being named Outstanding Rookie for the East division.
Canadian WR Andy Fantuz is a solid veteran receiving option. He spent 6 seasons in Saskatchewan, where he was so popular that he got his own breakfast cereal, before embarking on a short-lived, mediocre stint with the Bears (natch) and finally arriving in Hamilton, where he's continued to be solid. Sam Giguere is another reliable Canadian receiver.
Sidenote: It's pretty valuable to have good Canadian players at skill positions like WR/SB, freeing up space to have imported American players at other positions to meet the CFL's convoluted nationality requirements. (That's all I'll say about the league's Import/Non-Import rules, because they're complicated and a little embarrassingly protectionist.)
Two interesting players you can file under "miscellaneous trivia": Offensive lineman Peter Dyakowski is pretty smart and appeared on Jeopardy - he walked away with $1000 for finishing last, and an Aleve prize pack, which he probably went through pretty quickly. Then, you've got poor punter/kicker Jason Medlock, on his 14th stint with a different professional football team in the past 12 years. Dem frequent flyer miles, tho.
The Award for "Most Badass-Sounding Name On The Roster" Goes To: Carson Rockhill, OL.
MS Paint Drawing of a Typical Ticats Fan: "Faack buddy, after gettin' laid off from Stelco, I've decided to spend my days sittin' on my garbage-covered back patio, just makin' sure that Laker Brewery stays in business by drinking tallboys all afternoon, then lookin' fer some Torontonians to fistfight. OSKIE WEE WEE TIGERS EAT 'EM RAW!!"
-Some dirty man from east Hamilton, probably named Frank.
The Toronto Argonauts
2013: 11-7, lost Eastern Division Finals to Hamilton
Stadium: "Rogers Center", but fuck that, it's actually called SkyDome and always will be.
Nicknames: Argos, Boatmen, Double Blue, Toronto Hydroponics
The Argonauts were founded in 1873. That is a very long time ago. The Argonauts are, in fact, the oldest team in North American professional sports to still be using their same name and playing in the same city. (The Ticats are a little older but changed their name - tough luck, Hamilton.)
The team was founded by the Argonauts Rowing Club in Toronto, and started playing a modified version of rugby that would eventually morph in parallel with the American game into what we now think of as football, as a way of smashing each others' faces into the mud when they weren't busy rowing. The team took their uniform colours from the rowing club: Oxford blue and Cambridge blue, representing the dark blue and light blue of the two premier British rowing colleges of the time.
The Argos have won 16 Grey Cups, more than any other team, with their first in 1914 and their most recent in 2012. For all of that rich history, though, they're still considered a bit of a backwater by CFL fans today.
As nearly every other team developed its own rabid fan culture, the Argos, in the biggest market in the country, play before half-empty crowds with a largely apathetic fanbase. Some see it as Toronto being too snobby for the CFL – oh, those stuck-up Torotonians, sipping their cinnamon-dolce lattes from their skyscrapers, daydreaming of what to rename the Buffalo Bills once they relocate, far too cosmopolitan for something as déclassé and provincial as Canadian football.
Still, though, the league needs the Toronto market to be successful, and the first step might be moving to a better stadium. Namely, BMO Field, the soccer-specific home of Toronto FC. It would be far more intimate and cozy there in an open-air 25,000-seat field, compared to having 25,000 souls dotting the vast sea of empty blue seats in a giant 50,000-seat concrete tomb. The Blue Jays aren't too keen on having to bunk with the Argos either, since their turf looks like shit from all of the football-to-baseball conversions. Really, the whole future of this 141-year-old franchise hinges on a stadium deal getting done. Ah, the CFL.
Well, this is embarrassing. I mean, I try to defend the CFL when it gets called bush league, but this current situation is some peewee, Mickey Mouse shit.
First, let's talk about how great the Argos' ownership used to be. I'm putting this right out there: in the early 90s, the Argos had the coolest owners in Canadian sports history. Back then they were the hottest ticket in town, flush with cash and playing in the still-brand-new, space-age SkyDome. Even as they were sharing their stadium with a team that would win back-to-back World Series, the Argos were still the talk of Toronto.
After being owned by Carling O'Keefe Brewery for years (makers of a urine-flavoured industrial solvent named Carling Black Label), the Argos were bought by a three-way partnership between Bruce McNall (owner of the LA Kings), JOHN CANDY, and WAYNE GRETZKY. "Hey honey, who's that in the owner's booth watching the game? Oh, it's just a comedy legend and the greatest goddamn hockey player to have ever lived, smoking cigars together, because they own this team."
