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Year in review: With Jones at helm, Alouettes rediscover winning touch

It seemed like the perfect storm for a disaster — something that has come to characterize the Alouettes’ recent plight.

Already without ownership after the Canadian Football League assumed control of the team from Robert and Andrew Wetenhall at the end of May, the Als fired head coach Mike Sherman less than a week before their opening regular-season game at Edmonton.

Sherman, a former head coach of the Green Bay Packers, struggled with the nuances of Canadian football. The Als were 5-13 under his watch in 2018 and missed the playoffs for a fourth consecutive season. Sherman was replaced by his offensive coordinator, Khari Jones, as Montreal turned to a rookie head coach.

“We have the chance now to win some games,” an Alouettes front-office source said at the time.

When Montreal lost its opening two games on the road to the Eskimos and Hamilton, and were outscored 73-35 in the process, it appeared another long season was in store.

But there was something different about this club. Even while losing 41-10 to the Tiger-Cats, the final score was arguably misleading. Hamilton outscored Montreal 15-0 in the fourth quarter, but the team never quit. It was something veteran rush-end John Bowman would frequently allude to during the ensuing months.

The Als returned home the following week and upset the Ticats 36-29 in the rematch. Tailback William Stanback rushed for an impressive 203 yards on 22 carries while scoring three touchdowns. Then the Als went to Ottawa and won 36-19.

That optimism would be overshadowed by more controversy the next morning, when the team announced the firing of general manager Kavis Reed. There was speculation that Reed was sacked over circumventing the salary cap, although president Patrick Boivin revealed little during a hastily arranged news conference.

“A number of things were brought to my attention over the course of the last number of weeks that … we had to make this decision immediate,” he said. “It would be inappropriate to start getting into specifics.

“It had nothing to do with performance,” Boivin added. “We could have been 4-0 and the decision would have still been made. To start commenting on the details could also potentially expose us at the legal level.”

Reed was in his third year as GM. Boivin announced Reed would be replaced by a committee comprising Jones, Joe Mack, the assistant GM of player personnel, and Patrick Donovan, the director of football operations who ultimately would depart before the end of the season.

Reed’s departure had little effect on the team or the day-to-day operations. He ultimately deserved credit for building the roster, but wouldn’t be around to share in its success.

The Als won their first game after Reed’s departure, holding the Eskimos without a touchdown at home, defeating the visitors 20-10 for their third successive victory.

While the Als would string three wins together again later in the season, a fourth consecutive victory always remained out of their grasp. After edging B.C. 21-16 at home on Sept. 6, improving to 6-4, Montreal alternated losses and wins the remainder of the season as the team was plagued by inconsistency.

There were several high points to their year.

The Als went to McMahon Stadium on Aug. 17 and defeated the defending Grey Cup-champion Calgary Stampeders 40-34 in double overtime. Montreal overcame a 28-17 deficit in the game’s final 1:40, scoring a touchdown followed by a two-point convert and then recovering an onside kick before moving into position for the game-tying field goal. The Als scored two touchdowns in overtime, both on short runs by quarterback Vernon Adams Jr.

But that impressive win paled in comparison to what the Als accomplished a month later at home against Winnipeg.

Montreal overcame a 20-point deficit in the final quarter, producing three touchdowns for an electrifying 38-37 victory. The Blue Bombers held a 34-10 lead in the second quarter. The 24-point deficit was the largest overcome in franchise history.

The Als also overcame a 16-point deficit on Aug. 25 against Toronto, prevailing 28-22 in Moncton, N.B.

But there would also be sublime moments during the Als’ season, the peak coming Aug. 9 at home against Saskatchewan. That game would be called more than halfway through the third quarter because of lightning. When the game didn’t resume within an hour, combined with the fact more than half of the third quarter had elapsed, the match became official, the Roughriders winning 17-10.

The Als finished the year 10-8. They were second in the East Division for their first winning record since 2012 and made the playoffs for the first time since 2014. While their offensive success was accomplished by committee, receiver Eugene Lewis and Stanback produced 1,000-yard seasons.

Adams, who wasn’t the starter when the season began, passed for 3,942 yards and 24 touchdowns in 16 games.

While the Als’ defence allowed too many points and big plays, the unit nonetheless was led by middle-linebacker Henoc Muamba. His 93 tackles were the second-highest in the league. He was named the CFL’s most outstanding Canadian during Grey Cup week. Bowman, at age 37, had eight sacks.