“The way I’ve approached it, to make it right in my head, is you start a series off at 2nd-and-10,” Bart Andrus, the former NFL assistant hired in January to coach the Toronto Argonauts, told the National Post. “That’s my thought process.” It might just be a throwaway comment, but it might reveal deeper implications that the fifty-one-year-old California native is approaching the season with assumptions that are fundamentally at odds with the Canadian game. Argos fans have heard it before.
In The Argo Bounce (T.H. Best Printing, 1982), journalist Jay Teitel recalls an interview with the NFL-minted coach who arrived in Toronto in 1979. Asked about the critical difference between the Canadian and American games, Forrest Gregg—a Hall of Fame player who would later coach the Cincinnati Bengals to a Super Bowl berth—replied: “To my way of thinking, with the three downs, you’re just starting at second and ten.” Teitel was apoplectic. How could a CFL coach simply assume the northern game was “the American game penalized,” implying that “you had blundered your way out of a down, or been found unworthy of a down”? The statement denies the way subtle rule changes—three downs, a wider and longer field, and so on—fundamentally alter game strategy and game play.
Nevertheless, after the debacle of last season—when a Double Blue that couldn’t block and couldn’t tackle lost nine straight to finish the season at 4–14 and out of the playoffs—fresh thinking was clearly needed. And Montreal’s success last season under Marc Trestman, untried in the Canadian game before leading Montreal to a Grey Cup appearance, gives reason for cautious optimism. Andrus arrives in Toronto having served as the offensive assistant with the Tennessee Titans and having held a head-coaching gig in NFL Europe. He’s spent four months of the off-season watching tape, being tutored by assistant coach Steve Buratto, and getting acclimatized to the nuances of the Canadian game.
Still, his comment illustrates how his biggest challenge this season will be adjusting to three-down ball. Gregg couldn’t do it. He lasted only one season after a 5–11 record kept the Argos out of the playoffs. Andrus got his first taste of CFL game action yesterday when, in a meaningless pre-season shakedown, the Argos fell to the Alouettes 37–24.
With a lineup of projected starters in the first half, the Argos didn’t impress. The Alouettes blocked two punts, assisted in the task by poor long snapping by backups and bad protection, which made it a tough game for Eddie Johnson, who is battling Justin Medlock for the sole kicker/punter spot. Missing as many tackles as last year’s incarnation, the Double Blue defence gave up 271 on the ground as well as four sacks. There were, however, a couple of key injuries with talented defensive lineman Adriano Belli—who finally stopped taking so many stupid penalties last year—and four-time defensive all-star Jonathan Brown sitting out the game.
After a slow start, when starting QB Kerry Joseph appeared rattled before settling down and showing glimmers of recapturing his A-game, the Argos had a strong second quarter and went into half-time trailing only 21–17. As expected, in the second half both teams fielded rosters of rookies and backups.
Perhaps last night’s preseason showing is a result of too many new faces not quite gelling as a team yet. General Manager Adam Rita has done his part this off-season to clear the decks. A ton of long-term Argo veterans that had become too complacent last season were released. Gone are guard Jude St. John; defensive backs Chris Hardy, Byron Parker, and Kenny Wheaton; and linebackers Mike O’Shea and Michael Fletcher—each of who had been an integral part of the team for years, as was center Chad Folk, who retired. On the other hand, few fans will miss kicker Mike Vanderjagt. In a steal, Rita scored linebacker Zeke Moreno, who has led the league in tackles for the last two seasons, from the Winnipeg Blue Bombers in exchange for defensive end Riall Johnson. With Moreno in the middle and Kevin Eiben and Willie Pile on the edges, the Argos should have a formidable linebacking corp.
In making his transition, Andrus hasn’t lacked the humility to ask his players for help. He’s relied in particular on his quarterbacks to bring him up to speed on finer points of the CFL offensive game. “I was very open about the fact that I need to learn this game,” he told the National Post, “and I’m relying on them to teach me.” Rather than expecting Joseph to adapt to Andrus’s schemes, which proved to be a disaster last year when the then-reigning MVP was consistently mismanaged and was given little in the way of pass protection, the coach is adapting his playbook to the quarterback’s strengths. Cody Pickett, who has seen limited action in two seasons with the Argos, and newcomer Stephen Reaves are contesting for the backup spot.
To improve the pass protection offered by last year’s porous offensive line, Rita added blue chip left tackle Rob Murphy—arguably the best lineman in the league—and highly regarded centre Dominic Picard. The pair will also be called upon to help open up holes for an Argos running game that has been abysmal for the better part of a decade, a situation that hasn’t been aided by a rotating-door roster that has seen twelve different players start at running back in the last four seasons.
Jamal Robertson, who was the team’s leading rusher last season, has already been named the starter for the season. So imports Tyler Ebell (who missed all last season after a training camp injury) and Jarrett Payton (who scored a touchdown last night) are fighting for the remaining backfield playing time. A number of non-import veterans, Jeff Johnson and Bryan Crawford, will assume the less-heralded role of fullback while York U alumnus Andre Durie hopes to live up to the early promise of his injury-plagued career. Unfortunately, the Argos were a one-dimensional team on offensive last night. Other than quarterback scrambles, the team ran the ball only once in the first half. So we still haven’t seen how well the running backs will succeed with the new-look offensive line.
Veteran Andre Talbot and perennial go-to-guy Arland Bruce III aside, in the receiving corps the Argonauts will be relying on a number of players who saw limited action last year to step up as full-time players. James Robinson in particular—who showed promise with a 194-yard game last July—will take on a larger role. So will converted quarterback Reggie McNeal, who gained 606 yards on 43 catches last year. Canadians Tyler Scott and Obed Cétoute have proven they can play at a high level and should see lots of game time. Fellow Canadian Mike Bradwell, a former first-round pick who was injured all last year, also hopes to step up. Argonaut quarterbacks distributed the ball to twelve different receivers last night, so it’s too early to tell who among the prospective players will be on the starting roster to open the season in Hamilton on July 1.
With so many veterans departed, there’s little doubt that this will be Andrus’s team to shape. But if last night is any indication, success will depend on a more balanced offensive attack and better tackling.