Lessons Learned in CFL Week 1

Lesson #1: New stars are emerging.

Week 1 was a very, very good week for skill position players lacking CFL stardom priors.

Brady Oliveira was the only 100-yard rusher in Week 1, filling in for an injured Andrew Harris in Winnipeg's Grey Cup rematch victory over Hamilton. In 2019, the last CFL season, he only played on special teams. He's a Winnipeg native, which means he's probably going to get every shot to succeed in this league, even if he won't dispatch Harris, because CFL teams naturally want to showcase Canadians whenever the they prove themselves talented.

Which makes the case for BC rookie quarterback Nathan Rourke intriguing, because the one position CFL success has been elusive for natives has been quarterback. Roarke, from Oakville, Ontario, stunk up the joint for the first quarter and a half against Saskatchewan, but after that point went 9-13 with 2 TDs and a pick, and nearly completed a comeback from 31-0 down (in a platoon with a clearly injured Michael Reilly). Saskatchewan hung on, 33-28.

Other shining new lights were Winnipeg's Kenny Lawler (2 TD receptions; came into game with 637 career receiving yards) and Hamilton's Jaelon Acklin (98 yards receiving and an incredible TD catch; came into game with 708 career receiving yards).

Lesson #2 You never know what's going to happen in Week 1.

... and that's why it's a good idea to bet underdogs in Week 1 (doubly so for NFL preseason games, where the bookies super don't know what's going to happen and the first string won't play much). All four underdogs covered opening weekend, and three of them won outright, including the previously mentioned Winnipeg Blue Bombers (BC was the team that covered, but did not win).

Toronto, 4-14 in 2019, headed into Calgary as a rightful underdog, even though they made a ton of nice offseason pickups, because Calgary is an early Grey Cup favorite, and how quickly can Toronto's roster gel, anyway?

Pretty fast, it turns out, as Toronto beat the Stamps, 23-20, giving me the only Week 1 bet I completely whiffed on. (I also bet on Saskatchewan to cover against BC, but I actually managed to make a tiny profit on that game because I used Bovada's in-game cash-out two plays before BC scored the covering TD).

Toronto largely has quarterback McLeod Bethel-Thompson to thank. He's kind of maligned in CFL circles as he presided over a couple of bad, bad Toronto teams, but he was again named the Argos' starter in 2021 and rewarded them by leading all week 1 quarterbacks in yards (354) and efficiency rating (118.5), while throwing 2 touchdowns and no picks. He might be a bit warmer than other quarterbacks, having played in the Spring League.

The third game where the underdog won was Ottawa's 16-12 win at Edmonton, which brings us to our final lesson:

Lesson #3: Good defense and good coaching can win you a game or two no matter how bad your offense is.

Let me start this lesson by giving a shout out to my favorite CFL Podcast, 2 And Out. It's hosted by Travis Currah, who like me is a big beardy, laughy guy and whom I consider my north-of-the-border spirit animal, and Tyrell Owchar, who is hilarious.

Owchar predicted, seemingly sincerely, Ottawa to go 0-14 this year in their Eastern Conference preview episode, despite praising their defense and head coach. That's a bold prediction, but their offense really is that inexperienced/bad, particularly at running back and wide receiver.

Ottawa's Week 1 opponent, Edmonton, by several accounts, had a contentious training camp with dudes not getting along.

Here is where a start patting myself on the back. I thought to myself, "if you are coached well and have a defense that can stop teams, surely you can fluke yourself into at least one win or two no matter how bad your offense is, and what better time to do that than against a team that had a bad training camp?"

No, I didn't take Ottawa outright, but I took them against the 5.5-point spread. Win they did, however, and they did it with defense, coaching, and flukiness.

The defense: they gave up 443 yards, but no touchdowns — only field goals. In the abstract, good defenses have an easier time with shorter fields, because there's less real estate to defend. That concept bore out in this game.

The coaching: LaPolice drew up some trickeration in this game, including a Music City Miracle mockup where the passing player threw it juuuust a hair forward and the TD was called back.

If you have a team with inferior talent, YOU MUST GET CREATIVE WITH PLAY-CALLING. Nothing grinds my gears more than a heavy underdog trying to beat a favorite by playing them straight-up, as if suddenly they will get more talented than they are over the next four quarters. LaPolice seems to understand that.

The flukiness: Ottawa took the lead late when, trailing 12-9 with Edmonton driving, they snagged a tip drill interception and took it to the house. 102 yards.

Ottawa won despite being out-gained 433-127. As pathetic as 127 yards of offense is in American football, it's even worse in Canadian football, where players have more room to roam (longer and wider field) and there is more of a need for big plays (three downs instead of four).

Emboldened, I close with one more prediction: Ottawa will win another game this year, too. For their games, bet the under until further notice.

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