1981 – MR. WATTS’ WILD RIDE – PART 5 –THE REGULAR SEASON ENDS
FiredUp Network Sports Writer
Sunday, September 25, 2022
1981 – MR. WATTS’ WILD RIDE – PART 5 –THE REGULAR SEASON ENDS
Ottawa wouldn’t be taking on the Edmonton Eskimos until the Thanksgiving Monday, October 12. The week after the bad loss to Winnipeg had to bring some discomfort to many fans and perhaps even people in the Riders’ offices. With the club’s 4-9 record and the low attendance numbers during the 1981 season, rumours had begun to circulate that perhaps the team’s majority shareholder, Allan Waters, may wish to sell his stake in the team.
According to the speculation that had been building, Ottawa developer Sol Shabinsky was one party who was interested in purchasing the team. Another group from the software company, Mitel, wanted in on the Riders. But Waters told the media that the overarching gossip was completely baseless.
“I don’t know where those rumours get started but the club is not for sale under any circumstances,” Waters told the Citizen’s Tom Casey from his office in Toronto. “I haven’t even considered selling the club – it’s not for sale – nor have I considered making any changes in the people who run the club. I still feel there’s great interest in football in Ottawa and I feel that since Ottawa is the capital of Canada, it’s important that it has football. I’m prepared to go on!”
But Riders’ GM Jake Dunlap revealed that the team would end the season in the red. “Yes, we will lose money this season,” Dunlap told Casey. “How much? It’s too early to tell but it’s not as much as some people are imagining it might be.”
Attendance was one revenue stream but the team had others. Television revenues were up by more than $300,000 in 1981. The Toronto Argonauts sent the Riders $100,000 for the acquisition of quarterback Condredge Holloway at the beginning of the season. One other thing that could work in Ottawa’s favour was the fact that the league was close to coming up with an agreement on a new gate equalization plan that could provide another $150,000 to the team.
One thing that everyone seemed to agree on was that the product on the field needed to be better. But, that seems to be a perennial talking point in Ottawa. Dunlap spoke for the club when he told Casey “We’ve improved a lot since the start of the season but we still have a ways to go. I think the most important factor is to improve our scouting and we plan to hire a full time scout to check the U.S. schools and establish contacts with NFL teams.”
Those seemed like aspirations for the off season. What the fans wanted most, though, was victories from their home team.
The Thursday of that week wasn’t great for the Riders and there seemed to be a boatload of things for George Brancato to deal with. For one, their quarterback, Jordan Case, who had been throwing well in a light workout on Wednesday, was in extreme pain and couldn’t throw at all on Thursday. If Case couldn’t go on Monday afternoon at Commonwealth Stadium in Edmonton, then J. C. Watts would start and Kevin Starkey would back him up.
Brancato and Dunlap had been in contact with Carl Brazley and he had been scheduled to return to the team in time for Thursday’s practice. But Brazley wasn’t there. Neither was Eric Manns, who had missed a workout the week before and had begun to get on the nerves of his coach with his inconsistent attendance.
Brazley’s return would allow Brancato to move Larry Brune to a linebacking position and he would be a primary blitzer. The corners would be Jon Sutton and Jerome Stanton. Randy Rhino would play free safety and Billy Hardee and Brazley would be inside halfbacks. But all this would depend on Mr. Brazley actually showing up.
On the injury front, Doug Seymour suffered stretched knee ligaments and would unavailable for at least the Edmonton game and possibly more. Peter Stenerson, who had separated his shoulder earlier in the season did it again in the game against the Blue Bombers and underwent surgery. He was done for the season.
The next day, the source of Jordan Case’s pain was revealed. He took a hit from behind in the game against the Bombers and his vertebrae were pressing against his spinal cord. It was something that had been an issue for Case since his days at North Texas, but it had never stopped him from playing since his university days.
“It’s an injury that has bothered me since college but I took a hit on the neck in the Winnipeg game that felt odd but the thing didn’t flare up until Thursday. But there’s no way I can go on feeling like this. I didn’t feel bad warming up Thursday but I must have twisted my back throwing in the mud. I couldn’t continue.”
At this point, it appeared that his only choice, not just to continue playing, but to be able to enjoy a reasonable lifestyle, was surgery. Case was optimistic about his future in football.
