December 01, 2011
Three days after a convoluted saga ended with solid reports that Montreal offensive coordinator Scott Milanovich would be heading to Toronto as the Argonauts' head coach, the Argos made it official Thursday. Former head coach/general manager Jim Barker will focus on the latter role, with Milanovich taking over as head coach (only two years after he was initially offered that job and turned it down; it eventually went to Barker). There's still no official word on the apparent plan to bring Calgary's Chris Jones in as defensive coordinator/assistant head coach, but they may be keeping that quiet for now thanks to rising tensions with the Stampeders. For the moment, there are three key questions about the Milanovich hiring: can he work with Barker, can he revitalize the Toronto offence and what does his departure mean for the Alouettes?
A good working relationship between the coach and general manager is crucial to CFL success, and the lack of one can be costly (as we saw in Saskatchewan this year). Much of the path to sustained CFL success comes from having a personnel manager who can find guys that fit the head coach's schemes. Raw talent alone helps, but those guys are understandably tougher to grab, so finding players whose strengths match what you want to do and whose weaknesses can be covered up is vital. The question is if Barker (left above) and Milanovich (centre above: Argonauts' president/CEO Bob Nicholson is at right) can get on the same page. They've run very different offences over the last two seasons, with Milanovich airing things out consistently and effectively in Montreal and Barker sticking to a run-focused plan in 2010 before diverging from that to an ineffective deep-passing game late in the 2011 campaign.
Of course, the personnel involved make a difference (it's much easier to run Montreal's high-octane passing offence if your quarterback is Anthony Calvillo rather than Steven Jyles or Cleo Lemon), and Milanovich and Barker have history together in Calgary (Barker was the head coach of the Stampeders in 2003 when they went 5-13, Milanovich was a quarterback and a quarterbacks coach that year), so their strategies aren't necessarily irreconcilable. They'll have to make sure they're in step if the Argos are going to succeed in 2012, though, and there's a lot of pressure on them to do so given that Toronto's hosting the Grey Cup.
Early success won't be easy, as Milanovich faces quite the task in overhauling the Toronto offence. The Argonauts scored 397 points this year for an average of just 22.1 points per game, second-worst in the league. They have a solid rushing attack with Cory Boyd when they're willing to use it, but their passing game has been horribly bad, and the news on the personnel front may not bolster it. They've brought back Steven Jyles, who was solid in Winnipeg in 2010 but missed the first half of the 2011 season thanks to injury and struggled when he did get into the Argonauts' lineup, completing just 56.9 per cent of his passes for 1,430 yards with seven touchdowns and 11 interceptions. His deal isn't prohibitively expensive (it reportedly maxes out at $250,000 a year even with bonuses, very low by CFL quarterback standards), but it's still high enough that he's likely the starter.
Milanovich also doesn't have a great receiving corps to work with at the moment. Chad Owens is improving in the receiving game, Jermaine Copeland still has something left in the tank and Andre Durie is excellent out of the backfield, but the rest are a bit questionable. Players like Spencer Watt and Sammy Tranks have promise, but haven't shown it consistently. Good receivers can be essential to the success of the passing game, and given Jyles' low contract, it's quite possible Toronto could make a big play for a pricey free agent like Andy Fantuz. For the moment, though, their receivers don't look like a terribly imposing bunch.
However, this move isn't all about Toronto, either, as there are some notable implications for the Montreal Alouettes. Milanovich has been involved in some great success there, serving as offensive coordinator under Marc Trestman from 2008 on, but it's impossible to isolate his impact; football types speak well of him, but Trestman is an offensive guru himself and it always helps to have Calvillo under centre, some of the top receivers in the league and some of the league's best running backs. Milanovich certainly contributed to their success, but just how much he did is the question. We'll have to wait and see how they do without him. His exit does suggest that Trestman's going to be around for a while, though, as Milanovich was widely seen as Montreal's head-coach-in-waiting. Well, he's not waiting any more, and that's going to make things very interesting in the CFL's East Division next year.