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View from the South: The CFL roundup – Week 1

Ah, the paradox of Week 1 in professional football … the excitement of football after its annual hibernation period and all the tantalizing unknowns that go along with Opening Day are almost always ultimately overshadowed by the frustrating reminder that you, the fan, simply cannot tell the future.

So it is with certain panicky Chicken Little (though certainly not yours truly, I can assure you) after a pretty wild week 1 of action to start the 2016 CFL season. The Toronto Argonauts, recently a vogue Grey Cup pick within CFL fandom, had many ripping up their metaphorical brackets, while those writing off the Hamilton Tiger-Cats and Ottawa RedBlacks got out the erasers.

Of course, it’s just one week – but we know well more today than we did seven or eight days ago…

The Week That Was

Game by game, week one went down like so.

Hamilton Tiger-Cats 42, Toronto Argonauts 20. So much for a glorious introduction for BMO Field; the star of the show (at least by Canadian media’s viewpoint) looked great while hosting nearly 25,000 fans. As for who that 25K came to see, well…

Let’s put it this way: The Hamilton Tiger-Cats looked scary good, dominant in all aspects of the game like they’d time travelled from about halfway through 2015. The one-man show/clinic put on by Simoni Lawrence had the CFL corner of Twitter seeking adjectives and making favorable comparisons to dominant opening-game shows in history. And if the occasional Argonauts slipped past the front line of the Ticats’ defense,he’d soon be meeting Johnny Sears & Co. downfield, inevitably snuffed before a big gain.

As for the home team, first point of discussion is/was Ricky Ray. Don’t get me wrong here – one game and all that – but if one dude on the Argonauts side should have been ready to play, it was a quarterback who spent the great majority of the ’15 season on the injured list. Ray looked rusty, sluggish and a step slow for most of the game, enough so that The Grueling Truth collegue Mike Goodpaster rang me up at halftime to ask, “Is Ricky Ray done?”

Perhaps we should be giving Ray the benefit of the doubt, reckoning that two preseason games isn’t quite enough for a 36-year-old coming back; in comparison to what peers like Montreal’s Kevin Glenn (who’s 37) and Ottawa’s ageless Henry Burris (41) were doing in week one, though, the trepidation of Argo fans today is easily understood.

Montreal Alouettes 22, Winnipeg Blue Bombers 14. The Blue Bombers new/old uniforms looked great; the team itself … not so much. Perhaps we can simply chalk up this home loss to the unfortunate schedule draw: “Thanks” to an imbalanced schedule of a nine-team league, Winnipeg was subjected to an 11-day layover between their last preseason game and Opening Day.

On the other hand, what about those big acquisitions on offense? Andrew Harris was decent enough with 120 total yards on 13 carries and six receptions, but this is a guy who carried the ball 222 for the BC Lions last year and certainly could have been counted on more often. Ryan Smith, a human highlight clip for Saskatchewan last season, grabbed just four catches for 33 yards. We’ll blame ballyhooed returning OC Paul LaPolice, whose gameplan was far less intricate than diehards were expecting.

Meanwhile, Alouettes fans fearing doom ‘n’ gloom in ’16 were certainly thrilled with what the Kevin Glenn-led offense did on Friday night. Can a thirtysomething QB lean new tricks? Glenn certainly appear to have in borrowing a page from Broncos-era Peyton Manning. Among the knocks against the Als coming into ’16 were a lack of improvement on the OL, a bottleneck at QB that apparently required looks at eight potential chuckers and general aging of the league’s oldest roster.

Glenn blew away those concerns – at least for a week – with a beautifully adapted game that takes advantage of his array of targets in the WR corps. In going 30 of 42 passing, Glenn averaged about 11.1 yards per completion and just 8.25 per attempt in classic CFL style while spreading the catches around nicely (or infuriatingly, if you’re the Winnipeg D): Glenn connected with Duron Carter for 8 receptions, Nic Lewis for 6, SJ Green for 5 (including a TD), Kenny Stafford for 3, Sam Giguerefor 3, and even Tyrell Sutton for 4 coming out of the backfield. Could we see Glenn dink ‘n’ dunk this Alouettesteam into contention?

Ottawa RedBlacks 45, Edmonton Eskimos 37. Whoa, this game had it all and no amount of prose can properly capture the equal parts oddity and excitement from the week’s best game.  By the third quarter, we’d seen a safety and two rouges as the opening scores, a 2-point conversion following the game’s first touchdown and a blocked punt returned for a TD. The halftime score of 14-11 didn’t show half the weirdness of the RedBlacks’ path to that total and, when some part of Henry Burris’s hand got tweaked, allowing for the entrance of seemly superfluous and overpriced backup QB Trevor Harris, things really kicked into high gear.

And the scoreboard nearly exploded.

Once Harris, a guy who tops Burris is arm strength and speed of release, entered the game, the Eskimos’secondary was picked apart on drive after drive as Harris managed to launch deep throws before the daunted Edmonton front four got close. If a quarterback platoon system were possible in the modern CFL, the RedBlacks would be the team to employ such: With Burris playing for possession and midfield passing and Harris coming in to go deep, the RedBlacks might appear even more unstoppable than they already do.

