Photo: Courtesy Toronto Argonauts
The CFL's slate of games in Week 10 left the best for last. Both Dustin Crum and Chad Kelly demonstrated outstanding quarterbacking in an entertaining offensive shootout. It didn't hurt that there were wide open receivers all over the place. I can’t recall any contested catches in this game, either way.
Crum completed 81% of his passes for a sizzling 154 passer rating and crucially, for a rookie QB, did not throw an INT. It was probably the best performance of his young career. He is showing real progress, which is exciting not only for Ottawa, but for the league as a whole. At the other end, Kelly completed 75% of this passes for a 158 passer rating, possibly the best of his season. Crum threw three TDs and Kelly four with a pick-six.
Ottawa was missing its best offensive lineman and it showed. It’s secondary was missing it’s best two DBs and that showed too. The difference in this game was the relative play of the offensive lines. It wasn’t close. The Argos offensive line dominated this game. The Ottawa o-line struggled against the Argos front seven all night long.
With the notable exception of his pick-six, Kelly looked firmly in control of this game. When Kelly rolls outside of contain he is deadly throwing on the run.
The Argos out-sacked Ottawa 5-0. In addition to flawless pass protection against a strong Ottawa front seven, they opened good running lanes and averaged a terrific 5.8 yards per rush, while limiting Ottawa to 4.1 yards per carry. Robertson Daniel made a team-leading six tackles and a sack, making his own push for the East nomination for Most Outstanding Defensive Player consideration. It will be harder to emerge with his own team's nomination than it would be from any other team in the East, if not the entire CFL. Boris Bede's monster kickoff (rouge) with the wind made up for his missed convert. Two receivers, Daniels and Phillips, had more than 100 yards recieving. Leake has emerged as the top kick and punt returner in the league. With much improved blocking he is now a weapon.
Eight penalties is never good, and some of them kept Ottawa in the game. The score was closer than the game really was. Too many of these went to the offensive line again. It took several teamates, including Andrew Harris, to help Isaiah Cage regain his composure. I didn't see that coming.
Over the last two games, opposing QBs have only thrown seven incompletions and no INTs while the Argo front seven has put plenty of pressure on quarterbacks. The completion rate was well over 80% and is a cause for concern for the defence. Three passing TDs conceded to a rookie QB was unexpected.
Now that the Argos are into their final bye of the season, their biggest challenge may not be the opposition, it may be roster management. It would be reasonable to expect the club will be slowed by injuries in the latter part of the season. The 18-game CFL season is a long grind. Keeping their QB1 and offensive tackles healthy will be key to their post season success. Ten weeks without a bye will be tough. It will be important to secure first place as early as possible, roll the substitutions in, and secure the first round bye.
Around the league
Edmonton burned hot with a blue flame for the first half of its game with the Bombers, easily making it the most unexpectedly entertaining game of the week. Tre Ford demonstrated his freakish speed again. It would be great to see him properly developed. If not for Chris Jones' defence giving up four passing TDs to a back- up QB, in just over a half game, the Elks might have gotten the W.
When the onside punt is one of the most exciting plays two weeks in a row, it tells you something. One thing that continues to really hold the league back is the absence of a 10th team and the havoc it wreaks on the league's entertainment value, its marketing, if not the health and safety of its players coming off ridiculously short weeks. Football games were never meant to be played on four or fewer days rest. It's insane. Almost invariably the team coming off a short week gets beaten, often by lopsided scores. In the last three weeks this has occurred to both the Argos and Saskatchewan. Is it any wonder that both teams looked tired and flat during those away games? Both lost their QBs, at least temporarily, to injury. Coincidence? The Argos now have their third and final bye week, leaving them without a bye week for the last 10 weeks of the season. This kind of scheduling is just not commensurate with a professional football league.
The League says that expansion is a priority and is doing everything it can to make it happen. We'll take that at face value, however, it may be time to do something really bold and double down on itself. The most profitable teams in the League over the last decade plus have been community owned. Saskatchewan and Winnipeg report multi-million dollar annual profits. Edmonton regularly led the league in attendance and reported significant profits before Chris Presson was hired as the team President in 2019.
The last team to enter the CFL was the BC Lions in 1954. It was community owned until stock promoter Murray Pezim bought it in 1990. Its first GM/Head coach was former Argo, Annis Stukus. Similarly the Argonauts were community owned by their namesake rowing club until 1956.
If the League cannot find a single owner to pay the franchise fee in Halifax, perhaps it's time they brought the various local interests together to form a non-profit community-owned team based on the Saskatchewan governance model and finally got a team off the ground. When the Lions were founded, various businessmen kicked in money that was used to cash flow the team in its first year. The Lions ownership had to guarantee the league that they could sell 6,500 season tickets in a stadium that would seat at least 15,000. They did that and the Lions were born. The same thing can be done in the Maritimes.
There are various ways the CFL could help finance a new community-owned team in the Maritimes. The League could defer the franchise fee for a promissory note, loan it $20 million (roughly $2 million per team) and install a Board and President to start up. Temporary seating could be leased on a preferred site.
In some ways it may actually be easier to finance a community owned team than a private one and does not preclude that the team be sold to a private owner in the future, as has happened in five CFL cities. Nevertheless, community ownership may be the best fit for the Maritimes as it has been for Saskatchewan, Edmonton, and Winnipeg. While BC and Hamilton are privately owned, their owners behave in a manner sometimes consistent with community ownership. They strongly support local amateur football and do active community outreach.
