CFL East preview: Tiger-Cats hope Evans can lead team over final hurdle

Hamilton Tiger-Cats quarterback Dane Evans. (Frank Gunn/CP)

For the first time since 2015, a West team did not cross over to the CFL East playoffs last year – meaning there was a degree of improvement for the latter division in 2021.

However, it did not result in a Grey Cup, with the Winnipeg Blue Bombers winning their second championship in a row over the Hamilton Tiger-Cats – marking the third consecutive triumph for the West Division.

Considering the quick turnover in the CFL, it’s no surprise that none of the head coaches or starting quarterbacks in the East Division have guided their teams to a Grey Cup title in their respective roles.

The Ticats fell just short last year, losing 33-25 in overtime on home field in the Grey Cup game after getting blown out two years earlier by the same Blue Bombers in the title tilt — the 2020 CFL season was cancelled because of COVID-19.

This year, two of the four opening-day quarterbacks have changed, while all four head coaches return.

Here’s a look at the East Division with teams listed in order of predicted finish:

Hamilton Tiger-Cats linebacker Simoni Lawrence. (CP Photo)

HAMILTON TIGER-CATS

Last season: 8-6, second in East Division, lost in Grey Cup

Head coach: Orlondo Steinauer (23-9 in two seasons, two losses in Grey Cup)

Starting quarterback: Dane Evans (Entering fourth season in CFL, all with Hamilton)

The skinny

While they’ve fallen one win short of breaking the CFL’s longest Grey Cup drought the past two seasons, the Ticats clearly have been trending in the right direction under Steinauer after posting losing records the previous three seasons.

Rumoured to be heading back to his home state to become defensive co-ordinator of the University of Washington during Grey Cup week last year, the former CFL star defensive back instead stayed in his adopted home of Hamilton with the Ticats, adding the title of president of football operations to his resume.

Evans becomes the clear-cut top quarterback after spending the last two seasons rotating with Jeremiah Masoli (who signed with Ottawa this off-season).

Receiver Brandon Banks, the 2019 CFL most outstanding player, and top defensive lineman Ja’Gared Davis opted to go down the QEW and sign with the Toronto Argonauts this off-season, but the Ticats maintain a strong core (led by vocal linebacker and fan favourite Simoni Lawrence) and have to be considered the team to beat in the East after capturing the past two division titles.

Argos quarterback McLeod Bethel-Thompson. (CP Photo)

TORONTO ARGONAUTS

Last season: 9-5, first in East Division, lost in division final

Coach: Ryan Dinwiddie (9-5 in one season, lost in division final)

Starting quarterback: McLeod Bethel-Thompson (Entering fifth season in CFL, all with Toronto)

The skinny

After overhauling the roster and coaching staff heading into 2021, the Argos emerged as an improved outfit, but couldn’t hold on to a big lead against visiting Hamilton in the East final. Things unravelled at the end with several Argos players and now-fired executive John Murphy getting into an altercation with Ticats fans and Bethel-Thompson having a run-in with a cameraman.

The legendary Michael (Pinball) Clemons returns for his second full season as GM and again has made major moves – bringing in big names like Banks, Davis and former Winnipeg Blue Bombers star running back Andrew Harris.

Corey Mace comes over from Calgary, where Dinwiddie used to coach, to become the defensive co-ordinator – a job held by three men last year, lastly by Chris Jones, now the GM/coach in Edmonton.

Bethel-Thompson has had his ups and downs, but can be very effective when he finds his rhythm. One challenge, as usual, for the Argos will likely be a lack of home-field advantage, with the team attracting some of the smallest crowds in the CFL the past few years.

stanback
Montreal Alouettes running back William Stanback. (CP Photo)

MONTREAL ALOUETTES

Last season: 7-7, third in East Division, lost in East semifinal

Coach: Khari Jones (17-15 in two seasons, two losses in East semifinal)

Starting quarterback: Vernon Adams Jr. (Entering seventh season in CFL, sixth with Montreal)

The skinny

Adams is back to lead the Als after suffering a season-ending shoulder injury last October. Now, he needs to to raise his game to the next level and put his name into the MOP mix. Like Bethel-Thompson, Adams is capable of big things.

Veteran Trevor Harris re-signed and is the backup, so the Als do have another possibility at QB if Adams falters.

The offence has several big weapons, including league-leading running back William Stanback and receiver Eugene Lewis.

Jones needs to make sure his team is more disciplined this season as penalties loomed large last year – one of the reasons his job status wasn’t fully secure at the start of the off-season as general manager Danny Maciocia weighed his options. If there’s a slow start or things go south this season, the former star quarterback will be on the hot seat.

Of course, Maciocia’s work also has to be evaluated with the team not as busy as others in free agency.

New owner Gary Stern bought the team in 2020 and quickly named the former University of Montreal head coach the GM, only to see that season cancelled by the pandemic and his top quarterback go out early in 2021. There’s pressure on the Als to make a Grey Cup run this year.

Ottawa Redblacks quarterback Jeremiah Masoli. (CP Photo)

OTTAWA REDBLACKS

Last season: 3-11, Fourth in East Division, missed playoffs

Head coach: Paul LaPolice (19-39 in four seasons with Ottawa and Winnipeg, entering second season with Redblacks)

Starting quarterback: Jeremiah Masoli (Entering ninth season in CFL, first with Ottawa)

The skinny

The Redblacks fired their original GM, Marcel Desjardins, late last year with the team at the bottom of the standings for a second year in a row after making three Grey Cup appearances in the four years before that.

After an extensive search, the Redblacks hired former Ticats executive Shawn Burke as GM. Burke quickly made big changes, highlighted by a new QB in Masoli, who hopes to return to his form from 2018 when he was the East’s top player.

Masoli will have a bunch of new weapons, including ex-Saskatchewan running back William Powell and former Blue Bombers receiver Darvin Adams.

Defensively, former Montreal linebacker Patrick Levels is a big addition, but the team had bad luck when new standout defensive end Kwaku Boateng suffered a possible season-ending lower body injury in camp.

One change Burke did not make is at head coach – so there’s pressure on LaPolice, who led the Blue Bombers to the 2011 Grey Cup game in his first go-around as a head coach, to get the Redblacks back into the contender mix. The roster certainly is better, but it may take some time for so many new pieces to jell.

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