CFL Pass

Worst to first in the CFL: A brief history

Much has been made about the changes going on in the Saskatchewan Roughriders organization, from the hiring of Chris Jones to the massive roster upheaval. Some out there are predicting a huge upswing for the Riders, and maybe even a rise all the way to the top of the West.

I decided do some research to see what CFL history had to say about such a rise. What I found was a lot of evidence against such a rise, but some seeds of hope may be found within the historical record.

I found five teams since the interlocking schedule was introduced in 1981 to go from worst to first in their division: 

•  The Toronto Argonauts went from a brutal 2-14 in 1981 to 9-6-1 and a first-place finish the next year.

•  Four years later, the Argos bounced back from 6-10 in 1985 to 10-8 in 1986.

•  The Hamilton Tiger-Cats went from a dismal 2-16 in 1997 to 12-5-1 in ‘98.

•  The Winnipeg Blue Bombers came off the mat from 4-14 in 2010 to go 10-8 in ‘11.

•  And of course, the Ottawa RedBlacks went from 2-16 in their inaugural 2014 season to 12-6 last year.

I did want to make mention of a bunch of teams that did make massive swings upward from the bottom without making it to first place. The 1986 Calgary Stampeders improved by eight wins from the previous season, going from 3-13 to 11-7 (1986 being the year the league changed from 16 games to 18 games); the 1988 Saskatchewan Roughriders broke a long drought by winning 11 games after going 5-12-1 the previous season, and tying for first in the West with Edmonton, losing in a tiebreaker.

Hamilton went from three wins in 1991 to 11 in 1992, also tying for first but losing a tiebreaker to Winnipeg. Hamilton had another huge jump in 2004, going 9-8-1 after a 1-17 season in 2003. Calgary broke out in 2005, going 11-7 after a 4-14 season in ‘04.

Another Hamilton leap had them going from 3-15 in 2008 to 9-9 in ‘09. Toronto made the same 3-15 to 9-9 leap from 2009 to ‘10.

Just recently, a Chris Jones-led team made such a leap, as Edmonton went from 4-14 in 2013 to 12-6 in ‘14, and won a Grey Cup in ‘15.

As you can see, making a huge leap isn’t completely out of the question by any means, and it’s been happening a lot more in recent years. This bodes well for the Riders.

When I realized that none of the five teams that had gone from worst to first in their division had won the Grey Cup, I decided to dig a bit deeper and go a bit further back to see if any team had finished last in their division one year, finished first the next, and won the Grey Cup the season following. This sent me back all the way to 1954, generally considered the first year of the “modern” Canadian pro football era.

I found that Toronto had gone from 4-10 in 1959 to 10-4 in 1960, going from worst to first, but didn’t even make the Grey Cup, losing to Ottawa in both games of a two game total points series. Hamilton made the exact same leap the next season, going from 4-10 in 1960, a down year in an otherwise prosperous era, to 10-4 in ‘61, but again, they lost the Grey Cup!

Those two were the only teams I found that met the qualifications before 1981, so in what’s considered the modern era of Canadian professional football, *no* team has gone from last place in their division one year to winning their division AND winning the Grey Cup.

Now, being in first place is no guarantee of a Grey Cup appearance, either, so I went even further and checked to see if *any* team that had finished in last place the year before had ever won the Grey Cup, even without getting all the way to first place the next year. Good news for Rider fans (and Bombers fans, if you’re of the optimistic variety): This has happened before.

Montreal went from 2-10-2 in 1969 and finished 7-6-1 in 1970, good enough for third place in the East, and then won four consecutive games in the playoffs (including both games of a two-game total points series for the East final and a Grey Cup victory over fellow third-place finisher Calgary) to take home the Grey Cup after finishing last the season before.

Another honorable mention here, but one not included in my calculations, is that Toronto finished 7th (out of 8 Canadian teams in the North Division) in 1995 and went on to win consecutive Grey Cups in ‘96 and ‘97, aided more than slightly by their acquisition of Doug Flutie, of course.

Just recently, however, another Argos team went from last place to a Grey Cup victory the next year, as they went 6-12 in 2011 before going 9-9, finishing second in the East, and beating an Edmonton team that crossed over from the West, Montreal, and then winning the Grey Cup on their home turf against Calgary in 2012.

If we’re going solely off of the historical record as our guide, the percentages aren’t pretty. Out of the 124 teams that have finished last in their division over the past 62 seasons going back to 1954, only seven have won their division after finishing last, giving any team finishing last approximately a 5.6% chance of pulling this off. Of the same 124, only two have won the Grey Cup, giving any team finishing last a little over a 1.5% chance of doing so.

This is, of course, assuming 2016 falls in line with historical figures, but it gives a decent snapshot of just the kind of odds we’re talking about here. This isn’t to say that the Riders aren’t likely to be competitive, it’s just that making the rise in one season isn’t an easy task!

