Photo: Johany Jutras
For the Toronto Argonauts and Drew Willy, success or failure in the coming years will be inexorably intertwined.
With the high price paid, Milanovich and co. have hitched their wagon to Willy.
A fresh start. A new beginning. Much-needed for both sides. For better or worse.
By: Jeff Krever | CFL.ca Staff
Faster than he was traded and almost as quickly as he arrived, Drew Willy’s time has come.
On a Tuesday afternoon not unlike any other at the Argos’ Downsview practice facility in North York, Toronto, one week and two days after being acquired from the Winnipeg Blue Bombers in exchange for T.J. Heath and a pair of draft picks, Willy stood with fellow backup Logan Kilgore taking mental reps.
Watching intently, going through reads as Dan LeFevour took first-team reps and commandeered the Argos’ offence – much like he had twice on game days since Ricky Ray suffered a rib injury back on Labour Day – it’s like Willy had almost been forgotten.
LeFevour, Head Coach Scott Milanovich announced soon after, would the Argos’ starting quarterback for Friday night’s game against the Ottawa REDBLACKS.
“Right now Dan’s the better option,” Milanovich told reporters after practice. “He’s given us the best chance to win. He’s just playing well.”
No one could argue then, but as the dust continues to settle on a trade that shook up the league, one less question now remains.
LeFevour was pulled in Friday night’s 29-12 loss to Ottawa while Willy debuted and threw a touchdown pass. And while no formal announcement has been made, there’s no longer an ‘if’ or ‘when’ surrounding Willy’s future as the starting quarterback of the Toronto Argonauts.
Drew Willy’s time is now.
For the Argos and Willy, success or failure in the coming years will be inexorably intertwined. With the high price paid, Milanovich and co. have hitched their wagon to Willy.
A fresh start. A new beginning. Much-needed for both sides. For better or worse.
The Argos can now move on from the ghosts of Trevor Harris and Zach Collaros; not to boldly predict that Willy will surpass either of those guys, but at 29 years old he’s a year younger than Harris, a year older than Collaros and, as whispers from inside the organization go, has the pedigree to be just as good.
With respect to a quarterback who has upside and is young enough to be considered a long-term option at the position, Willy is to the Boatmen now what Harris and Collaros once were.
For Willy, just as much is at stake. While the Argos re-shift their offence and zero in on ‘the next one’, Willy moves on from a city and situation where things went south in a hurry.
Willy isn’t the first quarterback needing to reinvent himself; nor will he be the last. For the University at Buffalo graduate and his career as a professional football player, however, that’s exactly where he finds himself — in need of a reinvention.
Talking with Turner Gill, Willy’s former college coach who now walks the sideline at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va., I asked about what it’s like to have to reset – to start over, dig a few holes, lay new foundations and grow different roots.
It’s something everyone does sooner or later, Gill replied.
“Off the field he’s more of a laid-back guy, an introvert . . . he can still talk and be funny when he needs to be funny, per say, but that’s not his overall persona.”
Former Buffalo coach Turner Gill on Drew Willy
At the risk of using an old worn out cliche, Anthony Calvillo will always be the best example of someone who, throughout his Hall of Fame CFL career, reinvented his career with great success.I have, of course, and come to think of it, he’s right – we all have.
The Bombers giving up on Willy this season isn’t much unlike the Hamilton Tiger-Cats once giving up on Calvillo, who, after throwing 57 touchdowns and 70 interceptions over his first four seasons with Las Vegas and Hamilton, signed with Montreal at age 25 before becoming the league’s all-time leading passer; a title he holds to this day.
True, Calvillo’s story is far from typical. What it is, however, is a cautionary tale about quarterbacks: how no two are alike and the forces that determine their successes or failures are intricate and not often fully self-prescribed.
That’s not exclusive to quarterbacks, either. Milanovich likens Willy’s situation to that of Lirim Hajrullahu, one of the CFL’s most accurate kickers this season after falling out of favour in Winnipeg last year.
“There are a lot of things that can happen,” Milanovich pondered out loud in an interview with Argonauts.ca following the trade. “You miss a field goal here, you catch a tough break, things don’t go your way . . . there are a lot of factors.”
The lesson is simple: sometimes, and not necessarily for reasons within your control, things don’t work out in a certain situation. It doesn’t mean they won’t go better next time.
That’s just called life.
Following an off-season of hype and high expectations in Winnipeg, Willy said back in April he had never been more excited to get on the field and play football. The Bombers had just finished acquiring a litany of big stars on all three phases and appeared prime to take the next step towards contending.
Those dreams were crushed fast. After averaging 7.7 yards per attempt, the lowest of his career as a starter, Willy was benched in favour of Matt Nichols in the wake of a 1-4 start. Nichols then led the Bombers to seven straight wins and Willy, little did he know then, had taken his last snap as a Winnipeg Blue Bomber.
