It has been two years since the Montreal Alouettes have been to the Grey Cup game.
That wouldn’t be unusual for most Canadian Football League teams, but it hasn’t happened to the Alouettes since 2000.
And general manager Jim Popp doesn’t want three in a row.
“We won our division last year, we didn’t win our playoff game, but we’ve been right there,” Popp said. “We all felt we should have been in five straight Grey Cups.”
The Alouettes were first in the East Division at 11-7 last season but were beaten at home in the division final by the eventual Grey Cup champion Toronto Argonauts.
But it wasn’t that defeat that sparked a big change in Montreal.
Rather, it was coach Marc Trestman finally landing his dream job as an NFL head coach with the Chicago Bears.
Trestman’s departure after five years brought in former U.S. university coach Dan Hawkins. Like his predecessor, Hawkins enters the CFL with no experience of the 12-man game.
The difference is that this time he will be well-supported with a staff of 11 co-ordinators and assistants.
Among them is former Winnipeg head coach Doug Berry, who was hired as Hawkins’ senior adviser and who could likely step into the top job if needed.
The main job will be to bring consistency to the defence and special teams.
The offence is almost unchanged from a year ago, except for the addition of 35-year-old receiver Arland Bruce III to replace the departed Brian Bratton.
It all hinges on the health of quarterback Anthony Calvillo, the league’s all-time passing leader who turns 41 on Aug. 23.
Calvillo is hardly slowing down. He wasn’t fast to begin with. And last season he topped, 5,000 yards passing for the seventh time, completing 333 for 5,082 yards, 31 touchdowns and 14 interceptions.
He is coming off surgery to his non-throwing shoulder but looked sharp in the pre-season. The team signed free agent Quinton Porter as insurance, but the veteran pivot asked for his release when it became clear he wouldn’t get the back-up role ahead of third-stringer Josh Neiswander and impressive newcomer Tanner Marsh.
Calvillo has his offensive line intact and his solid array of tall receivers in S.J. Green, Jamel Richardson and Brandon London. Adding Bruce was a bonus.
They will start the season with both incumbent running back Brandon Whitaker and new signing Jerome Messam out with injuries. Chris Jennings, who filled in after Whitaker blew out a knee last season, is to start the campaign but the multi-skilled Whitaker is expected back soon.
The offence was not an area of concern for Montreal.
Perhaps their biggest problem last season was special teams, where they gave up too many long returns and couldn’t get their own return game going. The result was weak field position at both ends.
With new special teams co-ordinator Ray Rychelski in place, they hope speedy Noel Devine will break more long returns this season. Last year, special teams was only one of former coach Andy Bischoff’s many duties.
“I don’t know if it was the philosophy or we needed to get better personnel-wise, but for whatever reason, we were getting big field position changes,” said Popp. “We didn’t seem to get the returns and we seemed to give up big returns.
“The coaching was good, but there was something not clicking.”
“Coach Ray’s approach is different. It’s more like NFL teams. It’s very direct. We’ll see what results we get.”
There were changes in the defensive backfield with the signing of veteran cornerbacks Byron Parker and Geoff Tisdale. Dwight Anderson and Seth Williams are gone.
The biggest change may be moving bruising tackler Kyries Hebert from safety to outside linebacker, his natural position. Canadian Shea Emry remains at middle linebacker with Chip Cox also back, and with the versatile Marc-Olivier Brouillette slotting in wherever he’s needed.
Rookie Mike Edem, drafted third overall from the University of Calgary, has been impressive at safety, flanked by returning defensive backs Billy Parker and Jerald Brown.
The team has also gone back to a four-man line and signed the spirited Ejiro Kuale from Toronto to play rush end along with veteran John Bowman. Scooter Berry and Alan Michael Cash return at tackle, and Moton Hopkins is back after missing a year with a blood clot in a leg.
Popp wants stability on defence after going through a succession of defensive co-ordinators in recent years. Each one changed the system so that new players were needed to fit the co-ordinator’s style. Jeff Reinebold is out, and the new co-ordinator is Noel Thorpe.
“With coaches, co-ordinators and philosophies, that there hasn’t been the consistency we had on offence,” said Popp. “You’re trying to find a coach that maybe fits the personnel better.
“That was thought out much better this time around. Reinebold is a very good coach, it just didn’t work. We were very good some weeks and others we weren’t. But that’s our league. The best co-ordinators have had 500-yard games against them. But you want consistency, not a roller coaster.”
“The system is simplified. In the system that had evolved, there were a lot of checks and changes and when there are always new people in, everyone’s not always on the same page and it becomes difficult. In this system, there are less adjustments. There’s a lot more man coverage. Usually that will spell out less mistakes.”
Popp hopes better special teams and defence will bring the Alouettes back to the Grey Cup game, where they’ve been eight times in 13 years, winning in 2002, 2009 and 2010.
It will be the 18th season since the team returned to Montreal in 1996 after a 10-year hiatus and they’ve had winning records every year but two – 9-9 in 2001 and 8-10 in 2007. In that span, they’ve never missed the playoffs.
“We’ve been at a high level, and the question is whether we stay at that level or drop a notch down,” said Popp, who has been GM for all that time. “But those are the two areas that, if we can be better, we’ll already be a better team.”