POPP FOOTBALL

How hir­ing a stealth GM led to Ar­gos’ sur­pris­ing come­back!

24 Hours Toronto - - ADVERTISING FEATURE - STEVE SIM­MONS

One win from the Grey Cup.

That didn’t seem pos­si­ble or prob­a­ble or any­thing close to likely on that late Fe­bru­ary morn­ing when the Ar­gos named Jim Popp as gen­eral man­ager and Marc Trest­man as head coach.

They were three months be­hind ev­ery other team in the CFL. They missed out on free agency. They had no coach­ing staff. They’d done no plan­ning. If not for the peo­ple hired that day, who had cham­pi­onship pedi­gree in Mon­treal, the whole op­er­a­tion seemed like a big fat football joke.

“We got back to the of­fice that day and the big­gest thing was, we needed a coach­ing staff,” Popp said. “We needed to put it to­gether as quickly as pos­si­ble. And we con­cen­trated on that.”

Trest­man got on the phone. Popp got on the phone. March is not ex­actly a time to find football coaches. Most of them are work­ing. The good ones are. Most of the hir­ings were done months ear­lier.

“Once we got that done, then we fo­cussed on our play­ers and what we needed,” Popp said.

It started with re­search­ing their own play­ers. You never re­ally know a player un­til you break him down on film, game after game, sea­son after sea­son.

“When Don Matthews first came to Mon­treal, he had no re­gard for An­thony Calvillo,” Popp ex­plained in a lengthy in­ter­view. “Then he went and watched film for a cou­ple of weeks and he came out of our dun­geon with a smile on his face, say­ing, ‘Holy crap, I didn’t know he was that good.’ He was in­stantly high on him. That’s what you have to do. You have to study. We had to study our play­ers.”

Trest­man didn’t have to study Ricky Ray. If he didn’t nec­es­sar­ily know the quar­ter­back, he knew his game. What he didn’t know was the per­son. So he got on the phone with Ray and, hav­ing not spent any time on the field with him, named him his start­ing quar­ter­back on the day he was hired to coach.

“The big­gest thing was talk­ing to Ricky Ray,” Popp said. “Marc talk­ing to him, he could hear in his voice how much he wanted to play, how much he thought he had left in the tank. He was adamant he wanted to play and felt he was in the best health in three years.”

Work­ing with Trest­man for the first time, Ray passed for 5,546 yards and took about 5,546 hits in do­ing so, give or take a hit. It was the sec­ond­most yardage he’s thrown for in 15 CFL sea­sons.

“Ev­ery­body gets caught up in how low-key he is,” Popp said of Ray. “To me, he’s such a smooth op­er­a­tor it al­most lack­adaisi­cal. But he’s such a leader by ex­am­ple. This guy is un­be­liev­ably tough and what a stu­dent of the game he is.”

Ray be­came part of the Ar­gos great Sun­shine Boys duo of this sur­pris­ing sea­son. At 38, his favourite tar­get has been 32-year-old S.J. Green, a re­ceiver many thought was fin­ished be­fore the sea­son be­gan.

Ray was thought to be at the end. Green, ap­par­ently, had beaten him to the fin­ish line.

“S.J. had a se­vere in­jury but I never heard it was ca­reer end­ing,” said Popp, who brought in Green from Mon­treal, where he orig­i­nally brought him to the

CFL. “I was watch­ing video of him re­hab­bing. What I had in mind is, not get­ting back to what he was, but be­com­ing an ef­fec­tive re­ceiver. I looked at him the way I looked at Nik Lewis when I brought him in to Mon­treal. I felt he was a player who could help us.”

At mini-camp in May, Green took part in only shadow work­outs, not run­ning any real plays. In train­ing camp, they gave him more work, lit­tle by lit­tle. “We were giv­ing him days off, we were tak­ing it slow. His knee was re­spond­ing great. He started to look like his old self.”

After be­ing writ­ten off, Green caught a ca­reer-high 104 passes for a ca­reer-high 1,462 yards. “You have to credit Ricky and S.J. for what they’ve done here,” Popp added. “They un­der­stand the league. They un­der­stand the sys­tem. And they trust each other. Once you have that kind of trust, it’s easy.”

Popp took Green from Mon­treal and brought in line­backer Bear Woods from the Alou­ettes as well. Of course, he prob­a­bly wouldn’t have been hired as GM in Toronto had he not been able to se­cure his old mon­treal coach, T rest man. but there was an­other piece of Mon­treal busi­ness that needed to be taken care of.