“They were looking for a spark and I wasn’t the only position they made a switch at,” Willy said Tuesday.
By that point, while still living his life out of a suitcase in a hotel room and focusing, first and foremost, on a brand new offensive playbook, the veteran quarterback had been allowed over a week to comprehend the trade and all that it entailed.
Clear-minded, Willy looked back and reflected, knowing in the end that what happened was out of his hands.
“There were quite a few [changes] if you look at the roster,” he added. “Those guys are still on the field, the switches that they made. It’s just one of those things where it was a perfect storm. They’ve taken off and they’re doing well.”
Added Milanovich: “You go with somebody to get a spark and that guy gives you the spark and continues to win games – there’s not much you can do about that as a player.”
So it goes. At that particular time in that specific situation, things didn’t go Willy’s way. But while the quarterback’s career in Winnipeg screeched to an immediate halt, another door, unbeknown to most, softly creaked open.
DREW WILLY CAREER BY THE NUMBERS
While his career is in need of a reboot, don’t confuse reboot with change. One thing Willy won’t reinvent is his persona.
His former coach, Turner Gill, describes him as a quiet guy when he’s not on the field.
“Off the field he’s more of a laid-back guy; an introvert,” said Gill. “But he can still talk and be funny when he needs to be funny, per say, but that’s not his overall persona.”
Gill was Willy’s coach for three years at the University at Buffalo, where Willy set a multitude of passing records and Gill turned a struggling program right around. Gill led Buffalo from 8-49 under Jim Hofher to winning the Mid-American Conference Championship in 2008.
The two keep in touch, and most of their talks since then involve less football and more life topics – marriage, family, things Drew wants to do after football.
He might be well-grounded and down to earth, but don’t mistake Willy’s demeanor for a lack of interest or competitiveness.
“He’s a great competitor,” said Gill. “That’s the first thing that comes to mind – fierce competitor. You’ve got to have that competitiveness about you, and I don’t care what position you play, but quarterback – you’ve got to have that and he has that.
“The fierce competitiveness and understanding the game of football, he thrived on it,” Gill added. “It was something he was passionate about and he wants to always learn – ‘give me more, give me more, coach’.”
Maybe the Randolph, N.J. native is a little bit misunderstood, because sometimes that laid-back nature sends off the wrong aura.
A good example goes back to earlier this season, when Winnipeg Free Press reporter Paul Wiecek asked Willy ‘do you feel you have something to prove in 2016?’. Wiecek felt he was offering up a softball question, and when he didn’t like the answer Willy provided, he offered the quarterback a second go at it.
The exchange seemed irritable for both parties involved, which Wiecek wrote about following Willy’s demotion.
“When you’re playing well they treat you well, and when you’re maybe not playing as well as you can, it’s going to come down to the quarterback. I don’t take it personally. I know the media has a job to do. I get all that stuff.”
Drew Willy on the Winnipeg media
Drew Willy sits in the Bombers’ locker-room earlier in the 2016 season (Johany Jutras/CFL.ca)
For those whose jobs were to report on Willy and the Blue Bombers, Willy’s play on the field and his dealings with the media sometimes left more to be desired.
Upon reflection, Willy has no ill-will towards anyone.
“When you’re playing well they treat you well,” said Willy, “and when you’re maybe not playing as well as you can, it’s going to come down to the quarterback. I don’t take it personally. I know the media has a job to do; I get all that stuff.
“I always try to act professionally towards the media,” he added. “I always thought I did a good job with that kind of thing. I always kind of took it on my shoulders whenever something went wrong and things like that.
“[The fans in Winnipeg] are very passionate about the team. They do a good job, the media there in Winnipeg covering the team. I don’t have anything bad to say about anyone, I just wish it would have turned out a little bit differently.”
With all that said, it’s easy to see why Drew Willy’s calm and laid-back, nonchalant off-field demeanor can be taken the wrong way.
In the ‘Insiders Say’ section of Kirk Penton’s Sept. 13 column, the Winnipeg Sun journalist quoted one insider as saying: “I think Willy will be better under Scott (Milanovich). Willy might lack the charisma to be an upper-echelon quarterback in this league. There’s no question about his skills.”
A harmless review, while the part about Willy’s skill-set is common among many assessments. But what was meant by the term charisma? By definition it refers to ‘a compelling attractiveness or charm that can inspire devotion in others’ – obviously a desirable trait for the quarterback of a football team.
It also sounds an awful lot like leadership.
