October 2016 – “The Elephant in the Room”

When one hears a reference to “the elephant in the room” it’s generally accepted that something “bad” is going on, that most EVERYONE is aware of it, but NOBODY is willing to talk about it. Following the Alouettes, 38-11 drubbing of their Eastern rivals, the Toronto Argonauts, the “elephant” comes in the form of ONE simple question: just how BAD were Jim Popp and Anthony Calvillo?!? As “Zeke” Zurkowski puts it,

The elephant in the room, of course, is none of this was accomplished when Popp and Calvillo were calling the shots — or at least not within any degree of regularity. 

And while journalists may be afraid of losing their jobs, or their access, and players must protect their careers…I have NO such concerns.

I was recently implored to stop the “hate” about Anthony Calvillo. I suppose it’s time to explain, in detail, my problem with Anthony Calvillo as quarterback, and most recently as “coach”. A sort of “zombie culpa”…if you will. So let’s DO THIS:

When I first noticed Anthony Calvillo, he seemed to be a fairly mobile*, fairly accurate young passer. By that time the Las Vegas Posse were a thing of the past, as was the ill-suited USA expansion of the CFL…thankfully. Calvillo hadn’t yet been tarred and feathered and run out of Steeltown (Hamilton for the uninitiated)…nor had he landed on the shores of this fair city.

By the time he found his way to the Alouettes, Calvillo was much as we remember him: a fairly accurate gunslinger of a quarterback, with a BIG windup and next to ZERO mobility. A pure pocket passer with little or NO ability to escape the rush. And so began the “culture” of pocket passing for the Montreal Alouettes…one that was EXTREMELY difficult to put down…hence the epithet “zombie”.

In all my posts and comments, dating back to the year before Marc Trestman’s arrival, when Calvillo sported a 1-5 Grey Cup record…I ONLY had ONE strategy: “go  for the head”. With Cato and Chapdelaine’s 38-11 thrashing of the Toronto Argonauts, that strategy can FINALLY be deemed successful. Huzzah! I claim whatever MINUSCULE credit I am due.

So after ALL that time, and ALL those words, permit me a short, but EXTREMELY disrespectful song…the dance I’ll keep to myself:

Ding Dong the Zombie’s Gone
Which Old Zombie?
The Elephant Zombie
Ding Dong, the Zombie Elephant’s GONE.

Hey…if I’m going to be (unfairly) accused of Calvillo-Hate…I might as well get as much out of it as I can.

Before Trestman’s arrival in Montreal, Calvillo was arguably on his way OUT. With a one-in-six Grey Cup record…the talk in this city was that the “Beasts of the East” were fine when beating up on inferior East Division teams. BUT when Calvillo and the Als met REAL competition in the form of AUTHENTIC West Division defences, they crumbled and LOST. Calvillo CHOKED.

My admittedly PERSONAL preference for “complete” quarterbacks** brought me a perspective that focused on Calvillo’s immobility, and his vulnerability to the rush. Regardless, AC’s reputation for choking in the biggest game of the year had reached such a fevered pitch, that I have my own account of Montrealers, expressing their disdain and frustration:

I decided to go out to a bar, to watch the Alouettes take on the Saskatchewan Roughriders in the CFL’s 97th Grey Cup. My memories of the first half are foggy enough. However I DO remember Calvillo having his usual “under-achieving” moments of Grey Cup ugliness. What I remember MOST however…the bar I was in, somewhere on St Laurent street above Rene Levesque, surrounded by a fairly dense crowd of Alouettes supporters, was almost EMPTY by the end of the 1st half. For these Als fans, this was just another Calvillo “chokefest”. Time to go home, lick our wounds, and live with Calvillo’s sputtering and embarrassing 1-6 Grey Cup Record.

Then something happened.

One can only imagine Calvillo’s thought processes, down 27-11, with 10 minutes left in the the 4th quarter, staring football ignominy straight in the face. But Anthony Calvillo pulled off a MIRACLE, and in so doing, and with the generous assistance of Saskatchewan’s “13th man”, saved the day and his reputation…for ALL TIME.

AC had won his 2nd Grey Cup, 28-27 on a last second field goal. I certainly remember effusing online about AC’s amazing comeback. I was DETERMINED to give Calvillo EVERY credit he deserved…knowing how hard I’d been on the guy up to that point.

However, the Alouettes success in this game, and the Grey Cup win the following year, did NOT come without cost. A fairly SIGNIFICANT cost.

General managers will often put a “power package” together when attempting to entice a prospective Head Coaching candidate. This will often include and delineate the separation of  powers…who is in control of what, and to what extent. WHATEVER package that is eventually proposed, the GM always retains partial control over what players are on the team, and to some extent, what players eventually see the field. This is CRUCIAL in permitting the GM to evaluate player progress, especially at KEY positions like quarterback.

