June 24, 2011
Continuing our east-to-west daily preview series, which started with the Montreal Alouettes Thursday, here's a look at how the Toronto Argonauts are shaping up heading into the CFL season.The Argonauts closed out the pre-season schedule Thursday with a win over Winnipeg (which Cleo Lemon is pictured in above) in the CFL's first game with quarterback and coach mikes, and they're set to start the season Canada Day in Calgary against the Stampeders. This is a team that's looking to improve their efficiency rather than drastically change their strategy; will that lead them to the playoffs for the second-straight year in a row?
Back To The Future: In many ways, Mike "Pinball" Clemons remains the face of the Argonauts. The team's current vice-chair had a legendary career with the Boatmen from 1989 to 2000 after short stints with the NFL's Kansas City Chiefs and Tampa Bay Buccaneers. In Toronto, Clemons (pictured at right practicing before the 1996 Grey Cup) did everything from returning kicks and punts to serving as a running back and a slotback on offence, becoming one of the CFL's most famous names in the process (and the league's career combined yardage leader). He earned the CFL's most outstanding player award in 2000 and was a crucial part of the Argonauts' Grey Cups in 1991, 1996 and 1997. Since retiring in 2000, he's served as the team's head coach, president and vice-chair, and he remains one of their most personable and engaging representatives.
Clemons' career is applicable to this current team, as they're also a squad whose identity is centred around a running back. Clemons and Cory Boyd are very different players, of course, as the 5'6'', 170-pound Clemons primarily relied on speed and deception, while the 6'1'', 213-pound Boyd (pictured at right below celebrating a 2010 touchdown) is still quite elusive, but runs with more power.Both came to the Argonauts after failed NFL stints, though, and both soon became CFL heroes. Boyd's performance last year was reminiscent of what Clemons brought in his prime; a running back who would still find a way to beat you no matter how much you keyed on him. He was a very deserving Most Outstanding Player candidate until slowed by injuries late in the year.
Boyd has a long way to go to match Clemons' totals and legend, however, and he's already paid a significant physical price for his workload. If the Argonauts can keep Boyd healthy, though, he could become one of the most notable running backs in the CFL since Clemons hung up his cleats.
Offence: The Argonauts' running game isn't the primary question around their offence, though. With Boyd, Andre Durie (who's actually more in Clemons' mould as an all-purpose running back/receiver/returner), pre-season star Chad Kackert (pictured at right being hoisted by Joe Eppele after scoring against Hamilton last Saturday) and others in the backfield and a solid, veteran offensive line anchored by players like Rob Murphy and perhaps Eppele (who's made some noise in camp, but not quite as much as when he climbed the CN Tower in a Sasquatch suit, pictured at right below), the ground game should be a key part of their offence again this year, especially considering that they're still planning to be a run-focused team.
The larger issue is the passing game. After a spirited quarterback battle in camp, it does look like Cleo Lemon's going to be the starter on Canada Day over Dalton Bell (and B.J. Hall will be in the third spot over Canadian Danny Brannagan, released Friday), and Lemon's improved pre-season results do provide some optimism for fans of the Double Blue that quarterback issues may not prove fatal again this year. If Lemon does falter, they've got other options, with Bell, Hall, and the currently-injured Steven Jyles (an expensive off-season acquisition) all waiting in the wings. On paper, the aerial offence does look more promising than last year, but that's only on paper thus far.
Rating: Three Leo Cahill memories
Defence: With most of their players returning, the defence should be almost as strong as last year's unit that allowed a league-low 442 points last season. However, they do have some notable losses, including veteran Canadian defensive tackle Adriano Belli (who's suiting up for a different squad this summer) and veteran import corner Willie Middlebrooks. Some spots in the secondary may be up for grabs. It will be interesting to see if other CFL offences will do better against Chip Garber's defensive system now they've seen it before, too; last season was Garber's first as a CFL coordinator.
Rating: Four Belli boat celebrations
Special teams: This unit produced many of Toronto's best moments last year, from crucial fake punts to stellar long returns by the league's most outstanding special-teams player, Chad Owens. Under the tutelage of former Argonaut legend Mike O'Shea, who's already proved a capable coordinator, they should continue to excel; their array of running backs and receivers provides plenty of different special-teams weapons, they have some of the league's best kick coverage guys (including veteran running back Bryan Crawford, who signed a new deal this offseason), and the kicking game should be solid with veteran Noel Prefontaine and sophomore Grant Shaw.
Rating: Five crazy kicking finishes
Greatest strength: Special teams. If O'Shea can continue to confuse everyone with unconventional fake punts and the like, Owens (pictured at right below trying to evade an Eskimos' tackler last year) can maintain his superb 2010 form and Prefontaine can continue to defy age, the Argonauts might just have the best special-teams unit in the league.
Potential weakness: Quarterbacking. Cleo Lemon does appear to have improved from 2010, but all we've seen so far is how he does against second-tier preseason rosters, so it's too early to say for sure that he's definitely better. Moreover, he was probably the worst regular starter in the league last year, finishing last in quarterback rating and near the bottom in TD/INT ratio, total yards and completion percentage, so even improvement may not be enough to turn him into a solid CFL quarterback. Jyles and Bell may be promising relief options, but both have only seen limited CFL action, so they're no sure thing either. The Argonauts don't need to have the best passing offence in the league thanks to the strength of their running attack, defence and special teams, but they probably will need a better one than they had last season to find repeated success.
Season Prediction: The Argonauts' turnaround from cellar-dwellers to a 9-9 finish last year and a trip to the East final inspired plenty of optimism in Toronto, and rightfully so. There are a lot of things to like about this team, and I don't think they're going to fall back to where they were. It isn't easy to maintain momentum in this league, though, much less build on it, and there are still a lot of questions about this team. I think they'll take a slight step back to a 8-10 finish (third in the East) and a loss in the first round of the playoffs.
Tune in tomorrow for a preview of the Hamilton Tiger-Cats' season, and make sure to stop by 55-Yard Line at noon on Thursday, June 30 for a special CFL preview chat. Until then, you can yell at me about predictions or other topics via the comments below, e-mail or Twitter.