Though I was lucky enough to attend one Grey Cup as a child, the 103rd Grey Cup in Winnipeg was the first time I’ve had the opportunity to truly experience Grey Cup culture. I attended as many events as possible, spoke with as many fans, players, and journalists as possible, and had a blast doing it. Here are my thoughts on the game, the festivities, the direction of the league, the CFL’s coaching carousel, free agency, and more.
1. I’ve often been told that what makes Grey Cup week so special is the people. I can honestly say that out of the dozens of active players, retired players, journalists, and fans I met this weekend, every interaction I had was positive. It’s a beautiful thing when a young, part-time blogger like myself can be treated with kindness and respect by so many of Canadian football’s all-time greats, both on and off the field. Like the CFL’s old This Is Our League campaign video states, “This is a league where stars are extraordinary and ordinary at the same time.” That’s the type of league I want to be a part of. So thank-you to all those who made it possible, particularly the thousands of volunteers who gave countless hours of their time to make the 103rd Grey Cup successful. It was a great weekend and one that allowed me to understand for the first time what the Grey Cup is truly all about.
2. Speaking of the league’s old This Is Our League campaign, the new What We’re Made Of ad is energetic, but sadly stands as a perfect example of how little new commissioner Jeffrey Orridge understands the league he’s paid to grow, nurture, and protect. Not once in the 99-second advertisement is an iconic image of the CFL mentioned or shown. There are no Jacksons, Lancasters, Moons, Reeds, Stegalls, Calvillos, Moscas or Walbys in the new commercial. There are no historic stadiums, record-breaking moments or Grey Cup presentations to be found. There are barely any shots of fans. I’m not a staunch traditionalist who opposes change, but thinking we can interest young people in the Canadian game without teaching them its history is foolish. The same way that young hockey fans must learn about Bobby Orr, Maurice ‘Rocket’ Richard, and Wayne Gretzky, so, too, must our young Canadian football fans discover Dave Fennell, Mike Pringle, and Roger Aldag. The CFL’s history deserves a place in the league’s new advertising campaign.
3. I thought Orridge’s decision to speak some French at the presentation of the Cup on Sunday was an encouraging sign. The CFL’s new commissioner was criticized heavily for not including any French in his State of the League address, an event that was widely considered a disaster by fans and media alike. Here’s hoping Orridge will be as quick to remedy his short-comings in other areas: increasing player access for the media, publicizing player contracts and negotiation lists, and the creation of a new league drug policy to name a few.
4. Here’s a quick story to illustrate what the Grey Cup means to many of its die-hard fans. I was at Saturday’s CFL Fans Fight Cancer event at Garbonzo’s Pizza Pub — a wonderful experience, by the way — when a CFL fan who regularly reads my blog waved me over to chat. After twenty minutes of talking ‘ball, I asked him, “So, what do you do for a living?” He answered, “Well, I was actually laid off a few weeks ago. I would have started looking for work again, but I didn’t want the job hunt to get in the way of Grey Cup.”
5. I wasn’t the only one pleased with my first Grey Cup experience. Ray Ratto, a veteran football reporter from the San Francisco Bay Area, tweeted this just after the game: “This was a worthwhile, even delightful week spent being reminded all the things the Super Bowl should be, and never will.” That’s high praise from a high-profile journalist who’s been around American football for roughly forty years.
6. The 103rd Grey Cup drew an average rating of 4.3 million viewers, as per TSN. This level of viewership is fitting — a pretty average number for a pretty average game.
7. Thank goodness the RedBlacks won the East Final. For a city with as many disillusioned local fans as Winnipeg, having a surge of red and black faithful travel to the Grey Cup in support of their young team brought some much-needed energy to what may have otherwise been a lackluster event. I have nothing against the Ti-Cats, but I can’t imagine Jeremiah Masoli’s Tabbies creating much of a Grey Cup buzz heading into the event. In many ways, Ottawa’s RNation has overtaken Rider Nation as the league’s most vital, energized fan base.
8. What struck me most about Ottawa’s effort in Sunday’s game was the extent to which they didn’t play to win, but not to lose. After two pass-heavy touchdown drives to open the game — the latter of which was aided by a Kendial Lawrence fumble — Henry Burris recorded just 61 passing yards to his wide receivers and slotbacks in 47 minutes of game time. Edmonton’s defence is outstanding, but no defence is that outstanding. Burris simply never mentally recovered from his late first quarter interception to Patrick Watkins, repeatedly checking the ball down to running back William Powell rather than taking shots down field. This is just speculation, but I wonder if Burris’ somewhat brash demeanor this week caused him to play too cautiously. You can’t risk throwing three interceptions after talking like he did prior to the game.
9. People will complain that the game was heavily influenced by two late Ottawa pass interference penalties, but both calls were correct. Let’s move on.
10. If the Roughriders are able to hire Chris Jones away from the Eskimos, expect Paul LaPolice to be named the Bombers’ next offensive coordinator. If the ‘Riders retain interim general manager Jeremy O’Day, expect Jacques Chapdelaine to get the Bombers’ O.C. job.
11. If I’m Eskimo President & CEO Len Rhodes, I’m doing whatever it takes to keep head coach Chris Jones in Edmonton. Jones already performs most of the duties of a regular general manager — he scouts, he makes player personnel decisions, virtually the whole gig, really. As such, I’d offer him the titles of director of player personnel, general manager, and head coach and promise to match any financial offer put forth by Saskatchewan. Edmonton is a relatively wealthy franchise and, given the economic windfall this Grey Cup victory will create, the green and gold can’t allow themselves to be outbid for Jones’ services.