Immediately after they bought the team in 1991, the Argos signed Notre Dame star WR and projected #1 NFL draft pick Raghib "Rocket" Ismail to a ludicrous, $18.2 million contract over 4 years. That $4.5 million yearly salary was higher than any other team's salary for their entire roster. Times were good, the Argos won a Grey Cup in '91, people still thought the SkyDome was cool and not a crumbling cement toilet, the mid-90s recession hadn't hit yet, what could possibly go wrong?
You can see where this is going. McNall/Candy/Gretzky divested after some lean times in 1994, and the team changed hands between a few shitty owners – TSN, Labatt Brewery, and a few businessmen who surely all had the same thought: "if the CFL can make it big in a two-horse town like Regina, then surely selling football to a city of 3 million people who are willing to shell out $500 for tickets to a shitty hockey team must be like money in the bank!" It wasn't. The team lost money hand over fist, briefly becoming a ward of the state as the CFL stepped in to take ownership.
Finally, in 2010, the Argonauts got stable ownership from a Canadian businessman and Senator named David Braley.
Now, David Braley is... [deep sigh]… the owner of the BC Lions.
In a league with only eight teams, one guy owned two of them. I know, I know, it's bush-league! It was an embarrassing but necessary situation to save football in Toronto, but the Argonauts are indeed owned by their competition. They even schedule Lions-Argonauts games earlier in the season so that the games don't have direct playoff implications, lest people suspect that the fix is in. Even if the Argos own the Lions on the field on a given day, the Lions will still literally own the Argos.
At QB, the Argos will be in good hands once again with old man Ricky Ray. That is, assuming his rickety old knees don't blow out halfway through the season on the glorified shag carpet that is the SkyDome astroturf.
Ray's a 12-year veteran of the league who's put up nothing but solid numbers since coming to Toronto in 2012, after spending his whole career in Edmonton, give or take a brief stint on the Jets' roster where he mostly held Chad Pennington's clipboard.
In his first season in Toronto, Ray led the previously-mediocre Argos to the Grey Cup (not just any measly Grey Cup - the 100th Grey Cup, played in front of a home crowd, and some of Canada's greatest musical talent.) In his 2013 season Ricky was playing like a man with cheat codes - I mean, y'know, if CFL video games existed. He went down to a shoulder injury in game 6 that forced him to sit for a few games, but in the 10 games he played, just marvel at the stats.
21 TDs, 2 interceptions. A 77.2% completion rate, shattering the single-season CFL record. In a single game against Winnipeg he went 19 for 20 in passing - that 95% completion rate broke the single-game CFL record. His passer rating for the season was 126.4, which, you guessed it, set a new CFL record. (The all-time highest NFL QB rating for a season was a 122.5 set by Aaron Rodgers, if you're wondering.) So, yeah. If he holds up, Ricky Ray should be fine.
Also, he's definitely the most likely to win the CFL's coveted award for "Player Who Most Resembles Actor Tony Hale".
Chad Owens is just really, really fucking awesome. A tattooed, MMA-fighting Hawaiian who fucked up his NFL career with a string of ugly muffed punt returns in a stint with the Jaguars, he landed in Toronto and became the most explosive wide receiver and kick returner in the league. He was awarded the CFL's Most Outstanding Player in 2012, as he broke the league record for all-purpose yards in a season with 3,863.
Coming into this season, you might have said Chad Kackert was one of their biggest offensive threats. The running back was the 2012 Grey Cup MVP and had a couple of solid seasons for Toronto, only for him to mangle his ankle last season, and just recently to announce his retirement at the age of 27. He was immediately named the new Strength & Conditioning Coach for the Argos, which I guess just means that his job is to shout inspirational slogans as his ex-teammates lift weights. Hey, you've got to pay the bills somehow as a retired CFL player.
The Award for "Most Badass-Sounding Name On The Roster" Goes To: Swayze Waters, P/K.
MS Paint Drawing of a Typical Argonauts Fan: If you're going to a game down at the Rogers Centre, you can expect to see a sea of these! Decked out in the team's signature blue, these hard-backed spectators show up in the tens of thousands. Listen for their signature cheer: the trademark squeak of a single rusty seat bottom plunking up in an otherwise pindrop-quiet concrete sarcophagus.