“I know what’s involved, but I want to have the operation now so I can come back to play. I blew my knee out in high school and the doctors said I would never play again, but I came back. If I follow the proper rehabilitation program, I can’t see why I can’t come back. It has been done before.”
One reason that Case wanted to come back and play football in Ottawa again was the fact that his 1981 season had been, in a word, inconsistent. His play, and the Rough Riders’ record, especially at home, had caused many of the fans to sour on him. And that wasn’t lost on his wife, Lori, who was at every game, and indicated a wish to change seats for Ottawa’s next home game against Calgary.
“The fans now know who I am,” Lori Case told Tom Casey. “It’s hard to sit there and have to listen to what they say. I get so mad. It’s terrible what they say and it’s not just about Jordan. They come down on the whole team.”
For Case, 1981 had already been a long season. He had a great rookie year in 1980, completing 68.2 percent of his passes, throwing 13 touchdown passes and giving up only three interceptions. But injuries had dogged him since he hurt his elbow in training camp. He missed the preseason and the first two regular season games as well. Then he hurt his ribs and missed more time.
He was the youngest starting quarterback in the entire league, having started just 15 regular season games over his two seasons. In 1981, he had completed more than 61 percent of his throws, but he had only ten touchdown passes with seven picks. He was quite good at moving the ball between the 20 yard lines, but had difficulty when it came to getting it over the goal line.
“I feel as if I’ve aged five years in the past three months,” Case said. “The pressure is unbelievable. I’ve never been subjected to this kind of criticism before. I thought a 7-9 season was bad last year, but we’ll be lucky to be 7-9 this season.” He and Lori were counting the days until the end of the year. “My confidence is there, but this has been such a bad season.”
Meanwhile, Carl Brazley was back but Eric Manns’ whereabouts were proving to be a mystery to everyone, including his family. And even league commissioner Jake Gaudaur was weighing in on the situation. On Friday, Gaudaur gave Ottawa three choices to deal with the Manns situation. They could place him on the move list, keep him on the active roster or cut him. But the one thing he wouldn’t allow the team to do was suspend him.
If Manns couldn’t play on Monday, then John Glassford would line up at his spot. But Ron Simmons would play the middle on passing downs because of his strength and quickness. Sam Platt was back from injury and that meant that Calvin Fance would go to the move list. It looked more and more that Jordan Case would not go in Edmonton so Watts would start and Starkey would back him up.
When it came time to play the game at Commonwealth, the Eskimos were in the enviable position of having clinched the top spot in the Western Division the week before. That allowed Edmonton coach Hugh Campbell to rest quarterback Warren Moon and start the veteran Tom Wilkinson behind centre. Third-stringer Brian Broomell would see action in the fourth quarter.
Of course, the Eskimos would win the game. The final score was 24-6. For Rough Rider fans, that was the bad news. Two of the touchdowns were scored by Edmonton’s defense. Defensive tackle Dave Fennell picked off a loose ball from a Gary Hayes pressure on J. C. Watts before it hit the ground and ran it back 23 yards into the end zone for one major score.
Another Hayes pressure on Watts produced an interception when the Ottawa quarterback threw the ball directly into the arms of linebacker Dale Potter. Potter was able to run 40 yards to the end zone for another defensive score. The irony of the situation was that, firstly, Hayes had been in Ottawa in the 1980 season on a 14-day-trial but was cut by the Riders.
Secondly, Dale Potter was an Ottawa native who attended Glebe High School, which is a five minute drive from Lansdowne Park. (In another example of how small the Ottawa sporting community is, in the decade of the 1980s, I played pickup hockey on a regular basis with Dale’s father, Ross.)
The silver lining for the Riders was that the light seemed to go on for quarterback J. C. Watts. It was, by far, his best outing as a Rough Rider. He fired 51 passes, which were by a large margin, the most he had thrown in his life. He completed 29 of those throws for 338 yards. He also ran for 79 yards on 13 carries. You could say that the team was late into their season, but for Watts, he was just starting to get acclimatized to the game and the league. He was starting to feel game ready.
“The quickness is starting to come back,” Watts told the assembled press after the game. “I’m also learning to be more patient in the pocket. I’ve learned not to run backwards and across the field. That if I’m going to run, it has to be up field.”
Watts’ performance gave the Riders’ braintrust some pause. With Jordan Case’s injury, they had been looking into the availability of Calgary quarterback Ken Johnson. Apparently, the talks between the two teams were moving along quite swimmingly. But after Watts’ day against Edmonton, Brancato and Dunlap both took a step back and decided to keep developing their incumbent signal caller. Johnson eventually was traded to Montreal for future considerations.
