It’s the best time of year for Canadian football

November 2, 2021
It's the best time of year for Canadian football
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This is an excerpt from The Buzzer, which is CBC Sports’ daily email newsletter. Stay up to speed on what’s happening in sports by subscribing here.

It’s Canadian football’s time to shine

We’ve hit November (that was fast), which normally means we’d be entering the most exciting month for Canadian football. The CFL playoffs typically begin on the second weekend of November, culminating with the Grey Cup on the final Sunday of the month. The Canadian university post-season usually starts in early November too and ends with the Vanier Cup national championship game the day before the Grey Cup.

But, like a lot of things, the Canadian football calendar has been thrown off by the pandemic. The start of the CFL season was delayed until early August (almost two months later than normal) and shortened to 14 games per team (down from 18). There are still three weeks left before the playoffs start on Nov. 28, pushing this year’s Grey Cup game nearly into the winter. It’ll take place on Dec. 12 in Hamilton. The Vanier Cup is happening a bit later than normal as well, on Dec. 4 in Quebec City, though the conference playoffs in Ontario and Quebec will open this weekend.

Anyway, seeing as how our internal sports-fan clocks are telling us it’s the time of year to pay more attention to Canadian football, here’s a quick check-in on what’s happening in the CFL and a look at how the top Canadian players in the NFL are doing:

CFL

The playoff picture is taking shape. Three teams have clinched post-season spots. Defending Grey Cup champion Winnipeg (10-1) has already locked up first place in the West and will host the division final on Dec. 5. Saskatchewan (7-4) has secured a spot in the West semifinal, where it will likely meet either Calgary (6-6) or B.C. (4-7). Edmonton (2-8) will almost surely miss the playoffs. There’s less certainty in the East. Division-leading Toronto (7-4) has clinched a playoff spot, but the East title (and home field advantage for the division final) is still up for grabs between the Argos, Hamilton (6-5) and Montreal (6-5). Ottawa (2-10) is just playing out the string.

Winnipeg is still the team to beat. The Blue Bombers are enjoying an extra-long reign as Grey Cup champs after the 2020 season was cancelled, and they look poised to extend it. Winnipeg has three more wins than any other team in the league, has scored 25 more points than anyone else and has given up a whopping 66 fewer than the next-stingiest team. The average score for a Bomber game this year is 28-11 for Winnipeg, and they’ve now won eight in a row. Their only loss came way back on Aug. 21 at Toronto, which controlled the ball for 40 of the game’s 60 minutes and outgained the Bombers on the ground 149 yards to 32. Maybe that’s the way to attack the Bombers’ formidable defence, which leads the CFL by a wide margin in fewest yards allowed per pass attempt (6.3) but is tied for third-worst in yards surrendered per rush (5.3). Thing is, though, it’s hard to keep the ball on the ground and still keep up with the league’s highest-scoring and most efficient offence, led by Most Outstanding Player-calibre quarterback Zach Collaros and star receiver Kenny Lawler (Canadian running back Andrew Harris remains very good, but has been dogged by injuries this year). At some point, you’ve probably got to put the ball in the air to beat these guys. And then they’ve got you right where they want you.

NFL

Chase Claypool is having another good (but quieter) year. The Canadian receiver burst onto the pro football scene 13 months ago when he scored four touchdowns in a single game for the Pittsburgh Steelers. Claypool finished the 2020 season with 11 TDs  (tops among all rookie receivers) and 889 total yards. Through six games this year, Claypool has found the end zone just once, but in many ways he’s building on his strong rookie year. He’s averaging 67.2 receiving yards per game (up more than dozen from last year) while also averaging more catches per game and more yards per catch. This despite lining up for a mediocre Pittsburgh offence led by decaying quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who gave up pushing the ball downfield years ago.

