CFL delivers drama in first week of returning to play


If I’m being completely honest, there were times over the past 20 months where I didn’t really miss the Canadian Football League.

My wavering interest in the CFL since the COVID-19 pandemic struck in March of 2020 was mostly due to frustration. Primarily, it was a frustration built from a feeling we were being kept in the dark by the powers that be — with seemingly no plan in place for better days.

Tired of talk about needing to evolve business models and fears of what the coronavirus might do to the bottom line for the league and teams — some of whom are backed by very deep pockets — even while other professional leagues were playing, was enough to want to shut off. As the days of COVID-19 turned into weeks and then months, I wondered if I would feel reconnected once the CFL did eventually return — if it did at all.

Winnipeg Blue Bomber fans are photographed at IG Field during the opening game of the 2021 CFL season.(Alex Lupul / Winnipeg Free Press files)

Winnipeg Blue Bomber fans are photographed at IG Field during the opening game of the 2021 CFL season.(Alex Lupul / Winnipeg Free Press files)

That day came on Thursday, as the Winnipeg Blue Bombers and Hamilton Tiger-Cats opened the curtain on a 2021 season. To sit in the press box as nearly 30,000 vaccinated fans flooded into IG Field, it was as if I had never left. Part of me was even giddy, a feeling that’s been rare the past nearly two years — a time better known for lockdowns and restrictions.

Being amidst the commotion Thursday, I was reminded why I became a “fan” of the CFL. The chance to watch games, to interact with officials, managers, players and coaches across the league, and to spend time with the many, many fans that love the three-down game, I’m glad it’s back in my life. And I know I’m not alone.

I was also reminded this weekend of just how wacky this game really is, and it’s one of the main reasons I enjoy writing and talking about it. The CFL never disappoints in delivering drama.

For years, as I’ve built relationships and sources across the CFL, I’ve thought about doing a weekly column that takes a league-wide look at things. I watch most, if not all, the games each week and, until now, would usually offer my opinions either during chats with friends or colleagues, or to a hotel TV screen.

I’ve decided to put them down on paper this year. With that as an introduction, I bring to you the first installment of CFL Rundown — a compilation of news and notes, mixed in with opinion and thoughts from the past week.

There’s a lot to get into from Week 1, so let’s get started:

1) Kudos to the CFL for opening the season with a 2019 Grey Cup rematch. It only made sense to have it in Winnipeg, as the unveiling of the Bombers championship banner was long overdue. Personally, I’m not a fan of the “11-Time Grey Cup Champions” title on the banner. I thought it should have better honoured the 28-year, drought-busting victory over the Ticats;

The Winnipeg Blue Bombers unveil their 2019 Grey Cup banner at IG Field during the opening game of the 2021 CFL season. (Alex Lupul / Winnipeg Free Press files)

The Winnipeg Blue Bombers unveil their 2019 Grey Cup banner at IG Field during the opening game of the 2021 CFL season. (Alex Lupul / Winnipeg Free Press files)

2) I was surprised to see the Bombers open at 3.5-point underdogs (it eventually dropped to two), especially with it being a home game and the fact Hamilton was missing a few key players on both sides of the ball. It looked like the bookmakers were right early on, as Hamilton raced out to a 6-0 lead, but the rest of the game was all Blue and Gold;

3) Jeremiah Masoli is among the top quarterbacks in the CFL but he looked pedestrian after his touchdown drive on Hamilton’s first series. It got to the point where a few of us in the press box thought we might see Dane Evans;

4) There were plenty of questions about the Bombers defence heading into the opener, including a number of moving and inexperienced pieces in the secondary. Those questions won’t go away after one game, but there’s certainly less worry after that dominating display from all areas of the D. You already get the feeling this could be a dangerous group;

5) You’ll often hear sports scribes say they only cheer for early deadlines. While true, it’s also easy to root for good people. Bombers running back Brady Oliveira falls into that category;

He had a rough upbringing — raised by a single mother, his father reeling from addiction — Oliveira now works with at-risk youth and rescues dogs.

