1. Toronto Dukes (8-4)
It was business as usual for HC Shay Lockwood, and the Dukes. The stellar defense propelled the team to a 5-0 start, which included convincing victories against Manitoba and Vancouver. CB Thomas Nolan, older brother of Kevin Nolan, continued to cause fits for opposing quarterbacks, as he led the league in interceptions for the second time in as many years. The Dukes would then a rough patch, dropping the next 2 games, due to inconsistent quarterback play from Martel Stanton. After a disastrous loss at home to Edmonton, to make it three losses in a row, Lockwood needed to make change offensively. In order to decrease the pressure on Stanton, the Dukes needed to revitalize their rushing attack. It started with RB Fredrick Renaud splitting carries with rookie RB Curt Eckwood, but quickly spiraled into Renaud becoming a complementary power back to speedy Eckwood. The change brought a new dimension to the Dukes offense, but most of all it took pressure of Stanton allowing him to relax and manage the offense. During the 3-1 run to finish out the season, clinching another Eastern Division championship young linebackers Calvin Moore and Ray Hunt began to solidify themselves as key components of the Dukes rotation. Thomas van der Linden had accomplished exactly what he set out to do, develop a franchise that resembles the dominant Bruins that his uncle built. After five dark years, the Dukes have revitalized football in Toronto.
2. Manitoba Stags (8-4)
Starting the season 0-3, the Manitoba Stags looked like they might not find their stride for the second straight season. This proved to be false as 32-year old veteran QB Russ Cosentino, seemingly put critics to rest after leading the team to a 7-1 record in the final 8 games. RB Buddy Spagnola and WR Timothy Yates had a breakout campaigns, while rookie WR Thomas Alfredsson and TE Terry Knight made immediate contributions as role players. The offensive line made tremendous strides, with rookie OT Rex Collins, already performing like a franchise left tackle. On the defensive side of the ball, it was another stellar season for CB Kevin Nolan. He single handily propelled the Stags to a win over the Seawolves, after two critical 4th quarter pass deflections. Late round selections, SS Nolan Maddox and DE Thomas Miller played above expectations as situational defenders in the nickel package. For Stags HC Paul Hawerchuk, efforts in 1979, he was rewarded NFA Coach of the Year. Hawerchuck, was quick to recognize that, “The outstanding performance by the team his year was not due to his superior coaching performance. The team would have not been able to come back from a 0-3 start if it wasn’t for the leadership of Cosentino. That guy will make a hell of a coach someday.” The turnaround by the Stags in 1979 is truly remarkable. The Stags went from 3-9, to a win away from representing the Eastern Division in the Dominion Cup. Stags owner, Jack Osborne, admitted that, “Toronto deservers to go to the Dominion Cup, they beat us twice this season, no question about that. But I think the process could be improved if Norris (Rivers) considered adding a 4-team playoff to determine Dominion Cup participants.” Whether Manitoba’s season was a fluke or not remains to be seen, but as long as Cosentino is under center they will be viewed as serious contenders.
3. Ottawa Capitals (5-7)
QB Jason O’Shea, who was well on his way to become the next Canadian superstar, took an enormous step back in his third-season of professional football. Owner Gordon Clermont invested heavily in O’Shea when he traded for him, and invested heavily in him again by spending early round draft picks on WR Ty Rutherford and Al Horn. The big-armed O’Shea has struggled with accuracy throughout his career, but never to the magnitude it was in 1979. The media was quick to blame it on the Capitals poor offensive line play, which was partially true. HC Jeff Kellogg explained that O’Shea was dealing with, “Serious confidence issues stemming from his performance in the season finale last year. It has been brought to our attention that there are some inconsistences in his delivery this season, allowing for greater inaccuracies.” If anyone is able to get O’Shea’s back on track it is OC Chuck Barrett. When a team is profoundly built around a high-powered offense, the talent on defense typically suffers. DE Phil Ramsey, the #6 Overall selection in the International Draft, was far from impressive in his first season. The Chattanooga product, despite possessing tremendous raw athletic ability, looked overmatched against the larger offensive tackles. There were some bright spots with the ILB Lou Paulson and CB Wayne Dooley, providing a spark on defense. Even with the struggling O’Shea and defensive unit, the Capitals were able to come up with victories against the top two Eastern Division teams. Despite falling off in their second NFA-campaign, the pieces are in place for Ottawa to compete for the division title next season. Clermont has shown that he can build an offense, but can the same be said about a defense? Expect the Capitals to go after defensive depth in the offseason, while the coaching staff attempts to help O’Shea regain the form from his first two seasons.
