January 30, 2020

Upon Further Review: Toronto Argonauts

Johany Jutras/CFL.ca

When I wrote about the 2019 Toronto Argonauts at this time last year, I believed they were building a team specifically designed to take down the presumptive East Division favourite Hamilton Tiger-Cats.

Systematically throughout the first two months of 2019, the Double Blue acquired powerful running backs, defenders with multiple skillsets, pass rushers and a big-money, big-play receiver in Derel Walker, who was capable of breaking games open in ways the Argos’ passing game hasn’t seen consistently since the beginning of Ricky Ray’s decline.

I thought it was perfect. I thought they would knock off Ottawa for second in the East. I thought they would challenge Hamilton in the Eastern Final if both were so lucky to get there.

Then Week 2 of the 2019 CFL season came, and I immediately knew my judgement was way off.

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Toronto Argonauts receiver S.J. Green turns upfield after catching a pass in the Touchdown Atlantic game against the Montreal Alouettes. (Johany Jutras/CFL.ca)

That day, in the Argos’ first game of the season, they never led. At one point, they trailed by 52 points and eventually ended the day being outscored by seven touchdowns. All of this against Hamilton, the team I thought they were designed to challenge.

It was a sign of things to come in what would eventually result in a four-win season and a third-place finish in the East. They were well out of a playoff spot, which created a crossover in the CFL for yet another year.

While X’s and O’s and personal strife inside the locker room is always up for debate, the numbers on Toronto’s dismal 2019 are not.

Through six games — before the Argos upset the eventual Grey Cup champion Winnipeg Blue Bombers in Week 8 — Toronto had taken 334 offensive snaps.

Eight (2.3%) of them came while holding a lead.

Score Differential at Snap (2019)
Minus-20 193
Minus-19 to Minus-1 440
Tied 156
Plus-1 to Plus-19 212
Plus-20 26

The Argos were slow starters who rarely found the gas pedal when it mattered. But they were still able to rack up some gaudy offensive numbers.

Not unlike the guy who’s always down a couple of grand at the blackjack table, Toronto constantly swung for the fences, not because it was their preference, but because it was a necessity.

The man who swung that big bat was McLeod Bethel-Thompson. The journeyman leader of the Boatmen was asked to throw Toronto back into games time and time again with varying degrees of effectiveness.

There was the nightmarish Western road trip, with the Argos suffering defeats to the Bombers, Eskimos and Stampeders. Then there was the ending against the Lions which resulted in Chris Rainey giving up a game-winning single after stepping on the backline while trying to return a missed field goal.

The Argos also had the false positive of claiming a four-win season when three of the victories came against the only team in the league to finish lower than them in the standings.

Through it all, McLeod kept throwing — when allowed to start — and the yards kept piling up.

Like a jugs machine in a jersey, the Argos kept sending the man of a million nicknames out in an attempt to pacify fan frustration and take stock in the small victories. At one point in the Labour Day Classic, Toronto actually led Hamilton by 13 points. That was thanks in large part to Bethel-Thompson’s 337-yard, two-touchdown performance. However, they would eventually fall to the Ticats after Dane Evans led a furious second-half comeback.

Amongst all the GTA head-scratching in 2019, the largest mystery as the season progressed became ‘where is Derel Walker?’

The prized off-season acquisition — who left what you would have to imagine would have been a standout season paired with Trevor Harris in Edmonton — only averaged two catches and 46.3 yards receiving per game through his first three games with the Double Blue.

The reaction was inevitable. As the losses and desperation level piled up, the Argos’ offensive coaching staff made a clear statement:

Get the ball to Derel.

In Week 5, he made nine catches on thirteen targets for 188 yards and two touchdowns. A monster game by any metric, but unsustainable, and it came in a losing effort against Winnipeg. It would be followed by a predictable drop-off until Labour Day.

Toronto Argonauts receiver Derel Walker tries to evade a tackle from Hamilton Tiger-Cats defensive back Frankie Williams. (Geoff Robins/CFL.ca)

After a heroic Labour Day game, Walker would only flash his brilliance once more — in a 47-point loss to the BC Lions — before essentially shutting it down for the season. He’d actually shut it down for the final three games as he watched from the sideline.

In many ways, Derel Walker was a small example of the 2019 season for the Argos.

Hype, promise, and opportunity followed quickly by reality, frustration and withdrawal.

Walker is a free agent now with the chance to come back and try again or find a fresh setting for his skills.

With a new football operations power structure, head coach and possibly a new quarterback at the controls, there is still much to be decided for the 2020 Argos. But it would be a mistake to ignore the many lessons learned from their 2019 cascade.