When he got drafted in 2019 following a standout career at the University of North Dakota, he broke his ankle in his second CFL game with the Bombers. On Thursday, in his first game back and in his first pro start filling in for all-star and fellow Winnipegger, Andrew Harris, he registered 126 rushing yards on 22 carries, and added 21 more yards through the air. At 23, the future looks bright.

Winnipeg Blue Bombers' Brady Oliveira (20) runs into Hamilton Tiger-Cats' Jumal Rolle (25) during second half CFL action. (John Woods / The Canadian Press files)

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Winnipeg Blue Bombers’ Brady Oliveira (20) runs into Hamilton Tiger-Cats’ Jumal Rolle (25) during second half CFL action. (John Woods / The Canadian Press files)

6) You should probably be adding Bombers receiver Kenny Lawler to your fantasy team before the oddsmaker figures out who he is. His two touchdowns were no fluke for anyone that watched him during training camp.

7) Does anyone complain more in a game than Hamilton receiver Brandon Banks? Every time I saw him leave the field Thursday, he was waving his arms in disgust or flapping his gums with displeasure. I know he’s the reigning CFL most outstanding player and is overflowing with talent, but that’s got to get old on a team run by Orlando Steinauer, who comes across as the ultimate team guy.

Bombers head coach Mike O'Shea. (Frank Gunn / The Canadian Press files)

Bombers head coach Mike O’Shea. (Frank Gunn / The Canadian Press files)

8) Even Bombers head coach Mike O’Shea downplayed Thursday’s win, pointing specifically to Hamilton’s banged up roster. I still see the Tiger-Cats topping the East division and winning at least 10 games this season.

9) It’s obvious after Week 1 that the Bombers made the right decision to roll with Zach Collaros over Matt Nichols (more on Nichols’ performance later). Collaros has a significantly better arm, capable of fitting the ball into tight windows and is better equipped at extending plays with his legs.

I’m not as worried about Collaros’ health as others around the CFL. And with the league’s best offensive line backing him up, the best football of his career might just be ahead of him.

10) After watching what looked like two different teams in the first and second half, I have no idea what to think about the Saskatchewan Roughriders. The Riders came hot out of the gate against the B.C. Lions, ending their first three drives with touchdowns, and were leading 31-0 late into the second quarter before B.C. Lions rookie quarterback Nathan Rourke hit Lucky Whitehead with a 75-yard touchdown pass. Then they were outscored 20-1 in the second half. I have the Riders finishing middle of the pack in a tough West Division.

11) I’m still not sold on Riders quarterback Cody Fajardo, and for a second there I thought my prediction of a sophomore slump was in serious trouble. After completing his first 15 passes and throwing for 175 yards and two touchdowns in the first half, Fajardo pretty much disappeared through the final two quarters, mustering only 55 passing yards while throwing one interception and generating a measly two first downs. The fact they were at home, in front of a packed Mosaic Stadium crowd, after such a long layoff, makes it all the more puzzling.

Saskatchewan Roughriders quarterback Cody Fajardo. (Graham Hughes / The Canadian Press files)

Saskatchewan Roughriders quarterback Cody Fajardo. (Graham Hughes / The Canadian Press files)

12) The dominating storyline in the game, however, was Lions quarterback Michael Reilly and his dizzying will-he-or-won’t-he-play dance he did all game, in what was one of the most bizarre sequence of events you’ll likely see all season.

Here’s the skinny: Reilly was the expected starter, only to pull out last second because his throwing arm wasn’t fully free of pain following his pre-game treatment. Rourke, who was selected by the Lions in the second round of the CFL Draft this past May, played admirably given the circumstances, but predictably gets lit up in the first half of his first CFL game. Lions head coach Rick Campbell then does an interview at halftime with league broadcaster TSN, where he claims a decision not to play Reilly was based on his health and safety. A short time later, Reilly starts the second half, brings the Lions within nine points and then exits the game with four minutes remaining.