Milanovich, when asked, had no answer as to what that might have meant. Neither did a former teammate of Willy’s, who praised the quarterback’s leadership and command of the huddle when Darian Durant, one of the CFL’s highly-touted leaders, was injured in 2012 and the rookie Willy had to step in.
Willy’s leadership is a positive trait by many accounts, although it wasn’t always like that. The fifth-year quarterback learned how to lead from a natural leader in Coach Turner Gill.
“He’s a tremendous leader,” Willy said of his former college coach. “His leadership turned around our program.
“He was always big with body language as a quarterback,” he expanded. “No matter the situation, you’ve got to keep a positive attitude out there. Don’t let anyone see you sulking because the quarterback is the guy everyone’s looking at.
“Body language is a big thing, just kind of the way you conduct yourself when you speak – have some passion behind what you’re doing.”
Willy started as a true freshman under Coach Hofher, who was replaced the following year by Gill. After throwing six touchdowns and 12 interceptions in eight starts as a true freshman in 2005, Willy, originally recruited by Hofher, had to earn the starting job again under Gill.
“I’m not going to say it was real easy,” Gill recalled, “but it was all towards Drew from the first day until the decision that was made that he would be the starter.
“He just continued to move directly in the way that you want a quarterback to move.”
Gill was most impressed by Willy’s relentless desire to know the game of football – not just from the quarterback’s perspective but from the coach’s.
“Sometimes at the beginning you just talk about the quarterback; you don’t talk about the O-line and all the other intricacies about it,” said Gill. “But he wanted all that so we gave it to him piece by piece and he was able to digest that; and then, more importantly, he was able to do it on the football field.”
Turner Gill (left) and Drew Willy (right) on the sidelines at Buffalo (Paul Hokanson/UBBulls.com)
Some people, Gill added, can do it great in the classroom setting. Doing it on the football field is where others fail to translate.
“That’s the ultimate production that you wanted – can he do it on the football field on a consistent basis? He got better every day, every week and every game and that’s all you want.”
Then there’s that topic of leadership; ‘charisma’, if you will.
Gill taught Willy a lot about leadership, but one thing he never asked was for him to be someone he’s not.
“I have to be how God wired me; he has to be how God has wired him,” said Gill. “But you can still do it in a way that you can lead.”
Willy has never been the talkative ‘hoot and holler’ type of guy, so Coach Gill didn’t ask him to be that.
“I talked to him and said ‘OK, if you’re a guy that’s not necessarily going to be yelling and screaming, that’s fine. But the way you need to do it is you go talk to each guy individually. That’s where you’re more comfortable’.
“And I said ‘when you see something that is done incorrectly, whether that’s football-related or non-football related, you go and talk with this person, or you find somebody that he will listen to’.
“That’s part of a leader – who is going to connect with that guy? Sometimes it’s you, sometimes it’s not you. But you, as a leader, you’ve got to find ways to connect to your teammates and demonstrate that to your guy.”
Today, Willy is used by Gill as an example throughout his coaching career of others who have become great leaders.
“I say ‘hey, I had this quarterback and he was like this and he did this and did that’,” said Gill. “So I continue to talk about examples of him to relate to players on my team today.”
A Nebraska college football star and CFL quarterback turned baseball player turned coach, Turner Gill knows a thing or two about reinventing one’s self.
Playing his senior season as a quarterback at Nebraska, Gill finished fourth in voting for the 1983 Heisman Trophy after leading one of college football’s most prolific offences ever, averaging 52 points and 401 rushing yards per game.
After electing to join the CFL rather than the NFL and signing a lucrative contract with the Montreal Concordes, Gill’s history of concussions caught up to him. He couldn’t be cleared medically to play anymore, ending his professional football career at age 23 after two quick seasons north of the border.
A multi-sport athlete, Gill turned to pro baseball for a few years before returning to football as a coach. He started at his alma mater in Nebraska, then put some work in for the NFL’s Green Bay Packers before taking his first head coaching job with Buffalo. After a prolific turnaround there, helping the Bulls ultimately win the MAC Championship Game in 2008 against 12th-ranked Ball State, Gill interviewed with Auburn and Syracuse but ultimately wound up taking a job with the University of Kansas.
That was where things fell apart. After a 5-19 record in two seasons with Kansas, Gill, one of college football’s most promising up-and-coming coaches at one point, needed to reinvent his career.
He took on the head coaching job with Liberty University, since then winning conference championships three out of four years and, essentially, reinventing himself with a winning record every season there so far.
On a new team with a fresh start, Gill did exactly what Willy now hopes to achieve with the Argos.
“I think the thing is, keep having faith and keep having belief and keep working on your craft,” said Gill. “Keep working on your craft and the smallest of the smallest things. And then, talking to your coach specifically, say ‘coach, give me something specifically that you want me to improve on and then give me a deadline to say ‘hey, a week from now I want to see you better at this’.”
