Where did they go wrong? 2017 CFL Playoff Non-Contenders

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MONTREAL, QC - OCTOBER 22: Montreal Alouettes running back Tyrell Sutton (20) gets grabbed by the leg by Hamilton Tiger-Cats linebacker Larry Dean (11) while maintaining control of the ball during the Hamilton Tiger-Cats versus the Montreal Alouettes game on October 22, 2017, at Percival Molson Memorial Stadium in Montreal, QC (Photo by David Kirouac/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

With two weeks to go until the Grey Cup playoffs, we know which six teams have a shot at competing for it in Ottawa. Which games they’ll play is another matter. Another thing we know is which three teams will not be playoff bound this year. The Hamilton Tiger-Cats, Montreal Alouettes, and B.C. Lions had tough seasons, and found themselves unable to fully deal with adversity. Let’s look at some what if’s and what should have’s for these CFL playoff non-contenders.

Montreal Alouettes

What if: Anthony Calvillo wasn’t OC?

Having Calvillo on the sidelines seems like a dream scenario. If he can’t play, make him a coach so he’s still there. I can only imagine that his playbook is a mix of passing plays he made during his Hall of Fame career and plays he saw others make during his younger days. Sadly, his book seems like it wasn’t meant for this current offensive group. Maybe in a couple of years, but not now.

What if: Jacques Chapdelaine wasn’t released?

Fine, his short tenure as head coach wasn’t that great. But are they better without them? They were 3-8 with Chapdelaine, and 0-5 since rookie GM Kavis Reed took over. They currently sit on a 9-game losing streak. They were outscored 304-221 in Chapdelaine’s 11 games (an average of about 28-20), but in the last five games have been outscored 206-81 (41-16). Safe to say they will be going out without a fight.

What if: Vernon Adams Jr. was still an Als quarterback?

This is probably a contender for worst trade of the year anywhere, and the worst thing Kavis Reed could have done in midseason. Trading Adams may have made it clear to Darian Durant that he is their main man, but what it really said was that they had already given up on him. A year earlier, former GM Jim Popp made the unbelievably courageous move of trading a first round pick (second overall pick for 2017, as it turned out) to acquire the rights to Adams out of B.C. Lions training camp, even though he had never played a pro game in his life. Bold, but nevertheless gave them a highly viable option for a quality future starting pivot.

Getting Durant would have served Adams well in the short and long term with regards to the tutelage he would have gained played alongside a longtime play like him in exchange for less playing time here and now. But that time was cut short when Adams was dealt to Saskatchewan for a package worth considerably less than any top five pick. Now Durant is struggling in every aspect, Drew Willy has made multiple relief appearances and one start, and even rookie Matthew Shiltz has been asked to make passes. In times like these, having Adams to throw into that situation would have been so ideal for Reed. Odds are Als fans won’t be seeing him return any time soon.

What if: They had stayed in rebuild mode?

Last season they were 7-11 and still struggling to find a true number one quarterback. I can applaud their decision to acquire Durant, even if he has had one of the worst seasons of his professional career. But the signing of Ernest Jackson has not made their offence any more threatening, and having the most 30+ year old players in the league hasn’t made them a competitive group. As a first year general manager, Kavis Reed’s style resembles Brian Burke’s arrival to the Toronto Maple Leafs: adding veterans to win now, and failing miserably while sacrificing a huge future reward.

As a franchise in limbo, they would have been better served trading longtime veterans like John Bowman, Chip Cox and Nik Lewis rather than retain them. They also did not fare well with retaining middle aged veterans like Alan Michael Cash, Jeff Finley, and Marc-Olivier Brouillette, as well as Bear Woods and Jovon Johnson.

They should: Look to the future.

This should be the winter that they get younger and look to the future. The winning ways will return, but in this post-Calvillo era, having a complete and fully competitive lineup will take time. Not repeating the mistake of acquiring and trading away a Vernon Adams type player also wouldn’t hurt.

B.C. Lions

What if: They avoided Chris Williams?

It sounds great in theory: a lineup and kick return group that features the speed, agility, and maneuverability of Jeremiah Johnson, Chris Rainey, and Chris Williams. Unfortunately, Williams has had his worst CFL season to date. You can excuse him for the time he lost to injury. But since coming back, he hasn’t been his usual self. In two amazing seasons in Ottawa he averaged 5.5 catches a game, but has just managed 4.2 per game this year, and his returning game has given the team a mere 19 punt return yards. At 415 receiving yards, it seems like a long shot that he’ll net his fifth 1000 yard season. He’s got one more year on his contract with the Leos, so they’ll be hoping for a bit more of the old Williams in 2018.

What if: Nick Moore could catch both quarterbacks?

We saw it in the past and we saw it this year: Nick Moore and Travis Lulay play very well together. Moore joined the Lions in 2011 and after his first year of learning became a useful tool in Lulay’s receiving corps, especially in 2013 when he got his first and only 1000 yard season. He found mixed results in his time in Winnipeg, and frankly his return to B.C. under Jonathan Jenning’s reign was barely noticeable. When Jennings was injured, Lulay became the starter, and Moore felt at home again, particularly in a July game against Hamilton where he caught 10 passes for 220 yards, which sadly is nearly half of his 494 yards to date this year. On a team where he could be a mainstay in the lineup, he is only playing good enough to be a depth piece. With Lulay’s days numbered, he might be better off going elsewhere to try and bond with another quarterback.

What if: Swayze had remained?

