Things couldn’t be going better right now for the Toronto Argonauts.
The defending Grey Cup champions only needed the first 2/3 of the season to take control of their fate, locking up the East Division this past week and improving to 11-1 in the process. When you’re as successful as this team and organization has been the past three seasons, good things — like the recent extensions for general manager Michael ‘Pinball’ Clemons, head coach Ryan Dinwiddie and his offensive coordinator Mickey Donovan and finally quarterback Chad Kelly — follow.
The Argos’ win over the Montreal Alouettes last week gave the Argos their third consecutive first-place finish in the East. With that, comes a unique challenge and perhaps the best possible problem that a CFL team can have.
Starting with Saturday night’s game against the visiting Hamilton Tiger-Cats, the Argos have to figure out what the next six weeks will look like for them.
» More Pinball: Argos extend GM Clemons
» Argos extend Chad Kelly with three-year deal
» Argos ink head coach Ryan Dinwiddie to multi-year extension
» Argos extend special teams coordinator Mickey Donovan
Resting the best of them
The Argos’ Thursday injury report provided a glimpse into the team’s possible approach to the coming weeks. AJ Ouellette was listed as a healthy scratch for this week and Andrew Harris has been moved to the six-game injured list, paving the way for running back Deonta McMahon to get the start on Saturday.
After the team had all three of its bye weeks scheduled before Week 11, it faced what looked at the time to be a daunting 10-week run to close out the regular season. With the East Division now locked up, the Argos have created some schedule flexibility.
Veteran players are freed up to get their rest as these next few weeks play out. Players with nagging injuries can have them tended to rather than grinding it through late-season playoff positioning. From a playoff-planning perspective, there should be more time to devote to evaluating potential playoff opponents. The only hurdle in this opportunity will be keeping players fresh and engaged through it. The Argos won’t play a game with something at stake again until Nov. 11. There’s a risk that can come with going that long in an altered competitive state, then having to turn it all the way back up for a single-elimination game. Fortunately, the team and organization have experience with this and have history to draw on to help them (more on that below).
Get those QBs some reps
The Argos’ only loss to this point in the season came at the hands (hooves?) of the Calgary Stampeders in Week 9. Kelly was injured and left the game early in the second quarter and the team turned to backup Cameron Dukes. Both Dukes and Bryan Scott are first-year CFL players, serving as understudies to what has turned out to be a Most Outstanding Player-worthy campaign from Kelly, himself a first-year full-time starter.
While it’s important to keep Kelly fresh and for him to continue to learn and grow in Dinwiddie’s offence, there’s also a tremendous opportunity for two still-very-raw backups to get some meaningful reps ahead of the post-season. Last year, Kelly got the start in the Argos’ regular season finale; it was a game that had no bearing on the playoff picture, which had come together the week before. Three weeks later, Kelly went into a high-pressure situation when McLeod Bethel-Thompson suffered a thumb injury. Kelly helped the Argos finish the job against the Winnipeg Blue Bombers to win the 109th Grey Cup. You never know when you’ll need your backups and any chance they have to get on the field in live situations will only help them.
Let’s get creative
In the Argos’ OK Tire Labour Day Weekend win over the Ticats, we saw Ouellette show off his passing skills. With the game well in hand, Ouellette took a Kelly handoff, rolled out to his right and looked downfield for Dejon Brissett for a touchdown pass. It was a smooth and sneaky option that the Argos had tucked in their back pocket. Dinwiddie and his staff won’t want to show their hand too much in this category, but they do have the freedom to use these remaining games as opportunities to perhaps try things out that are on the periphery of the playbook.
It could be as simple as shuffling players into different spots in the offence or defence and seeing if there’s something there that they like. It could be saving Javon Leake the wear and tear on returns and letting someone come in off of the practice roster to lighten his workload. The Argos could give their star players slightly less work in this stretch, while getting the rest of the roster some valuable experience, which should only help them as they get ready for the East Final.
Learn from the past
The Argos have some in-house experience with this kind of regular season dominance and what it can bring. Dinwiddie was in his first year as the Stampeders’ quarterbacks coach in 2016 when the team locked up the West Division with a 13-1-1 record. Those Stamps went 15-2-1, but fell in the 104th Grey Cup to the Ottawa REDBLACKS. A 13-5 Stamps team claimed the 106th Grey Cup in 2018, getting a bit of revenge against the REDBLACKS along the way.
As Dinwiddie knows, a dominant regular season record doesn’t guarantee playoff success. Edmonton’s 1989 team went 16-2, but fell in the West Final to the eventual Grey Cup champion Saskatchewan Roughriders. The Hamilton Tiger-Cats won 15 games in 2019, but fell in the 108th Grey Cup to Winnipeg. Of course, the 1996 and 1997 Argos went 15-3 in both seasons en route to their back-to-back Grey Cup wins.
Navigating the next six weeks will be a challenge for Dinwiddie and the Argos’ organization, but it’s one that can put them in position to be at full strength and fully prepared for whoever lines up opposite of them at BMO Field on Nov. 11.