The Lions are saying the plan was always for Reilly to start the game and that it was his decision to sit. Just like it was his decision to begin the second half following a brief conversation with Campbell moments after his interview with TSN. Reilly said after the game that the two decisions — to sit, then to play — were based on what was best for the team at those times.

B.C. Lions head coach Rick Campbell. (Jonathan Hayward / The Canadian Press files).

B.C. Lions head coach Rick Campbell. (Jonathan Hayward / The Canadian Press files).

13) A few things to unpack here. If I’m Campbell I’m not very happy with being kept in the dark by my franchise player. He looked foolish on TV and in your first game, in the first year as head coach with the Lions, you kind of want to look like you know what’s going on.

14) If the decisions were made for the betterment of the team, what changed with Reilly from the start of the first quarter to the start of the third? And what made Reilly think he could play well, especially under the added pressure of erasing a three-touchdown lead when it was clear he had little arm strength to execute deep balls? And what made Campbell think playing Reilly was a good idea in Game 1 of a long season, perhaps risking further injury? In the words of former Bomber great and current TSN analyst Milt Stegall: “That was a disgrace and hopefully we don’t see that again.”

15) Lots of people are talking about single-game betting in Canada and how something like the Reilly situation happening is a major black eye for sportsbooks wanting to infiltrate the CFL. I don’t buy that, as sportsbooks are always looking to add leagues to their portfolio and while single-game betting is now permitted in Canada, there’s still no infrastructure currently in place in the country to execute a single-game bet. But what you can take to the bank is the CFL is going to learn from this awkward experience and try to prevent it from happening ever again. The good news is they have time.

16) It’s long been understood in CFL circles to count out the Calgary Stampeders at your own peril. A loss to the remodelled Toronto Argonauts, 23-20, in Week 1, though, doesn’t exactly strengthen that case.

Calgary Stampeders quarterback Bo Levi Mitchell. (Darryl Dyck / The Canadian Press files)

Calgary Stampeders quarterback Bo Levi Mitchell. (Darryl Dyck / The Canadian Press files)

I’m not convinced what we witnessed Saturday won’t be very much improved, even over the next week or two. I thought QB Bo Levi Mitchell put it perfectly when he said he didn’t think Toronto did anything to win. With the Stamps settling for four field goals, all within 30 yards, a turnover on downs on the Argos’ three-yard line and a costly fourth-quarter fumble by running back Ka’Deem Carey that led to the tying touchdown, I’d say the Stamps took care of that themselves (with credit to the Argos D as well).

17) After the game, head coach Dave Dickenson was as critical as he’s ever been about Mitchell — which, to be fair, is extremely rare, so that’s not saying much — when he said the pivot wasn’t in sync with his receivers. He added that after Josh Huff left the game and Kamar Jorden was sidelined for a spell, Mitchell seemed to lose confidence in the group and ultimately lost his mojo. The Stamps have a short week to re-group before Thursday’s date with the Lions.

18) The must-watch play of the week is Ricky Collins running for more than 80 yards with the ball and just as he was about to hit paydirt, Stampeders corner DaShaun Amos caught up to the Toronto receiver and knocked the ball from his arms, resulting in a turnover for the Stamps. It’s worth a(nother) look.

19) Not only did I not mind the pre-game antics of Argonauts defensive end Charleston Hughes, I think the CFL needs more of it. Hughes, a former mainstay with the Stamps, began trash-talking his former team, walking up and down a line of players delivering verbal jabs as they grouped at midfield.

Too often CFL teams work to hide their various personalities, with coaches preferring players to not provide the proverbial “bulletin board” material and instead let their play do the talking. Hughes was able to do both, as he was responsible for forcing and recovering the Carey fumble that led to the tying score.

20) Does McLeod Bethel-Thompson get another start for Toronto after completing 26 of 37 passes for 354 yards and two touchdowns, with no interceptions? Given his overall game, with some inconsistent stretches, I’m not sure it’s enough to supplant Nick Arbuckle, so long as he’s good to go for Week 2.

