Almost All Good For the CFL
It was almost as if the CFL took the news of deteriorating TV ratings as a challenge.
So you want entertainment, do ya? The Hamilton Tiger-Cats and Montreal Alouettes delivered that and more Sunday afternoon in an afternoon of supersonic offence at the Big O in Montreal's east end, with the Ticats emerging with their first playoff win in a decade by a 52-44 overtime score.
Out west, the semifinal between the Calgary Stampeders and Edmonton Eskimos wasn't quite as wild, but it did come down the final minutes and contained intriguing storylines, with the Esks back in the post-season after missing last year and the Stamps, after opting to bench all-star quarterback Henry Burris for the final three weeks of the season, turning to Burris in the second half to try and mount a miracle comeback.
it didn't happen, with Edmonton pulling out a 33-19 win to advance to next weekend's western final in Vancouver against the British Columbia Lions. The Cats, meanwhile, move on to Winnipeg a.k.a. Swaggerville where the hardnosed Blue Bomber defence is unlikely to be as absolutely porous as was the injury-plagued Montreal defence.
It's been widely suggested that this is a year of parity in which any of the six playoff teams could win the Grey Cup, and Hamilton demonstrated that again on Sunday, although the Cats nearly blew the opportunity to end Montreal's two-year reign as CFL champs with a incredibly dumb time-count violation in the final seconds of fourth quarter that ultimately messed up the game-winning field goal attempt forced the game into OT tied 44-44.
Montreal quarterback Anthony Calvillo, nominated as the east's candidate for most outstanding player again this season, threw for a remarkable 513 yards in defeat, something Winnipeg's Buck Pierce undoubtedly was watching very closely.
If there was a down note on the day, it was the thousands and thousands of empty seats in both Montreal and Edmonton that even careful TV camera work couldn't hide. At the Olympic Stadium, the Als and Cats drew 33,501 fans, more than either team can fit in their usual home stadia but just over 50 per cent of the Big O's capacity. It was fairly well-established a long-time ago that the CFL just doesn't show well in these big parks when they can't fill them, something Toronto's Argonauts know all too well.
At Edmonton's Commonwealth Stadium, the crowd was reported as 30,183, but again, there were huge sections of the stadium completely unoccupied by customers. It just looks bad, whether CFL commish Mark Cohon or diehand three-down fans want to admit it or not, particularly in a year where the TV numbers were down and the product was, generally speaking, fairly good but nothing to remember.
The good news for the CFL is that it will be a sellout in the last game ever to be played at Winnipeg's Canad Inns Stadium, with the Bombers set to move to new digs at the University of Manitoba next season. And in Vancouver at the beautifully renovated B.C. Place? There's no excuse for empty seats, not with the Lions red hot and hoping to beat the Esks and advance to the Grey Cup game in the very same building a week later. But we shall see.
Both the Tiger-Cats and Eskimos will go into next weekend as underdogs. The Cats finished third in the east, and Sunday's win was only their third victory away from Ivor Wynne Stadium this season. The Bombers are unlikely to play host to a shootout, so it's worth noting Kevin Glenn and the boys are 1-10 this season in games in which they scored less than 30 points.
That said, the Cats used pretty much every offensive weapon at their disposal in Montreal, shredding the Als defence in the air and on the ground. With the game on the line, Calvillo tried one last pass to running back Brandon Whittaker, who dropped the pass to end the Alouette season with a fourth consecutive loss.
We'll see whether this finally marks the end of a dominant era in Montreal football. Calvillo, at 39, can obviously still light it up, but something went south with these Als in the final month of the season, and GM Jim Popp is going to have to figure out what that was.
Edmonton survived a rollercoaster of a season, starting 5-0 then falling into a dog-fight with the rest of the pack in the west. Two touchdowns in the final four minutes of the first half against Calgary provided all the necessary offence, and you surely have to wonder why, after Drew Tate led the Stamps to three victories at the end of the season following a controversial quarterback change, that coach John Hufnagel was so quick to give Tate the yank after 30 minutes and turn to Burris again. Burris didn't have any more answers than Tate did, although the key play of the first half might have been when an untouched Tate fumbled the ball and the Eskimos returned it for a 75-yard TD.
The worst news for Edmonton is that star Canadian running back Jerome Messam went down with a knee injury in the third quarter. Messam, picked up from B.C. last June after running into disciplinary problems with Wally Buono's team, is an uncertain starter at best for the western final.