The hierarchy of the Canadian Football League, dominated in recent years by the Montreal Alouettes and the Saskatchewan Roughriders, underwent a significant transformation in 2011. After two consecutive Grey Cup showdowns, neither the Als nor the Riders stood as one of the CFL’s final four teams, with Montreal falling in the division semi-finals and Saskatchewan missing the playoffs entirely. Instead, the 99th Grey Cup will feature a pair of unlikely foes: the East Division champion Winnipeg Blue Bombers and the West Division champion BC Lions, who will meet in the title game for the first time since 1988.
The 2011 CFL regular season was defined by a nearly unprecedented level parity. The Lions, the Edmonton Eskimos and the Calgary Stampeders all deadlocked at the top of the West Division standings at 11-7, while Winnipeg and Montreal both finished atop the East at 10-8. Having emerged victorious in their respective playoff games, the Bombers and Lions will square off this Sunday at BC Place, both fighting for the second-most esteemed trophy in Canadian professional sports.
Both Winnipeg and BC suffered through extended losing stretches that threatened to derail their playoff aspirations. Seven weeks into the season, the Lions sat at 1-6, having already dropped two games to the Bombers and languishing at the bottom of the CFL standings. BC would thrash Edmonton 36-1 the following week, setting the stage for an improbable eight-game win streak and a West Division championship. The Lions would place a league-high eight players on the CFL All-Star team, headlined by quarterback Travis Lulay and linebacker Solomon Elimimian.
Winnipeg, meanwhile, exploded out of the gate, starting the season 7-1, with their lone defeat coming in a one-point game against Calgary. Just as the Lions began to vault up the standings, the Bombers fell off, losing twice in a row to the lowly Roughriders and dropping seven of their final 10 games. They would manage to secure first place in the East based on their two victories over Montreal, earning a bye to the division final while the Alouettes fell to the Hamilton Tiger-Cats.
Despite their slow start, BC’s sterling defense conceded the fewest points in the CFL, buoyed in part by four games in which they held their opponent to six points or less. Their offense would fall just four total points back of Montreal for the league’s top ranking, with Lulay passing for over 4,800 yards and 32 touchdowns. The interminable Geroy Simon, in his 11th season with the Lions, ranked second in the league in receiving, while Elimimian, the reigning CFL Rookie of the Year, patrolled the field with reckless impunity, racking up 98 tackles on the season.
Winnipeg’s statistical profile is noticeably less impressive, as the Bombers have struggled to regain the swagger that permeated their entire roster through the early weeks of the season. While quarterback Buck Pierce set a career high in passing yards, he also tossed 18 interceptions, establishing himself as little more than a somewhat reliable game manager. Leading rusher Fred Reid will not suit up in the championship game due to injury, leaving second-year player Chris Garrett as the primary back. Defensive end Odell Willis led the CFL in sacks, with 13.
There is no shortage of storylines surrounding the 99th Grey Cup, with players and coaches on both sidelines seeking to cement their legacy or prove a point to their former team. BC, for their part, is attempting to become just the fourth team in league history to clinch a championship on their home field. Though the Lions played only four of their nine regular season home games at BC Place (with the others coming at Empire Field, which is scheduled for demolition), they were unbeaten at the newly renovated stadium, including a 40-23 win over Edmonton in the West Division final. The Lions are also searching for their first Grey Cup title since 2006, while Winnipeg’s last championship came all the way back in 1990.
Sunday may also mark the final CFL game for Lions head coach Wally Buono, who has won four Grey Cups in his 22-year coaching career (3 of which came between 1992 and 2001 with Calgary). Regarded as one of the best offensive minds in the history of Canadian football, Buono shrugged off the Lions’ dismal start to 2011 to clinch his 13th career division championship. While he has yet to make a decision on his future with the Lions, Buono may very well walk away from football after this year’s Grey Cup – particularly if he can lead his team to victory one last time.
Buono’s counterpart on the opposite sideline will be Paul LaPolice, the Bombers’ second-year head coach. LaPolice served as an offensive assistant for four teams before joining Winnipeg in 2010, enduring a 4-14 campaign in his initial year as head coach. Just like Buono, LaPolice has his team primed for a Grey Cup appearance in his second season (though Buono’s Stampeders fell to Toronto in the championship game in 1991).
For Pierce, Sunday’s game represents more than a chance to win his second Grey Cup as a CFL quarterback. After spending five seasons with the Lions (and winning a title as the backup to Dave Dickenson in 2006), Pierce was released by BC in March 2010, having been passed on the depth chart by the up-and-coming Travis Lulay. Plagued by injuries after signing as a free agent with Winnipeg, Pierce played a crucial role in Winnipeg’s 7-1 start in 2011, before gradually fading along with the rest of his teammates. Equally proficient with his feet and his arm, Pierce will try to regain the spark he displayed at the beginning of the season, in the hopes of defeating his former team and hoisting the Grey Cup.
The 99th Grey Cup is likely BC’s to lose, Winnipeg’s two early-season victories against the Lions notwithstanding. Although the Bombers’ defense throttled Hamilton in their 19-3 East Division championship win, the Lions have lost just once since August 13th, when they fell to Winnipeg 30-17. Pierce will have to limit turnovers and Garrett will have to replicate his effort from the Hamilton game, where he gained 190 yards on the ground, for the Bombers to win. If Lulay and Simon can establish a connection and Elimimian and the rest of the defense can put the pressure on Pierce, then the Lions should capture their sixth Grey Cup in franchise history.
Sunday’s game will be preceded by the 47th Vanier Cup, which will take place Saturday at BC Place between the top-ranked Laval Rouge et Or and the OUA champion McMaster Marauders. Laval is attempting to repeat as defending champions and capture their sixth national title in nine years, while McMaster is appearing in their first Vanier Cup since 1967. While the game promises to be a hotly contested affair, it will serve as a little more than a prelude to Sunday’s Grey Cup, where BC and Winnipeg, two teams left for dead at one point or another this season, will attempt to establish themselves as Canada’s best football team.