When Popp ran the Alou­ettes, he had James Wilder Jr. on his ne­go­ti­a­tion list. He had tried on nu­mer­ous oc­ca­sions to bring Wilder to Mon­treal. One day this past win­ter, he no­ticed Mon­treal had dropped Wilder from its list. He jumped at the op­por­tu­nity.

“Marc and I talked about it,“Popp re­called. ”Who does he re­mind you of, he asked? I said his fa­ther. Marc had coached his fa­ther in Tampa. We had to con­vince James that this would work for him.”

And in the fi­nal six games of the sea­son, after Bran­don Whi­taker was hurt, boy did it work. Wilder did the near im­pos­si­ble: he ran for 700 yards, five touch­downs, and caught passes for an­other 441 yards. That’s an av­er­age of 190 yards per game of hard-charg­ing of­fence.

Popp thought Wilder would be good. He had no idea he would be this dom­i­nant.

“I can’t sit here and tell you (that) I thought he was go­ing to do all these things,” Popp said of Wilder. “Be­fore he did that, he was one of our bet­ter spe­cial teams play­ers. And nor­mally if you can play spe­cial teams, they keep you in the NFL.

“My first ques­tion with James was, how did the NFL teams not keep this guy? I reached out to some of those teams and we found out they never re­ally looked at him that way.”

It leaves the Ar­gos now, des­per­ate in the win­ter for a ros­ter, with a Hall of Fame quar­ter­back who has done ev­ery­thing, a re­ceiver play­ing his great­est football at age 32, and a run­ning back who seem­ingly can’t be stopped, es­pe­cially when catch­ing the ball.

It makes the team dan­ger­ous. But that was just one fac­tor in the Argo resur­gence.

Popp knew, after see­ing his off-sea­son ros­ter, that he needed a new re­ceiv­ing corps, needed to re­build the se­condary, needed to add depth to the de­fen­sive line, and was for­tu­nate on de­fence to come up with game chang­ers like Mar­cus Ball, who was a sig­nif­i­cant part of the Ar­gos’ last Grey Cup vic­tory, and Woods, who was their de­fen­sive player of the year.

But it isn’t just play­ers with the Ar­gos. It’s the rap­port that Popp and Trest­man share, the kind of trust nec­es­sary to op­er­ate ef­fec­tively.

“We un­der­stand each other,” Popp said. “We lis­ten to each other. The great thing with Marc is, as much as he’s a teacher, he wants to learn. He’s a great lis­tener. He asks for your knowl­edge ev­ery week and he wants to know what you think. It’s not for me to tell him what to do. He knows what to do.

“I un­der­stand him. Be­fore I got to this po­si­tion, I was a coach. I grew up in a coach’s fam­ily. I un­der­stand that part of it.”

That part he doesn’t yet un­der­stand — this takes time — is the city and its fan base. Sell­ing the Ar­gos is a chal­lenge, even with an Eastern Fi­nal here at BMO Field on Sun­day. There’s a fan base. There are ticket buy­ers. There’s just enough of them.

Popp fig­ures this is just an­other chal­lenge in a ca­reer full of chal­lenges.

“I was in the startup of NFL Europe,” he said. “I was in the startup of a football league that lasted 10 months, had a draft, three weeks of prac­tice and never played a game. I was in Saskatchewan when ev­ery­body was tak­ing pay cuts be­cause the team was bank­rupt, if you can be­lieve that now. I was at the startup op­er­a­tion in Bal­ti­more. I was in Mon­treal when he had 1,600 sea­son ticket hold­ers and played our games in the Big O and our fans would move in the stands as we moved with the ball. I’ve seen a lot.

“It doesn’t mat­ter what sport you are in, you have to find your niche. All we can do is con­trol what we can con­trol. I’m very proud of our ac­com­plish­ments (this sea­son) but no­body is go­ing to happy un­less we win it all.”

JACK BOLAND/TORONTO SUN

Three months be­hind ev­ery other CFL team in terms of prepa­ra­tion for the 2017 sea­son, Arg­onauts gen­eral man­ager Jim Popp had to do a lot of scram­bling for coaches and play­ers.

JACK BOLAND/TORONTO SUN

Head coach Marc Trest­man, hired late in the process by Jim Popp, and holdover quar­ter­back Ricky Ray have been in­stru­men­tal in the Ar­gos’ turn­around this sea­son.

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