By the slimmest of margins the Toronto Argonaut 2015 season is now in the history books. In the Eastern Division Semi-Final they were edged out on the last play of the game, a 47 yard field goal by Hamilton kicker Justin Medlock. This was a game the Argos could have easily won if not for any of a handful of miscues. From a fan’s perspective frustrating because you know the outcome could have been different, unlike the Western Semi-Final where Calgary dominated and the win was never in doubt. Lots to discuss and dissect from the game to now what in the offseason that lies ahead for a Toronto team about to embark on a new era at BMO Field and hosting the 2016 Grey Cup game.
First the game. When a fourth string quarterback throws for 141 yards and only 26 yards in the first half and still wins the game, the losing team deserved to lose. The Argonauts did not do enough when it mattered to win. Here is a small sample. Not scoring enough with the wind at their backs did them in. The Argos had the wind in the 2nd and 3rd quarter and outscored Hamilton 18-7 in that period, but Hamilton outscored Toronto 18-4 with the wind at their backs. A veteran quarterback like Ricky Ray needed to generate more points and drives with that wind and put the game away. A key dropped pass by Chad Owens very uncharacteristically killed a drive late in the game. Blown routes by receivers Phil Bates and Diontae Spencer in the 4th quarter killed another scoring opportunity for a touchdown. 2 missed field goals by the reliable kicker Swayze Waters were more than the margin of victory. Cornerback Akwasi Owasu Ansah fell on coverage that led to an easy 42 yard touchdown for Hamilton. The defence that needed to tighten up in the last-minute of the game that was tied allowed a final drive for Hamilton to put them in position to kick the winning points was unable to. And not without blame the referee Andre Proulx calling Toronto defensive lineman Martin Wright for roughing the passer that put Hamilton in position to kick the winning points. That was a penalty that should not have been called. It was incidental contact by Wright who was pushed to the ground by Hamilton offensive lineman Marc Dile. Wright on the ground rolled into the quarterback not under his own control. For the referee to make that call at that point in the game is unacceptable. It decided the outcome of a playoff game. Unless a call is clearly black and white and involves the play directly the referees need to keep the flag in their pockets at that point in a game.
Clearly though in spite of officiating the Argos had other opportunities they did not take advantage of to win, and as bad a penalty call as it was, the game does not come down to one play. This was an appropriately frustrating loss in what was a most frustrating season for the team and it’s beleaguered fan base. An overall record of 10 wins and 9 losses including yesterday’s playoff loss. The fact that the team achieved a playoff appearance with what it had to deal with off the field this year is an accomplishment, but the way in which they lost yesterday must be looked at and the general manager Jim Barker must now look ahead to 2016.
2016 will be the beginning of a new era for the Argos. New ownership of Bell and Larry Tanenbaum will breathe new life into a team with a fresh approach, a marketing department and the excitement of playing outdoors on real grass for the players and fans alike. Ever since the Argonauts won the historic 100th Grey Cup at home in Rogers Centre in 2012 the current owner David Braley has been trying to sell the team and chose not to market the team or provide much funding for player personnel beyond what was already in place. In the crowded Toronto sporting and entertainment scene this resulted in the Argonauts being out of sight and out of mind. Add in the displacement from Rogers Centre and losing four of their nine home games in 2015 has led to apathy toward the team. Had they won the Grey Cup this year I wonder if many in the city would have noticed. The team does deserve better from the people of this city but the ownership and management have done the team few favors in the last 3 seasons. In Toronto like it or not, the Argonauts have to work twice as hard as anybody else to be noticed. What is necessary is for this new ownership group to have a long-term commitment to selling the Argonauts to the people of Toronto and making them relevant again. I am not too worried about 2016 because with hosting the Grey Cup there will be motivation from the new owners to fill the stadium and sell season ticket packages that will guarantee the holder to Grey Cup tickets. Toronto does like the big event and will turn out for it. My concern is for the years that follow and sustaining that interest because it will be many years before another Grey Cup will come as it will be moved to other cities with new stadiums as well. I want to see that these owners commit to football in Toronto for years and not just a year.
There will be motivation just as in 2012 to get to the championship game for Toronto. The Eastern division is full of good teams and it won’t be easy. With a healthy quarterbacking situation in Hamilton they will be perennial contenders as they already have a championship caliber defense and special teams. Ottawa finished at 12-6 and in first place this year with quarterback Henry Burris likely the league’s MOP. He threw passes to 4 1,000 yard receivers. Montreal has signed quarterback Kevin Glenn to a contract and they already boast a strong defense, rushing game and special teams.
Onto the Argos. Because the ownership situation was in limbo for 2015, with Braley having sold the team in May, but new owners not taking over until January 1, 2016 he had little incentive to spend money on the team this year and as such the Argos have half their starting roster becoming free agents due to a plethora of 1 year contracts. In addition the assistant coaches have not been paid commensurate to their peers around the league. After the 2012 championship the Argos had a strong core of assistant coaches and player personnel that have gone on to become head coaches and coordinators elsewhere ; Chris Jones is the head coach in Edmonton, Mike O’Shea is the head coach in Winnipeg, Orlondo Steinauer is the DC in Hamilton, Jason Maas is the OC in Ottawa, Bryan Chiu is O-Line Co-ord. in Ottawa, Chris Rosetti is player personnel in Miami. That is a lot of talent that has gone elsewhere. This is a testament to GM Jim Barker’s ability to attract good people to his organization and to Head Coach Scott Milanovich ability to work with other capable coaches effectively.