(ROASTING-HOT attendance-snarking aside, there are actual Argos fans out there, and they're generally the answer to the question "how did a city like Toronto elect a mayor like Rob Ford?" Well, because of Argos fans. Because of big, sweaty, shitty dudes with buzzcuts and drinking problems who put on their dirty old Doug Flutie jerseys to bellow "ARRRR-GOOOOOS" until they pass out in a pool of their own vomit.)
The Montreal Alouettes
2013 Record: 8-10, made the playoffs despite their losing record because the East Division is garbage, lost in East Semi-Final to Toronto.
Stadium: Percival Molson Memorial Stadium at McGill University. For big playoff games they opt for their old home, the crumbling remains of Olympic Stadium (R.I.P. Expos). For the regular season, they're happy to play at the cozy confines of McGill University's home stadium, a little bandstand that seats 25,000 and has a huge McGill logo at the 55-yard line. Note: this is not a prestigious football school. The McGill football team has a combined record of 20-70 over the past ten years.
Nickname: Als, Larks, "That Team Ochocinco Plays For"
HERE'S TIM TEBOW, PASSES IT DEEP FOR CHAD OCHOCINCO... TOUCHDOWN!
Did THAT get your attention, motherfuckers? It's like a sentence designed by scientists at Bleacher Report to maximize clickability. That sound you just heard was the "thud" of sportswriters' erections hitting the bottom of desks in Bristol, CT.
Now, Tim Tebow isn't actually on the Als, and if I were to bet, I'd say that the Virgin Hail Mary never actually ends up in the CFL. But there was a LOT of talk about it in the off-season, after his NFL prospects dried up because he's, y'know... not good at throwing footballs. The Alouettes own the CFL rights to Tebow, though, so if he ever did decide to make a go of it up north (and if you were to ask former CFL star Warren Moon, he'd tell Tebow good fucking luck) he'd be wearing the red-and-blue (or the unnecessarily-ugly black alternate) uniforms of the Als.
Not only that, look what other click-baity former star he'd be overthrowing passes to!
Chad Johnson signed with the Alouettes in the offseason to bolster their receiving corps and media profile. He's just going by his Christian name "Chad Johnson" this time around, not Ochocinco, or the broken-French equivalent, Huit-cinq.
Now, the big questions. Will Chad be a reliable-if-unspectacular receiving threat for an offense in flux, and contribute reliable yards for a decent, playoff-bound team? Probably! Will he raise the profile of the CFL in the US? Almost certainly! Will he completely dominate the CFL with his clearly-superior NFL pedigree, as he plows down fields in Quebec with an ease unseen since General Wolfe in 1759?
Enfant, s'il vous plait.
(That's, uh... that's "child, please" in French.)
It will definitely take a while for Huit-cinq to get up to speed and learn the league's idiosyncratic qualities. It's never a given that guys who've had success in the NFL will head to the CFL and automatically dominate like they were Mike Trout in a little league softball game. (For more information on faded NFL stars seeming downright mediocre in the CFL, see Williams, Ricky.)
It's still undeniably fun having a guy like Chad Johnson in the league. His Twitter's been delightful lately, full of child-like wonder as he explores Canada and struggles with life in Montreal. I would watch a full CBC sitcom about Chad Johnson's fish-out-of-water struggles in a foreign country, just learnin' some French and eatin' some poutine. It would be like "Mr. Baseball", except funny. Even if he doesn't integrate fully into his cultural surroundings, at the very least he'll get familiar with some of the Montreal landmarks down on Rue Ste-Catherine by the end of the season. (Strip clubs. I'm talking about strip clubs.)
Although Johnson's presence will bring a lot of hype to the team, there's still a very big gap missing from the Alouettes this season. For the past 16 seasons, the Alouettes have been synonymous with one name: quarterback Anthony Calvillo.
It's hard as a CFL fan to talk about Anthony Calvillo without starting to gush like a teenage fangirl. He broke into the league in 1994 (nineteen-ninety-four!) for, of all teams, the Las Vegas Posse, part of the CFL's ill-fated expansion into—[NOTE: THIS PARAGRAPH HAS BEEN REDACTED. "CFL USA" NEVER HAPPENED, AND THAT IS FINAL.]
In all, he played a whopping 329 CFL games. Calvillo's 79,816 passing yards are the most in the history of professional football - Peyton Manning trails by a good 15,000.
