TORONTO — Toronto Argonauts general manager Jim Popp has been here before.
It was two years ago Popp was hired in Toronto, facing the unenviable task of turning a five-win team into a Grey Cup contender as quickly as possible.
Twenty-four months later the Argos have gone from worst to first and back again, a roller coaster ride they hope meets them with a steep and steady ascent in 2019.
“Going from 2017 and winning a championship into 2018, we had 21 of the 24 starters back,” Popp told CFL.ca at the league’s winter meetings in Mont Tremblant, Que. “We lost a guy or two that chose to go on the free agent market, which we couldn’t afford after picking up James Franklin. You make those decisions, you move forward, and when you have a rash of injuries it can really affect your team.
“You look at your team and go, ‘how far off are we, what do we need to tweak, and next year [we] can bounce back and have a great year’.”
Things went awry for the Argos early last season. In the midst of an 0-2 start, veteran quarterback Ricky Ray suffered a season-ending injury in the team’s home-opener against Calgary. James Franklin and McLeod Bethel-Thompson split quarterback duties the rest of the way, both having their ups and downs throughout.
“Any time you lose a leader of that magnitude — these guys are the leader of your football team, they really are, outside of your head coach — it’s really hard, whether it’s Calvillo in 2013 or Ricky in 2018,” said Popp.
“Sometimes you can turn a season around but other times you can’t — too much goes wrong.”
While the Argos finished fourth from the bottom in total offence and turned the ball over a league-worst 48 times, the defence was no better, allowing a league-worst 28.3 points per game while ranking second-last in the CFL with 406.1 yards per game allowed. An unfortunate rash of injuries played a role, as did the departure of Corey Chamblin, who was replaced by a rookie coordinator in Mike Archer.
A central figure in the Argos’ Grey Cup run of 2017, Chamblin was hired as head coach this off-season. The Argos hope his energy can create an exciting style of football that will get fans talking.
“His first thing was ‘Jim, I trust you with the personnel, whatever you have for me I’ll make it work’.”
Argos GM Jim Popp on Corey Chamblin
“We have to put a brand together, year in and year out, that’s going to excite the fans,” said Chamblin. “That they’re not just watching on television but they’re leaving their seats and coming to sit in those seats at BMO Field. We have to put that brand out there.
“This is a business but it’s also a game, and my job is to make sure it’s intertwined — that the business is what it is, but we’re putting a product on the field that will move the business side of the game into the right direction.”
From Popp’s perspective, Chamblin is the type of coach that won’t make excuses for anything.
“The one thing that stood out to me with Corey was he never wavered about anything with his players,” said Popp. “His first thing was ‘Jim, I trust you with the personnel, whatever you have for me I’ll make it work’.”
If it translates to the defence, the Argos will be an improved team in 2019.
“He understands the CFL,” Popp said of Chamblin. “He has a defensive scheme he wants to run, but from week to week he’ll change that scheme and adjust it to the player and/or the opponent you’re playing against to get the most out of the players.
“That’s the key,” he added. “I think Corey really deep down understands that, and he wants to build a coaching staff to say ‘hey look, I don’t want to hear what we don’t have — I want to know what you’re going to do with what we have, and let’s get the most out of them.”
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