Mike O’Shea wasn’t deterred by the rather large throng of reporters who’d just scrambled onto the field after Argo practice. Eager to get the latest Grey Cup quip, some media members were in peril of being beaned by a Swayze Waters field goal attempt, if they strayed any closer to the line of fire.
O’Shea didn’t seem to notice, as he was concentrating on the click of his stop watch and the time between the snap of the ball and Waters connecting with it. Snap, click. Kick, click.
“Just part of the routine,” the Argos’ special teams coach said, adding that he used to make fun of the process, back when he was playing.
In a season of ups and downs for O’Shea’s special teams, a constant has been the coach’s due diligence and care when it comes to detail. What was true when his unit was flagging, is no less true now that they are cooking with gas.
Successive strong kick coverage weeks has O’Shea a bit perked up heading for the 100th Grey Cup Game and hoping that, while on the upswing, Argo special teams have not quite peaked.
“No, we haven’t hit our stride yet,” he began. “We’re hoping to just be swimming to the top of that crest come game time.”
It wasn’t easy to get to this point. It’s been frustrating and bedeviling, with Argo cover teams looking good one week and not so hot the next. If they’re surfing the wave now, they were in danger of being drowned by it earlier in the season.
“Without a doubt,” he says of the severity of the woes that saw them ripped for big plays on a continuing basis. “And we spent a few weeks there down at the very bottom of a very large trench. But we’ve pulled ourselves out of it. The players have worked very hard, they’re very focused.”
The trench included big returns given up to Calgary’s Larry Taylor, who ripped the Argonauts for 292 punt and kick return yards in a game at the dome back in July. On top of that, he danced and sprinted and just flat out embarrassed the Argos on a 125 yard missed field goal return that afternoon.
“We’re firing a little different now than we did that game,” said O’Shea, when asked about the challenge of stopping Taylor in Sunday’s game.”
Indeed, they are. Playoff football has agreed with Argo cover teams. Against Edmonton, in the semi-final, they held Eskimo return ace Joe Burnett to 20 yards on three punt returns and Weldon Brown to 73 yards on five kick returns.
In the Eastern Final, Montreal’s Trent Guy, who’d burned the Argos on a 129 yard missed field goal return in September, was held to 17 yards on two punt returns. Guy was a little more slippery on kick returns, but was held to a workable 76 yards on three returns.
Contrast that to a team that allowed Hamilton’s Chris Williams to dine out with 2 returns for touchdowns last July and then another on Labour Day. Since an early September swoon, the downfield tackling has been getting sharper and sharper, and head coach Scott Milanovich thinks he knows why.
“We added a couple of pieces in Walter Spencer and Etienne (Boulay) and’Osh’ has done just a magnificent job of bringing those guys together and our coverage teams have been very, very good recently,” said Milanovich.
That rationale will only go so far for O’Shea, however, as he refused to chalk improvements up to the insertion of Boulay and Spencer in the line up.
“The detail in the coaching, I think, is what I lacked when the guys were having trouble,” he said.
“The players always want to do the right thing,” he continued. They don’t want to go out there and not do the right thing. So, if they’re not getting the right thing done then there’s something wrong with my message. That’s the bottom line.”
Not entirely. Boulay and Spencer are two exceptional special teams vets, and their addition eased the sting of losing two very important Argo special-teamers at the close of the 2011 season. Bryan Crawford and Jeremy Unertl were catalysts on O’Shea’s cover teams and Milanovich, for one, thinks changes in the “seek and destroy” unit were meaningful.
“He (O’Shea) lost so many veteran players that were part of his core. We had so many new additions to our roster that I’m not sure the we were able to fully get them to understand the importance of special teams and our cover teams in particular.”
Point that out to O’Shea and he will dig his heels in.
“Comes back to coaching, though,” he insisted. “Comes back to coaching. Because I didn’t recognize that. I needed to be giving guys more and didn’t do that. It boils right back down to me.”
Now, with opposing kick returners getting a rude welcome more often than not, the special teams coach gives his charges all the credit they deserve. He believes they’ve worked hard on improvement.
“I would say they’ve recommitted. Part way through the season they recommitted to special teams. A lot of it has to do with guys putting in a little extra time.”
A change in coaching technique, an injection of two veteran, proven players and a refocused tackling posse are the ingredients in patching the leaks in the Argos’ returner containment system. The rewards are evident, with perhaps their most complete game of the season coming last week against the Alouettes.
“They did a bang up job in that game,” O’Shea nodded. “It’s going to take that again, against Larry Taylor.”
Back to that field goal drill and O’Shea’s stop watch. How’d they do, coach?
“Our operation time was extremely good,” he said. Details.