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55 Yard Line

Cory Boyd’s signing with Edmonton may help prove if you can read into numbers

Andrew Bucholtz
55 Yard Line

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According to the Argos, RB Cory Boyd shouldn't be judged by how well he runs the ball.

When the Toronto Argonauts bizarrely decided Sunday to release Cory Boyd, the CFL's leading rusher, it was clear he wouldn't stay out of work for long. Boyd's remarkable production over the last three seasons has made him one of the most highly-rated running backs in the CFL, and that convinced the Edmonton Eskimos to grab him less than 24 hours after the Argonauts cut him. A key question is still why Toronto decided to get rid of him, though, and if that's going to influence if he'll be a useful contributor in Edmonton. All signs at the moment suggest the Argonauts messed up here, and that they value the wrong qualities in their players, opting to evaluate them on minor parts of their job rather than their ability to perform their central function.

To figure out the Argonauts' motives here, let's go right to a remarkably interesting comment head coach Scott Milanovich made to The National Post's Matthew Scianitti. "Numbers are the one thing you can't read much into," Milanovich said. No, you haven't stepped into the world of Mad Men and been transported back to the 1960s; that is a CFL coach in the year 2012 broadly proclaiming that statistics are unimportant, and that's its own particular brand of insanity.

Milanovich was hardly misquoted, either. He told The Toronto Sun's Mike Ganter that "Numbers are going to mislead you from time to time," and told TSN 1050's Gareth Wheeler that "there's more things that go into playing tailback than just how many yards you're carrying it for." Granted, Milanovich has a minuscule point with that last comment; running backs are also asked to pass-block and catch passes, especially in the CFL. However, rushing the ball successfully and efficiently is by far the most crucial aspect of a running back's job, and axing someone who's perhaps the best in the league at that because he's perceived to be weak in other areas is like firing James Bond for not excelling at filling out budget forms.

There are plenty of people who buy the Toronto party line. Ganter writes that "Reading between the lines, Boyd is no longer an Argo because, while he's an above-average running back when the ball is in his hands, he's a liability when he does not have the ball." TSN's Glen Suitor chimes in along similar lines, saying "When listening to Milanovich's explanation, and taking into consideration all that is required from the tailback position, it sounds like Boyd wasn't playing well enough, and maybe it is as simple as that." This argument is quite problematic, though.

For one thing, Boyd's a better pass-receiving threat than many give him credit for; consider 2010, where he caught 38 passes for 363 yards (a 9.3 yard average) and two touchdowns. He simply hasn't been used as much in that role over the last two years. For another, Boyd's pass-blocking hasn't been brought up as much of an issue before, and he's frequently used his size and strength to deliver crunching blocks. Even if you doubt Boyd's qualifications in those areas, though, cutting a guy who's racked up over 1,000 yards very efficiently in each of the last two seasons and is leading the league in rushing yards again because you don't like his blocking or receiving abilities is significantly flawed. If Toronto believes Chad Kackert or Jeff Johnson are better blocking backs, fine; bring one of them in for Boyd in obvious pass situations, or try a dual-back formation on some plays. If it's really Boyd's blocking and receiving that's the issue, cutting him over that's an extreme overreaction on the scale of nuking an ant.

Then again, Toronto general manager Jim Barker has always underrated Boyd's talents, going back to last year's brazen (and very wrong) declaration that it's impossible to run against a defence stacking the box. This is far from the first time this year they've gotten rid of a talented player, too; other cases include Lin-J Shell (released), Byron Parker (allowed to walk in free agency) and Kevin Eiben (another veteran they mishandled, who also left in free agency).The rest of the CFL world seems to have a clearer perspective on the Argonauts' players than they do, as all three of those guys have gone on to success elsewhere.

What about the dreaded spectre of "off-field issues", which people like Steve Simmons and and Damien Cox have suggested? It's possible, but it's debatable if any attention should be paid to those. Most of the people who go on about off-field issues would have a great time sitting around in a pub with Milanovich and bemoaning how all these newfangled numbers are ruining the game, detracting from the infinite columns they can write about leadership and team chemistry. That's not to say that playing as a team isn't important, as it certainly can be, and having one player who appears out to sabotage a team (hello, 2010 Casey Printers!) can bring you down. Situations like that are extremely rare, though, and there's zero evidence that Boyd did anything of the sort. Moreover, Printers was also struggling statistically when he was released. It's exceptionally difficult to be a detriment to the team while still being productive on the field, and you'd hardly think that the CFL's leading rusher was kicking up too much of a stink in the locker room. Off-field issues and team chemistry aren't completely irrelevant, but they're cited far too frequently by people who are looking to minimize the numbers.

Will Boyd be successful in Edmonton? A lot will depend on how they try to use him and how well he fits into their system, but there's certainly a solid accumulation of evidence over the past three seasons that he can be one of the league's best running backs. That could make him a crucial addition for the Eskimos, whose offence hasn't exactly sparkled thus far; their 139 points are third-worst in the league (23.2 per cent), and they'll need a solid ground game to help the less-than-dominant aerial attack. Hugh Charles has been a pretty solid running back and a very effective pass-catcher, so he won't necessarily disappear in favour of Boyd, but Charles' speed and hands and Boyd's raw power give Edmonton some intriguing options in the ground game, making this look like a smart acquisition by general manager Eric Tillman. If Boyd fails with the Eskimos, that won't necessarily prove Milanovich and Barker right about him, as adapting to a new team and a new scheme is always a challenge. If he goes on to great success in Edmonton, though, that could be a nice shot at those who believe that you can't read into numbers, that team chemistry is more important than talent or production and that a running back's most important job isn't actually running.

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