This season's race in the CFL East has, so far, resembled a sputtering odyssey across a barren desert, featuring automobiles that can't keep from overheating, breaking down or spinning off into a dried out creek bed.
The Toronto Argonauts, four points clear of three teams that each have just one win so far this season, are pulling into yet another lonely, out of the way gas station, looking for repairs and replacement parts and maybe a splash of something premium to give their engines an octane boost. As Head Coach Scott Milanovich gets out of his car, he looks back on miles of dirt road, spying the horizon for a telltale cloud of dust that might indicate somebody - anybody - is gaining on him.
So far, no dust.
Most likely to be the object that creates a cloud soon would be the Hamilton Ticats, who could draw to within two points of Toronto - with a game in hand - with a win on Labour Day Monday.
“At some point somebody’s gonna have to start separating themselves," said Milanovich, during a conference call this week. “Going against each other, teams are gonna have to step up and decide who’s gonna be the one to take this thing.”
The Argos have had their chances to do just that, most recently last weekend in Edmonton. After a decent showing against the BC Lions the week before - where a short preparation week led to a fatigued letdown in the fourth quarter - Milanovich's team nonetheless looked to be ready and able to scrap for a road win against the Eskimos.
“You’ve gotta play four quarters, not just two,” lamented the head coach, of his team's flat tire start in that one.
Inconsistent play has been one cause of a lurching Argos' season. Injuries another.
Now, with nine games remaining - six of them against those basement mired Eastern teams searching for their own shred of momentum - the Argos are hopeful their latest pit stop provides them with the mechanical soundness needed to put a big chunk of mileage between themselves and those desperate teams.
Casting off veteran defensive back Dwight Anderson, running back Jeremiah Johnson and receiver Terrell Sinkfield this week, the Argonauts are fairly certain they can have veteran free safety Matt Black back in the line up for Labour Day and are hopeful that an essential spark plug, slotback Andre Durie, can rejoin them for that game as well. This as receiver Chad Owens - back from injury for a grand total of one partial game - is listed as unlikely to play against Hamilton.
“ At some point somebody's gonna have to start separating themselves ”- Scott Milanovich
“We feel like everything’s kinda been thrown at us early in the season and the second half, when we get guys healthy and everybody’s playing together better we can get on that run and take advantage of that lead that we do have,” said quarterback Ricky Ray, adding that this struggle of a season is not a new experience for him, even if the perch from which he views it is.
"I guess the weird thing about this year is we’re in first place. I’ve been on a few other teams where we’ve gotten off to a slow start and we’ve been three or four games back, just trying to find our way into the playoff mix."
"We can build on our lead or keep that lead. In that sense it has been a blessing,” he continued, locating the silver lining of a 3 and 6 record.
Rushing Durie back will not be an option. That broken collarbone of his needs to be fully sturdy before he gets back to racking up yards after catch numbers. If it's not, an early return would risk the team losing him for the balance of the year upon re-injury.
With slotback Jason Barnes already back in the line up after his own stay on the injured list, the prospect of getting Durie and Owens back in the line up for the stretch drive would be a welcome sight, indeed, for Ray, who believes his offence has just flat out stumbled on too many big play opportunities in 2014.
"We just haven’t been able to connect on those,” he said, before addressing the question of whether the Argonauts' offence has become a little too one dimensional, with short pass patterns taking the spotlight over more mid and long range attempts.
“Maybe we’ve been taking a little more of that this year than attacking deep on some plays," he granted.
“I think it’s just a combination of a few different things. Not taking advantage of opportunities and making them work and maybe trying to be a little bit more ball control and move the chains that way. I don’t know, I think, with all that, big plays come at different times," he said.
If the Argonauts are to be forced to live with short passes because of the way opposing defences set up against them - often taking away clean looks at long bombs - having YAC monsters Durie and Owens back in the line-up would be immense for them.
That, in turn, might force opponents to key in on those routes with extra personnel, leading to Ray and company taking more shots downfield. If you've wondered whether the shoulder injury Ray suffered last season has limited his abilities, he'll give an answer designed to put those thoughts to rest.
“I feel pretty good out there and nothing’s holding me back from doing what I’ve been able to do in the past,” he said, admitting that the shoulder in question did get torqued again in the very first game of the season, in Winnipeg.
“It was something that just made it a little bit sore for a couple of weeks that I just kinda had to deal with and stay on top of to get loose and spend a little extra time warming up," he explained.
Asked if he has full command of all the throws he's been used to making, Ray's reply is quick, firm and as brief as can be.
"Yes," was all he said.
Meanwhile, Milanovich looks for a part to install on the Argos' defence, after the removal of Anderson. It's possible cornerback Jalil Carter could move back inside to the halfback position. Possible, too, that Milanovich and defensive coordinator Tim Burke do something different with what has been an improving Argonauts' pass defence.
“I think our DB’s are playing well and progressing," said Milanovich. "There’s a couple of them still on our roster that we’d like to get a look at as well as the distinct possibility that we’ll have another one coming in here shortly, in the next week or two.”
By that time the Argos might have company beside them on what has been a bumpy, bumpy East Division road.
Either that or Milanovich will have his team in control of the division and he can stop looking for approaching clouds of dust.
THE EXTRA POINT
Breaking down the numbers concerning the Argos - Ticats' Labour Day history shows utter dominance by Hamilton for years, from the beginning of the tradition until the late 1980's. Since then, however, it's been a little more even, albeit with the Ticats continuing to hold the edge.
Overall, Hamilton teams are 39-15-1 against the Argos on Labour Day Weekend, although the first two games were won by Toronto, over the Hamilton Wildcats. Since the Wildcats and Hamilton Tigers merged, in 1950, the Ticats are 39-13-1 in Labour Day clashes versus the Argos, including winning 21 of the first 26.
Three times the Ticats have rhymed off five game winning streaks during the game's history, the most recent coming between 1998 and 2002. In addition, Hamilton has reeled off two separate four game streaks, those coming in the 1960's and 1970's. The Argonauts have won three in a row on two occasions, between 1994 and 1997 (no game in 1995) and then again between 2006 and 2008.
Since 1987, when the Argos and TiCats were reestablished as Labour Day foes on an ongoing basis, Hamilton leads the series 13 wins to 9. Since the year 2000, the series is even closer, Hamilton holding a 6 to 5 edge in victories, with one tie thrown into the mix, in 2004.
A freelance broadcaster and writer, Don is also the in-stadium announcer for Toronto Argonauts home games. A familiar voice to Toronto sports fans, he hosted the morning show at The FAN for more than 10 years. Follow Don on Twitter @CFLLandry