Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Grey Cup is in our blood, our mud, our beer

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From Mosca to Flutie to Ploen to Lancaster to Walby and Buono, the Canadian Football League is what it is because it's nationwide with a soul that is distinctly Canuck.

On the Prairies, across the Rockies, in La Belle Province and down among the big shoulders of Ontario's cities, this game is played in our backlots, high schools, campuses and biggest stadiums.

Different rules, rich in history, short on flash. Kind of like the people who live on our farms and in our small towns and towered cities. It's still a place our boys next door can find a niche or maybe even a slice of stardom.

We don't need to call the Grey Cup super to know it's worth a fight. It's instinct. It's in our blood and in our mud. Yes, our beer too.

Here's our weekly instalment of Nine across the Nation.

Montreal Alouettes: Let's see if 20 seconds is enough for this offence to get its deal together play in and play out. Ryan Dinwiddie is a smart guy and a hard worker, but he's going from young quarterback coach to rookie offensive co-ordinator and he's doing it with Troy Smith and all 114 of his CFL career passing attempts. Lots of responsibility and very little experience.

Ottawa Redblacks: Never has a bye week been more in need and Week 1 of the regular season doesn't begin until this Thursday. The Redblacks defeated the Alouettes last weekend in a pre-season game and celebrated like they'd won the Grey Cup. Everything, including winning together, is new to them. They'll try to use this extra week to continue learning one another's names and how to walk and talk like a CFL team.

Toronto Argonauts: Still one of the sharpest offensive teams in the league but wholesale changes on defence make the Argos a question mark. The biggest question is the defensive line, where the only returning starter is Cleyon Laing. Generating a pass rush is key in the CFL and if this group can't get offences off the field it's going to be tough for quarterback Ricky Ray and his crew to do their thing. But don't forget, defensive co-ordinator Tim Burke has been to four of the last six Grey Cups and has something to prove after a rough run as head coach in Winnipeg.

Hamilton Tiger-Cats: Pretty simple here and it's all about Zach Collaros. It's one thing to come off the bench as a backup to Ricky Ray and another to have the weight and expectations of a Grey Cup contender on your shoulders. It's not good enough for Collaros to win five or six games during a stretch in the middle of the season. He needs to lead Hamilton to a minimum of 10 wins and at least one playoff game. Get inside head coach Kent Austin's mind and without question anything less than a Grey Cup appearance will be a failure. Keep an eye on offensive tackles Brian Simmons and Joel Figueroa. Simmons is a technician and Figueroa is a mauler.

Winnipeg Blue Bombers: Questions at quarterback, questions at receiver and big questions on the offensive line are going to make life tough for the Bombers. Rookie head coach Mike O'Shea is going to have to find a way to manufacture points if he's to pick up some early wins. A big test will be to temper his zeal for winning. O'Shea can't abide laziness and mental mistakes but he must be patient at the same time. There's some growth that must occur before the Bombers can truly expect to win games.

Saskatchewan Roughriders: Darian Durant had a cast of stars surrounding him last season but now he's going to have to get it done with far smaller names touching the ball. Weston Dressler, Kory Sheets, Geroy Simon and Jock Sanders are all gone. Durant relied heavily on Dressler and Sheets in the Riders run to the Grey Cup last season and in some ways the complementary players made a star of the quarterback. Now we'll see if Durant can make stars out of his new cast.

Calgary Stampeders: Week 1 and the Stamps have a quarterback controversy. Bo Levi Mitchell and Drew Tate were both ordinary in the pre-season and as of this writing Calgary still hadn't declared a starter. If it's Mitchell, head coach John Hufnagel will have to figure out a way to keep testy Tate in line. If it's Tate, Hufnagel will have to find a way to keep Mitchell ready while the club holds its breath waiting to see if Tate can stay healthy. Keep an eye on 6-7, 300-pound rookie offensive lineman Brander Craighead. Physical and savage, he's going to start and is an early candidate for rookie of the year.

Edmonton Eskimos: Mike Reilly can't win games from his back. There are questions in Edmonton, but the biggest is the work of the Esks' offensive line. Enter offensive co-ordinator Steve McAdoo, who is moving up from several postings as an offensive line coach across the league. One thing McAdoo knows is pass protection and there will be lots of attention paid to this area. Another pot to watch will be the relationship between rookie head coach Chris Jones and his players. "Jones is not your friend. He believes it's the system and not the players. If you aren't buying in, not getting the job done or not part of his vision, you're as good as gone," said a longtime CFL insider on Sunday. "How the players respond to Jones and his ways will be something to keep an eye on. He's got a lot of power now and how he handles it and how others respond is a new wrinkle."

B.C. Lions: Wally Buono is nothing if not prepared and when he swung a trade for veteran quarterback Kevin Glenn this off-season, the future of Travis Lulay should have been immediately questioned. Buono traded the fifth-overall pick in this year's draft to Ottawa for the rights to Glenn. That's a steep price for a team with an established starter in place. But Lulay had shoulder surgery in the off-season and already the whispers about the timing of his return are rampant. One thing is certain, Glenn will open the season as B.C.'s starter. For an organization feeling the pressure of two straight one-and-done playoff appearances, as well as the expectations that come along with hosting the Grey Cup, the heat will only get turned up if quarterbacking play becomes an issue.

gary.lawless@freepress.mb.ca Twitter: @garylawless

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 23, 2014 C1

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About Gary Lawless

Gary Lawless is the Free Press sports columnist and co-host of the Hustler and Lawless show on TSN 1290 Winnipeg and www.winnipegfreepress.com
Lawless began covering sports as a rookie reporter at The Chronicle-Journal in Thunder Bay after graduating from journalism school at Durham College in Ontario.
After a Grey Cup winning stint with the Toronto Argonauts in the communications department, Lawless returned to Thunder Bay as sports editor.
In 1999 he joined the Free Press and after working on the night sports desk moved back into the field where he covered pro hockey, baseball and football beats prior to being named columnist.

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