Until the CFL operations cap came along, community owned teams tended to fire their management and coaches less often than privately owned teams. It's simpler for a team's President to convince a singular owner that he needs to fire the coach using the owners money than to convince an entire Board of Directors that he needs to fire a coach or GM using a non- profit’s money as multi-year severance. It's also less likely that you are going to churn management and coaches if the franchise has stable ownership. Until the MLSE came along, the average Argos private ownership tenure was less than four years! Ownership churn begins coaching and management churn, which begets starting QB turnover and community disengagement, and a downward spiral feedback loop is seeded.
I wonder what the likelihood of the Alouettes firing Khari Jones last season would have been had the team been community owned.
My point is that I think the CFL needs to really show everyone it believes in its product, double down on itself, and help finance a new expansion team. It would be transformative for the league, as the scattered schedule dictated by an odd number of teams is a major impediment to growth and stability. Does the league want to grow enough to think outside the box? CFL, you are on the clock .
Big Zee and the Game of the Century
The recent passing of former Argo punter and placekicker Zenon Andrusyshyn received considerable attention in the local media including a tasteful montage on TSN. The Big Zee was an incredible athlete and once held Canada's record for the javelin. His backstory of leaving the UCLA track team for the Bruin's football team is legendary. What Torontonians don't know is that despite his notoriety in the heyday of Leo Cahill's Argos of the 1970s, he was far better known in Los Angeles than he ever was in Toronto. Andrusyshyn was not only hugely talented he was also complex, if not polarizing, especially in his UCLA days.
He became known for his booming punts at UCLA and was an all American punter. American TV play-by-play announcer, Chris Schenkel, called him “UCLA’s big weapon.” It was his place kicking though that made him most famous. Perhaps the most-watched game in his entire playing career was the November 18, 1967 match between the undefeated No. 1 ranked UCLA Bruins, led by the 1967 Heisman Trophy winning QB Gary Beban, and their cross town rivals the #4 ranked USC Trojans, led by the infamous OJ Simpson, the winner of the 1968 Heisman Trophy. At stake was the top ranking and a berth in the Rose Bowl.
Earlier in his Bruin's career, Andrusyshyn had painted his kicking shoe gold, much to the displeasure of UCLA coach Tommy Prothro, who disallowed its use.
The disagreement over painting his kicking shoe foreshadowed Big Zee's hellacious game against USC. Despite Andrusyshyn missing a 32 yard FG, a convert, and having two other field goals blocked, UCLA clung to a 20-14 lead into the fourth quarter when OJ Simpson went on a legendary 64-yard TD run to win the game 21-20. USC coach John McKay had noticed that Big Zee's kicks had a low trajectory and were vulnerable to being blocked. He loaded up his defensive line to exploit it. Broadcast nationally on ABC, the game was watched by almost 30 million people. In the eyes of the 93,000 fans packed into the LA Coliseum, that day, Big Zee had cost UCLA a trip to the Rose Bowl and a national championship.
The loss also elevated Simpson's notoriety and helped him win the 1968 Heisman Trophy. The game had been billed as the "Game of the Century," but not for Andrusyshyn who took to wearing disguises on campus thereafter. Despite its proximity, there would be no Hollywood ending at UCLA for the Big Zee. A terrific account of the game, including his role can be found in Sports Illustrated.
Two years later, Andrusyshyn was drafted in the 9th round as a punter by the Dallas Cowboys. Still a polarizing player, Big Zee asked his agent Bob Woolf to negotiate permission to use a golden shoe into his NFL contract. According to Andrusyshyn’s account in the LA Times, Cowboys coach Tom Landry cut him before training camp broke and told him, “he was nothing but problems and the Cowboys don’t want problems”.
The Argonauts immediately signed him and without his golden shoe he punted uneventfully for two seasons. Part way into the 1972 season, however, Argos head coach Leo Cahill replaced placekicker Ivan McMillan with Andrusyshyn, and in the midst of a fight for a playoff spot, it didn't go well. By then, Big Zee had abandoned soccer style kicking for kicking straight on. His FG success was only 37% that season and this came to the forefront in a 14-13 loss to Ottawa. He missed a convert, four field goals, and had a kick blocked. The Argos won the season series with the Alouettes, but still finished two points behind them and missed the playoffs. At season's end, Leo Cahill was fired.
Coincidentally, two other members of the 1972 Argos were UCLA alums, Hall of famer, Marv Luster, and DE, Bruce Bergey. A fourth Bruin, TE, Mel Profit, had retired just before the season. Adarius Pickett is the only former Bruin on the current Argos roster.
Blocked kicks followed Big Zee around mercilessly in close games. In 1975, the Argos went into the last regular season game in Hamilton only needing to lose to the Ticats by 15 points or less to make the playoffs. The Big Zee had a punt blocked and the Argos lost by 16 and missed the playoffs. In 1978 he followed Marv Levy to the Kansas City Chiefs where Levy had him focus on punting only. He had one punt blocked that season and returned to the CFL the next year. Possessed of a powerful leg by the standards of his day, Andrusyshyn averaged 56 yards per kickoff in his career and, in 1986, was one of the last two professional placekickers to kick straight on, not soccer style. The other was Washington's Mark Mosely who was the NFL's MVP in 1982.
Along the way, Andrusyshyn underwent a remarkable transformation from a self-centred and enigmatic teammate to a mission driven, servant leader who touched the lives of many people in need of assistance. He was active with Athletes in Action and eventually founded his own Ministry, re-inventing himself in a great way. He will be remembered as one of the most interesting people to have put on an Argos uniform and one of the truly distinctive characters on the 1971 Argos, the Greatest team that never won.