Symbols matter in football, and nothing speaks louder than a championship ring.
It’s likely not a coincidence, then, that Calgary Stampeders coach John Hufnagel has been wearing his bulky, bejewelled memento from the 2008 Grey Cup championship at practice.
The man he’ll be coaching against in Sunday’s 100th Grey Cup was on the opposing sideline in 2008. Toronto Argonauts coach Scott Milanovich was an assistant with the Montreal Alouettes.
Milanovich, a onetime Stampeder quarterback, has some jewellery of his own from 2009 and 2010, but it’s the first time he’s stood under the title-game floodlights as head man.
Military rhetoric is often deployed in football. The more apt metaphor to this encounter, given the high level of familiarity among coaches and players, is chess.
Championships are generally decided by defence, and Calgary co-ordinator Rick Campbell and Toronto counterpart Chris Jones will be moving their pieces around the board in novel ways.
The subplot is that Jones, who worked with Milanovich in Montreal until 2007 and masterminded Calgary’s defence in the 2008 Grey Cup, joined his old Alouettes colleague Milanovich last winter under controversial circumstances. The Stamps alleged tampering, and this week it appeared Hufnagel isn’t ready to forgive and forget.
“What I said [at the time], I said, and I’m not changing what I said. Move on,” he said.
But Jones, an intense Mississippian, isn’t the only one who possesses intimate knowledge about his opponent.
Campbell spent 10 seasons with the Edmonton Eskimos, winning two Grey Cups alongside Toronto quarterback Ricky Ray.
“I suppose that gives some insights as to how he thinks in this or that situation, but it’s easy to overthink all that,” said Campbell. “You want to keep the focus on the task at hand.”
Cross-pollination is inevitable in an eight-team league, but this matchup has it on multiple levels: kick returners Chad Owens and Larry Taylor both played on the 2009 Montreal championship team, as did Calgary defensive lineman Anwar Stewart and Toronto special-teamer Etienne Boulay.
“It’s a double-edged sword. Sure Chris [Jones] knows what they are all about, but they know him just as well,” said Boulay.
What’s clear is both Jones and Campbell have a lot of work on their hands.
The Stamps, winners of six straight, are the hottest team in the CFL – they’ve gone 9-2 since Labour Day.
The Argos have won four straight, but were among the worst home teams this season.
Ray was magnificent in last week’s win against the Alouettes in the East Division final. Running back Chad Kackert and Owens, the league’s most outstanding player, are Toronto’s key weapons, and both prospered against Montreal’s blitzing defence.
The challenge for Calgary will be in coping with the myriad formations and options in Milanovich’s offence, which is patterned on that of Alouettes coach Marc Trestman.
“At the end of the day we want to make sure they earn everything they get,” said Campbell. “We’ll have a few new wrinkles, the quarterbacks and offensive co-ordinators in this league are way too good to play a vanilla kind of scheme.”
In the West Division final against heavily favoured B.C., Calgary frequently dropped extra men back to confuse Lions quarterback Travis Lulay.
Jones’s game plan against Montreal involved disguising coverages and mixing zone looks into what is primarily a man-to-man defence.
The Argos were vulnerable against the run – which could augur well for Calgary power runner Jon Cornish – and the breakdowns downfield that went unpunished by Montreal could be costly against Calgary pivot Kevin Glenn and deep threat Maurice Price, who burned B.C. badly.
Having injured all-star cornerback Patrick Watkins back in the fold could help on that front – and in containing Calgary receiver Nik Lewis.
At the end of the day, Hufnagel said, “[Jones] will change things up, but it’s like ‘which bag [of tricks] are you going to pick from?’ ”
The surprises, then, will be few.
The Argos won both regular-season meetings between the teams. “We’ve grown as a football team since then, but so have they,” Hufnagel said. “It should be a great game.”