The CFL has a new franchise in Ottawa, a new TV deal and labour peace with its players for five years as it prepares to get the 2014 season underway. This year’s Grey Cup returns to B.C. Place, after the Saskatchewan Roughriders won it at home in 2013. Big changes have happened throughout the league and here are five storylines to watch this season:
Ottawa RedBlacks — An expansion franchise that can win? Well, maybe. Ottawa decided to use their expansion draft power and free agency to nab a core of experienced players led by last year’s losing Grey Cup quarterback Henry Burris. No quarterback in the CFL has more experience now that Anthony Calvillo has retired. Burris is still going strong at 39 and in the case of the always-muscular veteran, strong is not just a figure of speech. They signed former Winnipeg defensive back Jovon Johnson, the CFL’s outstanding defensive player in 2011. The Bombers had him doing just about everything except shovelling snow before they let him go to free agency after last season. Ottawa also signed veteran kicker Justin Palardy, another Bomber castoff, and former B.C. Lion and veteran Canadian receiver Paris Jackson.
Rookie quarterbacks — Drew Willy for Winnipeg, Zach Collaros in Hamilton and Troy Smith in Montreal will be going into their first CFL seasons as starting quarterbacks. Willy and Collaros were both backups elsewhere last season and Smith was signed by Montreal and helped them into the playoffs when Anthony Calvillo was injured. Collaros had a chance to prove himself in 2013 when Ricky Ray was sidelined in Toronto. His 5-2 record was enough to persuade the Hamilton Tiger-Cats to let veteran Henry Burris try free agency, after he took them to the Grey Cup last year. The Bombers liked Willy enough to name him starter before training camp even started (although his record is 2-2) and Smith is a 2006 Heisman Trophy winner, who spent three active seasons with the Baltimore Ravens, his longest tenure with the three NFL teams he signed with post college.
Who throws in Calgary? — Who will start the season at quarterback for Calgary and who will finish in that role? Drew Tate and Bo Levi Mitchell both look capable of helping the Stampeders back to first place in the CFL, where they finished last season. They still fell to Darian Durant, Kory Sheets and the Saskatchewan Roughriders in the West final last November. Picking between Tate and Mitchell may be one of the hardest choices coach and general manager John Hufnagel has to make. Durability may be Tate’s Achilles heel. Mitchell went 3-0 subbing last season, although Calgary also relied on now-departed veteran Kevin Glenn to get them to the West final.
Sheetless in Saskatchewan — Quarterback Darian Durant is back with a hefty three-year deal but when he wants to move the ball this season he’ll be missing some familiar faces and sure hands. Kory Sheets, the running back who contributed a Grey-Cup-record 197 rushing yards and two touchdowns to the Roughriders’ win is now in the NFL. To say Sheets was a major part of the green machine is a gross understatement and his wasn’t the only departure. They also lost all-star receiver Weston Dressler to the NFL. Dressler, rookie of the year when he made his debut in 2008, missed 1,000 yards only once since (2009 and only by 59 yards when he played just 14 games). The blessed Riders still have native son Chris Getzlaf and import Taj Smith in the 1,000-yard-plus club.
Heartbreakers or playmakers — Both the Winnipeg Blue Bombers and Edmonton Eskimos are in major retool mode. Again. They have new coaching staffs (Winnipeg also changed GM and team president since last season) and are looking to get back to the form that historically made the franchises into two of the strongest in the league. Last season the Bombers finished in the CFL cellar at 3-15 and the Eskimos only slightly better at 4-14. Quarterback Mike Reilly is back for his second season behind centre for the Eskimos. The Bombers have rookie starter Drew Willy, Darian Durant’s backup in Regina the previous two seasons. With both teams in the West this season, it will be interesting to see where the most progress has been made.