October 16, 2010
Friday's Battle of Ontario had the potential to be a classic, with both the Argonauts and Tiger-Cats heading into it with 7-7 records and a chance to clinch a playoff berth. Instead, it turned into a massacre, with Hamilton destroying Toronto 30-3. The victory allowed the Tiger-Cats to clinch a playoff spot, and it gave them a 3-0 season sweep of the Argonauts for the first time since 2001. It also puts them in prime position to lock up second place in the East and the home playoff date that goes with that.
What went wrong for the Argonauts? Just about everything, but one problem in particular stood out. That would be the play of the man under centre, quarterback Cleo Lemon (pictured at right being brought down by Stevie Baggs last night). Lemon completed 16 of 29 passing attempts (55 per cent) for 159 yards with two interceptions. He did pick up 44 yards on six scrambles, but fumbled three more times (only losing one, however). Putting up unimpressive passing numbers is bad enough, but committing that many turnovers is worse. As Lemon went, so went the team; the Argonauts' offence was so bad that they were outscored by the Maple Leafs (who are a surprising 4-0 on the year after a 4-3 overtime win over the Rangers Friday).
Despite that poor performance by his pivot, however, head coach Jim Barker said afterwards that Lemon will remain the Argonauts' starter for the foreseeable future. Here's Robert MacLeod's account in The Globe and Mail:
"Barker said he still has full confidence in his quarterback.
'Cleo's our starter," he said. "We're going to go as far as Cleo Lemon takes us.'"
At the moment, it seems that the farthest Lemon might take the Boatmen is straight to the bottom of the sea. It's not like this performance was an outlier in a string of successful games for him. On the season, Lemon has started every game but one and thrown for 2,977 yards. That's by far the lowest number of any of the league's regular starters; the only teams with less passing yardage from their top quarterback are B.C. and Winnipeg, who have both started several different pivots this year. Lemon has also thrown for only 11 touchdowns, also sixth in the league (ahead of Ricky Ray, but six touchdowns behind Steven Jyles, who took over as Winnipeg's starter partway through the year). His passer rating of 76.3 is below every current starter except B.C.'s Travis Lulay (who's only started a few games this year), and is even lower than the 81.4 mark Casey Printers put up before being released this week.
One excuse we've heard over and over for Lemon's lack of production is that he plays in an Argonauts' offence that emphasizes the run and the short pass. That's certainly true, but it's not as much of an excuse as you might think; throwing less frequently and keeping passes short would affect his raw yardage totals and touchdowns, but if anything, it should boost his completion percentage and decrease his turnovers. Lemon has only completed 252 of 404 passes to date (62.4 per cent). That puts him behind four current starting quarterbacks (Anthony Calvillo, Kevin Glenn, Ray and Henry Burris), one currently injured quarterback (Buck Pierce) and a couple of backups (Drew Tate and Ricky Santos). He isn't far ahead of Jyles, Darian Durant or Lulay, either, and all play in systems that emphasize the vertical passing game, which tends to lower completion percentages.
Lemon's turnover numbers are even more sour. The key attributes for a quarterback in a run-based offence are accuracy and decision-making, and Lemon has struggled with both this season. He's thrown 17 interceptions, the third-highest mark in the CFL (and only one less than co-leaders Durant and Burris), and he's also fumbled 12 times. By contrast, the Montreal Alouettes have only thrown 10 interceptions this year (with regular starter Anthony Calvillo only throwing five of those), and their offence has only committed seven fumbles. That's right; Lemon's interception total alone is equal to another team's entire offensive turnover total.
Some of Lemon's struggles can fairly be attributed to this being his first CFL campaign. He's got a fair bit of professional football experience from seven years with NFL teams, but the Canadian game is a beast of a different nature, and it takes time to adapt to it. That's especially true at the quarterback position. However, as Steve Simmons of The Toronto Sun wrote today, there are no indications that Lemon is adapting, improving, or even learning what he's doing wrong.
It's not like the Argonauts have no options at quarterback, either. Dalton Bell wasn't bad in his lone start this season against Saskatchewan, and did enough to convince The Toronto Sun's Terry Koshan that he should get another shot. He made a brief appearance yesterday and threw an interception, but it's a difficult task to come into a game midway with your team already down a lot, and it tends to force you to try more difficult passes. Data from Bell's lone start is more promising; his numbers weren't outstanding (16 for 24 for 153 yards), but his completion percentage of 66.7 per cent in that game was higher than Lemon's average this season, and he didn't throw an interception (he did fumble twice, losing one). He also has much more CFL experience than Lemon, as he's been in the league for three years now. He might just be an interesting alternative.
Bell isn't the Argonauts' only guy to turn to, either. They also have former Miami Hurricane and two-time Heisman finalist Ken Dorsey available. Dorsey has no CFL experience, which makes starting him a significant risk, but he also carries a lot of potential upside. Another interesting option is Danny Brannagan (pictured at right), currently on the Argonauts' practice squad. Brannagan also has next-to-no CFL experience (other than some preseason action this year), but he has the advantage of five stellar seasons in Canadian university football and is second all-time in CIS passing yardage. The CIS game is much closer to the CFL one than the NCAA or NFL game, so Brannagan might be a compelling alternative to throw in there. It's highly unlikely the Argonauts would do this, considering that they seem to see Brannagan as a longer-term project, but it might just be worth a shot.
Last week, the Winnipeg Blue Bombers showed us one of the problems with quarterback evaluation in the CFL when they decided to bench Steven Jyles in favour of the untested Alex Brink. Head coach Paul LaPolice's logic was largely based on Jyles' 2-6 record as a starter rather than his passing statistics, which were actually quite good. That move almost cost Winnipeg a crucial game Monday against the Lions, and only a late entrance by Jyles and a collapse by B.C. saved them.
Toronto is making the same mistake from the opposite direction. Barker and his staff appear to be ignoring Lemon's lacklustre statistics in favour of his impressive record as a starter, and that's a major mistake. The Argonauts' victories have been buoyed by Cory Boyd, a strong defence and Mike O'Shea's excellent innovations on special teams, and they've generally come in spite of Lemon rather than because of him. Quarterbacks are usually the most important players in football, but despite popular perceptions, they usually don't win or lose games by themselves; the best quarterback in the world would be useless without good pass protection and receivers who can get open, while bad quarterbacks can look decent if the rest of their team steps up. Barker and his staff have done an excellent job of turning the Argonauts around, but their unswerving loyalty to Lemon may prove a crucial mistake. There's more to quarterbacks than wins and losses, but sticking with Lemon is more likely to lead to further losses than wins.