21) The CFL had its first COVID-19 scare when the Edmonton Elks had two players test positive and were forced to cancel their walk-through Friday. It turned out to be much of nothing, with the game starting as planned and Elks linebacker Brian Walker and an unidentified player put into isolation.

While this is the first time we’ve heard of a player testing positive since the start of training camp, there have been some positive tests occur before, as players arrived for camp early last month. In talking to personnel from different teams across the league, the expectation is there will be more positive tests in the future but with all the safety plans in place, it’s highly unlikely a game would ever be cancelled. Teams are required to have at least 36 available players to field a team.

22) What’s interesting about the Elks situation is that under the current rules put forth by the CFL in the event a game is cancelled and can’t be rescheduled, none of the Elks players would have been paid. I’m told Edmonton is on the lower end when it comes to vaccinated players and wouldn’t meet the required 85 per cent threshold of having at least one dose of the vaccine.

23) Who had the Ottawa Redblacks beating the Elks Week 1? I can’t imagine many. But congrats to new head coach Paul LaPolice and his staff for gutting out a win. Those might be few and far between this season.

Ottawa Redblacks' Avery Williams (42) tackles Edmonton Elks' James Wilder Jr. (32) during first half CFL action in Edmonton, Alta., on Aug. 7. (Jason Franson / The Canadian Press files)

Ottawa Redblacks’ Avery Williams (42) tackles Edmonton Elks’ James Wilder Jr. (32) during first half CFL action in Edmonton, Alta., on Aug. 7. (Jason Franson / The Canadian Press files)

24) There aren’t many teams out there that can put up 94 total net yards on offence, including a dismal 71 passing yards, and still win a game. In fact, according to CFL stats guy Steve Daniel, the last time a CFL team won with 71 passing yards or fewer was in the last weekend of September in 1992, when Winnipeg passed for 56 yards in a 17-16 victory against Calgary.

25) Clearly, it was not a great day for Nichols and the Redblacks offence. Playing behind a patchwork O-line and with few experienced receivers, Nichols struggled to do much of anything. He said his shoulder, which he had surgery on after a season-ending injury midway through 2019, felt great but it didn’t look it. Nichols completed just one pass for three yards in the first quarter and didn’t register a first down until late in the second. With few weapons around him, it’s hard to imagine things will get better. Though I’m not sure how they can get much worse.

26) Mike Benevides is one of the best defensive minds in the CFL and his brilliance was on full display Saturday. The Elks still put up 423 offensive yards, but the Redblacks D stood tall when it mattered most and did so with little help from the offence.

Ottawa didn’t surrender a touchdown, limiting what was predicted to be a stellar Elks attack to four field goals, while also pitching in a pick-6 early in the fourth quarter to give the Redblacks their first lead. This club will go as far as their defence will take them.

27) What an impressive return to a Redblacks uniform for defensive back Abdul Kanneh, who spent two years in Toronto before returning to Ottawa this year. Kanneh had two of Ottawa’s three interceptions, including the touchdown, and was part of defensive stand at the goal line that preserved a 16-12 win.

28) The Trevor Harris effect reared its ugly head again. Harris racked up a bunch of passing yards (333) but, as so often has been the case over his CFL career, was unable to find the end zone. Edmonton was 0-for-3 in the red zone and Harris had three interceptions. Harris rightfully shouldered the blame afterwards and will need to be better for Edmonton to have a chance in the West.

29) Speaking of the West, for a division that’s likely going to be a photo-finish race, having Edmonton and Calgary lose to teams in the East surely has the other clubs in the West smiling ear to ear. The East won only 16 of 40 games against the West in 2019, with nearly half of those victories coming from Hamilton.

jeff.hamilton@freepress.mb.ca

twitter: @jeffkhamilton

Jeff Hamilton

Jeff Hamilton
Multimedia producer

After a slew of injuries playing hockey that included breaks to the wrist, arm, and collar bone; a tear of the medial collateral ligament in both knees; as well as a collapsed lung, Jeff figured it was a good idea to take his interest in sports off the ice and in to the classroom.

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