Football coaches are known to work long, long hours during a season. And that’s when things are going well. Put one in a position where he’s got to come up with the answers for a struggling, injury-plagued offence and you can pile on extra hours in a hurry.
Toronto Argonauts’ offensive coordinator Marcus Brady is in that position now, trying to decode the riddles that will help quarterback Ricky Ray get the touchdown count unfrozen again.
“Not much,” Brady answers with the slightest crease of a smile. I’d just asked him if he was getting any sleep. “I guess I’m getting an adequate amount of sleep. Definitely working harder right now.”
Brady and I met after Tuesday’s Argo practice, at York University. Sitting in the lobby of one of the University’s Stong College buildings, the former quarterback looks good but, yes, a little tired. What he doesn’t look is frustrated or exasperated, though he does say this run of Argo injuries, losses and offensive futility does provide those moments for him.
“Human nature is you’re going to get frustrated,” he admits. “Especially as a competitor. You just hate losing, especially the way we’re going on offence right now. It’s a struggle.”
It has been that.
Burdened with injuries to top receivers Andre Durie, Chad Owens and Jason Barnes and and trying to find a new running back identity after the retirement of Chad Kackert, the Toronto offence has been relegated to low gear after a points explosion against the Saskatchewan Roughriders, in Week Two.
During the current three game losing streak, the Argos have found the end zone precisely one time, when back-up receiver Darvin Adams grabbed a Ray pass in the end zone against Ottawa in Week Four. The problems have been many and have happened at different times; sub-par receivers play, leaky protection for Ray and ball security.
“We’ve got to protect the football. That’s the biggest key,” Brady insists. “I mean, we’re turning the ball over a little too much right now. Better things will happen if we’re not always turning the ball over and putting our defence in bad situations.”
Certainly early turnovers put Toronto in a terrible situation last Saturday night in Regina. A Ray interception and a fumble gave the Roughriders a short, short field with which to work and they staggered the Argos from the get go with a 14-nothing lead before the game was five minutes old.
There have been other troubles, though, that are the culprits in this Argos’ offensive drought.
Last Saturday, in Saskatchewan, Ray had precious little time to operate and that goes straight to pass protection. In previous games, Ray had to hold the ball a little too long as young, injury replacement receivers battled to understand exactly where they ought to be, exactly when they ought to be there. While Brady doesn’t give his young pass catchers a full pass when it comes to culpability against the ‘Riders- “There were some mistakes by the receivers” – head coach Scott Milanovich does.
“In this game, they were,” Milanovich responded, when asked if the receivers hit their marks on cue. “And they were open. We need to protect better. We didn’t play well up front. That’s the first time this year, really, that’s happened.”
Against Montreal, this Friday, the Argos’ offensive line gets a shot at redemption, but it will be a tall order against an Alouettes’ defence that rushes with abandon and tricks things up with creative blitz packages.
“They’re a great defence, offers Brady, nodding his head slowly. “They know how to get at the quarterback. They’re very experienced in the secondary. It’s a great defence. It’s going to be a great challenge for our guys and, hopefully, we should be up for it.”
That means Brady will burn more midnight oil working on protection responsibilities, along with line coach Bryan Chiu. Extra meetings, extra film sessions, extra hours. Another fire to put out, even as he thinks he has another one, at least, under some control.
As Milanovich had said, young Argos back up receivers played better in Saskatchewan. Brady’s tasks in this area have been a monster of many heads; Coaching the rookies up on Toronto offensive schemes, keeping their spirits up as they struggled, and learning as much about them as quickly as possible, so that he can coordinate with their abilities in mind.
“They’re not Chad and Durie where you can just give them the ball and they make everybody miss,” he explains. “You’ve got to be a little more creative in scheming things. Kind of tailor to their strengths as players. Because we now have a feel of the guys who are out there now so we’ve gotta kind of tailor our offence to the strengths of those players.”
So the Argos’ passing game evolves into something other than what it has been, at least until the starters get back on the field. That’s out of necessity and is a process that has taken time and lessons from the school of football’s hard knocks.
“I think that was good for them last week,” says Brady, of the wipeout in Saskatchewan. “It didn’t look pretty, but they learned a lot in that game (and in) the last few weeks. They’re going to be better this week,” he assures.
“They’re progressing. Are they at Chad Owens’ level? Andre Durie, Jason Barnes, guys that have been in the league for years? No, of course and we don’t expect them to be, right now.”
“But they’re getting it and, obviously, right now they’ve got to get it faster and faster,” Brady says, snapping his fingers quickly for emphasis. “We’re pushing it. We’re working harder, as coaches, to try to get ‘em there. Taking more time in walk-throughs and meeting times. They’re working hard.”
Now comes the part where the Argonauts’ offence needs to mesh a few things together. If the receivers are in better positions, the line and backs need to be as well. When plays are made, they can’t come back due to a flag. Drives can’t be stalled by turnovers.
Starters or back-ups, makes no difference to Brady. Like a quarterback who breaks huddle and sees something from the defence that makes the play he just called likely to fail, an offensive coordinator must make adjustments of his own.
“The way football is, you can’t just dwell on the guys that aren’t there, you’ve got to coach up the guys that are there and get them better and put them in positions that they do well in. Because they’re different.”
With that, Marcus Brady was off. Maybe for a quick cat nap. More likely, though, to put in yet another hour looking for answers.
THE EXTRA POINT
Funny thing about the world of sports. Injuries just cannot be used as a reason for the struggles of a team. It’s not acceptable to managers, coaches and not even to many fans, who expect wins no matter what.
You can’t get Brady or Milanovich to bite much on it, when you offer up that with injuries to Durie, Owens and Barnes – as well as to starting free safety Matt Black – it is indeed reasonable to expect big time struggles, leading to losses.
“Well, you can’t say it’s not a factor, certainly,” says Milanovich, emphasizing the word ‘factor.’ “Those guys are starters for a reason. But in this game, it happens. Maybe not to this degree. You still need to win, you still can win. You just have to be better at the small things.”
“I’ll never ever go into a game thinking – it doesn’t matter who’s out there – that we’re not going to win the game.”
“It makes it harder,” replies Brady, although his tone suggests only a very grudging acceptance of the premise.
“But that’s what we’re paid to do as coaches, as players. It takes a bit more out of us, because now we’ve got to coach those young guys harder, whereas the vets… some things they already know and they know how to get done. But that just comes with the job.”