There wasn’t much that is positive to take from the Montreal Alouettes season.
The team that was a perennial East Division power only a few years ago went 3-15, including 0-9 on the road. They set a team record by ending the campaign with 11 straight losses, including a first shutout loss in 20 years in the season finale. They missed the playoffs for a third year in a row for the first time since 1967-69.
Coach Jacques Chapdelaine and defensive co-ordinator Noel Thorpe were sacked on September 13 and the team went 0-7 down the stretch with general manager Kavis Reed running the bench.
Off-season acquisitions like quarterback Darian Durant and receiver Ernest Jackson were busts.
But as the players cleared out their lockers Saturday at Olympic Stadium, Reed said the squad does not need to be rebuilt from the ground up, only tinkered with to shore up weak spots.
And he feels the Alouettes can be back competing for the Grey Cup within three years.
“I understand I didn’t do everything perfect,” said Reed, who was promoted from special teams co-ordinator to his first GM job when Jim Popp left last winter. “If I did, we wouldn’t be 3-15.
“But I’m extremely positive that, with the partnership I have with the president and ownership, we’re going to do things right to make certain that we build a sustainably successful franchise.”
There is a lot of work to do.
First up is hiring a new head coach, which Reed expects to do by mid-December.
The new coach will decide which co-ordinators and assistants keep their jobs.
He will also decide the fate of a handful of veterans who, despite advanced years for football players, were some of the bright spots in a dark campaign. Among them was 37-year-old linebacker Kyries Hebert, who posted his first 100-tackle season. The team’s all-time sacks leader John Bowman, slotback Nik Lewis and kick returner Stefan Logan may have played their last games, but none has said definitively he wants to retire.
Lewis is even willing to return as a coach.
“Of course I’d come back as a coach,” the 35-year-old said. “I never thought I’d be a professional athlete.
“I’ve always wanted to be a coach. So therefore, that’s my dream job, if you think about it. You have to work a lot more, but that’s part of it. We’ve got a lot of great guys in this room and hopefully I can be a part of it and turn this thing around.”
But the main question is who will play behind centre.
Durant, acquired from Saskatchewan in a bid to end the carousel of quarterbacks who have come and gone in the last three seasons, had a decent start, but by mid-season was struggling just to complete a pass. Then he missed two games with an injury and sat out the season finale so Reed could get a look at rookies Matt Shiltz and Antonio Pipkin, who Reed sees as starters of the future.
Reed expects to keep Durant, who has a three-year contract, but in what seemed like a punch in the gut to the 12-year veteran and two-time Grey Cup champion, did not confirm his status as the starter.
“Darian will tell you he’s not happy with his performance,” said Reed. “We expected more.
“But we have to be careful not to throw the baby out with the bath water. We probably had a historical number of drops. We probably had an injury situation that there was pressure when the offensive line wasn’t there. There were some systematic things we can do that will allow him to use his talent. Holistically, we may decide that Darian is part of the future, maybe competing for the starting job, maybe as a backup. But we are not going to dismiss Darian Durant at this time.”
Reed said most of the changes are needed on defence, particularly the backfield. Going with two Canadian interior defensive linemen didn’t work and they hope strengthen that position.
But he was mostly happy with the offence, which scored a league-low 314 points.
“We feel we have a top-tier running back (Tyrell Sutton), we have a top-tier offensive line when healthy, we feel strongly that we have pieces in the receiving corps that will allow us to be successful,” he said. “The quarterback situation obviously we’ll have to address.”
Reed was active on the free agent market last off-season, hoping to find stars like Jackson who could get Montreal back to the playoffs. It didn’t work, and he said the market would be used only to fill gaps from now on.
But while making changes, some popular veterans were cast off, which Lewis said eroded the players’ trust in management. It seemed that week after week, ex-Alouettes like S. J. Green, Duron Carter or Bear Woods were making plays to help other clubs win.
“Certain coaches didn’t want certain guys here.” said Lewis. “We lost our competitive edge.
“You see guys go to other teams and they’re playing key roles and they’re winning. Sometimes as a coach you don’t understand the value in the locker room some of these guys have. You look at guys like Ryan Phillips and Jovon Johnson. They’re great for the young guys because they’re going to pass knowledge and do things that help things flow. In those tough situations, they’re going to make big plays.”
There were reports that Chapdelaine, the first Francophone Quebecer to coach the team, never hit it off with Reed. The Alouettes had a decent start and were first in the weak East Division in August before some close setbacks allowed Toronto and Ottawa to pass. Then Chapdelaine was fired and the Alouettes suffered blowout after blowout loss.
“The only thing you can say is we were scoring more points at that time and maybe not giving up as many points, but it’s hard to say,” Sutton said of the change. “We just have to get continuity.
“We’ve had how many coaches in the last five years? I don’t think it’s necessarily a new coach that’s needed, it’s having a coach in play for more than five games.”
The team’s 15 losses was another record.
“It hurts your pride,” said Hebert. “It’s embarrassing.
“You go out in the city and you don’t want to talk about football. But it’s a motivation to go out in the off-season and work harder. Next year I don’t plan on declining. I want to get better and better. At some point it’s going to come to an end, but for now I have too much motivation. We want to win and I want to be part of it.”