Unfortunately, in attempting to bring a legitimate Head Coach to Montreal, GM Jim Popp ceded COMPLETE control over who played on the offensive side of the ball under Marc Trestman. ESPECIALLY when it came to deciding what quarterback played WHEN. One can certainly understand Trestman wanting complete control of his offence coming in. HOWEVER, in capitulating COMPLETE control over personnel on the offensive side of the ball, Popp made a Faustian bargain with the devil, selling his Alouettes’ soul and the team’s future in the process.

And while I spent YEARS on various sites around the CFL, imploring my fellow Alouettes fans to push to get our backup quarterbacks SOME playing time…the VERY SUGGESTION that their beloved Calvillo step off the field for WHATEVER reason, however valid…brought a crapstorm down on my head the likes of which I have NEVER seen…in an ENTIRE lifetime of shit disturbing.

EVEN when up by 2, 3, 4 touchdowns or MORE, Trestman REFUSED to take Anthony Calvillo off the field, and give his backups some MUCH needed and invaluable playing time and experience. It became PARTICULARLY onerous when even knobs like Rod Black (yes…of the drinking game of the same name) would REGULARLY wonder aloud what Trestman was playing at?

There are two theories about that…NOT that they are necessarily mutually exclusive:

The first revolves around Adrian McPherson, Calvillo’s backup for YEARS, short yardage specialist, heir apparent to AC and “pine riding” expert extraordinaire. McPherson was embroiled in a scandal that ended his college career. He was accused NOT ONLY of stealing a blank cheque from a car dealership, using it and then pocketing the money…there were rumours he used the money to bet on his own team. Pete Rose will tell you how seriously “player betting” is viewed in professional sports. And while McPherson was never convicted of the second, more serious charge…he was kicked off the team, his BRILLIANT college career in tatters.

After a successful tryout with the New Orleans Saints, as 3rd string quarterback in training camp, McPherson was run over by the opposing team’s mascot and his golf cart. The Alouettes picked McPherson up from the football “Siberia” that is the Arena League…and strung the young , and then NOT so young quarterback along for the majority of what would have been his playing career.

McPherson wasn’t the only backup to wilt in the shadow of Trestman and Calvillo’s success and ambition, Chris Leak immediately springing to mind. But he was the MAJOR casualty…OTHER than the Alouettes’ quarterback succession itself. Rumours of “blacklisting” have always surrounded McPherson’s career. All we know for sure is that the quarterback that DESTROYED the Hamilton Tiger Cats on THIS night, BARELY ever regained the field for his ENTIRE CFL career.

From the playcalling, Milanovich seemed determined to BREAK with zombie tradition, and call a game conducive to Adrian’s talents. The game was CRUCIAL at the time, with both the Argonauts and Ticats pushing to join the Alouettes at the top of the Division. It ALSO marked one of the LAST times that the Alouettes’ “pocket passing mentality” was challenged in any way on this team. Shame.

The second rumour revolved around Marc Trestman. Trestman never hid his ambitions. He wanted to be a Head Coach in the NFL. It was WELL known that his contract included an “opt-out” clause, in case Trestman was offered a position, last minute.

Trestman is a smart man. He looked at Anthony Calvillo, realised that together they might break gridiron football’s all time passing records. How could Trestman fail to reap the rewards then? As the “quarterback whisperer” of the greatest passer to EVER put on cleats Trestman could take his pick of plum HC jobs in the NFL. In this context…it makes perfect sense that Trestman would play Calvillo EVERY down he possibly could, harvesting EVERY yard from that golden arm.

As to the “quarterback succession” on this team, despite Trestman’s YEARLY assurances that McPherson was the Alouettes “quarterback of the future” and would see MUCH MORE playing time, by the time the Alouettes had AGAIN clinched the East title, and threw a “junk” game/bone to appease McPherson, and presumably allow him to strut his stuff, McPherson had had perhaps 5-10 passing attempts ALL season…every season!!! One can imagine his frustration.

Was Trestman under secret orders to tank McPherson’s Career? Did those orders involve an ultimate reward…say the Head Coaching job with the Chicago Bears? If so, one can state with ABSOLUTE certainty that Jay Cutler’s GREATEST achievement has been as the physical embodiment of KARMA itself. Trestman got what he deserved.

While I can’t state with ANY certainty which of the two theories is correct, BOTH, or NEITHER…the fact remains that the Alouettes, during the Trestman years, TOTALLY ignored the normal process of developing young quarterbacks behind an established veteran.

