Hamilton Tiger-Cats’ Henry Burris, right, shown in this file photo, will be asked to quarterback an explosive offence that could cement a place in the 100th Grey Cup. (Chris Young/Canadian Press) Hamilton Tiger-Cats’ Henry Burris, right, shown in this file photo, will be asked to quarterback an explosive offence that could cement a place in the 100th Grey Cup. (Chris Young/Canadian Press)
Here’s our picks for the East, and as always, please put yours below (and remember if you pick records, they have to add up to 72 for the whole league).
1. Hamilton Tiger-Cats
2011 record: 8-10
(Our 2011 pick: 10-8)
Quarterback Henry Burris is out of purgatory and back in football heaven. Or, he’s just kidding himself about suddenly diminished talents at the age of 37.
Stay tuned. It sure is going to be fun finding out as the Cats will be presenting the Fastest Show on Earth, featuring a collection of cheetahs that could send this club all the way to the 100th Grey Cup.
New coach George Cortez, an old fart with 30 years of experience (including three with Burris back in Calgary), has put his head together with Bob O’Billovich and created an offence that will be worth the price of admission to the old cement pile at Ivor Wynne Stadium.
Watch those outside receivers because they will be sprinting down under Burris passes all season long. Sam Giguere, Chris Williams (last year’s top rookie), Bakari Grant, Aaron Kelly, and if you need possession catches there’s Andy Fantuz (2010′s top receiver while in Saskatchewan), and hoary vet Dave Stala.
The club took a hit when top off-season signing Martell Mallett, back from the NFL, went down for the year, but Avon Cobourne was waiting in the wings to come back, and he had almost 1,000 yards in 2010.
Quinton Porter is a capable backup pivot.
The line is a bit of a question mark because centre Marwan Hage is coming off knee surgery. He’s pronounced himself ready, but he’d say that if his head were rolling around over there somewhere.
Peter Dyakowski (Canada’s Smartest Man) was the team’s top lineman last year, and he’s back.
On defence, a strong group of backs (Dee Webb, Bo Smith, etc.) was further strengthened by the arrival of Geoff Tisdale in a trade during camp.
Linebackers Renauld Williams, Markeith Knowlton and Jamall Johnson are an excellent unit.
If you’re looking for problems, there might be one on the line, where Stevie Baggs was forced to pack his, and Justin Hickman went to the NFL. Jermaine McElveen, Shawn Crable and Greg Peach will have to pick up the slack.
We’re been touting this group for three years now, to no avail. As Bullwinkle J. Moose would say, this time … for sure.
2012 prediction: 11-7
2. Montreal Alouettes
2011 record: 10-8
(Our 2011 prediction: 11-7)
Traditionally fast starters and slow finishers in the regular season, the Larks look to be the opposite this time around.
Everything is still rosy on offence for head coach Marc Trestman, starting with old man river out there at quarterback, Anthony Calvillo. He’s slowing down, yes, and will turn 40 during the campaign, but there’s also the ever-ready Adrian McPherson to sub in when needed.
Brandon Whittaker, the league’s best rusher, is back. Jamel Richardson, the league best receiver, is back. There’s S.J. Green, Brian Bratton, Brandon London to throw to.
On the O-Line, they aren’t as sure-thing as before, but with Scott Flory and Josh Bourke running things they can still keep Calvillo out of trouble.
Then there’s the defence, the one that fell apart last year, overwhelmed by injuries and age and simply not ready to compete when the chips were down.
Five defensive backs were out with long-term injuries in 2011 and that’s where much of the focus has been for new coordinator Jeff Reinbold, who in this 50th anniversary year of the Beach Boys has definitely been around.
Dwight Anderson and Jerald Brown lead the DBs, with Kyries Hebert and Ed Gainey.
Chip Cox, Shea Emry and Rod Davis are strong linebackers, but the loss of Eric Wilson and Anwar Stewart on the line will be felt. Aaron Hunt has come in from B.C. to work with J.P. Bekasiak and Ventrell Jenkins. John Bowman starts on IR.
First, the defence has to stay healthy, then they have to gel. It’s going to take a while, so this club will have to score a lot of points.
2012 prediction: 9-9
3. Toronto Argonauts
2011 record: 6-12
(Our 2011 prediction: 10-8)
Let’s put aside old whatsisname from Edmonton and put the focus where it really lies on the Good Ship Argo.