If you took away those two defensive touchdowns, that would have made the score 10-6. The Riders defense held Edmonton to just 231 total yards, while Ottawa accumulated 439. Wilkinson was 12 for 22 for just 115 yards. The Eskimos’ only offensive score was a 10-yard run by Jim Germany. Cal Murphy was the Esks’ offensive line coach and he acknowledged how well Ottawa’s defense played in the game.
“While we may have done a good job harassing Watts, Ottawa didn’t do a bad job on us,” Murphy told the media. “Sure Moon wasn’t playing but Ottawa played tough defense. They played more man-to-man coverages than they have shown this season and they brought on Brune a lot more than we anticipated. He was getting through to the quarterback. We were ready for it but Ottawa executed it very well.”
So, yes. The result was another loss for the Rough Riders. But, perhaps there could be some reason for some optimism looking forward for this ramshackle team. Perhaps.
That long weekend in October, all the games had Western teams playing against Eastern teams. In every case, the Western team came out on top. Aside from the Rough Riders losing to Edmonton, Saskatchewan dumped Hamilton 28-12. Winnipeg destroyed the Argos 43-12. And Calgary allowed Montreal just a Don Sweet field goal in a 29-3 win.
So, the Rough Riders were at 4-10, but they were still in second place in the East. Yes, they were never going to catch the first place Hamilton Tiger-Cats, but given that the Montreal Alouettes and Toronto Argos were so bad, the likelihood of either team catching Ottawa was very, very low. But it is the Canadian Football League and one could NEVER take anything for granted. Ever.
Ottawa’s next game was against the Calgary Stampeders. The two teams behind them, Montreal and Toronto, were facing each other as well. If the Argos defeated the Als by more than a point, then Toronto would find themselves in third place (and the last playoff spot) in the East. They would also hold the tie breaker in the season series.
While the Rough Riders had been playing in Edmonton on Monday, the Argos, reeling from their massive loss to Winnipeg the day before, had a players only meeting at the home of defensive lineman Bruce Clark. They recognized that they needed to try to instill some kind of team unity. The incredible thing was that, given that they had won just one game in the entire season, they still had a chance to make the freaking playoffs!
Offensive guard Dan Ferrone told the Canadian Press about the little meeting. “Some of the guys had beefs with each other and we got a few things straight at this get together. This was something we needed for quite a while and Monday was a good day for it.”
In Montreal, coach Jim Eddy was so disenchanted with the play of his quarterback, Vince Ferragamo, that he named Gerry Dattilio as his starter against the Argos for the coming weekend. And, he was looking at the possibility of activating Steve Grant (who?) to be the backup. Eddy called Ferragamo’s game against Calgary “the worst we’ve played all year.”
The next weekend would say much!
Ottawa’s next game would be Sunday, October 18 against the Stampeders at Lansdowne Park. Calgary was 6-7 and trying to hang on to a playoff spot by their fingernails. They had to win out to even try to qualify for the postseason. They had played well against the Alouettes. But Ottawa had played decently against the juggernaut Eskimos. And they had a quarterback who was starting to understand his way around the league.
They also had another quarterback whose season had come to an end. Jordan Case would be undergoing spinal fusion surgery to relieve the pressure on his spinal cord. It wasn’t even just about his football career anymore. In the week since the Winnipeg game, he had been unable to walk or sit comfortably.
“There was a possibility that it could clear up and I could play again this season but I wouldn’t be any further ahead,” Case told reporters. “The doctors say the operation has to be done and the sooner the better. The back has never been this bad.”
In the short term, Case would be in hospital for between a week or two. Then, he would be in a body cast for five to six weeks. His intention was to be ready for training camp the following June.
“It’s a long time between now and training camp. There’s plenty of time to get better. The doctors said I could play again providing I follow the rehabilitation program closely and it’s a demanding one. I’ve been down before and I’ve come back.”
George Brancato acknowledged the seriousness of his quarterback’s condition. At the same time, he had spent the year hoping that Case could build upon what he had done in 1980. That said, he was realistic about what could still be for his team with a healthy quarterback.
“It’s been that kind of year for Jordan,” Brancato told Tom Casey. “It started in training camp. Nothing went right for him. A spinal fusion is a delicate operation and if it corrects his back problems, I’m looking forward to having him back with us next year.”
