The men of the Toronto Argonauts’ offensive line were grouped tightly, piled in together on a big, curving, modern-styled couch at the East Team media availability in a salon at Ottawa’s Shaw Centre on Thursday.
They had smiles on their faces as the circus swirled around them.
Players, coaches, media people and league executives and employees scurried around in a frenzy as TV lights blazed, were doused and then blazed again somewhere else in the room.
That they were sitting shoulder to shoulder was no surprise. These are big men and a couch, no matter how big, can only do so much. It also seemed appropriate because the way they sat represented the way they’ve played over the second half of the season; shoulder to shoulder, with little daylight for anyone to get through.
Had someone taken a photo at that precise moment, the picture would represent a new-found prosperity for the Argos’ O-line, a prosperity that seemed impossible to find during the first half of the season.
But that was then.
“It’s incredibly hard, in this league, to be a dominant pass protector because of all the talent,” said big, bearded Chris Van Zeyl, the 310 lb tackle who has enjoyed a renaissance second half to the season, as has the entire line.
He’d been asked about the unit’s resurgence and was happy to oblige, of course, because even in the tougher times, Van Zeyl is, if not happy, perfectly willing to oblige.
As the Argonauts get set to tangle with the Calgary Stampeders at the 105th Grey Cup presented by Shaw, Van Zeyl was looking back on a first half of the year that saw the O-line struggle to protect their leader and candidate for Most Outstanding Player, quarterback Ricky Ray.
As he talked about those struggles, Van Zeyl did so with a brightness, probably because he knew the story was going to take a turn for the better.
As of late, stretching back a number of weeks and perhaps back beyond the halfway point of the season, the 34-year-old native of Fonthill, Ontario has been dominating again, the way he used to in his younger years. There was a smile detected behind that big beard when that was mentioned to him.
“To be honest with you, I set goals for myself every year,” he said. “And one of the goals was to have a personal best year. And I’ve been extremely happy with the way I’ve played.”
A number of things happened to ensure that the Argonauts offensive line emerged as a solid unit over the second half of the season; Van Zeyl’s play took off. Running back James Wilder Jr. started to relieve the pressure with his ground game abilities. Personnel along the line was stabilized, and second-year centre Shawn McEwen – “he’s very deserving of all the accolades and all the praise,” said Van Zeyl – was following up a very good rookie year with a terrific sophomore season, named the East’s most outstanding lineman. And Coach Jonathan Himebauch was added as a full-time member of the coaching staff, after having left the Argos when training camp ended.
“There’s a lot you can attribute to him arriving,” said Van Zeyl of Himebauch, who’d previously served with the Argos in 2012 and 2015. “He definitely boosted our offensive line, I think he did an incredible job coming in and helping us.”
“There was some doctoring, yes. They made some changes and I believe they helped.”
Himebauch jumped aboard in mid-September when the Argos had to part ways with incumbent offensive line coach Mitch Browning, due to health concerns. He set about putting his personal stamp on the line, looking to cobble together the five men who were not merely the five best linemen, but rather those that could pull together and tighten the holes that had led Ray to being pressured and sacked on drop-back after drop-back over the first half of the year.
“The number one thing as a coach, your job is to empower your players,” Himebauch said, picking up the story as Van Zeyl headed back to his comrades on the couch.
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“When I came in I said ‘guys, we’re gonna put the best unit on the field and they’ve got to be able to work together,’” he continued.
“We wanted to stabilize the line-up. I know that there was some rotation earlier in the year.”
The rotation Himebauch spoke of was one of necessity – as it is on so many football teams – when injuries came to call but that wasn’t the only reason. The team struggled to find a chemistry and to solidify both the left tackle and right guard positions. Van Zeyl was the starter at right tackle. McEwen was locked in, as was left guard Tyler Holmes, a durable, solid soldier who nevertheless seemed to struggle at the beginning of this season.
Will Campbell, an NFL vet who’d been signed by the team a mere weeks before the season was to start, was plugged in as the left tackle by the time the sixth game of the year had arrived and his steadily improving play won him the job. The team’s original left tackle in 2017, second-year man Brandon Washington, filled in for an injured Van Zeyl for a couple of games before being plugged in at right guard, where he has stayed, since Week 17.
That’s the unit the Argos have been running with and there has been success, with Canadians J’Michael Deane, Corey Watman and Jamal Campbell involved as needed and rookie Chris Kolankowski learning the ropes.
Slowly but surely the number of times Ray has been pestered and sacked has dropped.
While the club gave up 27 sacks in its first eleven games, that number was shaved down to 11 in the seven regular season games the offensive line was under the direction of Himebauch. They gave up one against the Saskatchewan Roughriders during last weekend’s Eastern Final.
The number of quarterback pressures similarly dropped and the Argonauts ended the season in sixth place in both sacks allowed and pressures allowed. Not quite where they’d want to be overall, but when you consider they were at or near the bottom of both categories earlier in the season, it’s a win as the team’s protections of Ray trend upwards.
“Each week I give ‘em a couple of things,” said Himebauch, striving to ensure the O-line continues to surge with a formidable task ahead of them on Grey Cup Sunday. “Just try to build it one week at a time. I think everybody has room to improve but they’ve been very receptive towards that.”
That includes the nine-year veteran on the right side. Himebauch speaks well of Van Zeyl’s leadership and has asked for – and seen improvement in – the big, bearded tackle’s abilities to stay grounded when challenged to do so.
“Sometimes he can be a very emotional player and ride the highs and lows,” said Himebauch, who had a message for Van Zeyl back in September. “You need to be consistent. We need you to be the anchor,” he told him.
“Being a consistent force out there, it’s his way of leading. Just be that kind of guy we can hang our hat on. He’s gonna be able to handle the assignment. We don’t have to tweak our game plan because there’s a match up issue over there. Nice to have that veteran leadership week in and week out.”
That is, in fact, a point of pride for Van Zeyl.
“I just try to be that guy that they don’t have to worry about,” he said. “That they don’t have to concern themselves with. I come in, I work my butt off, earn my pay cheque.”
The media carnival over, Van Zeyl and the rest of his offensive line buddies got their butts off the big, curvy couch and made their way out the door and off to practice.
The improvement’s been nice and all but you can’t sit around and get too comfy. There’s work to be done as the group gets set for the toughest test yet of its new found prosperity, this Sunday.