New head coach Scott Milanovich plucked Chris Jones out of Calgary to coordinate a complete rebuild of the defence in hopes this club can challenge to play at home in the 100th Grey Cup. That’s a bit of stretch, but they are going to be interesting to watch.
To play for Jones, especially in the backfield, you have to be fast and able to man cover, because the front seven is charging the QB like Jason’s crew searching for the Golden Fleece.
That seven will begin upfront with returners Ronald Flemons, Ricky Foley and Kevin Huntley, plus newcomer Armond Armstead. Linebacking is headed by Brandon Isaac and Robert McCune (both in from Calgary), Marcus Ball and Jason Pottinger.
The backfield is almost completely new but for eight-year vet Jordan Younger, and here’s where it gets tough. The 6-foot-5 Patrick Watkins (54 NFL games), Ahmad Carroll (57 NFL games), T.J. Williams (arena football) and Pacino Horne (limited arena football) have to learn this CFL game in a hurry.
If this defence can’t get it together, what the offence does won’t matter much.
QB Ricky Ray comes in with two Grey Cup rings and a tremendous reputation, but he’s going to need weapons to throw at.
One of those will be Cory Boyd, who though still running out of the backfield will also be asked a la Pinball Clemons of years past, to catch the ball in the flats and take off with it.
Ray has Chad Kackert to run with it as well, so there are other options there.
Chad Owens (still learning the craft but improving), Andre Durie (most underated player in the league), Jason Barnes from Edmonton, Spencer Watt will all have to step up as receivers.
Owens must also continue his remarkable run of combined yards (3,345 last year) to keep Toronto in good field position.
After losing three regulars from the offensive line this is a rebuilding job around the stalwart Chris Van Zeyl and Jonathan St-Pierre.
Argos deserved their 6-12 mark last year because both the offence and defence was lousy. A lot of folks paid to have an opinion are saying they’ve fixed that.
By September we should be able to tell.
2012 prediction: 9-9
4. Winnipeg Blue Bombers
2011 record: 10-8
(Our 2011 prediction: 6-10)
All four East teams, says here, will make the playoffs this year, but somebody has to go west and that looks like the Bombers.
Nothing seems to be working out quite right at the edge of the prairie in 2012.
After much ballyhooing, the new stadium isn’t going to be ready and that’s significant because the Bombers chose to play their first four on the road when they thought the structure was merely delayed and they could back-end a bunch of home dates.
Big Blue has to slog its way through B.C., Montreal, Edmonton and Toronto before coming home on July 26. That’s tough. Argos played four of their first five on the road last year and wound up 1-4, digging a hole they couldn’t get out of.
Cut to start 2011, Chris Garrett came back to replace the injured Fred Reid and was terrific, but is now gone for the year himself after tearing an Achilles in practice. His replacement is Bloi-Dei Dorzon, from Jackson State, who is full of confidence but has almost no experience, even in college.
The offensive line is under construction with Brendan LaBatte (free agent) Obby Khan (retired) and Andre Douglas (injured) not available. Glenn January is also banged up but playing.
Much of Swaggerville has been broken up with Odell Willis sent off, Doug Brown retired and waiting for his inevitable Hall of Fame phone call, Joe Lobendahn released, Clint Kent released (really?) and Donald Oramasionwo a free agent.
This is not entirely bad, by the way, because Swaggerville was Distracting, Undisciplined, Mickey mouse and Boring (yes, that is an acrostic).
Defensive coordinator Tim Burke has Alex Hall, Rodney Fritz, Bryant Turner and Brandon Collier now as his line, with Brandon Stewart, Dustin Doe and Pierre-Luc Labbe at linebacker.
Merely fabulous Jovon Johnson (first DB to ever win most outstanding defender in the CFL), Jonathan Hefney, Johnny Sears, Alex Suber, Ian Logan are back and they’ll be solid.
Starting quarterbacks Buck Pierce and Alex Brink (they will both play when Pierce goes down) are solid, and they have veteran Terrence Edwards, Kito Poblah, the excellent Chris Matthews to throw to. But Greg Carr is gone to free agency.
Remember, this offence wasn’t very good even when it was healthy and had a running back.
Making any kind of playoff spot will be a nice achievement this time.
2012 prediction: 8-10