At this stage of the season, Brancato was at least content with the fact that one of his current quarterbacks had developed to a point where he could depend on him to carry the mail the rest of the way.
“After watching the game film, J. C. Watts did a lot of things well,” the coach said. “He dumped the ball off and spotted secondary receivers. There hasn’t been a game when he hasn’t improved. Now we can give both Watts and Kevin Starkey playing time and that will make them that much better for next year.”
In preparing for their next game, Brancato had a couple of concerns. Defensive tackle Mike Raines had a charley horse but he was expected to play. Sam Platt did not impress his coach in the game against Edmonton. Calvin Fance could be inserted into the lineup from the move list. But those were all decisions to be made as the team got closer to game day.
But what was most important was that Brancato was confident in who would be playing behind centre. When J. C. Watts had come back to the team, there were a lot of factors that caused the coach to be skeptical of whether or not Watts could get the will or the strength to be able to perform at the level he needed to in order for the team to succeed.
“I was a little worried about him at the time (he came back to the team),” Brancato said. “It looked as if his heart wasn’t in it, but I was wrong. I had to get to know him. He’s a sharp kid. He’s bright, and an easy-going fellow who doesn’t get upset easily. He has a good disposition for a quarterback.”
“As a look back, it was difficult for him to take charge,” he continued. “He was so far behind everyone else, he couldn’t play well. Now that he has caught up to the others, he’s playing well and the guys are responding to him. There’s no doubt that J. C. Watts wants to play.”
For Watts, there was not only an adjustment to the Canadian game or to Canadian sensibilities when it came to football. He had to get used to sitting before being able to play. When he came back to Ottawa, he was on a 14-day trial, and then he sat on the four-man move list for five games.
“The CFL is exactly what I thought it would be,” Watts said. “There were a couple of times when I got mentally ready to play only to find out that I wasn’t going to be used. In the long run, that was to my advantage not to be rushed. It gave me time to learn and I have no complaints whatsoever with the way I have been handled by the coaching staff. I appreciate the way I have been brought along. There has no pressure placed on me.”
“The game is a lot different here,” Watts continued. “You have to throw, especially since there’s only three downs, but I can’t see why I can’t run 13 to 15 times a game, like I did in Edmonton. I don’t mean that special plays should be added to the playbook but if everyone is covered, I can’t see why I can’t run the ball upfield.”
Watts really didn’t like the fact that Jordan Case was out for the year, but he also understood that he had personally developed his game to a point where he wanted it to be. “I had to come back, it was important to me. I signed a two-year contract and I hope to sign a three-year deal, then retire. I’ll be 29 then and I feel I would have had enough. I went to university to prepare myself to do other things.”
“I’m happy to be playing and that’s what really counts.”
Meanwhile, 32-year-old Tony Gabriel made it clear that 1981 would his final CFL season. He had hinted at it numerous times over the course of the year, but in the week before the Calgary game, he explicitly stated that his 11th season in the league would be his last.
“I won’t be back next season. I don’t want to mislead anyone that I might come back next year. I’ve had a great career and it’s time to move on to other things. As I mentioned earlier in the season, I want to spend time with my young family. I enjoy my new job (as a stock broker) and it requires more and more time.”
“Though this has been a disappointing season from a team point of view, this has been a good season for me personally. One of the reasons I came back was to break Harold Carmichael’s consecutive game record and I did that. Then when I got hurt earlier in the season, I’m sure a lot of people said ‘The Gabber is getting old. He’s almost finished.’ So the fact that I’ve been able to come back has also been rewarding.”
“A lot of the guys on the team have been coming up to me lately to say that I should come back next year but I don’t see how. As I said, it has been a great eleven years and the seven years in Ottawa have been super. The fans have been good to me. I’m looking forward to the playoffs but after that, that’s it and I’ve got plenty to be thankful for.”
The Calgary Stampeders had had a trying season up to this point. With their record of 6-7, a lot of their issues on offense were similar to Ottawa’s. They were quite adept at moving the ball between the 25-yard-lines, but after that, it was a struggle. Their new head coach, Jerry Williams, who took over from Ardell Wiegant, had instituted a new playbook. It was one that some Stampeders’ players felt was a little too complicated.
