It has been rocky seas for the good ship Argonaut this season and things aren’t about to get any easier.
The Canadian Football League’s only winless team heads to Winnipeg this Friday to take on the undefeated Blue Bombers in the first of a three-game road series that continues in Calgary and Edmonton. (For those curious, there have been only five instances of a 0-3 team defeating a 3-0 team during the past 44 CFL seasons.)
The old adage in the CFL that the games don’t matter until Labour Day is patently false. The Argos are the best example, coming off a 4-14 season and trying to avoid the possibility of going winless in June and July.
The Argos have won four games by a combined total of nine points since the end of the 2017 season and have suffered some humiliating defeats along the way, including a 50-point loss in their 2019 home opener and a home loss last week to B.C. that ended in a comedy of errors and a single point off a missed field goal.
Those aren’t the kind of results that send fans to the exits wanting to come back.
It was just 20 months ago that the Argos celebrated a surprising Grey Cup win to cap the first season under general manager Jim Popp and head coach Marc Trestman.
Last season, it was the loss of quarterback Ricky Ray and an inexperienced defensive staff that led to the downfall, with neither of the two quarterbacks behind Ray – James Franklin or McLeod Bethel-Thompson – quite ready to lead the way.
After swinging hard for free agent quarterback Bo Levi Mitchell, the Argos returned this season with Franklin and Bethel-Thompson, who look a lot like they did one year ago – not good enough.
Still, it’s puzzling why this team should be so bad, given the personnel on both sides of the ball.
The Argos have an offensive line with impressive resumes, plus three quality American receivers in S.J. Green, Armanti Edwards and Derel Walker, who is considered by many to be the league’s best receiver — period — in recent seasons.
Canadian receiver Levi Noel has been a pleasant surprise this season, leading the team in catches, and Jimmy Ralph is serviceable. James Wilder is still considered one of the league’s best running backs, despite the drop-off from his rookie season in 2017.
There is experience among the front seven in players like Micah Awe, Ian Wild, Cleyon Laing and Shawn Lemon.
So what gives?
The Argonauts have the same challenges as all new coaching staffs, given the short training camps in the CFL and high turnover among players. Their schedule also hasn’t done them any favours, opening with a bye and then facing opponents who had two extra days of rest in consecutive weeks.
Injuries have also been a big part of the story, with 16 players on injured reserve heading into the game against B.C.
But the single biggest mystery about the Argonauts concerns Walker, the team’s highest-paid player, who signed as a free agent last winter.
If there was one thing last year’s team was missing it was a deep threat; a game-breaking receiver with the size that makes for tough matchups, the hands to make physical catches and the speed to break away.
Walker is all of that and more. He was the league’s top rookie in 2015 and an all-star in 2016 who also would have been one in 2017 and 2018 had it not been for time lost in the NFL and then to injury.
But somehow, Toronto hasn’t figured out a way to get him the ball. Walker is fifth in targets on his own team!
Bethel-Thompson threw three passes his way against the Lions, completing two for 16 yards – one of them a dump-off while B.C. was playing a prevent-style defence near the end of the game.
TSN football analyst Davis Sanchez this week isolated incidents where Bethel-Thompson ignored an open Walker to throw into heavy coverage, so the quarterback has to take some ownership of the issue. But shouldn’t the offensive staff under co-ordinator Jacques Chapdelaine be making sure that Walker gets the ball thrown his way more than once a quarter?
Walker averaged 8.9 targets and 6.1 catches per game from 2015 through 2018 with Edmonton, but is averaging just 4.3 targets and 2.3 catches per game as an Argo.
Historically a fast starter, Walker had 472, 354, 267 and 299 yards during his first three games of the season for Edmonton from 2015 to 2018. In his first three games as an Argo, he has 139.
The league’s highest-paid non-quarterback is currently tied for 33rd in pass targets.
They gave away Walker bobbleheads at the Argo season opener. But after three games, it’s among loyal Argos fans where the heads are shaking.
Stanback has been outstanding for Alouettes
By the time William Stanback took over the No. 1 tailback role with Montreal last season, the page had already turned on a lost 2018.
He compiled a relatively quiet 539 yards rushing and another 313 receiving in 2018, but all the qualities were there to have a breakout season in 2019.
That’s exactly what’s happening, with Stanback compiling 357 yards and four touchdowns on 44 carries so far, plus another 100 yards gained receiving.
His 203-yard rushing performance in Montreal’s upset win over Hamilton was the fifth highest single-game total in Alouettes history. It was also the first time in more than a decade that a Montreal player rushed for three touchdowns in a game.
Stanback was able to take some pressure off Als quarterback Vernon Adams Jr., who threw for 202 yards against the Tiger-Cats, which was roughly half as many as his Hamilton counterpart, Jeremiah Masoli, did in the game. Look for teams to stack the box against Montreal try and limit Stanback, forcing Adams Jr. to beat them with his arm.
At 6-feet and 230 pounds, Stanback is a load. No one knows this better than Ottawa Redblacks linebacker Anthony Cioffi, who was playing corner at Rutgers University in 2013 when Stanback took a pass from quarterback Blake Bortles and turned upfield.
You can watch the play here and listen to how excited announcer Rece Davis gets on the play.
Stanback could be a game-changer for the Alouettes this season, but given his talent and style of running and the fact that he’s just turned 25, it’s hard not to think he’ll be in an NFL camp somewhere next summer.
Walk-off missed field goal rouge a rarity
I wish I had a nickel for every time I’ve heard someone say their biggest issue with Canadian football is that a game can be won by a missed field goal. It’s true that it can, but how often does it happen? Not very often, it turns out.
In fact, before Saturday night’s Lions’ win over the Argos on a missed 42-yard attempt by Sergio Castillo, there hadn’t been a walk-off single to win a game off a missed field goal since Aug. 3, 2001, a span of more than 1,400 games.
Of course that streak would very likely still be intact were it not for the fact that BMO Field’s end zones are 18-yards deep – not the league-standard 20 yards– in order to fit the CFL field into a stadium designed for soccer.
The history of players with decent NFL resumes coming north to resume their careers in Canada isn’t great, with far more failures than successes.
Winnipeg receiver Lucky Whitehead may be the exception.
The former Dallas Cowboy played 30 NFL games, mostly returning punts and kickoffs, used only occasionally out of the backfield or as a receiver.
The Bombers brought him into their free-agent camp in Florida this spring as a potential returner but were so impressed with the way he adapted to playing receiver that it changed their minds.
He’s still raw when it comes to the nuances of the CFL game, but his nine catches for 174 yards and two touchdowns are an indication of what he can do, especially if the Bombers can get him the football in open space.
Lawrence appeal heard
Twenty-six days after Simoni Lawrence’s late hit on Zach Collaros knocked the Saskatchewan quarterback out indefinitely, the appeal of his two-game suspension was heard before an arbitrator Tuesday in a meeting that lasted roughly 10 hours.
Part of the reason for the length of the hearing – and the fact it may take a week or two for a ruling to be handed down – may have to do with the high stakes of this case.
Lawrence’s suspension represents the league trying to redraw the standard of discipline for a dirty hit committed by a player with no history of supplementary discipline. Up until the past few seasons, such a hit would have drawn a fine.
That became a one-game suspension as concern for safety in the game of football grew. The league is now trying to push that to two.
The CFL Players’ Association, which apparently suggested during CBA talks that the league hand supplementary discipline to an outside body, is standing up not to defend Lawrence’s hit, but because it believes the league has arbitrarily doubled the suspension for this kind of hit by a first-time offender.Either way, an important precedent will be established as a result of the case.