12. Edmonton wide receiver Shamawd Chambers, a pending free agent, made himself a lot of money with a solid Grey Cup performance. Despite missing almost the entire 2015 season due to a nagging knee injury, Chambers is going to cash in this upcoming off-season. Good for him.
13. Not to rain on Ottawa’s parade, but the RedBlacks are going to have a tough time matching an amazing 2015 season next year. Brandyn Thompson, Justin Capicciotti, Zach Evans, and Damaso Munoz are all pending free agents who are set to earn significant raises, while there’s no guaranteeing Henry Burris will be able to keep playing solid football at age 41. I’m interested to see how general manager Marcel Desjardins will manage his cap moving forward.
14. I was very happy to see nine-year Eskimo Calvin McCarty win a Grey Cup. An under-appreciated player — as so many fullbacks are — McCarty has quietly put together a solid CFL career and now has a ring to show for his efforts. Bravo.
15. Eskimo centre Justin Sorensen was another player I was happy to see win it all on Sunday. Sorensen, a first round pick of his hometown BC Lions in 2008, was cut following the 2010 season and considered a failed tackle prospect. After spending 2011 out of football, Sorensen reinvented himself as a centre with the Blue Bombers in 2012 and went on to start 60 games for Winnipeg (2012-2013) and Edmonton (2014-2015). He’ll never be an all-star, but he’s a solid Canadian who deserves credit for salvaging a respectable pro career.
16. I’m ecstatic for Eskimo fans that their team won a championship, but I’m growing weary of hearing about the team ending its “long” ten-year Grey Cup drought. As a Bomber fan, ten years without a championship is nothing. If Edmonton’s Grey Cup drought were a human being, it’d be in the fifth grade. If Winnipeg’s current 25-year Grey Cup drought were a human being, it could be that fifth grader’s biological parent.
17. When/if the Bombers ever manage to win another Grey Cup, the club will have to make extra rings for Milt Stegall and Doug Brown. Those two deserve(d) a championship more than 99 percent of the players who’ve hoisted Earl Grey’s mug.
18. As someone who attended the game live, I found Fall Out Boy’s half-time show exceptionally underwhelming. The stage was a veritable dot in the distance from my seats in the lower bowl and the sound was poorly mixed. Fortunately, those who watched the half-time show on television seemed impressed, which is really the intended audience for such a performance.
19. The team with the most cap freedom heading into next season will be the B.C. Lions. With Dean Valli set to retire and the salaries of Travis Lulay, Andrew Harris, Jovan Olafioye, and Manny Arceneux coming off the books in February, the Lions could have a ton of buying power in a star-studded free agent pool. That’s not to say B.C. won’t try to re-sign any of their big-name free agents, only that the Lions will have a ton of financial flexibility. It’s also worth noting that Lulay, now 32, is expected to sign for roughly half of his previous contract value, likely somewhere in the neighborhood of Drew Tate’s $200,000 base salary.
20. Dave Naylor of TSN reported this week that the end zones at Toronto’s BMO Field will only be seventeen yards in length next season, three yards shy of regulation. To quote a veteran CFL player I overheard discussing this issue: “This is the type of [expletive] that makes our game look bush league.”
21. Speaking of Dave Naylor, his game day radio coverage of Sunday’s Grey Cup with Matt Sekeres was truly outstanding — as quality a product as you’ll find anywhere.
22. I’ve heard whispers that the Bombers may be ready to move on from veteran defensive tackle Bryant Turner this off-season. When Turner came up in conversation with a veteran CFL player, he said, “When I ask interior offensive linemen around the league about Turner, they say, when he’s healthy, he’s the best.”
23. An all-time great CFL star will announce his retirement in the next few weeks. I’ll miss watching him play dearly.
24. A family friend who flew in from Ottawa for the Grey Cup brought me a RedBlacks sweater. I’ve never owned a piece of CFL merchandise that wasn’t blue and gold, but wearing black and red was somewhat refreshing. I’m keeping it.
25. Nothing’s set in stone, but I can confirm that the Bombers are heavy favorites to land running back Andrew Harris in free agency.
26. The quote of the week comes from Edmonton defensive end Odell Willis via Sportsnet’s Arash Madani. Willis was asked about the Eskimos’ impressive turnaround from a 4-14 season in 2013. His answer: “Mike [Reilly] growd, I growd, the rest of our team growd.” The CFL is better with Odell Willis in it.
27. Speaking of Willis, the eight-year veteran deserves credit for a solid Grey Cup performance. Willis had a terrible Grey Cup with Winnipeg back in 2011, becoming a distraction on social media prior to the game and dropping what would have been a game-changing interception late in the contest. Against the RedBlacks on Sunday, though, Willis tore up Most Outstanding Offensive Lineman SirVincent Rogers for a sack and terrorized Henry Burris for the game’s final three quarters.
28. Ever wonder what it would be like to ride in a limousine with Jon Cornish? If so, check out this week’s Blue Bomber Talk Podcast.
29. A huge congratulations goes out to new Canadian Football Hall of Famers Doug Brown, Rodney Harding, Derrell Mitchell, James West, Don McDonald, Joe Pascucci, and Dave Naylor.
30. I’m not sure if there are any realistic first ballot candidates for next year’s class Hall of Fame class of 2017, but the class of 2018 could be one of the best ever. First-year eligible players include quarterback Anthony Calvillo and receivers Geroy Simon and Arland Bruce III.
31. Thanks to all my readers for their overwhelming support through my first season on 3DownNation. I’ll still be posting pieces throughout the off-season, so stay tuned for plenty of new content over the next seven months.
John Hodge, Blue Bomber Talk