These are strange days for the Montreal Alouettes and Edmonton Eskimos.
A decade ago, they were the cream of the Canadian Football League crop, meeting each other in three Grey Cup games in a four-year span from 2002 to 2005.
Now, they are last in their respective divisions, both with 1-3 records.
Both will be under pressure to win when the Eskimos and Alouettes meet Thursday night at Percival Molson Stadium, even if neither side will call it a must-win game only five weeks into the season.
“We’ve been hearing a lot of buzz from people thinking this is a win-or-die game and it’s not,” said Montreal defensive end John Bowman. “It’s Game 5, and we’ll approach it with that mentality.
“We can’t make it bigger than it is because we’ve still got 13 games to play.”
Edmonton coach Kavis Reed added that “we haven’t played a third of the season yet and the biggest focus is to get the two points.”
It may be bigger than that for Montreal, where there has been speculation that a fourth loss in a row could lead to the firing of new coach Dan Hawkins, or his offensive co-ordinator Mike Miller, or both.
The Alouettes’ offence, which is stacked with talent and led by CFL all-time passing leader Anthony Calvillo, has shown only brief moments of effectiveness as it struggles with a system devised by coaches with no previous Canadian football experience.
When asked if the team would be playing to save the coaches’ jobs, Calvillo said: “We’re just trying to get back on a winning schedule. The coaches put together a great game plan and it’s up to us to go out and execute it. For us, we just want to get back on the winning track, period.”
However, he noted that two men with extensive CFL experience, adviser to the head coach Doug Berry and offensive quality control coach Ryan Dinwiddie, a former quarterback, were now involved in devising plays.
The Alouettes sprang to a 24-0 first-quarter lead in Calgary last week, but were held to three points the rest of the way in a 38-27 loss. They put up only a total of 25 points in their two previous games.
Calvillo has four first-class receivers, but only S.J. Green is having a good start with 18 catches for 307 yards and three touchdowns. Veteran Arland Bruce was been fine, but Jamel Richardson, who led the CFL with 1,777 yards only two seasons ago, has been held to only 127 yards in four games. Brandon London has been invisible.
“l continue to run the plays that are called,” said Calvillo. “I’ve joked that it’s up to our offensive co-ordinator to make sure everybody stays happy.
“It’s a challenge because we have a lot of weapons. It would help if we could stay on the field and be more consistent. Then everybody’s going to get their share of opportunities.”
The positive side for Montreal is that the defence, which struggled last season, and the special teams, which were atrocious, have been solid and have kept games close.
The Eskimos aren’t getting blown out either, but are coming off a pair of losses to the B.C. Lions, including a 31-21 setback on Saturday.
Quarterback Mike Reilly, still finding his feet in his first year as a starter, said his right elbow that swelled up against the Lions was fine and he doesn’t anticipate it being a problem against Montreal.
“We’re doing some positive things for a new offence with a new offensive co-ordinator,” said Reilly. “We’re learning from our mistakes and improving every week.
“I think it’s going to start coming together pretty quickly now, and once that happens, I think we’ll be a tough team to stop.”
Montreal has been a thorn in Edmonton’s side in recent years. The Eskimos have lost six in a row to the Alouettes over the last three seasons and have not beaten them in Montreal since 2007, which is six in a row including a playoff game in 2008.
“Some say it’s time zones — we live in the second largest country in the world,” said Reed. “But I think it’s more that if you talk about it a lot, it becomes part of your psyche.
“History does not repeat itself unless you allow it to.”
The short week of preparation moved Hawkins to break from the Alouettes routine of having a “walk-through” the day before a game. Instead, they had the team out on the field for a combination of walk-through and practice.
But former Eskimos running back Jerome Messam was not there.
Asked if Messam will play, Hawkins said: “We’ll see how he is right now. We don’t know right now.”
Asked if he has an injury, he said: “He’s got a something.”
Then punter Burke Dales, who was released by the Eskimos on Monday, showed up and started stretching at the side of the field.
Asked if that was Dales, Hawkins said: “Where? I don’t think so. No.”
It was Dales. The former Concordia Stinger booted punts under the supervision of Alouettes special teams co-ordinator Ray Rychleski for about 30 minutes.
It seems the Alouettes are trying him out, but Dales only said: “The workout went well. Nothing’s settled. I don’t want to comment right now until I figure things out.”
Over the last two decades, the Alouettes have had one kicker do both the punting and placekicking in order to save a roster spot. That is currently Sean Whyte, who looked surprised but kept quiet about seeing a punting specialist on the field.