The two worst teams in the league in 2019 laid a similar foundation to their recovery this year, but seem to have branched off in different directions in free agency.
The Ottawa REDBLACKS won just three games in 2019 and the Toronto Argonauts were only able to win four. In the aftermath of their seasons, they went through coaching changes and both teams solidified their quarterback situations. Ottawa traded for then signed Nick Arbuckle, while Toronto re-signed McLeod Bethel-Thompson and inked Matt Nichols to a contract after he was released by Winnipeg.
When free agency began, each team went in its own direction. The REDBLACKS made a few significant signings on Tuesday, notably bringing in national defensive tackle Cleyon Laing and American linebacker Don Unamba. They also added two more nationals, in running back Anthony Coombs and linebacker Christophe Mulumba-Tshimanga.
And with that, REDBLACKS GM Marcel Desjardins said to not expect much more in terms of free agency movement.
“We’ve used our money on (re-signing) Nolan MacMillan, Alex Mateas, JP Bolduc, Brad Sinopoli, Nigel Romick, Brendan Gillanders … Avery Ellis, Mike Wakefield … that’s where our money went,” Desjardins told Postmedia’s Tim Baines.
“People think those guys come back for less than they made before — it’s just not reality. We’re kind of where we’re going to be right now. There might be a few additions, but there won’t be any significant signings.”
If you put Ottawa on one end of the free agency spectrum, you’d have to put Toronto way, way on the other end.
Almost 36 hours into free agency, the Argos had signed a dozen new players, with reports suggesting that their list could still grow. With so much change above the roster — Michael ‘Pinball’ Clemons took over as GM in October, with John Murphy assuming VP of player personnel duties and Ryan Dinwiddie hired as the head coach in December — this much turnover perhaps shouldn’t come as a surprise. The duo of Clemons and Murphy have spent the off-season putting their collective stamp on their team.
“We took the approach of saying you can look at what we’ve been doing and keep it status quo and just do the same as (has been done),” Murphy told Brodie Lawson and myself in a conversation with CFL.ca on Wednesday.
“The Argos have not been successful for a consistent amount of time doing things the way that eight other teams are doing it. So I think our approach was to sort of let the market come to (us), and then not be afraid to say…it’s our job to find good American players. If we could pay a Canadian the same value as what some of the Americans were asking, that was going to be the direction we were going to go.”
“We targeted what we needed to, what we felt would help us, but we’ve also been at this for the couple of months that I’ve been on board,” REDBLACKS head coach Paul LaPolice told CFL.ca.
The REDBLACKS felt like they’d done most of their heavy roster lifting ahead of the free agent market opening on Feb. 11.
“We were happy that we didn’t have to worry about offensive linemen because Marcel did a great job of having all the linemen under contract,” REDBLACKS head coach Paul LaPolice said.
“We picked up Timothy Flanders as a free agent running back a couple of months ago. Before free agency, we locked up Avery Williams, Avery Ellis. Mike Wakefield, also one of our interior d-linemen. We had some pieces we wanted to re-sign. And certainly, we’re very excited about…(being) able to get both Lewis Ward and Richie Leone.
“We were making signings all the way up until the big day and certainly the additions we made (on Tuesday) we’re really happy with.”
As the Argos decided on their approach to free agency, Clemons and Murphy looked at what resonated with them in their journeys to their present roles. Clemons has only known the Argos and the city of Toronto in his almost 31 years in Canada. Murphy thought back to his time spent in football ops in Calgary and Saskatchewan and saw how much local players valued playing for their hometown or home province teams.
It’s no coincidence that a number of the newest Argos are guys that grew up in or around Toronto.
“You look around and see that there are seven, eight, nine, 10 guys that grew up within three hours of our facility, who are going to get a chance to come back and wear Argos uniforms. Most of them I think, for the first time ever.
“They’re coming back to their community where they have a lot of roots. They have friends and family and I think can have an impact with us both on the field in terms of our record and success but equally as important, off the field with a lot of the player programs that we’re trying to start up.”
There’s a new head coach and staff in Ottawa, but Desjardins is still the Day 1 GM, who built the teams that played in three Grey Cups in four years. It’s clear he has a plan for his roster and spending limits at certain positions. There’s a belief in what the team has and what it’s capable of. The REDBLACKS org has doubled down on that this off-season.
“We’re excited for what we’re starting to bring in staffing-wise and certainly the pieces (acquired in free agency). We think they can help us in a number of ways,” LaPolice said.
“Anthony Combs is somebody we felt like if we wanted to play another Canadian receiver, well, not only is he a Canadian receiver, he’s also somebody that can catch the ball out of the backfield but we’ll be able to put him in the backfield, even though he’s technically playing a receiver spot, he can do a lot of different things that we were able to do, very similar to what we were able to use the last couple years in Winnipeg with Nick Demski.”