Ar­gos know they fum­bled a big op­por­tu­nity

Ex­cite­ment over move to BMO Field fiz­zled as team failed to pro­duce

Toronto Star - - SPORTS - MOR­GAN CAMP­BELL SPORTS RE­PORTER

By late July the Toronto Arg­onauts ap­peared to have a firm grasp on the sea­son.

A move from the cav­ernous Rogers Cen­tre to in­ti­mate and fan-friendly BMO Field lent off-field mo­men­tum to the 2016 cam­paign and the team was de­liv­er­ing where it mat­tered most, en­ter­ing Au­gust with a 4-2 record.

Then the progress stopped. The club won just one of its fi­nal12 games and dropped each of its fi­nal seven. In 19 days the Grey Cup game comes to Toronto and the bar­rier to play­off en­try is rarely as low as it is this year. Ev­ery Eastern Divi­sion team fin­ished 2016 with a los­ing re- cord.

Yet the Ar­gos still couldn’t con­vert pre-sea­son buzz into a post-sea­son ap­pear­ance. And as the squad cleared out the locker room at their Downsview Park prac­tice fa­cil­ity, play­ers and coaches re­al­ized they missed a gi­gan­tic chance to en­gage home­town fans and that off-sea­son ques­tions loom even larger than the lost op­por­tu­nity.

After a 5-13 sea­son, em­ploy­ment isn’t guar­an­teed.

“Jobs are gonna be lost and peo­ple are gonna get fired. That’s how it goes,” said vet­eran line­backer Ricky Fo­ley. “I just hope the guys who get it, the guys who know what it takes to win … I hope those guys stick around.”

The Ar­gos de­fence sur­ren­dered a league-high 568 points while home games at­tracted a league-low 16,380 spec­ta­tors, ac­cord­ing to the on­line data­base CFLdb Sta­tis­tics. That at­ten­dance fig­ure rep­re­sents 60.67 per cent of BMO Field’s ca­pac­ity. Only Ed­mon­ton, whose sta­dium holds more than 56,000 peo­ple, filled a lower per­cent­age of seats. Mov­ing to BMO was sup­posed to help the Ar­gos sell tick­ets by sell­ing a game-day ex­pe­ri­ence that in­cluded tail­gat­ing pre-game entertainment. But fan in­ter­est slumped along with the club’s re­sults and their fi­nal home game drew just 15,023 spec­ta­tors.

Head coach Scott Mi­lanovich rec­og­nizes that in win­ning just two home games the Ar­gos fum­bled away a chance to cap­i­tal­ize on the pub­lic­ity the venue change pro­vided.

“It’s been dis­ap­point­ing, espe­cially since it was a year that we hoped would be . . . kind of a new be­gin­ning for our or­ga­ni­za­tion (and) for this brand,” Mi­lanovich said.

“To fail the way we did is dif­fi­cult to take.”

Over­com­ing on-field in­er­tia re­mains a rid­dle and Mi­lanovich, who main­tains he’s not wor­ried about his own job se­cu­rity, says it’s too early to even con­tem­plate the club’s first off­sea­son move. But quar­ter­back is a pri­or­ity. Ricky Ray com­pleted 74.5 per cent of his passes this sea­son, best among CFL starters. But he played just nine games, his 37-year-old body suc­cumb­ing to a fresh set of in­juries (rib, lung), dis­tinct from the shoul­der woes that short­ened his 2015 sea­son. Fac­ing re­porters Sunday, Ray seemed am­biva­lent about his fu­ture.

“I’m open to all sorts of dif­fer­ent sce­nar­ios,” said Ray, who played his 200th ca­reer game Satur­day in Ed­mon­ton. “I need some time to . . .think about it and see what those sce­nar­ios could be.”

To hedge against Ray’s pos­si­ble ab­sence, the club made a big bet on Drew Willy, ac­quir­ing the quar­ter­back in Septem­ber but ship­ping their 2017 first-round draft pick to Win­nipeg in re­turn.

Willy com­pleted 77 of 113 passes for 681 yards with three touch­downs and an in­ter­cep­tion, but the Ar­gos lost all four of his starts.

Mi­lanovich says Willy will be­come more pro­duc­tive when he’s had more time to study the Ar­gos’ of­fence. Willy de­clined the con­so­la­tion with a re­tort that de­scribes both his sit­u­a­tion and the team’s.

“This isn’t re­ally the ex­cuse business,” Willy said. “It’s the pro­duc­tion business. I def­i­nitely need to be more pro­duc­tive.”

“To fail the way we did is dif­fi­cult to take,” Ar­gos head coach Scott Mi­lanovich said after a 5-13 sea­son.

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