If you’re struggling at all to cast your three votes for linebackers to place on the CFL’s All-Decade Team presented by LeoVegas, take heart in the knowledge that a Hall-of-Famer and a recent Most Outstanding Defensive Player are with you.
“This is a hard list,” said Mike O’Shea, scrolling through the names of twenty linebacker nominees on the CFL.ca All-Decade Team page. “It’s really hard to pick.”
Yes it is, Mike.
That’s why I enlisted the head coach of the Winnipeg Blue Bombers to help sort through the CVs of a lot of fine, fine linebackers. It’s why I also got in touch with Philadelphia Eagles’ linebacker Alex Singleton, himself a nominee after three outstanding seasons in Calgary.
“Just to be even mentioned with those guys…” said Singleton, trailing off as he contemplated his place among the likes of Adam Bighill, Chip Cox, Solomon Elimimian, Simoni Lawrence, Henoc Muamba, and J.C. Sherritt. To name just a few.
Stopping short of asking them for their votes, I instead ask the two of them to give us insight into the types of linebackers some of these candidates are or were, and what emerges is a reminder of just how crowded this field is with quality candidates.
Will any of what either O’Shea or Singleton have to say help tailor your opinion when it comes to your votes?
Let’s find out.
MORE ON THE ALL-DECADE TEAM
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» All-Decade Team Vote: RBs and LBs by the numbers
» Ferguson: All-Decade linebacker vote more difficult than meets the eye
As the fabled “Team 100,” the two of them played search and destroy for the Lions, piling up tackles and awards at will, it seemed.
Will they be reunited on the All-Decade Team?
“Solly and Adam Bighill,” said Singleton, when asked about Elimimian specifically. He had Team 100 on his mind. “What they’ve done over the full ten years, is really impressive.”
Zeroing in on Elimimian, Singleton noted that the veteran had continued his strong presence in Saskatchewan, in 2019. “He’s just a leader,” he said of the man who’s won two Defensive Player of the Year awards (2014, 2016), and a Most Outstanding Player award (2014). “Makes plays, doesn’t miss tackles. He’s not the biggest, not the fastest anymore. His mental game, though. He always knows where the ball’s gonna go.”
“Just a tackling machine,” said O’Shea of Elimimian, repeating the phrase for emphasis. “A tackling machine.”
“And the numbers show it. Relentless pursuit. He gets to a lot of footballs. In order to generate those kinds of numbers — and it’s not always about numbers — you gotta get to the football.”
O’Shea, of course, has detailed knowledge of Bighill’s linebacking personality, having coached the two-time MODP (2015, 2018) for the past two seasons.
“I’ve got a bias towards him because I’ve been around him,” said O’Shea, before singing the praises of Bighill’s adaptive abilities.
“He’s versatile,” explained O’Shea, who stands second on the CFL’s list of all-time tacklers (1,151). “We’ll drop him into the deep pass. He does things I was never allowed to do because I wasn’t nearly as athletic.”
“His understanding of the game, I just envy that,” he added.
If Singleton were to separate the two linebackers in any way, he might offer that Bighill is, in his mind, a little bit more punishing.
“I would say Bighill is more of a ‘come down and hit you in the mouth’ guy,” Singleton said, before packaging the two of them together once again.
“They always do it the right way,” he concluded.
Doing it the right way, in the film room and on the field, is something that all of the candidates for the All-Decade team have in common, both O’Shea and Singleton agree. Styles and physical stature may differ. But one thing all successful linebackers must have is informed anticipation of where a given play is leading.
“I want to outwork everybody,” said Singleton, who is known for his insistent prep. O’Shea, having never coached the 2017 MODP, can nevertheless surmise that Singleton’s obvious abilities have been bolstered by good habits.
“I would imagine there’s a great combination of study, and instinct,” O’Shea said.
Mostly, O’Shea and Singleton reacted to names as I tossed them out at them. Once or twice, though, no prodding was necessary. As he scanned the list in front of him, O’Shea launched into praise for a Montreal stalwart.
“I love the way Chip Cox played,” O’Shea said, out of the blue. “He played with an edge. I wouldn’t say cheap or anything like that. But you knew he was gonna fight ya. There was gonna be a battle.”
“For a number of years there, he played all the special teams too.”
Of Cox — the 2013 MODP and who was twice named a CFL all-star during the decade — Singleton had this to say:
“From what I always saw, he was just a hard-working leader who knew where the ball was going. And he was gonna punish you when he got there.”
“If any of those SAM linebackers were gonna be considered a (traditional) linebacker like we are, I think he is that guy,” added Singleton.
Hamilton linebacker Simoni Lawrence was twice named a CFL all-star during the decade and it is his ability to have either an efficient game or one filled with “splash” plays that got Singleton’s attention. He thinks Lawrence has been blessed to be around coaches, particularly Orlondo Steinauer, who’ll let his personality shine.
“They let Simoni play his type of football,” said Singleton, before addressing Lawrence’s well-earned reputation as an on-field yapper.
“Everybody knows Simoni likes to talk. But I think he also talks about where the ball’s gonna go. That guy makes plays. I thought he was a stud.”
“He’s all over the place,” said O’Shea of Lawrence. “Makes plays everywhere. And I think there’s a leadership component that he has.”
O’Shea and Singleton each exhibited mountains of respect for former Edmonton linebacker J.C. Sherritt, another MODP during the past decade (2012).
“Another tackle machine,” said O’Shea. “And if you look at his physical stature, you wouldn’t think that way to start. But man, was he talented. So much talent and ability to find the ball.”
“One of the guys you wanted to watch every week,” gushed Singleton. “He had to play different because he was a smaller inside linebacker. He didn’t have the arm length and all that other stuff.”
What Sherritt did have, in abundance, was savvy.
“He played one step ahead of a lot of offences,” noted O’Shea.
A couple more names come up. 2012 CFL All-Star Kyries Hebert, for one.
“He’s played all these different positions and he’s played at such a high rate,” said O’Shea.
Singleton sings the praises of Montreal’s man in the middle, Henoc Muamba, twice named a CFL all-star and the 2019 winner of the Most Outstanding Canadian award.
“A true Canadian linebacker. He’s pretty much done it the whole decade, too.”
“You build a team around a guy like that,” said Singleton. “He’s that guy that no matter where he’s been, he’s gonna be the centrepiece. To have that trust put in you, that’s what makes you a great player.”
Singleton isn’t sure he’ll get a lot of traction when it comes to voting, considering his time with the Calgary Stampeders lasted only three seasons, the shortest tenure of any of the listed candidates.
And that three, he notes, is two-and-a-half, really, considering how his CFL career began, back in 2016.
Added to the roster after the retirement of the great Juwan Simpson — another candidate for the All-Decade Team — Singleton spent the first half of his first season being spotted here and there on defence. But by the time the midway point of the campaign had arrived, he’d supplanted Tank Reed as the starter in the middle.
Singleton, though, has to be considered a serious contender for one of the three linebacker spots.
Yes, some voters will insist on longevity being an important factor in selection. Some, though, will cast their ballots merely for whom they see as the best players at the position, no matter how long they played.
If you’re in the longevity camp, Singleton has a possible solution.
“If they were to combine me and Juwan as just one person, one linebacker, I think we win, easily,” he said with a laugh.
Thank you, Alex. We were all looking to make this even more complicated.
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