They had also just traded their quarterback, Ken Johnson, to Montreal for future considerations. According to Williams, Johnson lacked a certain ability to scan the field for secondary receivers. Starting at quarterback for Calgary against the Riders would be Bruce Threadgill with former Denver Bronco, Jeff Knapple backing him up.
George Brancato had hoped to have Mike Raines on his defensive line for this game but his bruised thigh had not recuperated to the point where he would be able to play. That forced Ottawa to play a four-two defense with no middle linebacker. Oh well, on to the kickoff.
The weather for this October Sunday in Ottawa was rainy and ugly and it made the field appear and play the same way. It ended up being especially ugly for the Stamps, who played horribly and lost to the Rough Riders by a score of 21-10. The only Calgary touchdown came on a third quarter 95-yard punt return by Lepoleon Ingram. They were able to put together only 12 yards of total offense in the second half of the game.
Give Ottawa’s defense credit, but there were a lot of passes dropped by Stampeders’ receivers. Willie Burden had had a great career with the Stampeders, but he was relegated to an assistant coaching role in this game. Without him, their running game was pretty much non-existent. Jerry Williams and his coaches were not pleased.
“Every time we got something going, we dropped the ball,” Williams told reporters after the game. According to Tom Casey, the Calgary assistant coaches “must have set a CFL record for slamming shut the door to their dressing room after the game.” Calgary managed just 175 yards of total offense for the entire game!
The Rough Riders’ unique defense gave the Stampeders fits the whole time. The concern going into the game was a possible vulnerability inside, but Ottawa defensive end Greg Marshall addressed that with the media after the game.
“If the defense has a weakness, it’s that it can be vulnerable to the run up the centre. But our tackles, Ron Simmons and Mike Peerman did a great job pinching the middle. I like the defense. We can give the offense a lot of looks and confuse them.” It was Peerman’s first game in more than two months.
He didn’t know he was going to play until Saturday morning when Eric Manns, who had been increasingly working his way into George Brancato’s dog house, didn’t show up for the team picture. “When he didn’t show, that was it,” Brancato told reporters. John Glassford and Rick Sowieta had great games at linebacker. Sowieta had ten tackles in the game.
The rain turned the turf into soup and it caused some troubles for Calgary’s special teams. J. T. Hay missed all three of his field goal attempts. Ottawa’s Gerry Organ made his two field goals. He also had a decent night punting. Organ also booted an 88-yard single point following a Stampeder safety touch, which came on a sack by Ed McAleney. The safety tied the score at 10-10. The third quarter single then allowed Ottawa to retake the lead and served to deflate the Stamps.
Both coaches agreed that two plays made a big difference in the final outcome. And they both came from one man – Kelvin Kirk. One was a 41-yard pass and run play on a dish from Kevin Starkey that set up a 4-yard touchdown pass to Sam Platt. The other was a 38-yard punt return. Both plays occurred as the Riders were going into the wind and they took the team out of adverse field position.
J. C. Watts played the first three quarters and was relieved by Starkey at the beginning of the fourth. Watts gave up three interceptions in his time in the second half. Brancato said that Watts was trying to force passes into tight coverage and that bit him. He completed 16 of 24 passes for 169 yards. He did complete a 46-yard touchdown pass to Tony Gabriel who broke a couple of tackles on his way to the end zone in the second quarter.
Both Watts and Starkey had never played under such rainy conditions. Given the weather, they performed quite admirably. “On some passing plays, I would hold the ball with my left hand and try to dry my right hand on my leg as I rolled out,” Watts told Tom Casey. “I kept looking for a dry spot.”
The win allowed the Riders to breathe for a moment. They clinched second place in the East despite their 5-10 record. The only negative on the game for the Rough Riders was the attendance. It was listed as 15,002, but people who were there say the crowd was likely half that. But that said, the team had the right to feel good about where they were as a group with just one game remaining in the regular season.
The Toronto Argonauts helped themselves by defeating the Montreal Alouettes 20-14 at Exhibition Stadium. They also helped the Rough Riders. Each of Montreal and Toronto had two games remaining. With matching 2-12 records, the most either team could accumulate would be four.
Montreal had games upcoming against Winnipeg and Ottawa. Toronto still had to play Edmonton and Hamilton. If the Argos and Als finished tied, Toronto would finish in the third and final Eastern playoff spot. Ottawa had a bye the following weekend. They would have to sit and watch the action. Their final game against Montreal in two weeks would be a tune-up for their first round playoff game.