Chuba Hubbard is leading Canada’s banner 2021 draft class. A record-tying four Canadians were selected this year, and the guy picked last among them is having the biggest impact so far. Hubbard, the former Oklahoma State running back who went in the fourth round to Carolina, took over the Panthers’ lead rushing role after star Christian McCaffrey went down with a serious hamstring injury on Sept. 23. Hubbard isn’t exactly tearing it up — he’s averaging just 3.6 yards per carry and 49 rushing yards per game — but the Panthers still trust him with the job and he’s had his moments. Hubbard ran for 101 yards and added 33 receiving in a loss to Philadelphia a few weeks ago, and on Sunday he turned a big workload of 24 carries into 82 yards and a touchdown in a win over Atlanta. As for the other Canadian draft picks, second-round safety Jevon Holland has grabbed a starting role on a bad Miami team, third-round defensive back Benjamin St-Juste has started the last three games for Washington (also bad), and third-round receiver Josh Palmer has seven catches for 82 yards and a TD for the Chargers, who looked like one of the best teams in the league before losing their last two.

Laurent Duvernay-Tardif got traded. The 2020 Lou Marsh Award co-winner (with Alphonso Davies) is known more for taking a year off from the NFL to do medical work on the front lines of the fight against COVID-19 than for his accomplishments on the field. But he’s still had a solid career as an offensive lineman who helped protect Patrick Mahomes en route to Kansas City’s Super Bowl victory two seasons ago. Today, Duvernay-Tardif was dealt from struggling K.C. to the New York Jets just before the NFL’s 4 p.m. ET trade deadline.

Chase Claypool is having a strong second season with Pittsburgh. (Mitchell Leff/Getty Images)

Quickly…

A promising young NFL player is facing a charge of DUI resulting in death. The 2020 draft class was famously loaded with receivers who would immediately become stars, and Henry Ruggs III was the first one picked, going 12th overall to the Raiders. While he didn’t stand out to the degree of Minnesota’s Justin Jefferson, Dallas’ CeeDee Lamb, Cincinnati’s Tee Higgins or Pittsburgh’s Claypool, the speedy Ruggs still showed enough to suggest he could have a quality career. Indeed, in seven games this season, he had already surpassed his receiving yards total from his entire rookie year. But Ruggs’ future is suddenly in question after a fiery crash this morning in Las Vegas killed a woman in another vehicle and will lead to Ruggs, who “showed signs of impairment,” being charged with DUI resulting in death, according to police. If convicted, Ruggs could face 2-10 years in prison. Read more about the crash here.

Former Canadian women’s soccer team goalkeeper Karina LeBlanc is the new GM of the Portland Thorns. LeBlanc, who played for the national team from 1998-2015 and was Portland’s goalie in 2013 when it won the first NWSL championship, takes over for Gavin Wilkonson. He was placed on administrative leave last month in the wake of sexual harassment and coercion allegations made by two ex-players against former coach Paul Riley. NWSL commissioner Lisa Baird stepped down amid the scandal, which cost several people in the league their jobs. LeBlanc, who is leaving her role as head of women’s soccer for the CONCACAF regional governing body to take the Portland job, vowed to put players first and said she sees this point in NWSL history as “a moment in time where we pause, we learn, we realize what we can do better, and then we connect and then we rise.” In Portland, she’ll be reunited with longtime Canadian national team star Christine Sinclair, who plays for the Thorns. The team just won the NWSL Shield for the league’s best regular-season record and has a bye for the first round of the playoffs, which start this weekend. Read more about the hiring of LeBlanc here.

Canada was eliminated from the Billie Jean King Cup Finals. The Canadian team of Francoise Abanda, Rebecca Marino and Gaby Dabrowski (Bianca Andreescu and Leylah Fernandez aren’t playing) got off to a great start yesterday, upsetting defending-champion France. But Carol Zhao (filling in for Abanda) and the others were swept by Russia today, losing both singles matches as well as the doubles match. That ended Canada’s hopes of winning the group and advancing to the semifinals of the 12-team event in Prague. Read more about the defeat and watch highlights here.

The World Series could end tonight. Leading three games to two, Atlanta needs one more win to capture its first championship since 1995. But they’ll have to do it in Houston, which hosts Game 6 tonight at 8:09 p.m. ET and Game 7, if necessary, tomorrow night. The Astros are starting rookie Luis Garcia on short rest tonight. Atlanta counters with Max Fried, who finished fifth in Cy Young voting in 2020 and was strong again this season.

You’re up to speed. Talk to you tomorrow.




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