4. Montreal Maroons (5-7)
At 5-7, the Montreal Maroons actually over performed to some expectations. Coming into the season with several question marks along the offensive line, many thought the Maroons would struggle to win more than a handful of games. The offense showed severe vulnerability at times, especially with an inexperienced OT Rick Hazelhurst protecting an equally inexperienced quarterbacks blindside. Any team who loses two veteran starters along the offensive front, in the span of one offseason, will have a difficult time being successful. With shaky line play, QB Winston Hummel, was able to stay upright just enough to operate Vincent Giroux’s complicated offense. Defensively the team faired about the same, DE Jonathan Perreault and Max Gragnani, did as best they could to stop teams from exploiting the Maroons anemic secondary. Despite the Maroons surprising win total, there is still plenty of concerns surrounding their personnel. With the oldest roster in the NFA, Montreal is entering a much needed rebuilding phase. While an upset victory over Toronto in Week 11, is something to get excited about, how many of these young players are truly long-term solutions for Montreal? Winston Hummel improved this season, but can he become a franchise quarterback? Giroux refuses to adapt to the importance of a rushing attack in the American game, will his system prevail or is he merely holding the team back? After neglecting the need last season Marleau must address the Maroons secondary during the offseason. If the team hopes to fill the gigantic Olympic Stadium to capacity, they will need to quickly transition thru this rebuilding phase.
1. Vancouver Seawolves (9-3)
The Seawolves, led by 1979 NFA MVP Reggie Hart, continued their dominance of the Western Division with another undefeated divisional record. Well protected all season, Hart, was able to shred defenses with his wealth of receiving options. With opposing defenses keying on WR Gino Wesson, it was TE Ed Caar and WR Bruce Triggs who put up monstrous numbers. Since games were commonly out of reach by the end of the 1st half, the backups saw increased playing time. Backup OG Kevin Taft was so impressive in mop up duty; he was promoted to the starting lineup by Week 6. The strong defense, led by DT Abe Driskel, LB Rudolph Cobb, and DB Tyrone Madison, somehow appeared even stronger in 1979. The improvement was in large part due to the emergence of depth in the secondary with the surprising play of CB Dennis Dupree and CB Mike Reynolds. What plagued the Seawolves this season however, was their inability to close out those highly contested games. All three of their losses came after holding a lead heading into the 4th quarter, raising some serious concerns. Despite those apprehensions, the Seawolves still have the opportunity to defend their Dominion Cup title. If an AFA team does not lure Reggie Hart away in the next couple years, the Seawolves will absolutely continue their dominance in the Western Division.
2. Calgary Wranglers (5-7)
After posting a 7-5 record and pushing Vancouver to the brink twice in 1978, the Wranglers had great expectations heading into 1979. But their season came to a screeching halt early as both QB Mikael Bourque and RB Buck Baldwin suffered season-ending injuries. The Abbruzzi brothers just couldn’t find a way to propel their team to another winning season. Local rookie RB Graeme Labatt flashed some serious potential, but ball security issues had him spending a lot time on the bench. The veteran offensive line, with 4 of the 5 starters over the age of 30, was showing their age. Given the condition of the offense at the time, HC Sam Abbruzzi, felt that playing rookie QB Jason Easton would be detrimental to his long-term development. Electing to trot out veteran QB Benjamin Wright who performed, mediocrely, as expected. Defensively the Wranglers continued to be one of the leagues best. NFA All-Pro selections from 1978, LB Sam Randle and CB Morris Blum, continued their dominance against the pass. The Wranglers are stocked with depth throughout the defense with DE Gerard Hanson, DE Charles Krueger, CB Lane Osgood, and CB Lamar Hamilton. Despite a disappointing season, a lot of optimism surrounds the Wranglers heading into 1980. If Baldwin and Bourque can play an entire season, the offense could be dangerous. The two issues Calgary must address in the offseason is the development of youth along the offensive line and figuring out how to retain DC Marc Martineli, who is interviewing for the vacant HC position with the Drillers.