Now that the math is done, let’s take a look at six of the teams that have made such a rise. I will leave out the 1960 Argos, the 1961 Ti-Cats, and the 1970 Alouettes from this review, but I will include the 1982 Argos, as their achievement happened after the addition of the interlocking schedule in 1981.

A quick note: I’m using Pythagorean records to try to find a reason for a quick rise by these teams. For those that don’t know what Pythagorean records mean, this is a statistic based on a given team’s points for and points against; these numbers are used to project a record that the team is generally expected to approximate, based solely off of the spread between the points for and points against statistics. It’s one way to see if a team is overachieving or underachieving based on what other teams have done with similar results.

The 1981-1982 Toronto Argonauts
1981 Record: 2-14
1981 Pythagorean Record: 2-14
1982 Record: 9-6-1
1982 Pythagorean Record: 8-8
The 1981 Toronto Argonauts were one of a long line of Argos teams that failed to win the Grey Cup between 1953 and ‘83, but they had the start of something good going, as a lot of the players that would be part of the 1983 Grey Cup champions were on the roster at this point. The team had just acquired Condredge Holloway from Ottawa to play quarterback, and had Terry Greer and Cedric Minter already playing for the offense, although Greer would be sidelined for most of the year due to injury.

That season, Ralph Sazio jumped from Hamilton, where he had a long record of service, to Toronto to try to get the Argos back to prominence. Sazio shook up the coaching staff, bringing in Bob O’Billovich, and the offense got a new personality with the addition of Mouse Davis and his “Run and Shoot” offense, the likes which had not been seen on a professional field before.

Davis would last just one season with the Argos before departing for the USFL’s Houston Gamblers (where he put the same offense on the field with Pro Football Hall of Famer Jim Kelly at the controls), but the spirit of his offense stayed with the team. These additions, among others, gave the Argos a boost out of the cellar, and re-made their image over the course of the next few seasons. For more on this team’s rise to the top of the league, I highly recommend Paul Woods’ excellent book, Bouncing Back: Inside the 1983 Toronto Argonauts.

The 1985-1986 Toronto Argonauts
1985 Record: 6-10
1985 Pythagorean Record: 6-9-1
1986 Record: 10-8
1986 Pythagorean Record: 8-9-1
This one didn’t register with me the first time through, but I found it doing other research. The 1985 Argos were a one season, injury ravaged blip in what appears to be a dominant run for the Argos in the 80s. The team was in first place from 1982-1984, and again in 1986.

Looking a bit closer, though, it doesn’t appear the team improved all that much from 1985 to 1986, and the ball bouncing the right way may have put them on top of the division as Hamilton, the only team in the East that year with more points scored than they allowed, fell a half game short, finishing 9-8-1. Hamilton would beat Toronto in the two game, total points East final in 1986 when, after losing the first game 31-17 in Ivor Wynne Stadium, the Ti-Cats rebounded to win by 17 points in CNE Stadium on the way to a Grey Cup championship.

The Argos had Condredge Holloway as their primary quarterback and Bob O’Billovich as head coach for both seasons, but Holloway was frequently out of the lineup both seasons, and both seasons saw a lot of different players play quarterback at one time or another in Toronto.

The 1997-1998 Hamilton Tiger-Cats
1997 Record: 2-16
1997 Pythagorean Record: 4-14
1998 Record: 12-5-1
1998 Pythagorean Record: 13-5
1997 was the fourth year in a row the team did not achieve a .500 record, but ‘98 was the dawn of a new era in Hamilton, as Ron Lancaster came on board as head coach, and the team acquired QB Danny McManus and WR Darren Flutie. This, along with the emergence of Joe Montford as a sack machine helped propel the Ti-Cats to the top of the division and play some epic playoff games that season.

The good times would extend into 1999, as, like the Argos team just mentioned, they’d take the next step and become Grey Cup champions. It wouldn’t be long, however, until the Ti-Cats began to fall from the top of the mountain, and they hit rock bottom in 2003, finishing 1-17, the worst record since the CFL formed in 1958.

The 2010-2011 Winnipeg Blue Bombers
2010 Record: 4-14
2010 Pythagorean Record: 8-9-1 (8.455 wins predicted)
2011 Record: 10-8
2011 Pythagorean Record: 9-9
These Bombers are a bit of an oddity, as they vastly underachieved their Pythagorean expectation in 2010, and when a team does that, they tend to regress towards the mean the next season – which is exactly what this team did, even overachieving their expectation the next season.

The 2010 Bombers had a new head coach in Paul LaPolice after one year of Mike Kelly at the reins, and lost nine games by four points or fewer. Luck, statistical or otherwise, was not with them in 2010. 2011, on the other hand, went much better, with the Swaggerville defense rising to prominence, and the team got a mostly healthy season out of Buck Pierce, which wasn’t the norm, unfortunately. Pierce was the opening day starter in 2010, but injuries led to Steven Jyles taking most of the snaps that season.

