Photo: The Canadian Press
The addition of a running back like Andrew Harris could conceivably entice a coach to change things considerably when it comes to a team’s offence but that will not really be the case with the Toronto Argonauts in 2022.
The former Winnipeg Blue Bombers and BC Lions tailback has been a massive difference-maker throughout his CFL career but any desire to entirely re-tool an Argos’ offence in order to cater to the future hall-of-famer’s presence is not something Toronto head coach Ryan Dinwiddie has been considering.
Adjust the offence? Sure. You’d have to be nuts not to do that. Tear it apart and install a whole new thing?
Not what the Argos are doing.
“I think, philosophically, we’re pretty much the same,” said Dinwiddie, asked whether the addition of Harris has meant a major renovation of the Argos’ playbook this off-season.
“We got a lot of guys coming back from last year that are going to be familiar with the offensive scheme,” said the coach, as he and general manager Michael Clemons held court with the media earlier this week.
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That’s an important consideration, of course. With a large number of returnees on the roster for 2022, building on the successes of last season will come much more easily by employing Harris as an octane boost to that offence, rather than the centrepiece of something brand new.
That, however, does not mean you won’t see some differences in that Argos’ offence. At least a few.
“Maybe a little more (in the way of) spread concepts, get into an empty backfield,” said Dinwiddie, offering a glimpse into an offence that might wheel the running backs out into space a little more often than it has previously. He mentioned second-year running back D.J. Foster as he explained why that might be a good idea. “You got two guys that are great ball-in-hand guys that can catch out of the backfield.”
Dinwiddie’s decision to tweak the Toronto offence as opposed to building a new one that flows through Harris seems the prudent decision to make, considering that the very physical ball-carrier just turned 35. Entering his 12th season of pro football and after racking up 9,661 hard-fought rushing yards and another 5,223 on receptions and YAC, we can’t really fairly expect to see the same Andrew Harris as the one who was 25, or 30, can we?
Don’t be so certain of that, the coach cautions.
“He’s long in the tooth but he’s still in great shape and still can play at a high level,” Dinwiddie said, going on to praise some of the less-evident aspects of Harris’ game as well: Pass protection skills and his captain-like locker room presence, being among them. “His professionalism, I think, is going to really rub off on these younger players and add to our culture and bring some of that leadership that we need.”
When it comes to lugging the rock, Dinwiddie is happy to say that he’s pilfered ideas gleaned from watching video of past Blue Bomber games. “I think, schematically, we’ve looked at some things that Andrew does well (and) some things they did in the run game in Winnipeg that I really enjoyed to steal from those guys.”
Only BC and Calgary ran the ball less than Toronto in 2021, at least based on percentage of total plays from scrimmage. The Argos handed off 33 per cent of the time (265 attempts), while the league-leaders in that regard — the Montreal Alouettes — opted to run on 44 per cent of their snaps (360 attempts).
While the Argos aren’t going to go all-in with Harris like the Als do with William Stanback, an increase in ground game productivity wouldn’t hurt.
If Harris does the expected and emerges as the Argos’ starting tailback out of camp, the team is going to need a little Canadian insurance at the position. The Argos are fairly deep in National talent at pretty well every position except tailback, where Harris is the only Canadian listed on the team’s roster among four ball carriers: Foster, A.J. Ouelette and the newly-signed Javon Leake are the others (The Argonauts do have three Canadian fullbacks on their roster, including veteran Declan Cross).
Toronto could, I suppose, choose to start seven Canadians at positions other than running back and then bring Harris in and out whenever they please, spelling him with those American backs. But Clemons assures that the team will be adding Canadian depth at the position very soon.
“We have we have thoughts around that inside the draft and outside of the draft,” said Clemons, leaving it at that other than to add: “We do expect to add some level of depth before we get to training camp.”
But if the Argonauts’ offence is to advance in 2022, only so much of that will be Andrew Harris powered.
Quarterback McLeod Bethel-Thompson has been given full control as the entrenched starter for the first time and is being challenged to take steps forward this season. In order to accomplish that, Dinwiddie gave the 33-year-old veteran some off-season homework, asking him to knuckle down on getting more comfortable with the run-pass option (a hint that the Argos are at least looking to increase their willingness to rush within the concepts they already have in place) and to be aware of “certain areas of the field we need to be better as far as getting completions.”
Dinwiddie wasn’t, at first, specific about those areas but then agreed that deep balls were a concern in the Argos’ offence in 2021. “That’s a focal point,” said the coach. “We’ve got to get better at that. We’ve, obviously, got to rep it and make sure we can execute it before we get into game day.”
Many of the Argos’ offensive concepts were coming into focus for Bethel-Thompson as last season progressed, according to Dinwiddie. The expectation is that that will be a pretty good launching pad for the pivot in 2022.
“He’s got a good understanding of the offence now and I think he’s really feeling comfortable in that role of being the franchise quarterback and the leader of this football club,” said Dinwiddie.
That’s the guy on whose shoulders rest Toronto’s offensive hopes in 2022. Andrew Harris will be asked to contribute plenty, for sure. But he won’t be expected to carry the same kind of load he has so willingly and so often carried in the past.
At least, that’s the thought going in. If Harris still looks like he did when he was 30? Well, that’s when Dinwiddie might start considering a change in philosophy, you’d suppose.