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2014 CFL Eastern Preview - Montreal Alouettes
From The Sports Network
By Nicholas DeLorenzo, Associate Editor
Montreal, QC (SportsNetwork.com) - The Montreal Alouettes have flourished in recent years under the leadership of the CFL's all-time leading passer, but with the end of an era comes a slew of uncertainty for one of the league's most consistent franchises.
In Anthony Calvillo's injury-riddled final season, the Alouettes struggled to generate any sort of momentum, winning back-to-back games just two times en route to an 8-10 campaign, their worst record since 2007. They managed to sneak into the playoffs, but were bounced in the opening round by Hamilton, 19-16 in overtime.
Calvillo's swan song in 2013 was far from impressive. In just seven games, he completed a mere 58.7 percent of his passes for 1,322 yards, six touchdowns and five interceptions, but the 41-year-old's struggles last season were not indicative of the legacy he created during his career.
Over a 20-year career, the last 16 with Montreal, Calvillo racked up an astounding 79,816 passing yards, which is not only the most in CFL history but most across all of professional football. He's also unsurprisingly the league's all-time leader in completions (5,892) and touchdowns (455) and has won three Grey Cups (2002, 2009, 2010) and three CFL Most Outstanding Player Awards (2003, 2008, 2009). The loss of a legend will obviously be a huge obstacle for the Alouettes to climb this season.
The offseason of change didn't stop with Calvillo's retirement. After Dan Hawkins was fired just five games into his first season as head coach and general manager Jim Popp finished up the year on the sideline on an interim basis, the squad brought aboard its new coach in February when it inked Tom Higgins to a deal. Higgins had served as the CFL's Director of Officiating since 2008 but has plenty of previous coaching experience, posting a 72-53-1 record with Edmonton and Calgary from 2001-2007. He made the playoffs in all seven of those seasons and his Eskimos hoisted the Grey Cup in 2003. Montreal hopes his winning track record can carry over into 2014.
Replacing Calvillo this season will be no easy task, especially considering the mediocrity the Alouettes saw at the position in 2013. Josh Neiswander, who is no longer with the team, completed just 59.3 percent of his passes while throwing just as many touchdown passes as interceptions (nine), and Tanner Marsh performed even worse (52.8 percent completions, three TDs, eight INTs). The future for the team under center though, appears to be Troy Smith.
Smith, the former Ohio State standout and Heisman Trophy winner, made his CFL debut last year after five seasons in the NFL with three different teams, and he was solid in limited action. Although he completed only 52.6 percent of his throws, he racked up 884 passing yards, had the best touchdown (nine) to interception (five) ratio on the team and even added a pair of rushing scores. His performance against Hamilton in the playoffs was lackluster (14-of-26, 142 yards, TD, INT), but his overall performance and leadership showed late last year gives him a clear leg up on Marsh and newcomer Alex Brink to win the job.
Luckily for Smith, the Alouettes boast a great arsenal of weapons to help ease his transition as a full-time starter. S.J. Green is a bona fide star at slot back. He ranked second in the league last season with 1,197 receiving yards, his third straight year over 1,000 yard, and nobody in the league caught more touchdown passes (13). After hauling in 83 passes from a carousel of quarterbacks last season, Green seeks to improve with a steady presence under center.
Outside, Duron Carter emerged as an outstanding deep threat during his rookie season, turning 49 receptions into 909 yards (18.6 ypc) and five touchdowns. However, the departures of Arland Bruce (64 receptions, 851 yards, five TDs) and release of former star Jamel Richardson, who had 1,000-yard seasons in every year from 2008-2012, leaves some questions in the receiving corps.
The Alouettes made a splash in free agency to help with those two losses by bringing aboard former NFL All-Pro receiver Chad Johnson, although it remains to be seen how much the 36-year-old has left in the tank.
While Montreal has some intriguing talent at receiver, there are question marks in terms of its ground game after ranking sixth in the league last year with just 96.0 rushing yards per game. With last year's leading rusher Jerome Messam (565 yards, two TDs) moving on, the team will turn to Brandon Whitaker to lead an inexperienced group in the backfield. Whitaker rushed for only 338 yards last season, but he has a 1,000-yard season during his five-year career, having rushed for 1,381 yards in 2011.
Even with an unstable quarterback situation, Montreal was still able to finish in the middle of the pack in terms of its scoring offense (25.5 ppg). However. to make a return to elite levels, it will need to improve last season's sixth- ranked scoring defense (26.2 ppg).
The unit will benefit from the return of linebacker Chip Cox, who made a big leap forward in his eighth season by becoming one of the CFL's best defensive playmakers, tallying 114 tackles, 12 sacks and four interceptions. Other top returning defenders include Kyries Hebert (68 tackles, nine sacks), Billy Parker (57 tackles, INT), Geoff Tisdale (54 tackles, seven INTs), Jerald Brown (52 tackles, five INTs), Mike Edem (49 tackles, five sacks, three INTs), John Bowman (11 sacks), Marc-Olivier Brouilette (six sacks) and Aaron Lavarias (42 tackles, six sacks). While the team didn't bring aboard any major free agents on the defensive side of the ball, the hope is that such a large turnover from last season will allow for more chemistry and cohesion in 2014.
Although it's time to close the book on an historic era, there's still plenty to be optimistic about for the Alouettes this season, especially if Smith can make the necessary steps in becoming a reliable starting quarterback. Still, while a presumably healthier year should allow Montreal to improve upon last season's sub-.500 record, don't expect the squad to compete for a Grey Cup in Higgins' first season.
FACTS & FIGURES: Division - Eastern. 2013 record - 8-10. Playoff result: Lost to Hamilton in the East Semifinals, 19-16 in overtime. Stadium - Percival Molson Memorial Stadium. Capacity - 25,021. Colors - Red, white, blue and gray.
06/23 11:27:11 ET