While Chad Owens remains the only true certainty in a cast of many, Dontrelle Inman, Maurice Mann, and Jason Barnes have all recently enjoyed breakout games.
“They’re tough decisions, but good ones to have so we’re pleased that the people are playing well,” said Milanovich on Tuesday.
“We’ll talk as a staff here in the next couple of days, and make a decision with which way we’re going to go based on what gives us the best chance on offence as well as special teams and the total contribution.”
Most recently, breakout rookie Inman made a strong case following a seven-catch, 128-yard performance against the Ticats last Thursday, which included a touchdown catch in the opening quarter from regular backup pivot Jarious Jackson.
The 43-40 win at the Rogers Centre was Inman’s first game since Sept. 29 against the Bombers, after missing time with an injured hamstring.
But while Inman was one of the team’s leading receivers with 675 yards and five touchdowns before being injured, the Argos’ first-year coach remains tight-lipped on whether that was enough to earn him a starting role.
“We’re not fully decided yet – some guys may have [played themselves onto the roster]. Dontrelle may have,” said Milanovich.
“We still have a little bit of time to evaluate that with three days of practice left, and we probably won’t know that until later in the week.”
Another option that’s emerged quickly for the Argos is 28-year-old Barnes, who joined the Double Blue last off-season after previously playing with current pivot Ricky Ray in Edmonton.
The six-foot-three, 185-pound target came into the season under high expectations, but struggled out of the gate with a new-look Argos offence that’s a little different than what he was used to in Edmonton.
“It’s definitely different, this offence is more technical with splits and depths, Edmonton we had a little bit more freedom so I was able to work my personal game a little more,” said Barnes, who had 437 yards and four touchdowns on 31 catches this season.
“I had to change up a little bit to fit into the offence over here, and I think that’s why it took me longer to get acclimated.”
He was replaced in the lineup following a 26-17 loss to the Eskimos back on Aug. 27, having to watch his teammates from the sidelines in six straight games.
Inman’s injury opened a spot in the lineup though, and Barnes took advantage. After returning to the lineup on Oct. 14 in a loss to Montreal, he had his best day as an Argonaut the following Friday, hauling in three touchdown passes in a 44-32 loss to the Bombers.
Mann, another former Eskimo, has also made a case for continued playing time heading into the playoffs, just like Barnes. The six-foot-two former fifth-round National Football League draft pick joined the Argos late last season, but missed the first several games of 2012 due to a cut on his leg.
The 30-year-old made his debut on Labour Day in a win over the Ticats, but much like Barnes early in the season, struggled to make a consistent impact in Milanovich’s offence.
But Mann showed the potential he brings as a receiver in an important late-season duel with the Riders, hauling in a team-high seven catches for 101 yards and a touchdown to lead the Boatmen to a 31-26 win at Mosaic Stadium, clinching a home playoff berth.
The receiver said he cherished the opportunity to make a major impact, and felt like it was a chance to show he’s still got that big-play potential the Argos saw in him.
A team-first mentality
“I don’t think for us it’s really about being ‘the guy’, it’s about doing whatever it takes for us to win. So I support everybody – if you have that big game and you help us win, then that’s what we’re here to do.”
– Maurice Mann
“It felt good to be able to make some big plays for Ricky and for our team really, so it just comes down to us holding ourselves accountable and making plays,” said Mann.
“I just want to show that I’m a valuable piece to what we already have here, and just keep building upon it and chasing this Grey Cup,” he added. “That’s what we want – all of us are focused on getting that ring so that’s what’s important to us.”
And that’s exactly why neither Barnes nor Mann are worried about who will be playing where on Sunday.
“That’s the thing, we have a lot of vets, so we’re not worried about who’s playing or not,” said Barnes. “But we all push each other to get better and open the door for the win, that’s what we worry about.”
Mann echoed the fact that the emphasis in the Argos’ locker-room is on winning, not on who’s throwing the ball and who’s catching the passes.
“I don’t think for us it’s really about being ‘the guy’, it’s about doing whatever it takes for us to win,” said Mann. “So I support everybody – if you have that big game and you help us win, then that’s what we’re here to do.”
“It’s not about individual stats for us, especially not now,” he continued. “Those days are over with, so now it’s just time to catch the rock and score touchdowns, everybody.”
Ken-Yon Rambo and Sammy Tranks are the other non-import receivers who could figure into the equation, as Rambo’s injury status remains in the air and Tranks comes off a three-catch, 27-yard performance in action against the Ticats last Thursday.
Owens still leading the way
Any difficult decisions on the Argos’ depth chart will go beyond the number-one receiver spot, as the 30-year-old slotback looks to continue what’s been a stellar season as a pass-catcher in the CFL.
The native of Honolulu, Hawaii first became a stalwart on offence when he joined the Argos in 2010, after serving primarily in special teams duties with the Alouettes the year before that.
In his first two seasons catching passes for the Boatmen, mostly from out wide, he had a combined 1,298 receiving yards and three touchdowns, including none in 2011.
This season Owens moved into the slot, and with some help from the pin-point passing of Ray, led the league in receiving yards with 1,328, while also breaking the pro football record for all-purpose yardage in a single season.
Now Owens is proud to earn a reputation not just as one of the top special teams players in the country, but one of the most dynamic and well-rounded offensive players, too.
“It’s a credit to him, [General Manager] Jim Barker, and Coach [Mike] O’Shea, first making his mark on special teams, and this year he’s finally gotten a chance to show what he can do as a receiver,” said Milanovich. “Ricky obviously has something to do with that, but Chad still has to get open and make the plays,” he continued. “I’m very happy for Chad, he’s earned this opportunity and he’s done a great job with it.”
Milanovich was on the Alouettes coaching staff back when Owens was started his CFL career, and said at the time he wasn’t quite sure Owens could be a full-time contributor on offence, let alone the league’s leading receiver.
“I didn’t [see it] when I was in Montreal,” said Milanovich. “I liked Chad, but he didn’t get an opportunity. This year in training camp I did see it, and a lot of us did on the staff – you could just see in training camp, they couldn’t stop him in the slot, and we’ve got some pretty good defensive backs.”
“So it took me until this year to realize how good he had the opportunity to be.”
– Left guard Wayne Smith won’t dress for the semi-final, and will miss the remainder of the season with a torn tricep suffered in the first half of the regular season finale against the Tiger-Cats. A replacement will be named later in the week, expected to be either Andrew Jones or Marc Parenteau, both non-imports. – Kevin Huntley is expected to return to action against the Eskimos, after missing time late in the season due to an injured foot. – After getting Monday off and reviewing film on Tuesday, the team will practice indoors at the Rogers Centre from Wednesday up until the game on Sunday.