February 13, 2011
It's been a remarkably good offseason for the Montreal Alouettes so far. Yes, they lost slotback Ben Cahoon to retirement, wide receiver Andrew Hawkins to the NFL and defensive coordinator Tim Burke to Winnipeg, but the two-time defending champions have managed to largely keep their core intact. They've held onto coach Marc Trestman thus far despite significant interest from the NCAA and NFL, they somehow managed to lock up star receiver S.J. Green despite serious interest from the NFL and other CFL squads, they brought back all-stars and potential free agents John Bowman and Jerald Brown, and legendary quarterback Anthony Calvillo appears set to return. At one point, they had a league-high 13 potential free agents; now, they're down to five. That's a pretty impressive mark, especially in the wake of winning two championships; executives from any sport often find it difficult to keep a talented roster together after a title year, as the bidding often gets inflated for guys who have shown what they can do on the big stage.
What's particuarly interesting is that even in the case of their remaining free agents, the Als appear to already be putting solid backup plans in place. There are five guys on that list; running back Avon Cobourne, kicker Damon Duval, quarterback Chris Leak, defensive end Shawne Mayne and linebacker Ramon Guzman. Of those guys, Cobourne was easily the most important to the Alouettes last year; as their starting running back, he picked up 956 rushing yards and six touchdowns on 184 carries (a 5.2 yards-per-carry average) and caught 64 passes for 556 yards (8.7 YPC) and another touchdown. Cobourne's year as a whole certainly wasn't overwhelming, but it was quite solid; he finished sixth in the league in rushing, but tied the two men in front of him (Wes Cates and DeAndra Cobb) on a per-carry rushing basis and proved much more of a receiving threat than either.
There's a reasonable chance Cobourne could return to the Alouettes next season, but they already have at least one backup plan in place in case he doesn't. The team agreed to terms with former NFL and UFL running back Ahman Green (pictured above with the Green Bay Packers in 2009, trying to escape a tackle from Tampa Bay linebacker Geno Hayes) last week. Green's 34, so he isn't exactly a long-term solution (although older players often do well in the CFL), but he's proven himself at the NFL level; he's Green Bay's all-time rushing leader and has amassed 9,205 career rushing yards. He was decent in the UFL last season with the Omaha Nighthawks (where he played with former CFL and NFL quarterback Jeff Garcia), and he seems to still have some gas left in the tank. Listed at 6'0'' and 220 pounds last year, he's also considerably bigger than Cobourne (5'8'', 205 pounds); if Cobourne comes back, that could give the Alouettes a few different options at the position.
Of course, Green isn't guaranteed to work out well north of the border. Adapting to the CFL can take time, and the role of the running back is particularly different; there's a lot of single-back sets, a lot of short screen passes and much more of a focus on the RB's role as a pass-blocker. Many players have trouble with the transition, but some can pull it off.
Even if Cobourne leaves and Green flops, though, the Alouettes are hardly without talent at running back. They've got another interesting former Nebraska man in non-import Dahrran Diedrick, and a great former CIS back in Mike Giffin; both have mostly played fullback in the CFL to this point, but might be able to do some things if given the ball. They also have a couple of other import running backs on their roster, including Oregon alumnus Remene Alston and Delaware State's Emannuel Marc.
It's the same with some of their other remaining free agents. Yes, Duval's a big name, but he didn't have the greatest season last year, and Colt David proved a capable backup; there are also other kickers on the market, with some promising guys coming out of the university ranks and B.C. reportedly shopping either Paul McCallum or Sean Whyte. Leak wasn't terribly impressive in his lone game last year, and fourth-stringer Ricky Santos looked much better, so the Als might not even want to bring the former Florida pivot back. Mayne and Guzman didn't see much time last year, so they don't seem likely to be huge losses either.
If Cobourne comes back, the Als seem likely to emerge from free agency almost unscathed, which few would have predicted at the start of the offseason. If he finds a better offer elsewhere or they elect to go in a different direction, they still seem to be in pretty good shape. Don Matthews had plenty of praise for long-time Baltimore and Montreal GM Jim Popp on his Hall of Fame induction conference call this week, and it looks like Popp hasn't lost his touch. There's still months to go before the season, but the Alouettes have done a tremendous job of navigating the personnel waters so far. We'll see if they can keep that up.