And so…the Quarterback Carousel started grinding away.

I’ve already mentioned the “culture” of the pocket passer that revolved around Anthony Calvillo. There’s no question that Chris Leak, Adrian McPherson and a handful of Alouettes quarterbacks were “square pegged” into that round hole. There was frequent mention, on the few occasions when Calvillo was injured, of the awkwardness of forcing mobile pivots like Leak and McPherson into the constraining womb of the pocket, when so much MORE was possible. THIS McPherson start against the dreaded “Swaggerville” defence of the Winnipeg Blue Bombers is a perfect case in point:

From reports, McPherson cornered OC Scott Milanovich at halftime, declared his intention to break with the game plan and put the team on his shoulders. I’m sure the move didn’t win any points with his coaches. But McPherson shredded the Bomber defence with his legs, and led a respectable, if ultimately unsuccessful comeback.

When, in the preseason PRIOR to Anthony Calvillo’s retirement, it was announced that Anthony Calvillo, who appeared to many to be immune to father time, could CONCEIVABLY play another 5 seasons, McPherson bolted for the Arena League. At least they let him play (and set SEVERAL league records that year).

The Alouettes were left WITHOUT a backup quarterback, and as Calvillo struggled to a 1-7 record that season under Dan Hawkins, the Alouettes parachuted in Heisman winning quarterback Troy Smith. Mysteriously, after a seemingly innocuous sack by Argos defensive end, Rickey Foley, Calvillo was “concussed” and his playing days were over.

But the story doesn’t END there, oh my children. DESPITE a BRIEF renaissance when Jeff Garcia took hold of quarterback Jonathan Crompton, and showed EVERYONE who cared to look the VALUE of great coaching, the Alouettes offence has seemed stuck in amber for successive seasons…mired through multiple Head Coaches and offensive coordinators in the sticky gooiness of an offensive philosophy that simply WOULDN’T DIE. A zombie offence, if you will.

But this “zombie offence” reached it’s inverse apex when Anthony Calvillo, who only two weeks prior had been promoted from receivers coach to quarterbacks coach…was THEN anointed co-offensive coordinator, and the team’s playcaller. From a relatively minor positional coaching job to the second most important coaching position on a football team…all in 14 days…in the tenth week of Calvillo’s coaching career! I remember joking at the time: at THIS pace he’ll be appointed Cosmic Overlord of the Multiverse, before the end of the season. MORE than one lol was heard on that day…I can assure you.

USE whatever analogy you will: the amber had solidified to a consistency resembling undead DIAMOND. The zombie offence was FINALLY led by the zombie for which/whom it was created. ONE WAY OR ANOTHER…it was clear that this situation was going to DESTROY my beloved Alouettes. And as I mentioned before, and as most ALREADY know, the ONLY solution is ONE SHOT…straight to the head. Metaphorically of course.

So that’s how I’ve spent some minor part of the last DECADE. Taking pot shots at the INSANITY of this Alouettes team. NEVER fully believing it could EVER be over. NEVER daring to hope that I’d be analysing a game wherein Rakeem Cato was utilized as he was MEANT to be used. It’s a gift. And I don’t plan to waste it.

So here goes. My first attempt at appraising and PRAISING an Alouettes Head Coach and playcaller…in a VERY long time:

 

When watching these videos, I want you to pay special attention to the left side of the Argos defensive line. In this first instance, Chapdelaine has called a read-option for young Cato. Cato sees the Argos are stacking the box, and the left defensive end crashes down on Sutton. Cato keeps the ball and scoots for twelve yards.

On this next play…having already been burnt on the read-option, 2 defensive linemen on their left side crash down HARD on Cato. Cato hands the ball off to Sutton, who bulls his way through the vacated left side of the Argos line, and runs for 20.

By this point the Argos dline has NO idea what to do. If they rush hard up the middle Chapdelaine’s rolled Cato enough times they KNOW they have to worry about contain. And with the running game giving them fits, their best bet is to keep Cato in the pocket, force him to throw, and hope he misses a read or two.

Look at how wide #40 Lemon is. Cato’s wanderings have NOT gone unnoticed. One guy’s too busy spying Cato to pose any threat. The rest of the rush is busy clogging up the middle in case our running back gets the rock. And the left defensive end blows wide past Cato. Aw. Look at Shawn Lemon throw his arms down in frustration. Cato’s got plenty of time to hit Cunningham for the score.