Alas, Calvillo decided to hang up his cleats last year after suffering a mid-season concussion (coupled with the whole "being 41 years old" thing.) He's been such a mainstay with the Als for an entire generation that it's going to be weird to even think about the team without him.
With Calvillo at QB, and especially for the five years under coach Marc Trestman (currently finding ways to unfuck the Bears), the Als formed a bit of a dynasty: they won the East and played for the Grey Cup eight times from 2000-2010, winning three championships. Now, the team finds itself in a transitional phase a bit like the post-Brett Favre Packers, except without a clear Aaron Rodgers waiting in the wings to take the helm.
Not only did they lose their heart and soul in Calvillo, but they also cut veteran WRs Arland Bruce and Jamel Richardson for being generally old, and middle LB Shea Emry left for Toronto (there was some talk out of Montreal that they might not even bother replacing Emry, opting for a rarely-used 5-2 defense.) Still, the Eastern Division is a steaming-hot poutine dump that includes an expansion team, so even if the Als are very mediocre this season they can still make the playoffs.
And who gets to fill the shoes of a man who may be the greatest quarterback in CFL history? Why, it's none other than Heisman Curse recipient Troy Smith!
The very same Troy Smith who won every possible award at Ohio State, got drafted by the Ravens, got diagnosed with an incredibly rare illness called Lemierre's Syndome (clinical incidence rate: 0.8 cases per 1 million adults), got outplayed by up-and-comer Joe Flacco, bounced to San Francisco, got outplayed by Alex Smith, sat around for a while polishing his Heisman, and then landed in Montreal as Calvillo's backup last season.
Smith isn't the first washed-up Heisman-winning bust to end up in the CFL. Eric Crouch (2001, Nebraska) and Ricky Williams (1998, Texas) were briefly Argonauts teammates in 2006, while Andre Ware (1989, Houston) played for a few CFL teams in the 90s. (Call Doug Flutie a Heisman bust and I'll fight you.)
Anyways, even if Troy Smith is well past his prime with a failing arm (Deadspin's Big Book of Black Quarterbacks, on Smith: "he wasn't very big, or very fast, and he didn't throw the ball very hard"), even if he airs the football up like a javelin thrower there should be someone on his team who can catch it.
Canadian slotback SJ Green has had three straight seasons with 1,000+ receiving yards, and led the league in catching touchdown passes last season (13).
Rookie WR Duron Carter racked up over 900 yards last season as well.
They've also got this new guy named Chad Johnson who may or may not be able to catch a football.
The defense is spotty, but hey, what can you do.
The Award for "Most Badass-Sounding Name On The Roster" Goes To: TIE: Bo Bowling (SB), Bear Woods (LB).
Sorry, I think that just bears repeating: THERE IS A PLAYER ON THE MONTREAL ALOUETTES NAMED "BEAR WOODS". He has incredible white-guy dreadlocks, too.
Ownership: Bob Wetenhall is an investment banker from Milwaukee, who decided to buy the Alouettes a few years ago as something to do with all of his money. He used to own the New England Patriots in their early days, which is something. Of the nine owners in the CFL, Bob Wetenhall is probably the least interesting.
MS Paint Drawing of a Typical Als Fans: Cynical dude with a dirty duster mustache from some dumpy West Island suburb. He would gladly fill up the stadium while screaming FUCK LES ARGOS, OSTIE DE TABERNAC DE CALICE during the heady Calvillo days, but after a couple of middling seasons, will probably stay at home rather than making the effort of buying tickets for a bad team playing in a high school stadium. He probably thinks the rest of the league is out to get the Als for vague, nefarious reasons.
The Ottawa REDBLACKS
THE OTTAWA REDBLACKS ARE AN EXPANSION TEAM JOINING THE LEAGUE THIS YEAR. THE FRANCHISE INSISTS THAT YOU WRITE THEIR NAME, "REDBLACKS" IN ALL-CAPS. BECAUSE IF THE TEAM WERE CALLED Red Blacks EVERYONE WOULD THINK THEY WERE A BUNCH OF PUSSIES WHO WEREN'T EXTREME ENOUGH TO SHOUT THEIR TEAM'S NAME WITH FERVENT CAPS-LOCK PRIDE.