The Bombers, of course, did not win the Grey Cup in 2012, as another injury-plagued season from Pierce kept him out of the lineup for most of the season, and the Joe Mack era ended in a thud the year after.

The 2011-2012 Toronto Argonauts
2011 Record: 6-12
2011 Pythagorean Record: 6-12
2012 Record: 9-9
2012 Pythagorean Record: 8-10
The Argos are a standout on this list, not achieving a first-place finish, but getting hot in the playoffs and winning the Grey Cup.

The 2011 team was led by Cleo Lemon and Steven Jyles as the quarterbacks, with Jim Barker as the head coach. In ‘12, the team was led by Ricky Ray at quarterback, with Scott Milanovich as the head coach. The changes were large, and there was an improvement, but not a huge one. To their credit, they started winning in late October and didn’t stop.

The 2014-2015 Ottawa RedBlacks
2014 Record: 2-16
2014 Pythagorean Record: 4-14
2015 Record: 12-6
2015 Pythagorean Record: 9-9
There seems to be a consensus among most of the CFL fans I talk to that the Ottawa RedBlacks caught some breaks in 2015. To be fair, they had to capitalize on these breaks (chief among them the injury to Hamilton QB Zach Collaros when it appeared the Ti-Cats were running away with the East), and had to beat the Ti-Cats three times in a row in tightly contested games (the last two of the regular season and the East Final) to earn their berth into the Grey Cup.

The RedBlacks were also on the winning side of 7 out of 9 games they played where the margin of victory was a touchdown or less, and that’s not generally something that can be sustained over back to back years. The loss of offensive coordinator Jason Maas after only one year and the loss of a few pieces of their defense is cause for concern, and most prognosticators don’t see them winning the Grey Cup in 2016, but as the Argos of ‘12 show, that’s why they play the games.

The 2015-2016 Saskatchewan Roughriders
2015 Record: 3-15
2015 Pythagorean Record: 6-12
2016 Record: ??
2016 Pythagorean Record: ??
All right, let’s look back on the six teams we just mentioned. Three of the six had their primary quarterback (the one who threw the ball the most) replaced from the year previous; three of the six had new head coaches (and the other three had new head coaches the year before their rise); and all had either underachieved or matched their Pythagorean expectation.

How about the Riders? New primary quarterback? It was Kevin Glenn last year, and it’s very unlikely it will be this year, considering he plays for Montreal now. Check. New Head Coach? Check. Underachieved their Pythagorean expectation last year? Check.

Is this a guarantee that 2016 is Saskatchewan’s year? Absolutely not, but when put together side by side with those teams that have rocketed to the top from the bottom, some similarities are starting to emerge. Personally, I think they’re at least a year away due to a lack of National depth, but some of the pieces for a quick rise are already in place.

The 2015-2016 Winnipeg Blue Bombers
2015 Record: 5-13
2015 Pythagorean Record: 5-13
2016 Record: ??
2016 Pythagorean Record: ??
Curiosity compelled me to check on the Bombers, even though they did not finish last in 2015.

New primary quarterback? Matt Nichols qualifies last year, if it’s Drew Willy this year, then check. New Head Coach? No, but Ottawa didn’t have one either, but did upgrade at offensive coordinator, like the Bombers did. Underachieved or matched Pythagorean expectation? Check, if you allow for rounding (the Bombers projected to 4.966 wins, and the 1981 Argos projected to 1.854 wins).

Both teams went on free agent frenzies as well to shoot for quick improvements. Of the five teams from the past I analyzed, three are from the past five years, also indicating to me that fast rises are more likely to happen today than they would in the past, with the changes in roster management over the past decade. As far as I can tell, the numbers seem to be more favorable to a quick rise these days than at any time in the past.

Are the Riders poised to be the first team to come off the bottom, rise to the top, and go all the way in one fell swoop? I’m not compelled to agree, but now, after digging into the past, I can at least appreciate that the conditions may be in place for the rapid rise of the Riders. Maybe, just maybe, I (among others) were a bit too quick to jump on Rod Pedersen and others who are predicting the Riders finishing first this year.

One more, for Os Davis.

The 2015-2016 Montreal Alouettes
2015: 6-12
2015 Pythagorean Record: 8-9-1 (8.56 wins predicted)
2016 Record: ??
2016 Pythagorean Record: ??
New primary quarterback? If it’s not Rakeem Cato, check, but Cato emerging as the starter is not out of the realm of possibility. New head coach? Depends on what you mean by new, but if you mean not the one that started last year, you can count it. Underachieved their Pythagorean expectation last year? Check, and lost six of their eight games that were within a touchdown, and another by eight points, if you want to bank on the two-point conversion as well. We know the defense is a quality unit, and the receivers have been upgraded. Maybe there’s more hope in Montreal than we are letting on?

All this is definitely food for thought as we await the season…

– written by Joe Pritchard