As masterful as the playcalling was on this drive, and in many other sequences during the game, there were STILL too many OBVIOUS passing downs, too many 2nd and long BLITZING downs where Chapdelaine had Cato drop into the pocket, at the mercy of the ravenous hordes yet again. Strange enough to say on a night where Cato was sacked 6 times, this ONE series of downs stands as a perfect example of how to use misdirection, and your quarterback’s innate athletic abilities, to confuse defenses, put them on their heels, and leave defenders with NO good options. And Cato DID have enough time to throw 4 touchdowns. Hard to argue with THAT.

You’d like to think your offensive line could hold up under the pressure of the occasional 2nd and long play, however. Looking back, it’s EASY to remember whole series’ of games wherein Calvillo was kept “clean”, untouched and unharmed for the ENTIRE duration. Jim Popp’s DEVOTION to the concept of a DOMINANT and All Canadian offensive line had as much to do with the Alouettes success during the Calvillo era, as anything else. What could Rakeem Cato do with THAT level of security? We can only imagine. But with 6 sacks on THIS successful of a day, you HAVE to wonder if Chapdelaine’s ALREADY been on the phone to Popp about some reinforcements to protect his young pivot.

One OBVIOUS option would be to have more audibles available for Cato, out of every passing set. Rolling him left or right, setting up some kind of screen, or quick release pass…to beat the pressure. No doubt that’s coming. However, I imagine additions to the playbook will progress at a somewhat conservative pace…this late into the season. Something to look forward to: Cato changing the play at the line of scrimmage. Rolling to his left, away from a blitzing linebacker. Twisting his upper body as he glides into a perfect throw into the endzone. To Sam Giguere. Yay US!!!

No doubt there will be progression. I look forward to what Chapdelaine, Cato and the Alouettes offence will come up with as this season winds down…and hopefully into the future.

Als owner Bob Wetenhall recently made reference to a radical change in the franchise’s coaching philosophy. While I’m not sure he meant it in precisely this way, Chapdelaine’s creative approach, tailoring the attack to the talents and skills of the quarterback, SURELY spells the end of the dreaded “zombie offence”.

Elephant zombie. Zombie elephant. What’s the difference? It’s FINALLY GONE and left the DANG room. And who can argue with that?

 

*Hard to believe, even for me. However the ABOVE video offers proof, and PERHAPS evidence as to WHAT eventually happened to that mobility…

**I ALWAYS go back to Matt Dunigan’s contention that it took him 6-7 years to learn to read defenses in the CFL. As he learned, he used his legs to attack…and keep himself from getting EVEN more banged up in the pocket than he already was. A quarterback who can run is ONE thing. But a quarterback who’s learning to read defenses and manage the pocket…and can ALSO be an effective running threat… can bring SO MUCH more. Assuming he has the intelligence and acuity to master the pocket AND the athleticism to threaten with his legs…ONLY then can he be considered a COMPLETE quarterback. Think Doug Flutie or Warren Moon or our very own Tracy Ham. I have some “small” hope that Cato may some day join that PANTHEON of CFL greats.

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2 thoughts on “October 2016 – “The Elephant in the Room”

  1. I’m a ticat lifer. Season ticket holder 1989-2004. I sat through the cacophony that rained down on Calvillo during his two seasons there. He was a great pocket-passer with a terrible line, even then . Alouettes problems start there. That doesn’t mean they end there. On another note, teams should always include plays like you show, but they can’t be ineffective from the pocket and expect success. I’m sure you would agree that balance is the key to a successful offence. You are correct in your assessment of the Als’ defence vs the rest of the league. I think the Als can be a dark horse contender in the East, if this move didn’t happen too late. I’m hopeful that Chap works out.

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  2. Oh balance, absolutely. The key is to keep the opposing defence guessing. You CAN’T do that if you drop your quarterback back into the pocket on EVERY SINGLE DOWN…like Calvillo did the 1st half of his LAST game as Alouettes play caller. Unfortunately, with the Calvillo offence, defences knew EXACTLY where to find Kevin Glenn, and then Rakeem Cato before every snap. That’s why we were leading the league in sacks allowed. Chapdelaine understands that you have to keep defences off balance, and the best way of doing that is to use your quarterback as creatively as his talents will allow.
    What gets pretty exciting is when your quarterback actually possesses the talent to do the kinds of things that Doug Flutie, Matt Dunigan, Tracy Ham and so many other “complete” quarterbacks can do. A few seasons of Chapdelaine directing talents like Cato and Adams Jr. and who knows where we may end up, or what kind of growth these young quarterbacks might see?
    I don’t want to get ahead of myself, but there’s sort of an “emerging from the dark ages” going on in this town. Actual hope is as shocking as a cold shower, but it explains the full house last week. This city is READY for the next push to a Cup.
    The Als are certainly putting in the work, with practices 4 days in a row.
    So things are looking up.

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