3. Edmonton Drillers (5-7)
The Edmonton Drillers, if nothing else, gave us plenty of headlines in 1979. The quarterback competition between Shane Eichelberger and Gus Stroud was closer than anticipated. With no clear winner in camp, the two rookies were named co-starting quarterbacks. That unwise decision, made HC Pat Vernon, prevented Eichelberger and Stroud from establishing a rhythm with the offense. Aggravated with the discombobulated offense, RB Joe Nixon, got into an explicit-laden argument with OC Arthur Winthrop on the sidelines. The situation escalated further when enraged owner, Garth Erickson, told Vernon to, “start Eichelberger this week or find a new team to coach for.” Even with Eichelberger declared the starting quarterback, things didn’t improve much offensively. During a Week 9 blowout loss against rival Calgary, the already fragile relationship between Nixon and the coaching staff reached its breaking point. Nixon, frustrated with his role in the offense, pulled himself from the game midway thru the 3rd-quarter. That stunt cost Nixon his starting spot, as he was sent to the bench the following week in favor of veteran RB Tom Rizzo. Despite the drama surrounding the offense, DE Bo Donahue, DT Paul McGregor, CB Claude Sloan, and S Leonard Goodwin were able to improve the abysmal Drillers defense from last season. Based on their record it may appear that the Drillers progressed this season, but that is definitely not the case. Without the improved defensive unit, given the issues on offense, this team could’ve easily finished winless. With the firings of both HC Pat Vernon and OC Arthur Winthrop and the domineering approach by owner Garth Erickson, creates a lot of uncertainty regarding Edmonton’s future. Whoever is hired must first fix the culture in the locker room, establish a rapport with Joe Nixon, and develop trust with Erickson. The team has some serious potential, but there are some glaring holes on the offensive line and at several defensive positions that need to be addressed immediately.
4. Saskatoon Yellowheads (3-9)
After finishing 1978 with one of the worst records in league, the Yellowheads thought they could only improve on there win total. But they were sadly mistaken. Though they saw their pair of first round picks OLB Patrick Van Daal and S Cliff Buchanon shine in their rookie season, it wasn’t enough to turn the defense into dominant one. The Yellowheads run-heavy offense, centered on RB Paul Chafey, had problems of their own. Which was to no fault of the stout offensive line, anchored by OT Salvatore Romano and OG Giorgio Marchetti. Even with ‘Gli Italiani’ opening up massive running lanes, Chafey ran with noticeably less fortitude. After a brutal 0-5 start, the Yellowhead faithful clamored for the benching of Chafey along with veteran QB Steve Vaughn, who was ineffective yet again. In a Week 6 matchup, head coach Albert Payne finally decided to start the 2nd-year QB Reid Sampson and rookie RB Eddie McClendon. The duo instantly sparked a string of three victories, over the next four weeks, for the Yellowheads. During that time span the defense showed massive improvement. DE Isaac Gamble emerged as a steady pass rushing option, allowing MLB Brett Martin to return to his dominant form from his first three-years in the CFA. The team would finish out the year with two losses, to match their win total from last season. Despite the unimpressive win total, the Yellowheads showed growth on both sides of the ball. Van Daal, Buchanon, Gamble, and Martin make a solid defensive core for the future. The offensive line is aging, but the team has already made it a priority to replenish the depth chart thru the draft. With loyal fans and a handful of talented players, things will get better soon for the Yellowheads.
Dominion Cup II Preview
#1 Vancouver Seawolves v. #2 Toronto Dukes
Steele Stadium -- Toronto, ON
Season Series: TOR 2-0
The Vancouver Seawolves will look to defend their Dominion Cup title as they square off against the Toronto Dukes once again. These two franchises have developed quite a rivalry with one another, having squared off in 5 games over the last two seasons. While the Dukes lead the all-time series 3-2, the Seawolves prevailed when it mattered last year in a 45-38 2-OT thriller in the Dominion Cup. In their 5 meetings, each game has been won by a touchdown or less, including three overtime games. Shay Lockwood appears to have the blueprint for stopping Reggie Hart this year, the question is will the Dukes be able to execute it once again?
1980 NFA Draft Order
1. Saskatoon Yellowheads
2. Montreal Maroons*
3. Ottawa Capitals*
4. Edmonton Drillers*
5. Calgary Wranglers*
6. Manitoba Stags
7. Dominion Cup II - Loser
8. Dominion Cup II - Winner
*Draft order determined by tiebreakers, each team finished at 5-7.