Quarterback carousel marks last weekend of pre-season play

June 8, 2018 - 9:23am

The last weekend of CFL football has already kicked off, and already there is a plot line that may have implications on the dogfight that is expected to be the Western Conference.

Matt Nichols non-contact knee injury suffered in practice has put him out for four to six weeks with Winnipeg expecting it to be four weeks. This brought back memories of an injury he suffered while a member of the Edmonton Eskimos in preseason but more importantly, put the spotlight on the back-up position who will now be going for the #1 spot.

The contenders at this point seem to be Alex Ross, former #3 with the BC Lions last year, Chris (Shriveler) Streveler who looked good in Winnipeg’s first preseason game against Edmonton and Bryan Bennett, former Bomber and Rider backup who had a good training camp with the Riders in 2016 but then specialized in throwing interceptions in preseason games.

An interesting twist came last in the day, Thursday, when Hamilton Head Coach June Jones said Vernon Adams Jr. was likely to be traded to either Montreal or Edmonton although Winnipeg would seem to be likelier spot. The problem was apparently Hamilton was looking for a lot bigger return than Edmonton or Montreal were willing to provide and nothing was coming out of Winnipeg.

A bit of a chuckle was provided when Dave Naylor posted that former back-up Darian Durant, who retired a few weeks ago, said he would be willing to come out of retirement to lead the Bombers. It is highly unlikely the Bombers would pursue such an option especially after Durant pocketed his signing bonus and said he had always bled green.

Bomber Head Coach Mike O’Shea is gambling his veterans can carry the team through at least the first four games of the season for Winnipeg. The Bombers are facing Edmonton at home, then go on the road to Montreal and Hamilton before taking on BC in a home and home series.

Edmonton will likely beat Winnipeg now, they can win at Winnipeg, Hamilton will be interesting and BC may be better than anyone thinks. So the likeliest best case scenario for the Bombers is 2-2 and an 0-4 record is also a strong possibility.

Giving up those early games especially with two western rivals is not ideal. Offensive coordinator Paul La Police will be fully tested in his handling of his back-up quarterbacks and if he can pull this off, La Police may well be looked at closely as a potential head coach candidate next season.

CFL fans will be getting their first look at the new Winnipeg quarterbacking situation tonight when the Bombers play the BC Lions, but keep in mind Winnipeg is leaving many veterans at home and will be playing back-ups and fringe players. One of the players to keep to keep an eye on is Faith Ekakitie, a former #1 draft pick who has been slowly but surely falling off the roster with a lack of performance. When the CFL cuts are announced at 8 am Sunday, it would not be a surprise to see Ekakitie’s name listed amongst the cuts.

Nichols injury was not the only quarterback related injury affecting the CFL. Trevor Harris of the Ottawa Redblacks was injured in the first preseason game against the Montreal Alouettes, but it looks like he will be back for Ottawa’s first regular season game. That didn’t seem to stop the Redblacks as they went to Guelph and beat the Toronto Argonauts 32-17.

The Redblacks were led by Dominique Davis, ironically enough a former Winnipeg back up quarterback, and Toronto failed to get any separation between James Franklin and McLeod Bethel-Thompson who are looking to be the back up to Ricky Ray. Bethel-Thompson looked good when Toronto beat Hamilton last week, but threw two interceptions against Ottawa while Franklin, who didn’t look so hot against Hamilton, looked better against Ottawa but again, not much separation between the two.

Ottawa’s cuts will be interesting to see as they attempt to reboot their receiving corps. Ottawa receiving coach Winston October is looking for players who can deliver in games what they do in practice. In other words, consistency. The jury is still out over how Noel Thorpe’s defense will impact on the fortunes of the Redblacks, but one definite feature is more pressure from the defensive line as Ottawa tries to shift from their bend but don’t break defense.

While Winnipeg at BC will be the lone televised game tonight, it will be interesting to see how BC’s rebuild will shape their fortunes. At this point it looks like BC will have 13 new starters on their roster, with nine of those coming on defense.

Notable on BC’s new defensive line will be Gabriel Knapton, formerly of Montreal and obtained in a trade; Odell Willis, again, obtained in a trade; Davon Coleman, obtained from Hamilton in a trade and who could be the key part of the puzzle for BC and Canadian Junior Luke.

