Gauging another person’s degree of sincerity is no simple proposition.
Particularly when said individual is a savvy football coach, and the moment you’re attempting to evaluate happens to be a few days before a playoff game.
There’s gamesmanship at play, of course, and the inwardly-aimed psychological conditioning that all winning coaches practice.
Which brings us to Marc Trestman of the Montreal Alouettes.
On Sunday, his CFL team will face the Toronto Argonauts, led by former Montreal associate head coach Scott Milanovich, in the East Division final.
It’s the first time Trestman will face his former acolyte in a winner-take-all playoff contest – not that he’s interested in delving into that portrayal.
“It’s not Scott against Marc or Marc against Scott, I’m just terribly excited for Scott and the job he’s done and the job [Argos general manager] Jim Barker has done there,” he said Monday.
To hear Trestman speak about his opponents is to catalogue a ceaseless series of compliments; in the postseason, the effusiveness reaches almost Victorian levels – if reputable folk still bowed and doffed their hats, he would do both, crisply.
“They have a lot of forces there,” Trestman said. “Who do you want to keep your eye on? Do you want to keep it on [receiver Maurice] Mann? On [wideout Dontrelle] Inman? On [receiver] Chad [Owens]? On [quarterback] Ricky [Ray]? On [running back Chad] Kackert? You have to stop the run, and you’ve got to stop a guy who’s like Houdini with the ball, and that’s Ricky Ray.”
Despite Trestman’s impeccable manners, this is a showdown between teacher and pupil, two men who have spent long hours preparing for similar circumstances and who have an innate sense of how the other thinks and works.
Though Milanovich was the lone holdover assistant when Trestman took the Montreal job in 2008 – the pair were nodding acquaintances having bumped into each other in the NFL – they grew quite close over four years and two CFL championships (2009 and ’10).
So listen a little more closely and something else emerges: The Als had an inkling they might be facing a slightly different version of themselves at a key moment. Which is why they’ve been working on an overhaul of their offence for the past month. There are new formations, sets, passing options – all of them designed to confuse anyone who feels any familiarity with Trestman’s modus operandi.
“It’s not what [Argos defensive co-ordinator] Chris Jones or [Milanovich] have seen us do for most of the time we’ve played against them,” Trestman said. “Their offence right now is completely different than ours. Their offence is much more similar to what we ran the first 3 1/2, four years when we were here together. Because of the personnel changes, we’ve dramatically, dramatically changed our offence in a number of ways.”
That’s true, in that deep threat Brandon London is out injured, as is all-purpose tailback Brandon Whitaker. While hefty running back Chris Jennings doesn’t present as much of a pass-catching threat, receivers Jamel Richardson and S.J. Green remain key parts of an offence that is still piloted by ageless quarterback Anthony Calvillo.
That combination is a formidable one, and this is a tough ask of the Argos. Particularly since the Montreal coaches have had two weeks to plot strategy.
Since Trestman became the Als head coach, the team has played in the Grey Cup in each of the previous years it finished first in its division; the Als have also won all three playoff games when they’ve had two weeks to prepare (by contrast, Trestman’s record in games following regular-season bye weeks is 2-3).
Asked if it was an advantage for the Montreal defence – which will be key to any hopes the Alouettes have of winning Sunday – to have practised against much of what Milanovich has devised over the past four years, Trestman demurred.
“What our players are seeing [in practice] is completely different from what Toronto is running,” he said.
Maybe. Having inspired the Argos offensive schemes, Trestman is uniquely placed to advise defensive co-ordinator Jeff Reinebold on likely adjustments and wrinkles.
Fundamentally, this will be a contest decided by which quarterback executes their offence more flawlessly – the Als faced Ray once in the regular-season, and lost – and which defence is best able to cope with offences both teams understand all too well.
“Scott and his team won one against us, we won two, I don’t look at it as ‘head coaching wins,’ I never have,” Trestman said. “This is a different time, it’s not who you play, it’s when you play them.”
A sentiment spoken with great sincerity.