After 15 years in the CFL as a scout and assistant GM, John Murphy knows how fine the line is for every team every year.
A play made here, a turnover that doesn’t happen there, an injury, a call, any and all of them blend together to make or break your season.
With the Toronto Argonauts at 2-12, Murphy said the team’s season has been a culmination of all of the bad and not enough of the good.
In the wake of Jim Popp’s firing on Tuesday, Murphy was named the Toronto Argonauts’ VP of player personnel. He’ll work under the team’s new GM and its most famous personality, Michael ‘Pinball’ Clemons.
It’s an interesting partnership. Clemons has no prior GM experience and Murphy has been a behind-the-scenes football ops figure on two successful CFL teams over the last decade. He spent six years with the Calgary Stampeders under John Hufnagel and moved to the Saskatchewan Roughriders under Chris Jones. He’d spent this season in a consultant role with the Argos, splitting his time between Toronto and his home in New Orleans until he was promoted on Tuesday.
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“Halftime of the (Argos’ 55-8 loss), I’m on my couch taking notes and 24 hours later I’m being asked if I want to fly to Toronto because they want to talk to me about something,” Murphy said.
“Literally until six o’clock (Monday) night I had no idea what exactly they wanted to talk to me about. The first time somebody calls you when you’re losing, in that game, in that setting at that time of year, it could have been a very different phone call.”
Like many of the people around him in the Argos’ office, Murphy looked at the roster assembled at the start of the season and saw a winner. It’s that fine line, those make or break moments, he said, that sent the team’s season off the rails.
He thinks back to the season-opening 64-14 loss at home to Hamilton. Abdul Kanneh intercepted Jeremiah Masoli on the eighth play of the game and took it 18 yards before fumbling it. Ticats’ O-lineman Brandon Revenberg recovered it and the Ticats got a field goal out of the play. Hamilton poured it on in the second quarter and again in the third. The game was effectively over before the start of the fourth quarter.
After losing on a rouge to BC in Week 4, the team went on a tough West Division trip against Winnipeg, Calgary and Edmonton. They gave up a kick return touchdown to open the game in Winnipeg. They turned the ball over seven times in Calgary and somehow lost by just 10. They were shutout in Edmonton.
“What would the story be if Kanneh’s interception turned around, and it was 7-0 Toronto at home against Hamilton?” Murphy said.
“All those little things that started going against us, they may have started going the other way.”
“The best thing about (hiring Clemons) and doing it early is that we have time to watch all the film again. I have time to ask different questions, or see it differently, or see it for what it is.”
The Argos fought for their first win of the season in Week 8 at home against what was then an undefeated Bombers team. And they immediately went on a bye week. The same thing happened after they won their second game of the year in Ottawa on Sept. 7.
“The momentum’s never stayed,” Murphy said.
Now, with the team eliminated from the playoff hunt and the changes made on Tuesday, the Argos can fully commit to planning for next year.
“The best thing about (hiring Clemons) and doing it early is that we have time to watch all the film again. I have time to ask different questions, or see it differently, or see it for what it is,” Murphy said.
“Then you have a month after the playoffs where you’re going to be able to examine both pending free agents and guys on other rosters in their biggest moments, playing in the biggest games of their season. You can get a grasp on what kind of player and what kind of guy that guy really is before having to make choices and decisions next year.”
It may have been a tumultuous season and last 24 hours in particular for Murphy, but he’s taken another step in his CFL career. Much like the quarterbacks he’s scouted and negotiated contracts with over the years, an aspiring GM has to play the waiting game, often longer than they want to in order to get to have the run of a team.
The opportunity came about uniquely for Clemons, a hall of fame player and an institution with the Argos, who has been affiliated with this team now for 31 years. He spoke often on Tuesday about knowing what he doesn’t know and leaning on the right people when he needs to. Everyone at the press conference laughed when Argos president Bill Manning told the story of having to ask Clemons to take the GM job multiple times. That’s a situation as unique as Clemons is to the Argos and the CFL itself.
“I told some people upstairs (at the MLSE offices), ‘Pinball can say no the first or second time’,” Murphy said.
“I said yes immediately.”