Edmonton, too, is fixing to score a lot of points this season; perhaps there’s something to those Top 50 rankings released by the league which had Eskimos QB Mike Reilly at #1. The defending champions have seemingly filled the dozen or so spots vacated in free agency and NFL questing – it’s tough to complain about an offense that runs up 37 points – but again: Whoa, was that makeshift secondary exposed.

BC Lions 22, Calgary Stampeders 18 – Maybe we’re all underrating the BC Lions, but I doubt it. For this observer, this game was much more a case of Calgary losing than BC winning – though the win was typical of the unflappable Wally Buono. One can only imagine what Jeff Tedford’s reaction might have been after a third punt block, but here’s to thinking that the Lions might not have won the game without the icy-veined Buono running the show; heck, the BC HC might be good for a couple more wins on his own this season…

Also of note: Adam Bighill’s outstanding performance of nine tackles and a QB sack had last year’s CFL leader in tackles looking in midseason form. Teammate and former Most Outstanding Player Solomon Elimimian was mostly invisible with three sacks, but should be back to peak soon.

But the Lions snuck this one out thanks to the general lethargy of the Stampeders; the games aren’t played on paper, as they say, but the Stamps certainly wished this one had been. Canadian RBJerome Messam could barely get past the line of scrimmage, managing just 16 yards (!) on 7 carries; backup Tory Harrison wasn’t much better. Bo Levi Mitchell had an un-Bo game, going 16-of-27 for 233 yardswith 1 TD and one fumble in the red zone. The three sacks Mitchell took indicated a level of protection unworthy of last season’s fantastic performance by the mostly identical OL. A frustrating lack of originality in the Calgary offense – except for a single trick play in which FB Drew Tate took a direct snap only to be stuffed at the goal line – might be concerning.

And what about those Stamps special teams? If one hadn’t seen the game, one might guess that Calgary dominated in this area, what with the three blocked punts in a single quarter. But the Calgary STs also allowed Chris Rainey’s go-ahead 73-yard punt return TD in the fourth quarter. Kicker Rene Paredes missed two field goals and an extra-point conversion.

Weird Canadian news story of the week

We love our neighbors to the north beyond just their version of gridiron football, but to all those folks potentially seeking asylum from Trump, Hillz or the Brexit, TheGruelingTruth offers the reminder that, well, it’s a whole other country over there.

For this segment of Weird Canadian News, we rhetorically ask, “What’s weirder than UFOs?” The UFO sighting of this past week – seriously, I thought UFO sightings were dead by about the third season of The X Files – comes from Toronto.

56-year-old Paul Shishis stunned the world (well, OK, certain conspiracy-minded YouTube channel watchers) about a week ago when he released some 50 shots he’d taken of a pyramidal-shaped UFO hovering as a pair of commercial airliners flew past, dangerously close to the big-ass glowing alien craft and one another for that matter. (Clearly, Canadian air-traffic controllers are a bit overworked).

The images, which surely could not have been Photoshopped, were run together and uploaded as a YouTube video; as of this writing, said video has amassed over 83,000 views while Shishis enjoys his fame in the sort of spaces that cover these phenomena.

Probably the alien pilots had heard about that exciting new BMO Field…

Next week

Ottawa RedBlacks at Montreal Alouettes – Who’s the quarterback in Ottawa? (Current repots say it’s Harris.) Does Ottawa even have a defense? Does either answer matter? Judging from week one – as well as most of the last quarter of ’15 – thisRedBlacksoffense will not stop right now. So many Ottawa games this season (until the WR corps is torn up by injury) are going to be about the RedBlacks running up points and the other side hoping to keep up. As impressive as the Alouettes defense looks (again!), little suggests that Montreal can keep up with either version of the RedBlacks’ passing attack. If Montreal has a chance in hell of winning this one, the Alouettes must dominate time of possession and keep the blow-average RedBlacks D on the field while Glenn dinks ‘n’ dunks. The pick: RedBlacks by three points or less.

Toronto Argonauts at Saskatchewan Roughriders – Those lucky Saskatchewan fans essentially get two opening days this season as they come off the odd week one bye. (C’mon, CFL, give us that 10th team!) While Toronto is still trying to figure things out – and Ricky Ray may still be loosening up – Chris Jones with that extra week of preparation should get his guys to defend home turf, though the road immediately ahead could well be bumpy for the slapped-together new-look Riders. The pick: Roughriders.

BC Lions at Hamilton Tiger-Cats – BC got by on a little luck and a lot of poor play by Calgary; the Hamilton Tiger-Catsare already among the beasts of the 2016 CFL season. The pick: Tiger-Cats in an overwhelming win.

Winnipeg Blue Bombers at Calgary Stampeders – It’s the Underwhelming Bowl!If fans in these two markets aren’t nailing that panic button yet (and actually, many in Winnipeg already are), the loser of this one might have due cause. Surely the Stampeders are a better side than week one’s performance indicates and a game at home may be just the ticket to put Calgary back on track. The pick: The Stampeders, who put a bit more than 18 points on the scoreboard this time.

Next week: Can you believe the season’s 10% over already…?