CFL Pass

So where do the Alouettes go from here?

Did you hear the one about the head coach who was fired hours after breaking a 15-year losing streak? Okay, so there’s little humor in the Montreal Alouettes’ dismissal of Tom Higgins, potentially throwing a team already off to a disappointing start into further chaos.

Though goings-on in the Alouettes’ inner circle were necessarily obfuscated behind the barriers of locker-room doors, the media microscope concentrated on Michael Sam hinted at Higgins’s loosening grip on his team. Whether the international-salaried Sam’s pigeonholing into the lineup for week eight game against the Edmonton Eskimos was demanded from on high or was Higgins’s own idea, the coach clearly bore the brunt of John Bowman’s derision.

The result of this possible conflict was the “healthy scratch” of the defence’s leader for two games, an absence that might have been the difference in the loss to Edmonton – and that might have proven the final straw for Higgins with ownership.

Then there’s Rakeem Cato. Higgins clearly made the right choice in starting the American rookie over the media-hyped Brandon Bridge, and Cato subsequently stunned the CFL with an amazing three-TD debut performance. Since week two, however, Higgins had called for Cato to play under center for *every single snap* prior to the BC Lions game in a system designed for Jonathan Crompton, a much bigger, far less mobile passer. Statistics may occasionally lie, but there’s little deceitful about the 3:6 TD-to-interception ratio that Cato managed from his second start through the shabby loss to Edmonton.

Add all this with general manager Jim Popp being reportedly uninformed about the decision to can Tom Higgins *before* the BC game and the problematic evidence of disconnect among the players is further advanced by apparent miscommunication within the front office. CFLpass would guess that the current Montreal environment is not exactly the best in which to usher new blood, much less a guy with a 16-20 lifetime record and demonstrably greater proficiency as GM than as head coach.

While management’s heart vis-à-vis the immediate future of the Alouettes may be in the right place (particularly if Higgins’s dismissal was indeed related to his handling of Bowman, Cato and other personnel), the hiring of an unsackable front-office guy whose new title clearly bears the qualifier “interim” feels at minimum like a scaling-back of expectations. At worst, it’s a surrender-with-honour for the 2015 season.

The timing of the firing is, as CFLpass lead writer Travis Currah noted, “a bizarre move on the surface.” After all, certain things on said surface appeared to be solved, with optimism for future weeks, against BC.

Not only did the Alouettes shrug off the spectre of millennial winlessness at BC Place, the team more importantly managed an all-too-rare second-half comeback. The past three games had seen Montreal outscored 35-13 in the final 30 minutes of games, bookended by a two-point showing against the Calgary Stampeders and a second-half goose egg against the Edmonton Eskimos.

The shutdown D exhibited by the Als last Thursday – sans Bowman, no less – was well more indicative of the defence fans were promised at season’s beginning.  

On special teams, Stefan Logan essentially solidified his position as the CFL’s best return man turning in four runs of 30 yards or more on 10 returns – though two 40+ yarders were called back on penalties. Nevertheless, Logan now looks capable of providing the Alouettes with a short field to start nearly any drive.

Speaking of Logan, the Alouettes featured a suddenly nicely multi-faceted running attack in BC; Logan together with Brandon Rutley provided much-needed support to feature back Tyrell Sutton – and over 50% of carries from the backfield. The result was a fantastic 251 yards on the ground, absolutely essential weaponry going forward with the still-unsteady Cato at QB.

And how about Tanner Marsh, the human bulldozer?

This fan is completely unsure why Higgins so stubbornly pegged Cato as an all-purpose 24/7 quarterback when a perfectly serviceable short-yardage substitute has been available to the Alouettes for the past three seasons. Marsh certainly turned in the best performance of 18 all-purpose years in the CFL this week: Jokes and hyperbole aside, Marsh’s 10 snaps resulted in three first downs and a TD – now *that’s* a situational QB.

Of course, depending on how much of the BC game was, say, influenced by pressure on Higgins from above, all steps forward may ultimately be completely irrelevant. Popp has thrice before coached the Montreal Alouettes, each time in the stead of a fired coach and each time competently finishing around .500.

The 2015 Alouettes may be the strongest team Coach Popp has been gifted with since the 2006 bunch, but this Montreal team’s low-watt offense and a formidable top two in the East Conference makes anything more than an 8-10 mark difficult to envision – heck, to reach 8-10, the Als would need to play .500 ball over the last 10 games, which include two each against Hamilton and Toronto.

Popp has demonstrated his workmanlike competence in coaching past Alouettes teams but, Grey Cup appearance notwithstanding, he’s not a miracle worker, pretty awesome defence at his disposal or no.  

Is Montreal management covertly and stoically readying the white flag on the 2015 season? Possibly. But hey, at least Als backers have the solace of history – and a little hopeful superstition on our side…

– written by Os Davis