Argos know they fumbled a big opportunity
Excitement over move to BMO Field fizzled as team failed to produce
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.