On offense the changes include Jovan Olafioye, offensive lineman who went to Montreal and came back this year. Other changes include Ricky Collins, a receiver formerly with the Riders and Hamilton; Cory Watson, formerly with Edmonton and Joel Figueroa, offensive lineman, formerly with Hamilton and Edmonton.

The moves are being made by GM Ed Hervey to change the culture of the locker room to reflect players who care more the team than for their own individual performances. Some of the additions have been inspired like Coleman, who was moved from Hamilton after a shouting match with a coach, and a fair number of these are players Hervey is familiar with from his previous stop in Edmonton.

Solomon Elimiman was quoted as saying every CFL team is talented, but what separates good from great teams is mental toughness and character, something the Lions hope will result in a playoff berth in Wally Buono’s last year as coach.

In Calgary the big news was the signing of Eric Rogers, the former all-CFL receiver who went south to sign with the San Francisco 49ers before tearing his ACL. If Rogers is fully recovered, this is a good grab by Calgary who let so of Marques McDaniel after he threw teammates under the bus following the Stampeders back to back losses in the Grey Cup.

On the other hand, it is almost similar to the Riders signing former defensive back John Ojo of the Edmonton Eskimos who went to the New York Jets, got injured and when he showed up back in Canada was not the player he once was. The final determination of where Rogers fits on this spectrum will have to wait until he is on the field and Calgary brass can determine for themselves if Rogers has come back or not.

It was kind of a mixed bag for the Toronto Argonauts who started off with their Town Hall meeting with season ticket holders. The big news out of there was the team offices would be at BMO Field with training at the Ricoh Centre and practice at Lamport Stadium.

With Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment taking over, the new leadership recognized that years of neglect by previous owners means there are not going to be any quick fixes. The tailgating has been dropped on the grounds that it felt forced and likely because Ontario’s liquor laws are better suited to something out of the Handmaid’s Tale.

The fans who showed up were told they are looking at a 10 year rebuild, which is realistic as they try to build up season ticket sales from around the 8,000 mark. The rebuild, at least from a Saskatchewan point of view, should take 10 years as I reviewed the history of the team from 1997 to 2007. The team crashed in the standings and slowly started to build back to respectability under Roy Shivers and Danny Barrett, but more importantly, while the team fought to find its way on the field, off the field the Riders were focused on the fan experience of Game Day and by the time the Riders defeated the God Less Winnipeg Blue Bombers in the 2007 Grey Cup, the team was cashing in a big way. If the current ownership is as patient, there is no reason why it can’t also succeed.

One thing that might also help was news that TSN was offering a streaming service for CFL games at $24.99 a month. This is something that is long overdue and reflects the current realization that CFL fans want to be able to access the games in a variety of formats and then again, the number of cord cutters has been growing and this allows them to keep in touch.

TSN looked at their ratings for the Hamilton-Toronto pre-season game and discovered that Johnny Manziel is ratings gold, whether you love him or hate him. That ratings chart helps explain why TSN picked up the Hamilton-Montreal game on Saturday morning.

Manziel will not start the game, that goes to Bryant Moniz, the former Stampeder/Rider backup who is remembered in Saskatchewan for fumbling any number of third down snaps in a memorably bad 2016. Moniz will be followed by Manziel and then Dane Evans will make an appearance.

Jeremiah Masoli will be held out of this game because Hamilton goes to Calgary on June 16 to kick off their season and then to Edmonton on June 22, which not a great way to open the season. The injuries to Harris and to a lesser extent Nichols probably influenced this call and also provides Manziel with a great playing opportunity.

In Hamilton’s loss to Toronto in the first pre-season game, Masoli looked like he was having an case of nerves with his turnovers, which means he must be wondering if or when he would be replaced by Manziel. This will be a good test of Masoli’s mental toughness because as long as he is consistent and moving the ball, he will stay in the game, but Hamilton’s investment in Manziel and desire to cash in on him somewhat means there will be a lot of pressure to see him starting, even if he is here for only two years.

Which brings us to Riderville. The Riders signed former St. Louis Ram running back Tre Mason, who had some incredible moves in the NFL, including dropping out of view of the team and a few criminal charges, like fleeing police on an ATV and blocking traffic with his sports car in LA.

Mason will be one of the players on view as the Riders host Calgary, but of more interest will be the play of the two quarterbacks – Zach Collaros will play in the first and third quarters and Brandon Bridge will take the second and fourth quarters with BJ Daniels and David Watford fitting in somewhere if at all. The Riders will be unveiling their new offensive line, which will be key to how far they go this year and Rob Bagg and Chad Owens will not be dressed due to injury.

