Can’t a guy take just a moment to enjoy a championship?
No. Not if you’re a general manager in the CFL. Not really, anyway, unless you are insistent.
Jim Popp, one of the architects of the Toronto Argonauts’ remarkable rise from doormats to champions is, in fact, the insistent kind and that is why off-season plans for his team include as joyous a December as he can get and give, even if the demands of the off-season don’t provide for much in the way of a silent night. Or day.
“The CFL off-season is December,” says Popp over the phone from North Carolina, where he is trying to get in some relaxation before 2018 hits and he and his staff are blitzed with what is a long sprint towards training camp. The month of Santa? “That’s really our only down time,”
Not that the entire month is calm; just as much as it can be.
“I may play a round of golf but I’m on the phone the whole time,” says Popp who was, in fact, standing on a golf course during our conversation, talking about the business of trying to ensure a Grey Cup winner will remain a Grey Cup contender in the year ahead.
There is much to do.
Like every other CFL team, the Argos have a lot of household names on their list of pending free agents. So far, though, the only move Popp has made (other than inking impressive fullback Declan Cross to a contract extension) has been to add another possible free agent to his off-season roster, trading giant rookie offensive lineman Mason Woods to Edmonton in return for the man who’s been touted as the next rising quarterback star, James Franklin. “We’ve engaged in some discussions and we’ll see where this all goes with the agent,” Popp says.
His tone throughout the interview is casual, no hint of stress at the big job in front of him. Maybe that’s because he and head coach Marc Trestman got into the Argo game late in the off-season in 2017 and that this off-season’s timetable seems positively pedestrian in comparison.
Or maybe it’s just because this isn’t nearly Popp’s first rodeo. He’s seen more than two dozen off-seasons come and go, dating back to 1992 and his days as a director of player personnel with the Saskatchewan Roughriders, followed by two decades as general manager of the Montreal Alouettes.
“It’s pretty standard, season after season,” says Popp, going on to list, chronologically, the markers ahead over the next five or six months, including monitoring U.S. bowl games, free agency, CFL combine, draft and mini-camps. “It goes by really fast,” he says, chuckling.
Plans are in place, Popp says, and they will be executed in turbulent fashion after the holiday season, mostly. That, he says, is when the heavy lifting will really happen when it comes to contracts for the twenty-three pending Argo free agents.
“There’ll be ten of ‘em going at one time,” Popp says about the process of negotiation.
There will be lots of contract balls in the air at once, lots of phone calls coming in and out in January, and that is the time during which Argos fans can really expect some announcements. If there is to be news over the last week of this month, there won’t likely be much, hints Popp, as he basically told everyone that they ought to take December to enjoy the victory of November.
“I wanted the guys – since our season ended late, we won everything – I really wanted them to have some time off. I wanted them to take a break.
I wanted them to enjoy this victory. We’ll get to negotiating most of ‘em starting in January.”
The list of Argos possible free agents is a daunting one. Receiver DeVier Posey, a breakout star who rose to become Grey Cup MVP on November 26th, is on the list. So is defensive back Cassius Vaughan, an East all-star in 2017 and the man who scooped a fumble at the Argonaut one-yard line and hiked it back 109 yards to put Toronto back in the picture as the championship game hit the late stages. Veteran defensive back Matt Black, who clinched the victory with his interception of Calgary quarterback Bo Levi Mitchell‘s pass in the end zone, is a possible free agent too. All three were valuable contributors in 2017 and all three would be considered favourites of fans of the Argos, as would any athlete who plays a big role in a championship win.
Receiver S.J. Green, a CFL all-star who pulled in 104 catches for 1,462 yards is on the list of potential Argos who could hit the market. East all-stars in the mix include defensive tackle Cleyon Laing, and defensive back Rico Murray. And a guy named Ricky Ray.
This is where things could be a little tricky for Popp, as he awaits word from the 38-year-old quarterback, who may or may not be back in 2018. “No talks,” says Popp of Ray, repeating that he told the sublime veteran that he wouldn’t be bothering him about matters of football until the new year. “If Ricky wants to talk prior to January, I’m sure he’ll pick up a phone and call,” Popp says.
But Popp needs to know what Ray’s intentions are. And Franklin’s, too.
The acquisition of QB James Franklin headlines what has already been a very busy month since Jim Popp and the Argos hoisted the Grey Cup. (J. Jutras/CFL.ca)
Most all of the rest of the new contracts for possible returnees can be hashed out after that; after the big quarterback dollars are in place and Popp can move ahead with a good handle on what’s left for the likes of linebacker Bear Woods, kicker Liram Hajrullahu, defensive backs Mitchell White, Akwasi Owusu-Ansah and Jermaine Gabriel, and receiver Armanti Edwards to name a few.
Quarterback negotiations will be the lynchpin for the Argos’ off-season plans and while they wait for Ray to decide his future, Popp has crept out on a limb by making a deal for Franklin (although at a relatively low cost), the 26-year-old who can still become a free agent if he chooses to on February 13th.
Popp admits that his plan to hold off on negotiations until January is somewhat more flexible when it comes to Franklin.
“We have a different window of time with him,” says Popp of Franklin.” Ricky’s in a situation where he’s playin’ or he’s not playin’. If he’s playin’, I just don’t expect him to be going anywhere but staying in Toronto.”
“Franklin is a different deal. We’ve shown that we want him here.
There’s a future here. It comes down to how bad he wants to be here. So, we’ll get those (negotiations) started a little earlier just to see what his real interest is.”
Popp will spend his Christmas at home in North Carolina, maybe getting in another round of golf or two and basking in the glow of a holiday spent with his family, including six children, as well as visits from his siblings and their kids as well.
When the tree is down and the new year’s champagne glasses are back in the cupboard, Popp will start knocking down contractual dominoes. “We have a lot of time now,” he insists, before quickly adding that he’s aware of the ticking of the clock. “I say a lot of time (but) it goes by fast.”
After winning the Grey Cup, should Ricky Ray retire?
Change is inevitable and Popp is accepting of that; of the certainty that some Argos will become former Argos. However, he is optimistic that he can retain the core of his championship team.
“We’ll get most of these done,” he says, confidently.
“The majority of your starters, key players to your team, most of those guys don’t leave. Most of ‘em stay. If someone wants to be with your team they’re gonna work it out. It’s gonna happen.”
In due time, it will. For now, Jim Popp takes the opportunity to hit a few golf balls and revel in the satisfaction of a Grey Cup win, one that would have been considered quite unlikely a scant seven months ago.
That’s a blessing and a burden. Champions naturally want more. Will negotiations be tough because of that?
“I don’t know that until we actually get into the meat of that,” Popp says.
“Everybody wants a raise. You gotta make it all work and fit.”
After the holidays, that is.
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