While the Rough Riders enjoyed their bye weekend, all of the other Eastern teams went down to defeat in their games against Western teams. The B. C. Lions dumped the Hamilton Tiger-Cats 34-7. The Winnipeg Blue Bombers trounced the Montreal Alouettes 33-13. And in the worst defeat of the day, The Edmonton Eskimos demolished the Toronto Argonauts 61-7. The Argos got their only points with three minutes remaining in the fourth quarter.
The Saskatchewan Roughriders defeated the Calgary Stampeders 24-11, ending the Stamps’ quest for the 1981 postseason. More than 33,000 fans were in Calgary to see their team lose to the Green ‘Riders. John Hufnagel led his team in the first half and Joe Barnes took over in the second. Saskatchewan and B. C. were then tied for the last Western playoff spot. Those two teams would face each other in the final weekend of the CFL season. The winner would move on to the playoffs. The loser would go home.
The only team with a bye in the final week of the CFL schedule was Edmonton. They were finished and, just like the champions they had been, they accumulated a record of 14-1-1. Behind them in the West was Winnipeg with a record of 10-5. Saskatchewan and B. C. were tied at 9-6.
In the East, Hamilton was comfortably at the top of the division with a record of 10-4-1. Ottawa had clinched second at 5-10. The ineptitude of Montreal and Toronto allowed them to be ensconced in that spot. The Alouettes and Argos were currently tied at 2-13. Toronto held the tie breaker if they finished with the same record after their final games.
To further underscore the ineptitude of the Argonauts, there existed the possibility that, because of a filing error, the team could be without their best quarterback for their final crucial game against the Tiger-Cats. In an effort to rest Holloway against the Eskimos, instead of putting him on the four-man move list or on the taxi squad, they put him on the injured list. That meant he would be lost to the team for 60 days!
And, instead of taking responsibility for the error, the general manager and current coach of the Argos, Tommy Hudspeth, blamed a secretary for the blunder. He told reporters that the woman had incorrectly informed the league that Holloway would be placed on the injured list. If Holloway had been put on the reserve list, he would be free to return to the lineup at any time.
Hudspeth acknowledged that the team would “not like to make a big deal about this because it’s going to make us look like idiots. Neither Ralph (Sazio) nor I knew anything about this. We have to talk about it and then decide what has to be done.”
CFL commissioner Jake Gaudaur told the press that Holloway was on the Argos’ injured list. “There is no mistake on the league’s part. I checked the message and it clearly says that Holloway should be placed on the injury list. There is no precedent. You have to be very cautious in reversing anything like this because clubs – and I’m not saying this is the case with the Argos – could use it as a gimmick. There’s always that danger.”
A mistake at this time was the worst thing that could have happened to the Boatmen. A win would clinch the playoff spot for them. Not having Holloway would be horrific. Without him, they would face the first-place Ti-Cats with either Dan Manucci or Mike Williams at quarterback and their season on the line.
A brief, informal survey of some general managers across the league was pretty much unanimous. “A rule is a rule,” said Alouettes’ GM Bob Geary. Hamilton’s Joe Zuger agreed. “It wouldn’t be a good precedent to set. It would open the door to too many things.” “The league can’t change it now. They better not,” George Brancato told the Canadian Press.
Calgary’s Jack Gotta was of two minds. “Usually, you pay when you make a mistake. In football, you’re always paying for your mistakes and I guess someone has to pay. But, if he doesn’t play, the fan is the loser. The product on the field is so vital. If he plays, the product is pretty damn good. If I was turning on my television, I wouldn’t want to see another game like Edmonton-Toronto.”
With the strong possibility of not having to see Condredge Holloway in a potential playoff meeting, you can easily guess who Brancato would prefer to face, given the choice of the Argos or the Als. With their upcoming game in Montreal on Sunday, an Ottawa victory would eliminate the home team.
“This is an important game for us,” Brancato told Tom Casey. “We can dictate who we will play in the playoffs. There’s no comparison when I compare Toronto’s talent to Montreal’s.” One Alouette player that Ottawa would have to be concerned with that had missed a lot of time in 1981 was linebacker Tom Cousineau. He had been expected to miss the entire season with an elbow injury but he was listed as ready to play against Ottawa on the day after Hallowe’en.
Brancato went on to talk about many of the quality players on that Alouettes’ roster.