OTTAWA, YOU'RE OUR NATION'S CAPITAL, BUT YOU'RE TAKING THIS "CAPITALS" SHIT TOO FAR. EVERYONE IS MAKING FUN OF HOW YOUR TEAM'S ALL-CAPS NAME LOOKS STUPID AS FUCK IN PRESS RELEASES, AS IF SOMEONE'S TALKING NORMALLY, AND THEN SUDDENLY EVERY TIME THE TEAM'S NAME APPEARS IT'S A LIL-JON-ON-BACKGROUND-VOCALS SHOUT OF "REDBLACKS!!!"
Alright, the all-caps name is stupid, we all get it.
Anyways, the REDBLACKS are a brand-new expansion team joining the league for the 2014 season. How exciting! This brings the league to 9 teams, with 4 in the East and 5 in the West.
As a city, Ottawa's had a very long CFL history, marred only by spurts of terrible ownership killing their teams, effectively splitting their franchise history into three parts.
The original Ottawa Rough Riders were formed in 1876, and enjoyed a storied, century-long history. Now, I know what you're thinking: wait, isn't there already a CFL team with that name, the Saskatchewan Roughriders? Yes. You are absolutely correct.
There was a long-running joke in Canada about the fact that our football league had only nine teams, but two of them had the same name. And it's not even like it's a common name like "Lions" or "Warriors", there were two separate teams who each had an identical name based on how rough they like to ride.
To be fair, the names weren't identical. The Saskatchewan team has always been called the Roughriders (one word, slurred together quickly), whereas Ottawa had the Rough Riders (with a pronounced pause between the two words whenever it was said out loud, just to differentiate the two.)
For a long time, the CFL was the constant butt of jokes about the Roughriders versus the Rough Riders. Even South Park got into the act (skip to 17:55), even though by the episode's air date in 1998 it was a couple of years after the original Ottawa Rough Riders had folded in 1996, killing a team that was well over a hundred years old. Cause of death: shitty ownership, lagging attendance, a team that wasn't very good at the sport of football, and the general economic stagnation across the Canadians sports industry in the 90s that also killed off the Jets and Nordiques, and shortly thereafter the Grizzlies and Expos.
Let's focus on the shitty ownership point for now. If you want to see the veins bulge in the forehead of an Ottawa football fan, mention Bernie Glieberman. Glieberman was a Detroit-raised real estate mogul who, along with his dipshit son, ran the Ottawa Rough Riders into the ground.
In 1991, Glieberman swooped in to buy the troubled Rough Riders, with their mounting debt and losing team. He bought the team for a single dollar. Bernie put his son, Lonie Glieberman, in charge of football operations. With his loonie invested, it was assumed Bernie would swallow the franchise's debt and rebuild towards a winning team. It didn't take long for things to unravel.
In 1993, the younger Glieberman (pictured) fired the team's well-liked GM, then insisted on the team signing Dexter Manley, formerly an All-Pro defensive lineman with the Redskins, who had been banned from the NFL for cocaine abuse. Manley was a bust, and after Glieberman insisted on playing him every game, two assistant coaches quit in protest.
The Gliebermans then made noise about moving the team to the US, which didn't go over smoothly with Ottawa fans. Finally, in 1994, Bernie got his wish as he essentially split the Rough Riders franchise in half, moving his new team all the way down to Louisiana where they became the ill-fated Shreveport Pirates in the CFL's short-lived South Division. The team, and the CFL USA expansion project as a whole, would collapse within a year.
Meanwhile, the remaining husk of the Ottawa Rough Riders were sold to Bruce Firestone (if the Ottawa football fan you're talking to already had a pulsing vein in his forehead from mentioning Bernie Glieberman, mention Bruce Firestone and their eyebrow might start twitching.) Firestone, famous for founding the Ottawa Senators and building their home stadium in a farmer's field 45 minutes outside of downtown Ottawa in the middle of a real estate development he owned, royally fucked up the Rough Riders in his brief time as owner.
In 1995 under Firestone, the Rough Riders drafted a defensive end named Derrell Robertson. Derrell Robertson had died in 1994.
Sorry, let me just repeat that for emphasis. The team was so incompetent at this point that they USED A DRAFT PICK IN ORDER TO DRAFT A DEAD MAN. Really, the late-era Rough Riders in a nutshell.
After the Rough Riders went bust in 1996, unable to sell the team or pay their debts, the team was folded with the expectation of being revived later.
