Boatmen are back but it's Edmonton's year

STEVE COAD -- London Free Press

, Last Updated: 8:13 AM ET

The Grey Cup champion Toronto Argonauts were busy in the offseason -- busy standing pat, that is.

The Argos, wisely I think, aren't going to mess with last season's success. General manager Adam Rita re-signed all 11 of the champs' potential free agents, most notably quarterback Damon Allen, who is a month shy of turning 42 but still amazing, and Canadian linebacker Kevin Eiben.

Their decision to again focus on family -- remember they did that whole We Are Family thing last season -- gets a stiff test Saturday night at home when the B.C. Lions visit for a re-enactment of the Grey Cup, which the Argos won 27-19 in a surprise.

It's one of four games this week as the CFL opens its regular season, starting tonight when the Montreal Alouettes -- last season's No. 1 underachievers -- play host to host ex-Western Mustang Greg Marshall's Hamilton Tiger-Cats, who get my vote as last season's biggest achievers.

This season?

Make no mistake, the Argos could do it all again. The Als, who still have Anthony Calvillo's rifle arm and a high-risk, high-reward defence, could cop the Cup. Count the Lions and Edmonton Eskimos among the contenders, too. If I'm allowed to lead with my heart, I'd toss the Ticats in there.

The Argos have reason to be optimistic. Running back John Avery, who struggled on a wonky knee last season, says he's healthy. Time will tell, but if Avery's flimsy limb turns south on him, the Argos have Akim Hill, a lightning-quick replacement.

As well, Toronto boasts a veteran defence that is generally smothering and at critical times capable of a big play.

These assets, plus head coach Pinball Clemons' no-quit energy and perpetual optimism, a bevy of sure-handed receivers and stellar placekicker/punter Noel Prefontaine, give the Argos as good a shot as anyone.

Meanwhile, what do Marshall and the Ticats do for an encore? Well, they keep it going, keep pushing, keep building and keep the whole thing fun for themselves and their fans.

In case you were visiting another planet last year, the Ticats turned the franchise's fortunes around. Marshall, in his rookie season, earned coach of the year honours for pushing and prodding the Tabbies -- 1-17 pussycats in 200 * -- to a 9-8-1 record.

Nearly as important, the Ticats were the buzz of Steeltown. Gone were the crappy crowds that filed into Ivor Wynne in past seasons. Home games last season often pushed through the 27,000-mark and proudly worn black-and-gold jerseys were everywhere. Second-year owner Bob Young has great vision with deep pockets.

Don't expect the good feeling -- or the victories -- to stop any time soon. Football is back in Hamilton, where more than 20,000 seats have already been sold for each game this season.

So it's all good, although I'm a little nervous wondering if 40-year-old pivot Danny McManus can still do the job. It's calming to know McManus's cavalry includes running back Troy Davis and receivers Chris Brazzell, a free agent from B.C., D.J. Flick, Archie Amerson, Mike Morreale and Craig Yeast.

It remains to be seen if their offensive weapons will be enough to negate a shaky Tabbies defence that's lost its sack attack -- Joe Montford (trade, Edmonton) and Tim Cheatwood (Houston, NFL).

Other things I'm excited about around the league:

- Former Mustang and Stampeder slotback Dave Sapunjis is part of a new ownership team in Calgary.

- Henry Burris's shift from the Saskatchewan Roughriders to the Stamps gives Calgary a huge boost at quarterback. And while I'm surprised Ricky Ray couldn't cut it with the NFL's New York Jets, I'm glad he's back with the Eskimos and believe they'll engage the Lions in a dogfight for the Western Conference championship.

About the only thing I don't like at this point in the campaign is B.C.'s quarterback situation. Casey Printers and Dave Dickenson are both No. 1s. One will ride the pine.

Look what happened last year. Printers was selected the CFL's most valuable player during the regular season, yet because of his experience, Dickenson started the Grey Cup game. And the Lions, many of whom must have questioned that decision, lost.

Bottom line: This year's Cup chase is wide open, although Toronto, Montreal, B.C. and Edmonton are front-runners.

Cody's Cup call: Eskimos.


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