Pro football doesn’t provide ideal lab conditions for social science experiments, but that hasn’t stopped the Montreal Alouettes from taking on a problem that might be worthy of a research grant.
The hypothesis: A week provides enough time for a successful cultural reboot in a highly competitive environment.
The stakes are considerable; seven of the Als’ next eight games are against three of the CFL’s best teams (Saskatchewan Roughriders, B.C. Lions and Toronto Argonauts).
When the Als take the field against the Grey Cup defending champion Argos on Thursday at Percival Molson Memorial Stadium, it will have been seven days since the short, miserable tenure of head coach Dan Hawkins was brought to an abrupt close.
True, the Als (2-3) have had a bye week to iron out the offensive woes that ultimately cost Hawkins his job, but never mind rediscovering the “Alouette Way,” is it really possible to implement meaningful change in such a short period of time?
“Well, you’re not going to overhaul an offence completely, but there’s some new terminology for sure, and more than that, the morale among the players is as good as it’s been around here,” centre Luc Brodeur-Jourdain said.
Okay, so the playbook is largely the same, but that doesn’t mean there haven’t been alterations since general manager Jim Popp took the coaching reins.
Receiver Arland Bruce III, a first-year Alouette and former Argo, put it thus: “The atmosphere around has changed, it’s more professional.”
Versions of that sentiment where expressed by various other players as well, but the fact is the Alouettes are something short of their fearsome best as they prepare for their first tilt against the 3-2 Argos, who beat them at Olympic Stadium in last November’s East Division final.
The Als are motivated – “It’s a rivalry, no question,” Brodeur-Jourdain said – but they’ll need to be a good deal better at football than they have been this season to win.
This week, the team learned slotback Jamel Richardson, a dressing-room leader and the arguably the Als’ biggest receiving threat, will be out for the rest of the season. They already knew they would have to play without tailback Brandon Whitaker, who rushed for a career-high 162 yards in Montreal’s white-knuckle win over Edmonton two weeks ago. (Whitaker has a bad shoulder, but expects to return next week in Regina.)
Quarterback Anthony Calvillo, who is on pace for his worst statistical season since 2007 – the last time Popp was in charge – said he has utmost confidence in Canadian runner Jerome Messam and import wide receiver D.L. Moore, who draft into the lineup as replacements.
But one suspects all is not quite tickety-boo in Alouettesland just yet.
Though Popp has given nominal control of the offence to CFL greybeard Doug Berry (originally hired as a consultant to Hawkins), Mike Miller is still officially the offensive co-ordinator and Calvillo couldn’t say who will call the plays on the sideline (Popp later said it will be Berry).
Calvillo said the mood of the past week has been a lot more collaborative than in the recent past. He, Miller and Berry have put their heads together on fixing an attack dead last in the CFL in net offence and that, incredibly given who pilots it, has the worst passing offence in the league.
“Maybe in the last couple of weeks, I wouldn’t suggest adjustments, I would just say, ‘I’m going to go out there and make this thing work.’ Now, especially this week, if I see a concern I’m going to bring it up,” Calvillo said.
It’s an open question whether the practice reps this week – Calvillo estimates the offence ran through 50 plays on Berry’s first day in charge, 40 on the second – will be enough.
But the 40-year-old quarterback who will be executing them feels comfortable in facing the defensive scheme set up by Toronto co-ordinator Chris Jones, who has displayed a particular talent for bedevilling Calvillo since he left the Montreal fold in 2008.
“We were able to get the game plan a lot earlier this week, we were able to rep a lot of plays … we executed at a high level, so I think we’re headed in the right direction,” Calvillo said.
There’s better news for the Als on the defensive side of the ball, lineman Moton Hopkins (blood clot) will play his first game since 2011, and take a central role in corralling Toronto quarterback Ricky Ray.