Ah yes, my former team the Toronto Argonauts – can they go from 6-10 last year to a Grey Cup contender this year? The answer is yes.
The single biggest move this off-season was Toronto giving up very little to get a proven quarterback in Ricky Ray. He is the best QB the Argonauts organization has had in 10-20 years, and his best asset isn't in playmaking, it's in avoiding mistakes.
Last year the Edmonton Eskimos gave the ball away only 29 times; significant when you compare it to the team with the most giveaways last season with 55 – the Argonauts. If Ray just duplicates the low giveaway total he had from last year, Toronto will be a remarkably better team.
The two "main brains" for the Argonauts – head coach Scott Milanovich and Ray – will be fun to watch all year long. Pure logic alone says that by the second half of the season, these brains will have an intelligent offence, diverse and difficult to defend.
And speaking of Milanovich, he is another "young one." Not even 40-years-old, his whole coaching career is ahead of him. As a player, Milanovich played for five different teams in five different leagues. No one can say that Milanovich didn't give it his all to be a QB, and through that process he was exposed to many ideas, philosophies, and associations. How he uses his history to produce a winner in the present will be interesting to watch.
And as the No. 1 play caller he has put pressure on himself to make all the decisions after a play with only 20 seconds to evaluate.
Play calling is always an interesting subject in football. No other sport has near as complex a playbook as football. And an exceptional playbook makes a difference. If it covers all areas, all defences, all possibilities, then you will always have a chance to run the right play, and at the right time. Or, if it has limited plays that are so fundamentally sound, and fit the personnel so well, again it will be a determining factor in the outcome of the game.
Months – if not years – are given to developing the playbook. It is one of those aspects of football that is never talked about very much because outside of the people that use the playbook, it is difficult for others to relate.
To this day, I'm not sure if calling plays is a science or an art; whether pure planning makes the difference, or observation and spontaneity under pressure make the difference. I do know this: a good play caller makes a great difference.
But just as important as Toronto's new head coach and QB is the team's new defensive coordinator Chris Jones. After success in both Montreal and Calgary, here is his new challenge: Toronto's defence was eighth in points allowed last season, eighth in net yards allowed, passing yards allowed, rushing yards allowed, and fewest two-and-outs, seventh in QB sacks and second down conversions allowed, sixth in interceptions, and fourth in takeaways. Now that is a challenge.
Jones will run an aggressive attacking defence, and to run that you need explosive pass rushers and defensive backs that play man-to-man extremely well.
Toronto's biggest evaluation is figuring out whether they have those type of players to run that type of defence. The other key is sticking with it. You have to commit to this style and not change if and when adversity hits, and it will.
The more players play this risk-reward type of defence, the better they will get. I anticipate the first half of the year, the Argos' defence may have some high scoring, tough games. But the second half of the season, as the starting 12 play the same QB or the same set of receivers a second time around they will get better, or someone else will be playing their position.
Will Toronto represent the East in the 100th Grey Cup in their home stadium? Very unlikely I suppose, but then I think of last year's BC Lions – starting 0-5 before finishing 13-2 and winning it all. So maybe the possibility is there, you never know until you play.
A lot of Toronto's moves from December to May were intelligent. From management to coaches to the most important part, the players, there is no doubt they are a better football team now than they were when last season ended.
But action is everything, respect is generated in results, and things have to be physically seen and proven.
But the possibility is there. Could you imagine the Argos in the 100th Grey Cup in Toronto? Some would love it, others would hate it, but nobody would forget it.