Teams are running tryout camps, mini-camps have come and gone for some and are arriving for others, and the CFL Draft is right around the corner. That means one thing: the season is nearly upon us.
With the start of a new season, we usually can point to one or two teams and say, “They are the favourites to win it all.” Last year, Hamilton was everyone’s choice. The year before, it was the Stampeders. For most of the 2000s, it was the Montreal Alouettes. No matter the season, we always seem to have a good idea who will be fighting it out at the end for a chance to called champions.
But as we sit two months from the start of the 2016 season, the waters are as muddy as ever. There does not seem to be one team that stands above the rest. Not one squad that you can look to and call favourites.
Normally, the place to start is with the defending champions, especially when that team dominated the latter half of last season, winning every game they played after Labour Day. Except the defending champs — which, in case you forgot, are the Edmonton Eskimos — suffered one of the biggest mass coaching exoduses in CFL history just days after hoisting the trophy. The parade was barely over, and head coach Chris Jones was off to Saskatchewan to become their head coach, general manager, VP of football operations, hot dog vendor, merchandise creator, ticket rep and a million other jobs, and with him went a vast majority of the staff he had in Edmonton. Jones’ departure left the Eskimos with massive voids to fill. But the coaching staff wasn’t the only place Edmonton lost people to Saskatchewan, as a number of players followed Jones to Saskatchewan. So in their quest to repeat as champions, the Eskimos will be led by the most inexperienced coach in the CFL, Jason Maas, and roster in flux. Not exactly what you would call a favourite to win it all.
If the defending champs aren’t the favourites, then surely the team they beat has to move up to that spot. Well, not exactly. It is time to call a spade a spade: the Ottawa Redblacks got extremely lucky in 2015. This is not just about them needing a botched interception and miracle play to get to the Grey Cup over an undermanned Ticats team. Ottawa needed every bounce to go their way last year, and it did. The Redblacks took advantage of an East Division that was in turmoil for most of last season. Hamilton lost their all-star calibre starting quarterback in September; Toronto was a nomad, playing just five of their nine homes games in their actual home; and Montreal seemed to be in complete disarray for almost the entire year. In contrast, Ottawa managed to stay healthy and drama-free for the entire 2015 season. But now they have dealt with some adversity. They lost some key players — worst of all for them, key Canadian players — and the man who was instrumental in orchestrating their turnaround offensively, Jason Maas, is now coaching elsewhere. Then there was the whole compensation fiasco that dominated talk during the offseason and made the Redblacks a bit of a league pariah. Ottawa overachieved in 2015 and a regression is likely to take place in 2016. Like Edmonton, this is not a team one would be comfortable calling the favourites.
So if not the two Grey Cup representatives, then what about the teams that lost to them in their respective division finals, Hamilton and Calgary? Both these teams have been considered favourites in the past, but both enter 2016 with a couple of big question marks in some important areas. The Ticats are dealing with a big question at the game’s most important position: when will Zach Collaros be healthy? We all saw how hard they fell last year when Collaros got hurt, so his health is of paramount importance if the Tabbies are to be East Division favourites, let alone Grey Cup favourites, once again. If Collaros was 100 per cent, the Ticats would probably be the clear-cut favourites — in fact, if Collaros never got hurt, the Ticats are probably defending Grey Cup champions — but he is not, so they are not. Add in the recent loss of offensive coordinator Tommy Condell, and the Ticats are starting the season with less certainty than at any other time in the Kent Austin era. With so many major questions swirling around the Tabbies, it is nearly impossible to look at them as the favourites.
Calgary gets the benefit of the doubt most years because of John Hufnagel. Since Hufnagel took over in 2008, this is a team that has never won less than 10 games in a season, has been to three Grey Cups and won two of them. The problem, however, is that Hufnagel no longer coaches the team, and while he will still be around as the team’s general manager, it is Dave Dickenson that will try to pilot this team back to the Grey Cup. Will the transition go smoothly? No one knows. Calgary is probably the closest thing to a favourite, but there are still questions surrounding them that make picking them a little sketchy.
The other two playoff teams from last year, Toronto and BC, both look improved from a season ago, but still face a few questions that makes elevating either of them dangerous. Toronto made a ton of moves in free agency, but they are going to once again rely on an aging Ricky Ray to steer the good ship Argonaut. They watched as Trevor Harris waltzed to a division rival and now have a lot of inexperience behind the somewhat fragile Ray. If Ray stays healthy, Toronto will compete for the division title and maybe separate themselves from the rest of the East, but should be get hurt, all bets are off.
BC has brought Wally Buono back to the sideline and have a young, dynamic quarterback who took the league by storm last year in Jonathon Jennings. But Wally has been off the sidelines for four years, and the Lions have gotten worse each year with him in the sole role of general manager. Has the game passed him by? And will Jennings be able to recapture the magic he made last year? Teams will now have film on him and be able to gameplan against him. One has to wonder if Jennings is truly the next great QB in the CFL or if he was a flash in the pan.
It is foolish to consider any of the three non-playoff teams from 2015 as favourites heading into 2016, but for the sake of completion, we might as well touch on them. Winnipeg and Saskatchewan spent a ton of money in free agency to bring in new players and that has never proven to be a sound strategy. Winnipeg did it last offseason and still missed the playoffs. But both teams also made good moves in their coaching ranks, with the previously mentioned Chris Jones taking the reins in Saskatchewan and the Bombers replacing offensive coordinator Marcel Bellefeuille with Paul LaPolice. Both teams should be better in 2016 and both might even make the playoffs. In fact, at least one of them probably will, but saying either are favourites to win it all? That’s taking things too far.
That leaves us with Montreal, who also made a lot of moves in the offseason and in doing so spent a lot of money. But that money got them some stability at quarterback with Kevin Glenn; a talented receiving corps with S.J. Green, Nik Lewis and a returning Duron Carter; and a very good defense coordinated once more by Noel Thorpe. But they also might have the worst head coach in the league in Jim Popp and questions about their coaching staff. Is it too soon for Anthony Calvillo to be the offensive coordinator? How into things will Noel Thorpe be after trying to leave for Edmonton? After their first playoff-less season since their return in 1996, the Als are just too uncertain to be anyone’s favourites.
With no team looking above any other at this point, that likely means we are headed for one of the closest seasons in recent memory. Someone will emerge as the favourite at some point, but right now, it is anyone’s guess who that will be.