“Despite Montreal’s record, I have a lot of respect for the Als. Look at their front four. Doug Scott is as good a tackle as there is in the league. Keith Gary is another good kid along the defensive line. Junior Ah You is playing better. And Glen Weir....’Old Fuzzy’ always plays well in the playoffs.”
Montreal’s offense had some threats as well. Their two wideouts, James Scott and Billy ‘White Shoes” Johnson had each passed the 1,000 yard receiving mark. And their attack seemed to be running a lot more smoothly since they had acquired Ken Johnson from Calgary.
“Another guy we have to worry about is (David) Overstreet,” Brancato said. “Sure he drops the ball a lot, but he can run the ball. You can see why we don’t want to play Montreal. It’s pretty difficult to understand how they’ve won only two games.”
How did the Holloway debacle turn out? Do you remember how ‘Anything Can Happen In The CFL’? Well, league commissioner Jake Gaudaur ended up allowing the Argonauts to reinstate their beleaguered quarterback, giving him the ability to play in their final game against the Hamilton Ti-Cats.
In a league meeting with executives from all the CFL clubs present, they voted unanimously that Gaudaur was entitled to make a judgement in this matter based on the evidence that was available to him. Gaudaur had stated publicly that he would not make any judgment on the matter if the teams did not give him that unanimous consent.
He then decided to allow the Argos to re-activate their quarterback. He had one specific reason for giving the team the clearance to do this, however. “The Toronto club didn’t stand to gain anything. There were two open spaces on the reserve list. If there wasn’t two open spaces on the reserve list, I would have ruled differently. It was an honest mistake.”
That decision did not make everybody happy, though. “I hope they’re that kind to me when I make mistakes,” Hamilton’s Joe Zuger told the media. “I was against it because of the precedent that will be set. A lot of teams might try the same thing now.”
Hamilton had lost their previous two games and Zuger was concerned about the effect the decision might have on his team’s preparation in their upcoming game against Toronto. “The coaches began preparing since Monday and this could mess up their planning. Holloway has been on the list since Friday, so we didn’t expect to see him in the lineup. I wish they had made the decision earlier.”
Montreal’s Bob Geary was in disbelief over the outcome of Gaudaur’s judgment. “He didn’t have my consent. It has nothing to do with Holloway playing. A rule is a rule. To blame something on a secretary just doesn’t make sense. I’m frustrated with the whole thing. If someone makes a mistake, they shouldn’t be able to reverse it.”
George Brancato seemed to be a bit more pragmatic. “It’s best for the game if Holloway plays. If the fans are going to pay to see them, they might as well see the best they’ve got to offer.” Certainly, the Argos would be a stronger team with Holloway in the lineup and an Argonaut win against Hamilton would not be a bad thing for the Ottawa Rough Riders.
There would be four games over the final two days of the regular season. On Halloween Saturday, Toronto would host the Tiger-Cats. Out west, the Green ‘Riders would be hitting the coast to play the B. C. Lions. The winner would move on and the loser would go home.
Not only that, but if Saskatchewan won and Winnipeg lost to Calgary on the Sunday, then both teams would have 20 points and Winnipeg would finish third because of the tiebreaker. But if B. C. won, Winnipeg would finish second regardless.
On that Saturday at Exhibition Stadium, the Argos were never out of the game in the first three quarters, but they were never really in it either. Toronto trailed Hamilton by just two points after forty-five minutes, and they ran the ball well, but Hamilton scored the only touchdown of the fourth quarter and won the game by a score of 21-11. The loss didn’t eliminate the Argos necessarily, but it sure didn’t help them much.
It’s difficult to win when your team generates just 89 yards through the air. Mind you, Hamilton ran the ball for just 20 yards while Toronto moved downfield for 173 yards on the ground. Condredge Holloway did manage to throw a touchdown pass to Martin Cox with less than three minutes left in the third frame. That pulled them to within two points of their Golden Horseshoe rivals at 13-11.
If Montreal was to lose on Sunday against Ottawa, then the Argos would still make the postseason. But they would have to keep their fingers crossed.
Out in Vancouver, the battle for the final playoff spot in the West took place when Saskatchewan and the Lions played each other. This game was a fierce defensive match. The two teams combined for just 21 first downs over the course of the entire game! The total offensive yards for the two teams combined was only 389! Less than 400 yards total! There were 31 punts in the game!