Wally Buono brought kicker Swayze Waters back to the CFL in order to put his career back on track after a short and unfruitful tryout with Carolina in the NFL. He was signed alongside Ty Long to compete for the right to replace Richie Leone, but Waters’s quad injury made BC decide to cut him loose and let Ty Long handle all kicking responsibilities. Long has had a decent rookie season, but handling both punting and place kicking duties can be a grind for some, and Long has looked worn out at times. It would have served Buono well to have a bit of patience with Waters, especially since he has not only recovered from his injury, but has signed with Edmonton and given them some serviceable playing time. He previously played as a punter and kicker for the Argonauts, so it is reasonable to believe he could have come back to serve in either role to complement Long. Heaven knows having Swayze’s “bionic leg” would have served them well on punting.

They should: move on from Lulay, build behind him.

Jonathan Jennings and Travis Lulay got on right away and are the best of friends. Lulay taught Jennings well in his ascension to starting quarterback, and has taken his diminished role with gracefully. But after two years, it makes sense that anyone in Lulay’s position would be interested in a change of scenery. There may be no other opportunities to be a starter, but there will always be openings across the league for short yards role guys. Provided Lulay is not forced to retire from his recent knee injury, he could find a team interested in his services. Having said that, given the chance to keep playing, he might be interested in sticking with the Leos. In that event, B.C. should definitely invest heavily in depth at the pivot position. The Lions should count their blessings that Lulay and Jennings took it in shifts to serve time on the injured list. If the Lions shelved both at the same time, they would surely have been eliminated weeks earlier.

They should: give Vandervoort a starter’s shot.

Danny Vandervoort has gone through the same learning curve that all first year Canadians go through in the CFL, be them first rounders or undrafted college free agents. Vandervoort was selected 3rd overall in this year’s draft, but that did not guarantee him a starter’s job. Now that he has seen how things go in BC, he should be ready to compete for a starter’s role, especially after Marco Iannuzzi’s recent announcement declaring his retirement at season’s end. His college career at McMaster suggests he can be a top Canadian player in this league, and under the tutelage of Khari Jones, he can develop into that role, given a bit of time.

Hamilton Tiger-Cats

Before I start, there’s a major problem in the organization that I will not even begin to address in this analysis, and that is the midseason scandal surrounding the near-hiring of disgraced NCAA coach Art Briles. Recovering from that goes beyond football operations. Moving on…

What if: They picked Masoli from the start?

It would have stunned just about everyone in Hamilton for them to announce in the winter that they were trading or releasing Zach Collaros and naming Jeremiah Masoli their starting quarterback. Collaros always was their guy. However, the stats don’t lie. Collaros threw for an average of just under 218 yards per game in eight starts, throwing eight touchdowns and seven interceptions. Masoli has started the last eight games, and has averaged 284 yards a game, with 10 TD passes and four interceptions. Many expected Masoli to look at moving elsewhere after his impressive showing last year when Collaros was injured. His re-signing in Hamilton should have pushed Collaros to get back on track. They’re most likely going to end the year with the 8th best offence in the league, but the overall outlook of the team has changed drastically since the change to Masoli. Their situation is much less dire than it was two months ago.

What if: June Jones was head coach from the start?

Kent Austin was poised to keep the good times rolling in Hammertown, but the disastrous 0-8 start brought about the end of his head coaching tenure with the Ticats. He is still in the organization in his other capacity as vice-president of football ops. Austin brought in June Jones to serve as an assistant head coach, specifically to work with the offence after starting 0-5. After just three weeks of settling in to the role and his new surroundings, he was promoted to head coach. In his time the team has a 5-3 record that includes a blowout win against mighty Winnipeg and a nail-biter won by Calgary on the very last play of the fourth quarter. Jones has clearly brought his storied winning ways from his collegiate coaching career north of the border, and they have served him well in a short time.

What if: Shamawd Chambers had been acquired sooner?

Chambers came to the Ticats in mid-September from Edmonton in exchange for a pair of draft picks. Chambers was at a crossroads in his career: he was becoming little more than an underused Canadian depth piece in a lineup that didn’t even have much in terms of Canadian talent. His career had taken a real downward spiral since an injury cost him much of his 2015 season. A move to Saskatchewan in 2016 didn’t improve things, and neither did a return to the Eskies. It was looking more and more that the former 6th overall pick from the 2012 draft was going to be a bust. However, a move to Hamilton has rejuvenated his career. In just 5 games he has already racked up 253 yards on 24 catches, a season projection of 910 yards which would obliterate his career best 465 in 2013. He has been a big part of Masoli’s offence down the stretch, and it stands to reason that he could be persuaded to re-sign in Hamilton and continue his upward trend.

They should: stay the course

This analysis would be a lot longer and more difficult if it had come before Labour Day. But after seeing Hamilton play these last few weeks, a lot of questions have answered themselves. Jeff Reinebold was plain awful moving from special teams coordinator to defensive coordinator, but Phillip Lolley has been pretty good in the role of late. The penalties have gone down, which shows a better sense of discipline, despite them still showing up in key situations. Masoli is and likely will still be their quarterback, and Jones is and likely will still be their head coach. Alex Green has been a more than ideal replacement for CJ Gable. Richard Leonard has blossomed into one of the best young defenders in the game. Brandon Banks has worked toward once again being the all purpose threat he always has been. There have a reputation to rebuild, but as far as football is concerned, they’re no rebuilder. They’re soon to be playoff bound once again.

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