Well, the dust has mostly settled from the 2015 season, and it was a tough year for some, a good year for others, and yet another in-between year for the majority. The Canadian Football League (CFL) put in a lot of work this season trying to make the game more exciting, and boy, did they ever deliver. The league’s greatest seasons ever were made even more memorable by the 2015 playoffs.
There were four teams that really stood out in the 2015 season: the Calgary Stampeders, the Edmonton Eskimos, the Saskatchewan Roughriders, and the Toronto Argonauts. They were the only teams in the CFL that posted a winning record this season, and they are the clear choices for the 2015 CFL top 4 teams.
The Calgary Stampeders Are Back, Big Time
Let’s start with arguably the best team of the season, and probably the best in Canadian Football League (CFL) history: the Calgary Stampeders. In the preseason, the Stampeders lost a few starters to injury, including quarterback Bo Bikes and wide receiver Nik Lewis. However, their greatest weakness was their defense. The unit managed to give up 47 points per game in 2014 and 48 points per game in 33 starts this season. It became clear that the team needed to address its defense if it wanted to get back to the playoffs.
Well, they did that in a big way, dramatically improving their performance on that side of the ball. They signed free agent linebacker Adam Bighill and defensive back Chris Randle in the off-season. Bighill started the first nine games at weakside linebacker for the Stampeders before being sidelined with an injury, while Randle started in his place during that time. After Bighill returned from injury, he assumed the starting role at weakside linebacker and continued to play a prominent role in the team’s defense over the rest of the season. The group of Bighill, Randle, and company gave up just 16.4 points per game in the team’s last 14 contests and shut down the opposing offenses’ running games effectively.
The Edmonton Eskimos Are Back, And They’re Better Than Ever
The Edmonton Eskimos had a pretty mediocre 2014 season, failing to qualify for the playoffs for the first time since 2007. However, the team turned it around in a hurry in 2015, winning the West Division with a 12-6 record and making its eighth straight playoff appearance. Most of the credit for the team’s turnaround goes to head coach Jason Maas and his offensive staff. They used their resources effectively, jettisoning overpaid veterans in favour of younger, more talented players. The result was a massive upgrade throughout the entire unit.
The biggest beneficiary of the team’s shrewd management was quarterback Mike Reilly. Despite beginning his career as a backup in the CFL, Reilly proved to be the best player in the league this year, leading the Eskimos to 13 wins and just three losses. He threw for 3,747 yards and 22 touchdowns with just six interceptions. For a team that prides itself on its defense, that’s quite the feat. One of the biggest stories of the 2015 season was the development of rookie running back David Johnson. The former Arizona State Sun Devil rushed for 1,273 yards and 12 touchdowns, leading an offence that averaged 29.5 points per game. Johnson also added nine catches for 142 yards and two touchdowns.
The Saskatchewan Roughriders Are Back, But They Have Their Work Cut Out For Them
The Saskatchewan Roughriders started off the 2015 season on the wrong foot, losing three straight to start the year before winning four straight and finishing with a 9-9 record. The three-game losing streak turned into a six-game winning streak, as the team won 11 of its last 12 games, including the final nine games of the year. The turnaround was a product of much needed player development and a spike in team spirit. With the off-season arrival of head coach Brett Maxie and the reemergence of running back Kory Sheets, the Riders are looking to make a return to the top of the West Division.
The biggest difference maker for the Roughriders this season was quarterback Bo Levi Mitchell. The 2014 Most Outstanding Player won the CFL’s top individual award this year, taking home the Mike Carter Trophy for the third time in his career. Mitchell threw for 3,696 yards and 28 touchdowns with just six interceptions. He also ran for 611 yards and 10 touchdowns, adding two receiving touchdowns as well. Mitchell’s combination of passing and running ability made him hard to contain, as the Toronto Argonauts and the B.C. Lions knew all about it.
Running back CJ McKillop upped his game as well, running for 1,051 yards and eight touchdowns. McKillop’s success helped to make Mitchell one of the best passers in the CFL this year, with his 28 touchdown passes being a league-high. Mitchell also added four interceptions in his lone season under centre for the Saskatchewan Roughriders.
The Toronto Argonauts Are Finally Back, But They Have a Lot of Filling Out To Do
The Argonauts had a somewhat disappointing 2014 season, failing to make the playoffs for the first time since 2007. However, the team proved everyone wrong, finishing the season with a 9-9 record, good for third in the division. The 9-9 record was actually a step forward for the franchise. It was a huge improvement over the 4-12 record the team posted in 2013. The most significant reason for the team’s turnaround was the development of quarterback McLeod Bethel-Thompson. After a brief stint with the B.C. Lions in 2014, where he failed to impress, Bethel-Thompson returned to Toronto and lead the Argonauts to a league-high 29 wins, adding another 2,000 passing yards, 19 touchdowns, and just five interceptions in the process. He also added a rushing touchdown on a keeper on a fourth down, game-winning drive in Week 16 against the Hamilton Ticats.
One of the biggest free agents the Argos signed in the off-season was running back Jon Cornish. The 27-year-old returned from a torn ACL injury that cost him most of the 2014 season to rush for 922 yards and five touchdowns with 38 carries for 367 yards in the team’s first nine games before being sidelined with another injury. He finally returned to the field in Week 17 and posted a career-high 114 carries for 704 yards and two scores. With the return of their two main playmakers, the Argonauts are looking to make a push for first place in the division.
In the end, only two teams managed to avoid the losing skid this year, and they were the Ottawa REDBLACKS and the Winnipeg Blue Bombers. The Ottawa REDBLACKS finished with a 12-6 record, good for second in the East Division. The team’s 6-0 road record is the best in the CFL, while its 33-16 victory over the Calgary Stampeders in Week 2 was the biggest win of the year for the Ottawa REDBLACKS. Wide receiver B.J. Cunningham had a breakout season, hauling in 72 passes for 1,157 yards and eight touchdowns. Quarterback Dominique Davis looked like a seasoned veteran at times, leading the REDBLACKS to seven straight wins in October and November. Offensive guard Shawn Nelson also started the year as a backup but earned a promotion to centre in the team’s final three games, starting 26 consecutive games at one of the most crucial positions in football.
The Winnipeg Blue Bombers also had an excellent season, going 12-6 and earning their first playoff appearance since 2011. The big question for the Blue Bombers is, can they keep it up? In the off-season, the team lost premier running back Jeremy Langford to the Hamilton Ticats, which will be difficult to replace. However, they did manage to bring back quarterback Matt Nichols and his 1,079 passing yards, nine touchdown passes, and five interceptions. It’s also worth noting that Langford was the leading rusher the Blue Bombers had in Week 17, when he carried the ball 20 times for 87 yards and a score. Without him, they only had 1,015 rushing yards and eight scores on the ground. With so much talent and depth, it’s easy to see why the Blue Bombers are considered a team to beat in the West.
The question now becomes: who will be the team to beat in the East? The most likely answer is the Toronto Argonauts, who have the pieces in place to finally break their playoff drought in 2015.