At half time, the score was 4-4. After three quarters, Saskatchewan led 5-4. But B. C. got a touchdown from Larry Key on a 2-yard run with less than three minutes remaining. They went for the two-point conversion but failed to get it. With one minute left, Lui Passaglia booted a 33-yard field goal to make the score 13-5. That iced the game and pushed the Lions into the playoffs.
On Sunday, with their second place finish in the West assured, the Blue Bombers played loose and confident football in thrashing the Calgary Stampeders 44-6. This one was never in doubt. At the half, Winnipeg led 35-0. Calgary’s only points came on a James Sykes 1-yard plunge late in the fourth quarter. The poor Stamps couldn’t even kick the extra point.
The Bombers generated 34 first downs and Dieter Brock went 30-39 for 368 yards and their offense moved the ball for 451 total yards. Their defense won the takeaway battle as well, intercepting Calgary passers four times. They also recovered a Stamps’ fumble. It was an example of Bomber domination in advance of the playoffs.
In Montreal, it was a tale of two games in one. For Ottawa, it was the best of times and then, it was the worst of times. In the first thirty minutes the Rough Riders played with a lot of confidence and played in control. At half time, Ottawa led 14-7. But in the third quarter, they lost a couple of important players.
Jerome Stanton and Randy Rhino both had to leave the game with pulled hamstrings. That forced the coaching staff to move guys around and play guys who were not necessarily at the level of the players they had lost. Carl Brazley had to move from safety to the corner. Glenn Cook was inserted at Brazley’s position.
Larry Brune went from the blitzing utility back to free safety. John Glassford went in to play middle linebacker and Bill Mitchell, who had come back from his broken cheekbone to play in this game, had to move from interior linebacker to the outside. Instead of playing their unique 4-2-6 defense, they had to revert to a more traditional 4-3 set-up.
Losing Rhino, who was so effective at running back punts and kickoffs, and Stanton, seemed to rob the team of some of their confidence. They also seemed to lose their competitiveness. At half time, they were leading 14-7. But the second half was all Montreal. The Alouettes outscored the Rough Riders 32-1 in the final two quarters. The final score was 39-15 for the home team.
George Brancato seemed to be in a state of shock after the game. “I wanted to play Toronto in the semi-final. Montreal has good talent, but we didn’t come here to play. The fact that we had second place locked up going into the game had nothing to do with it. How could we be happy with five wins? I saw nothing out there that encourages me for next week’s game. This should give Montreal a big lift.”
The usually soft-spoken Rick Sowieta was not happy after the game and he expressed his displeasure to reporters. “In the first half, Montreal wasn’t ready to play and we should have scored 40 points. Once we lost Stanton and Rhino, we fell apart. There was no intensity and we were blown out.”
Montreal coach Jim Eddy saw that the injuries to Ottawa’s important pair played a part in the final outcome as well. “There’s no doubt losing Rhino and Stanton was a key factor in the game. Ottawa plays that six deep back defense well but more than anything, their guys seem to have a lot of confidence in it.”
When they had their six-man defensive backfield, they had control of the first half. Rhino ran five punts back for 97 yards. He was giving his team decent field position every time he touched the ball. But when they moved the ball, they had trouble getting it into the end zone. And then, Gerry Organ missed three field goals, including a 15-yard attempt in the third quarter.
In the first half, quarterback J. C. Watts completed 11 of 18 passes for 159 yards. But then he went 3 for 7 in the third quarter before giving way to Kevin Starkey. Watts was disconsolate following the game. “We lost our poise and that shouldn’t happen. Instead of going with things that were going well, we were looking for other things.”
If there was any silver lining in the outcome, it was the fact that they would be playing the Eastern Semi-Final in Ottawa, on the possibly sloppy track at Lansdowne Park. The speedy Montreal receivers would have to slog through the turf and possibly the mud. The best news was that they would NOT be playing the game at Olympic Stadium. The Riders’ record at ‘The Big O’ was 2 wins and 14 losses.
The long and trying regular season was now over. On to the postseason for the teams who qualified.
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You can listen to Howie and his co-host Shawn Lavigne on The Sports Lunatics Show, a sports history podcast, right here on the FiredUp Network, or on 208 different platforms wherever you find your podcasts, including Alexa. Howie also hosts Like Father, Like Son with his son, Reese, here on the FiredUp Network and those same platforms as well.