The Alouettes survived a strange CFL season in Montreal last year.
After getting off to a poor start, speculation began about the immediate future of head coach Don Matthews, even if he was the winningest mentor in CFL history. And some even suggested that future hall-of-fame quarterback Anthony Calviillo might be washed up.
Others said the Als offence had become too predictable and that Montreal missed offensive co-ordinator Doug Berry, who had taken the head man's job in Winnipeg. It also looked like opposing offences discovered chinks in the armour of that gambling defence.
Matthews and Montreal did part ways under mysterious circumstances that have yet to be explained and GM Jim Popp took over as head coach. Under Popp's tutelage, Calvillo led the Birds to the top perch in the East and a berth in the Grey Cup game, which they lost to B.C.
This year, Popp decided to continue handling both the GM and coaching duties and hired a new offensive co-ordinator, Marcel Bellefeuille, to upgrade the offence. He also hired a quarterbacks coach, Scott Milanovich, to help guide Calvillo -- the first time Calvillo has ever worked with a QB coach. And Bellefeuille took much of the play-calling away from the veteran pivot.
Popp then had to find ways to fill the holes left by departures of a number of players. Since the Grey Cup, the Als lost defensive linemen Ed Philion (retirement), Adriano Belli (free agent to Toronto) and Jerome Haywood (free agent to Winnipeg), receiver Terrence Edwards (free agent to Winnipeg) and running back Eric Lapointe (retirement). Linebacker Duane Butler, defensive back Ricky Bell and kick returner Ezra Landry were released. Montreal traded receiver O'Neil Wilson to Winnipeg, and receiver Thyron Anderson to Saskatchewan.
The Als acquired defensive lineman Eric Wilson, quarterback Brad Banks and linebacker Cory Huclack from Winnipeg and defensive back Coby Rhinehart from Calgary. Popp also dealt Richard Karikari to Toronto but the defensive back wound up in Hamilton. He also signed defensive linemen Steve Charbonneau (Edmonton) and Tim Cheatwood (Hamilton), linebacker John Grace (Calgary) and receiver Elijah Thurmon (Calgary) as free agents.
But the biggest question is whether Popp can handle the necessary coaching duties while also serving as club vice-president, director of football operations and director of player personnel. The Als have never had a losing season under Popp, appearing in Grey Cup games, but losing four of them, including last year's.
"The players responded fantastic last year," Popp told the Montreal Gazette recently. "We didn't win every game, but were very competitive other than (one game).
"I had a good time. I had fun. If it wasn't fun, I wouldn't be (coaching).
"If the players wouldn't have responded, I wouldn't be sitting here (coaching). But no question, it's going to be a challenge for me."
It is already a challenge as the Als lost their home opener to the Saskatchewan Roughriders last week. But they are still working new players into the lineup. Because running back Robert Edwards missed most of training camp with injury, the Als introduced tailback Mike Imoh in their CFL season-opener last week.
Also new to the offence are receivers S.J. Green and Brian Bratton. They have joined import Kerry Watkins and non-import receivers Ben Cahoon and Dave Stala.
But if there was a letdown in the season-opener, it was the work of Montreal's offensive line that features such weathered veterans as Bryan Chiu, Scott Flory and former Blue Bomber Dave Mudge. The Roughies sacked Calvillo eight times and their constant pressure forced him to throw three interceptions.
On the defensive side, Cheatwood and Wilson are still fitting in alongside R-Kal Truluck and Anwar Stewart, among others. The linebacking unit still boasts Tim Strickland. Returning to the secondary are non-import cornerback Davis Sanchez, Mark Estelle, Chip Cox and Etienne Boulay.
Although he had a poor outing last week, Damon Duval is still a capable kicker while Avon Cobourne may be the CFL's most underrated kick returner.
"I've had success," said Popp, 42. "I can lead them if they listen. I truly believe that. But I'm not saying everything I do or say will be right. I feel very confident about the team we have."