That wouldn't happen until 2002, when football returned to Ottawa with the same traditional red & black colour scheme but a new name: the Ottawa Renegades. After the initial ownership group fell apart (attendance was weak and the team was shit), who else but our old friend Bernie Glieberman stepped in to buy the Renegades in 2005. His son Lonie was again appointed team president, a 71-year-old friend of Bernie was made head of football operations, and the coaching staff was all fired. It didn't last long. After the 2005 season, the Renegades were dissolved by the league. The Renegade players were dispersed to the remaining eight teams. The first player picked in the dispersal draft, QB Kerry Joseph to Saskatchewan, would eventually win a league MVP title and a Grey Cup.
It's been a long slog for Ottawa football fans since 2005. The first issue was a stadium, which was resolved when the city tore down the decrepit field at Lansdowne Park to build the new TD Place Stadium. Jeff Hunt, owner of the OHL's Ottawa 67s, was given the rights to the new franchise, which would absorb the history of the Rough Riders and Renegades.
Despite a lot of better options for a team name, they went with the all-caps REDBLACKS moniker. (They also registered an official French equivalent, ROUGE ET NOIR. The team's taking strides to brand themselves bilingually. They even ran into a dumb controversy when they wanted to name their lumberjack mascot Big Joe Mufferaw. They were forced to change the mascot's name, deemed too English-sounding, to "Big Joe"/"Grand Jos" to appease a vocal minority of Francophone protesters.)
I'm actually pretty down with the whole red/black, plaid, lumberjack branding. I'm just imagining a big group of fans with beards and touques and checkered lumberjack shirts in the crowd - très hipster-chic! But my God, that all-caps name. I'm just waiting until some communications intern at the CFL just says "no, fuck it, I'm not typing REDBLACKS in this press release one more time, change it to RedBlacks or I burn the fucking office down."
Hey, this might actually be the rare instance of a competitive expansion team!
In the expansion draft, Ottawa managed to poach a lot of solid unprotected players from other teams. On top of that, their prized acquisition was one of the most accomplished CFL quarterbacks of this generation, signing Henry Burris to a 3-year deal. Burris is a CFL veteran going back to 1998, and he's really seen it all and done it all in this league. Two Grey Cups, four All-Star nods, one Most Outstanding Player award, and, in typical CFL fashion, a failed stint with the Chicago Bears.
He'll primarily be remembered for his long stint in Calgary, but after spending the last couple years in Hamilton, he was ready to take on a new challenge at the age of 39: leading this ragtag bunch on a scrappy expansion team. I hope that Burris can bring this bunch of misfits together and convince them to believe in themselves and learn the true meaning of football: teamwork! Disney presents: THE REDBLACKS!
Back to Burris: he's a workhorse, starting in every game going back to 2007. He's a mobile quarterback who can move the ball well, although as age catches up to him, he's become a bit more conservative and choosy with his plays. Does Burris have what it takes to bring them to a Grey Cup? Maybe not the Grey Cup, but he has enough to fill in A Cup.
Other than that, what do we know about the REDBLACKS, or their fans? Not a hell of a lot. They've never played a regular-season game, after all.
The Award for "Most Badass-Sounding Name On The Roster" Goes To: Significant lack of badass names on this roster, but I'll give it to Chevon Walker (RB). Also, he's got a pretty average name, but let's take a second to admire lineman Jon Gott and his fierce viking beard.
The [Spot Reserved for 5th Eastern Division Team]
One division with 4 teams, the other with 5. Seems pretty unbalanced, right? The ultimate plan for the CFL is to add another team in the East to balance the field and get to an even 10.
Talk of adding a team in the Maritimes has been around for decades. The Atlantic Schooners were ready to go, with a stadium and uniforms and everything, until they folded before playing a game in 1984. (Believe it or not there's still a Schooners fan club, for a team that never played a down.)
The problem with the Maritimes is that they can't agree where to put the team. Halifax is a vibrant, fun, beer-drinking, fiddle-playing city, but they don't have a stadium. Moncton is a glorified strip mall in the middle of barren, grey nothingness that has tricked people into thinking they're a real city, but they DO have a stadium.
There's been talk of expanding to Quebec City, too. They have strong football roots in the city, with the local University, Laval, boasting a football powerhouse that continually wins national championships. (It doesn't hurt that Laval plays a bit fast and loose with eligibility and scholarship rules, and every guy on the team is like 34 years old.)
Whenever we finally do see a fifth expansion team in the East, we know one thing: at least their name won't be as fucking stupid as the REDBLACKS.
That does it for part 1! Stay tuned for part 2, where we learn about the WEST DIVISION, BEST DIVISION.
Let's talk about the CFL in the comments!