CFL season preview: The Toronto Argonauts

So who needs the NFL? Professional football, Canadian-style, begins this week with the CFL kickoff on Thursday, June 23. Before then, Os Davis presents previews for each of the Canadian Football League’s nine teams right here on The Grueling Truth. This time out, a look at the East division champion Toronto Argonauts.

The history: How to summarize the single longest continuously running sports franchise in North America? Since 1873, professional football has been played under the Toronto Argonauts moniker, thereby making the team older than modern codified gridiron football itself. Not surprisingly, the team holds a record number of 16 Grey Cup wins in 22 appearances between 1911 and 2012; in terms of championships, the Argos’ peak period ran from 1945 to ’52, in which they bagged five Cups in the bridge between the old and modern eras.

A long nadir would soon follow, with Toronto denied a final game appearance until 1971 and another win wouldn’t come until ’83. In the late 1980s, the Argos’ business side tended to steal headlines from on-field play. In 1991, the sale of the team amid financial concerns attracted attention when the purchasing group was revealed to be Los Angeles Kings team owner Steve McNall, all-time hockey great Wayne Gretzky and SCTV alum John Candy. Accusations of financial impropriety on various parts was thrown around beginning in 1993, and the death of the highly inspirational, hands-on Candy in ’94 cast a further pall of gloom. By the 1997, the Argos had won back-to-back Grey Cups behind CFL greats QB Doug Flutie and RB Robert Drummond, but attendance was disappointing at best.

Near the start of the 2003 season, the franchise had run up over $17 million in debt, and control of operations was assumed by the league itself. A new ownership group took over in 2004 and another Grey Cup win followed in all-time CFL passing yardage leader Damon Allen’s swansong.

By 2012, yet another change in management led to another championship, the Argos’ last to date. In Ricky Ray’s first season as Argonauts quarterback, all he did was take the Most Outstanding player award while Chad Owens set a new record for single-season all-purpose yardage.

Last season: One cannot discuss the 2015 Toronto Argonauts season without putting heavy emphasis on the home field. As in, the Argos barely had one in ’15. “Thanks” to scheduling conflicts caused by the Pan American Games and the Toronto Blue Jays’ extended season, the Argos saw four dates in the Rogers Centre evaporated; down the stretch, the Argos were designated the home team for games played at the Hamilton Tiger-Cats’ Tim Hortons Field and the Ottawa RedBlacks’ TD Place.

On top of their venue woes, longtime (loooooong-time) CFL veteran QB Ricky Ray (formerly of Sacramento State, the Fresno Frenzy and the New York Jets) sat out virtually the entirety of last season while recovering from a rotator cuff injury operated on back in November 2014.

Yet, somehow the Argonauts still managed a 10-8 finish and a playoff bid, overcoming adversity that few CFL teams have faced in the modern day. Ray managed to get back on the field in week 19, and his performance in the East division final was just barely too little too late as he helped get the Argos to within a last-second field goal on 22-of-34 passing and 220 yards – with visible rust showing. Has ever a fan base taken away such optimism for the future from a playoff loss? Argos backers certainly have the right…

The offseason: …because the problems of 2015 have been blown away with just days to go before the season. While the Argonauts brain trust was working deals and the draft, contractors put some CA$150 million worth of improvement into BMO Field, by all accounts a dazzling football-first venue which frees the franchise from the tyranny of conflicting schedules.

And Ray is back, though he’ll be without a past favored target in Chad Owens (U. Hawaii, Jacksonville Jaguars, Colorado Crush), who jumped ship to Hamilton. Filling Owens’s roster spot, though not necessarily his status as no. 3 receiver immediately, is no. 4 overall draft pick Brian Jones (Acadia U.).

While general manager Jim Barker (the guy who brought Ray in in 2012 and has subsequently built offenses around the QB) made most of his moves on the defensive side – more on this momentarily – he did sign a pair of offensive lineman in Josh Bourke (Grand Valley State) and Corey Watman (Eastern Michigan U.). Having played on two of the league’s weaker OLs in ’15 in the Montreal Alouettes and Saskatchewan Roughriders, respectively, we’ll wait to see if either can help protect the all-important Ray in ’16. Sean McEwen, drafted in the first round of the 2015 CFL Draft but opting to play another season at U. Calgary, should also be a plus on the OL.

On the other hand, the Argos signed enough free agents to essentially give the defesne a brand-new look – a look which figures to put a lot more pressure on opposition passing games and improve on a unit that surrendered a third-worst 499 points in ‘15. After getting a close look at that devastating-at-peak defense of their division rival Ticats, Barker went out and penned DT Brian Bulcke (Stanford), DE Bryan Hall (Arkansas State, Baltimore Ravens), DE Justin Hickman (UCLA, Los Angeles Avengers, Indianapolis Colts) – impact players all off the line. Beyond the DL, the Argos also welcomed stud LB Keon Raymond (Middle Tennessee State, New Orleans Voodoo) and DB Gerald Brown (Glenville State, Kansas City Brigade) aboard.

All things considered, the 2016 season may well show that Barker & Co. won the CFL offseason – Owens or no.

Expectations for 2016: The Argos seem to be the current vogue pick to top the CFL East standings, and hopping on this bandwagon certainly feels tempting. The offense may not be radically improved, but WRs Vidal Hazelton (U. Cincinnati, New York Jets, Boston Brawlers) and Tori Gurley (U. South Carolina, San Diego Chargers), who combined for 1,594 yards and 16 TDs on 194 receptions, are still around. And thanks to their raiding of the Hamilton D, for the first time in years we may call Toronto stronger than the Ticats on this side of the ball.

Finally, regardless of the stock one is willing to place on the Argos’ preseason, a fairly obvious conclusion is that the Toronto front office outdid their division maters in Ottawa, Hamilton and Montreal; in fact, calling the Argonauts the only CFL East team to improve is more than a fair assessment.

Considering that one more win(say, in one of those faux home games) would have landed the hard-luck Argos in second place last season, the improvementsof this offseason should be enough to get Toronto into the playoffs again – perhaps even as a host in a bona fide home venue.

Next: The Montreal Alouettes

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Os Davis has been a sportswriter for [redacted] years, covering and enjoying way too much pro football (American and Canadian), basketball (NBA and international), World Cup soccer and cricket in turn. Basically, if it's a ball game and Os has a forum, he'll write about it. Os is of the opinion that advanced stastical metrics are awesome, that the addition of offensive lines to fantasy football is absolutely necessary and that the Los Angeles Lakers shall rise again. He is firmly against price-gouging of fans, Americans pooh-poohing CFL football and that @#@#$@#$ing Washington football team's name. Os currently appears on way too many podcasts, co-hosting the Rouge, White & Blue Fantasy Football Podcast, The Truth About Fantasy Football Podcast, the CFL Weekly Pick 'Em Show and the L.A. Rams 2.0 Weekly Show -- plus often the NFL Weekly Pick 'Em Show.