Hopefully the new owners have spent 2015 getting organized because 2016 is going to be busy from the get go. They need to have a well thought out marketing, advertising and communication strategy to engage Toronto with their football team again and put on a Grey Cup party to remember. And just as important they need to put a team on the field that will compete for a championship in what will be a highly competitive division. One thing the new owners were able to do was sign GM Jim Barker and Coach Scott Milanovich to new 3 year contracts effective January 1. That stability is key. These are championship football people who are proven winners. In addition they have produced winning records in their tenure here with shoestring budgets and horrendous practice and playing facilities. They have to give these two the money to go out and hire the best available offensive and defensive coordinators available. The coaching money does not count against the salary cap.
Half the roster are free agents out of a 46 man roster. That is huge. Some of the high-profile free agents are: Quarterbacks Ricky Ray and Trevor Harris. Running Backs Brandon Whitaker,Curtis Steele and Chad Kackert. Offensive Linemen Jeff Keeping, Scott Mitchell, and Wayne Smith. Defensive linemen Ricky Foley, Euclid Cummings,Tristan Okapalaugo, Jason Vega and Cleyon Laing. Linebackers Cory Greenwood, Greg Jones, Thomas Miles and Brandon Isaac. Free Safety Jermaine Gabriel. Receivers Chad Owens and Dave Stala. Kicker Swayze Waters. Some of these players will try to sign in the NFL, some will retire and others will need to negotiate new deals with Toronto or another CFL team.
The most important position on the field – quarterback, must be addressed first. My wish is that both Ricky Ray and Trevor Harris can be signed to return. Trevor Harris proved that he can start and lead a team to success. Ricky Ray with a normal offseason of strength training should be back to all-star form. We have seen year after year that it is difficult for one quarterback to make it through a season without injury troubles and it would be nice if both players can be convinced to return and be a part of the new Argonaut era in Toronto.
A CFL team is only as good as its Canadian depth. The next priority free agents to be signed should be Canadians Ricky Foley, Cleyon Laing on the defensive line. Linebackers Cory Greenwood and Thomas Miles and safety Jermaine Gabriel. All of these players are on defense. These are all high quality starters that if they leave will be difficult to replace.
Kicker Swayze Waters has proved that healthy, he is one of the best punters and placekickers in the league with the strongest leg. Staying healthy was difficult in 2015 as he sustained two major injuries which kept him out for most of the season. Perhaps a focus for the team ownership on sharing medical resources with the other MLSE teams could help establish Toronto as best in class location for sports medicine developing breakthroughs in the science of training and rehabilitation across sports.
Receiver Chad Owens has been one of the faces of the Toronto Argos since his breakthrough season in 2010. The Hawaiian native made Toronto his winter home last year and is a big part of the community. He holds the pro football combined yardage record set in 2012. The record he broke was former Argo Pinball Clemons’. Chad’s on field production has slipped in the last couple of years but he continues to lead his team making big plays like the game winning one-handed catch on October 6th against Ottawa. It would be difficult to see Chad play for any other team but the Argos. With the rest of Toronto’s receivers being so young having Chad’s experience and leadership will be important.
At the running back position Brandon Whitaker was one of the key performers for the offence in 2015. He grasped the offence immediately on his arrival at the beginning of the year and provided good production running, catching passes out of the backfield and in blocking for the quarterbacks. Another solid contributor at running back was Chad Kackert, the MVP of the 2012 Grey Cup game. Chad returned in 2015 after missing the entire 2014 season due to injuries. He proved that he can still play. It would be nice if both could be kept and new ways can be found to develop a stronger rushing attack in the Argo playbook for 2016 as the Argos will now become an outdoor team for the first time since 1988.
Areas that require improvement are on the offensive line and at defensive back. The only offensive lineman to play all 18 games for Toronto this year was guard Tyler Holmes. Everyone else suffered injuries. Football games are won and lost in the trenches. Without consistent high level offensive line play your team is unlikely to be successful. Opposing offenses were able to throw deep against Toronto with more success. Pass coverage needs to improve and fewer big plays need to be yielded.
Throw in the other teams free agents, the CFL draft, trades, USA free agent camps, and NFL negotiation list players and there are endless possibilities for GM Jim Barker. There will be that much more interest this offseason with the new opportunities coming to play in front of a re-energized fan base at BMO Field and in hosting the Grey Cup game. The year ahead promises to be exciting and entertaining.
Thanks to the entire Argo organization for a good year despite all of the off field distractions. Better days are ahead. I had fun writing these articles. As a fan frustrated with all of the upheaval that was 2015, it was good therapy too. Enjoy the rest of the playoffs and the Grey Cup. Hope to see all of you at BMO Field next year.