In terms of reading things into this game, it all depends on how each coach approaches their goals of player evaluations. The recent injuries will likely make teams somewhat less likely of leaving their starters in any longer than necessary. There will be a fine line to be walked between evaluation and fine-tuning their respective teams for the start of the regular season.

Speaking of evaluation, Commissioner Randy Ambrosie announced that next season the league will move to cap the number of coaches at 11 and Football Operations will be capped at 17, all fitting under a salary cap of $2.738 million with the players’ salaries capped at $5.2 million.  In addition, there may be a cap on scouting and mini-camps that most teams hold in the off-season.

I have to admit to a few questions at to how this might work, especially if football operations will include medical and training personnel, which seems to run counter to the league stating it is interested in player safety.

So I looked at each team and held out the medical/training people when compiling the list of numbers for football operations and coaching staffs but I included the video people since their work is breaking up film for their respective teams.

BC Lions have nine coaches and eight football operations people with 4 video people listed separately. BC seems to fit under the numbers for coaching and football operations, but what the dollar costs of these staffs are is another matter.

In Edmonton there are 13 coaches listed and 15 football operations personnel. Included in here are staff listed as quality control people, who more of less check their IPads for potential calls to challenge. So Edmonton will have to lose two coaches.

Calgary has listed 10 coaches with eight football operations and three video staff listed. Included in this is John Hufnagel whose dollar value may push the team over the cap, but again, that is unknown at this time.

In Riderville there are 14 coaches listed on staff with six football operations and five video personnel. So there will be numbers cut and probably salary as Chris Jones is one of the higher paid coaches/GMs in the league. Jones said he was fine with the leagues efforts to keep the costs of football operations to a manageable level and would even take a salary cut himself.

In Winnipeg there are 16 coaches listed with six football operations and two video personnel. There would appear to be cuts in the future for Winnipeg’s coaching staff as well.

In Hamilton there are 11 coaches listed and 10 football operations coaches listed on the Hamilton website. That doesn’t seem to include former head coach and football operations guy Kent Austin who has seemingly moved to consultant, which may be one way teams may go in the future.

In Toronto there are 13 coaches listed and 11 football operations personnel, which will likely mean a reduction of two coaches in the offseason and depending on the salaries to say GM Jim Popp and Head Coach Marc Trestman, there may be salary haircuts given here as well.

In Ottawa there are 10 coaches and nine football operations with two video operations. Ottawa seems to be in relatively good shape.

In Montreal there are 14 coaches listed and 14 football operations people so expect to see reductions in the coaching staff, and it will be interesting if Kavis Reed goes midway through this season and Mike Sherman takes over, how that will affect things.

So I’ll be honest, I thought Toronto would have beaten Ottawa last night, but again, it depends on who you want to play. The rest of the games this week reflect that uncertainty as winning is not everything in these games, getting ready for the reason is.

Calgary is at Saskatchewan this week and this will be the early debut of Zach Collaros. Collaros will be playing in the first and third quarters with Bridge taking the second and fourth and the idea is giving these two game time to get their timing down with their receivers. It should also be a good test for the Riders offensive line. The Stamps will be missing Ciante Evans in their defensive backfield due to a broken pinky finger and considering Calgary has had to replace several members who left in free agency, how this group performs will be pretty interesting. I’ll take the Riders in this one as the Riders seek to show their fans they are ready to take another step toward a Grey Cup.

The televised game will see Winnipeg at BC and as previously noted, Winnipeg is looking to solidify who their starting quarterback may be. Winnipeg will not be bringing a large number of veterans to BC, which may pose problems for a back-up quarterback attempting to establish timing with starters while BC will have Jon Jennings go at quarterback for at least a half, providing a good test for the Winnipeg defense. Winnipeg will be bringing in their young Canadian receivers, which will be interesting to watch, but Andrew Harris is staying at home so…BC wins this one.

The weekend concludes on Saturday with Hamilton going to Montreal. This will be an interesting game with Manziel being the focus of the telecast and likely to get a fair amount of playing time. The interesting thing is the rest of the Hamilton team which if you consider there were a wide number of back-ups playing against Toronto, they should be sharper against Montreal considering the visiting team is limited in the number of players they can bring on road trips. Hamilton should probably win, but I think Montreal will take this one because Kavis Reed knows if his team goes into a death spiral from the start of the season, he will not be there at the end.

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