MONTREAL — General manager Danny Maciocia says he wondered how his Montreal Alouettes would even hold a training camp during their tumultuous off-season.
Months later, his team is 6-3 and comfortably in second place in the CFL’s East Division despite the ownership uncertainty that led to the loss of several key players in free agency this winter.
Maciocia calls it a "feel-good story," and credits one person in particular for it: head coach Jason Mass.
The GM heaped praise on the head coach he hired in December while speaking to reporters for a mid-season check-in outside Olympic Stadium on Tuesday.
"I think the best-kept story right now is what Jason Maas has brought to the table,” said Maciocia, whose relationship with Maas dates back to the early 2000s when both were part of Edmonton’s organization.
“He's been unreal with everything that he's been able to do with this football team here since he joined us.
"I deem him to be a leader of men … He is passionate. He is genuine. He is authentic. He is a caring individual whose expectations are elevated, and he expects you to play at a certain level because he's going to coach at a particular level day in and day out.”
The CFL was forced to take over operations of the Alouettes for the second time in roughly four years on the first day of free agency in February before Pierre Karl Peladeau, a billionaire with local roots, bought the team in March.
On Saturday, the Alouettes erased a 17-3 halftime deficit to defeat the host Ottawa Redblacks 25-24 in the final minute for a fourth straight victory. Now they face a short turnaround with a meeting Thursday in Winnipeg against the West Division-leading Blue Bombers (8-2).
Maciocia’s preoccupation with the state of his team during the off-season might even explain why he signed off on playing such a quick turnaround between games — he admits didn’t even look through the schedule when it was proposed.
Montreal will get a boost, however, as Maas confirmed Tuesday that starting quarterback Cody Fajardo, who missed the last two games with a left shoulder injury, will return to action after backup Caleb Evans filled in the last two games.
Under Maas, the Alouettes are second in points allowed per game and fourth in points scored per game after losing last season’s starting quarterback Trevor Harris, top receiver Eugene Lewis and top defensive player Adarius Pickett in free agency.
Maciocia credits the team’s recruitment, which brought in players such as CFL receiving yards leader Austin Mack, and how his coaches have integrated all the new players.
"I'm going to drive this as long as I can, and hopefully someone picks up on it — it all starts with our head coach and our coaching staff,” said Maciocia. “They've done a tremendous job of putting all these pieces together.”
Maas, meanwhile, says the success is thanks to how the players have bought in.
"Our players have bought into the culture, bought into our message of how we want this team looking and working,” he said. “It takes a whole organization to win ball games. It's not just on any one individual or any one part of the deal. It's everybody that it takes to win.”
Maciocia — who says the team would be “probably 3-6” if he was still the head coach — also believes Maas should be up for consideration for coach of the year with what he's done so far.
“He's a strong candidate,” said Maciocia. “I don't know how many have been able to put up with what he's had to put up with here since the beginning of the year.”
Whether or not Maas brings home that award will ultimately depend on the second half of the season.
That starts with Thursday’s game in Winnipeg, followed by a home matchup against the 7-3 B.C. Lions and two meetings with the 7-1 Toronto Argonauts.
Maciocia thinks the Alouettes have shown they have what it takes to hang with the league’s best.
"I think we've got a great coaching staff, I think we've got some we got some playmakers on offence and on defence, I think we got some tremendous leadership in the locker room, and we've got 100 per cent buy-in from what are coaches selling,” he said.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 22, 2023.
Daniel Rainbird, The Canadian Press