That’s the kind of player Drew Willy is.
“I have no doubt, I have all the confidence in the world – if you give him something specific that you want, he’s that kind of guy. Be specific in what you want – not just saying ‘go work on your passes’. Well, he’ll do that, but he wants something specific. He can then measure that and he can say ‘let me show you how I can do this – I’ll show you that I can improve in this specific area that you just told me, coach’.”
Coach Gill talks over plays with a young Drew Willy back with Buffalo (Paul Hokanson/UBBulls.com)
So is Drew Willy the answer for the Toronto Argonauts?
It’s the question everyone seems to have an answer to, but can anyone be sure? By this point, both Willy and the Argos are in desperate need for things to work out.
Willy is probably playing for his last chance to start. The Argos, meanwhile, face missing the playoffs in a season when so much more was expected. New ownership, new stadium, the Grey Cup on home turf.
The reality is when Ricky Ray went down on Labour Day, the Argos had plenty of options. They could’ve rolled the dice with Dan LeFevour or Logan Kilgore, or if that was too risky traded for a veteran at a much cheaper price to fill the gap – say a Kevin Glenn.
Maybe Jim Barker could have gathered the assets to bring in a young quarterback with a promising future – a James Franklin, for instance.
All of those were options, but the Argos, for a number of reasons, decided that Willy was their best option.
At this point in time, perhaps the only thing clear about the trade that brought Willy to Toronto is if it wasn’t going to be Willy, it wasn’t going to be anyone.
Simply put, this wasn’t a matter of Ricky Ray’s hurt, we need a quarterback. It was we want Drew Willy, and we’ve wanted him for a while.
“It’s always great to be wanted,” Willy told me last week. “I have a lot of respect for Coach Milanovich, Coach Brady, Mr. Barker and the whole organization. They’ve had a lot of success with quarterbacks.”
Willy warms up during his first game as an Argo in Week 13 (Jason Halstead/CFL.ca)
“You get a feeling. You watch a guy play, you watch his skill-set, his rhythm, his timing, his anticipation and ultimately his accuracy – all those things are appealing to me.
Scott Milanovich on the appeal of Drew Willy
Just how long have the Argos eyed the veteran quarterback? Milanovich recalls Willy’s first start as a Bomber like it was yesterday, mostly because it was against his Argo defence back in 2014.
Willy’s debut that year was eye-popping, throwing for 308 yards and a career-high four touchdown passes on 19-of-27 passes.
“You get a feeling,” said the fifth-year Argos head coach shortly after the trade. “You watch a guy play, you watch his skill-set, his rhythm, his timing, his anticipation and ultimately his accuracy – all those things are appealing to me.
“Obviously the situation he was going through, not being on the field, it was an opportunity that we were able to look into and it ultimately worked out in my favour.”
That last comment by the Argos head coach and quarterback guru might be most telling.
So many say the Argos paid so much – first and third round picks and defensive back T.J. Heath – to get Willy. But while many say the Argos paid too much, Milanovich might say the Argos caught a break.
Whether you believe in Willy or not, the Argos simply paid the going rate for a proven starting-calibre quarterback these days — one who’s in the primer of his career and has lots left in the tank. The Bombers weren’t going to give Willy away cheap; the Argos took a shot at a quarterback they believe could be elite.
At 29-years-old, Willy is ready to play now and could solve the team’s QB woes for the next several years.
“I don’t see Drew as a project,” Milanovich said. “I see Drew as a bonafide starter – upper-tier starter. When and if that’ll be for us, I don’t know.
“You’ve got to have a quarterback at this level,” he added. “Obviously Ricky’s health situation has been difficult and we need to make sure we have more than one guy that can lead this football team and give it a chance to go where we need to go.”
The Argos, they’re putting their faith in Willy to be exactly who they believe he is. And Willy? He’s getting his opportunity. All he could’ve asked for.
One time, back when he was ready to leave Buffalo and become a pro, Willy’s former coach Gill told the current Argo pivot that the CFL would be good spot.
“I told him, ‘If things don’t work out at the NFL, I think you have a shot at the CFL – don’t think of that as ‘I don’t want to go there’,” said Gill. “I said ‘play football, and god willing, you’re going to make a living’.
“All he wanted was an opportunity in life and until he’s gotten that opportunity, that’s all he can ask for.”
The opportunity has arrived — in Drew’s case, a second opportunity.
In Winnipeg, Matt Nichols took over and never looked back. Willy wasn’t getting a chance there.
Suddenly, everything changed. Willy got a chance many don’t — to start over and grow new roots. To build from the ground up. To reinvent.
And it all starts now.
– With files from Argonauts.ca