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  • Reeve Batstone

Discipline and Expansion: Show Me, Don't Tell Me

I tuned into the Argo’s game Saturday and a hockey game broke out. I had flashbacks to the NHL of the 70’s and 80s when brawls and mayhem regularly made the news. Rider’s Duke Williams throwing his helmet at Shaq Richardson during the pregame warm up brought to mind a pregame brawl between the Montreal Canadiens and Philadelphia Flyers prior to a 1987 playoff game. Further back Leafs’ fans may remember the “Slapshot” inspiring night when NY Ranger’s, Vic Hadfield, tossed goaltender Bernie Parent’s mask into the crowd at Madison Square Garden in the midst of a melee.

The culture of football is less tolerant of these kinds of antics, perhaps reflecting football’s history emerging from rugby, and its roots in British private schools. Hockey, until recently, operated outside the school system and was far less accountable. It was a readily accessible, working class sport played on the nation’s frozen ponds, rivers and backyard rinks. This has changed and today hockey is now the preserve of those who can afford the private skill clinics, travel, registrations and academy fees necessary to develop into a good player. Football, basketball and soccer have replaced it as the egalitarian, “working class”, sport. Unlike hockey, schools provide the expensive equipment required to play football, and the enforcement of a code of conduct that envelopes it. Never has the contrast in accountability, accessibility and transparency been more obvious than now, in the wake of Hockey Canada’s exposure to alleged cover up of sexual assault.

This is a long preamble to saying the CFL must suspend Duke Williams. Throwing a helmet could easily result in a serious head injury. A helmet has enough mass to be a lethal weapon, literally. This isn’t Williams’ only transgression. According to Argos coach Ryan Dinwiddie, Williams also spat on Richardson. Last season Shawn Lemon alleged that Williams did the same to him. It’s a terrible look for the League and will get worse if it’s ignored. Williams has a history of losing his composure going back to college. He spent part of a season as a member of the Auburn Tigers in 2015. He was kicked off the team for conduct that violated team rules. Later it was reported that he punched four people in a bar. The Roughriders also need to consider their own values and brand in the community. This is two weeks in a row that one of their players has made national headlines for doing something that could end someone’s career, or worse.

So, why is this happening? Well, wobbly officiating is one reason. An incident like this one in the pregame should have been met with at least one immediate disqualification. The CFL pretended it didn’t happen and it affected the tone of the ensuing game. The officials need to clamp down on this kind of thing or the game will quickly get out of control if players think they won’t be held to account, and don’t know what misconduct is. It was not a stellar week for CFL officials in the Hamilton game either. Unless the definition of holding was changed during my sleep an obvious holding call on Ticats left tackle Colin Kelly, plainly visible on TV, was missed on the Ticats winning touchdown. The CFL’s sole broadcaster, TSN, failed to mention it either.

These kinds of incidents also don’t occur regularly unless there is a culture that is too permissive. Saskatchewan is a highly penalized team. The Argos have had their own internecine battles which were on display on their bench during the game v Winnipeg. Their respective head coaches need to restore order, especially if losing becomes a habit. Danny Maccioccia used discipline issues as an excuse to fire Als coach, Khari Jones. Nevertheless, their penalty issues continued after his departure and Montreal lost again. One protection against these kinds of episodes is winning. Winning whitewashes conflict and enables it to be ignored. On the other hand, if you lose, these can be coach killing events. Saskatchewan will very likely win their game at home this coming week simply because they have to. Consecutive losses to the Argos and one to Montreal early in the season may amplify brand tarnishing episodes like these and start to put Craig Dickenson’s job at risk.

Back to the game Saturday. The Argos are to be commended for committing to the run even though Sask did a great job of limiting Andrew Harris. The Argos replied well with the deep ball. The offensive line was unable to get a push on the Rider’s front so Andrew Harris had almost nowhere to run. This was Isiah Cage’s first game in a very long time and the snaps to MBT in shotgun were definitely not professional grade, nevertheless, this group’s performance on balance gets a pass. The pass protection was much better than the run blocking. Harris’ most successful runs came on a draw and screen pass. Hopefully, we will see more of these in Regina.

You have heard me preach previously about the importance of Argo playmakers, Harris and Banks, getting 25-30 combined touches for Argos to win v good defences like Winnipeg. Saturday, Harris had 21 touches and Banks had 3 catches on 10 targets for a total of 24 combined touches. Despite his modest yards per carry this week Harris continued to display his winning determination and leadership on the field. His comments off the field relating to the skirmishes before the game and on the bench, over the last few weeks, have been wise and on point. Let’s hope his teammates are listening.

Thankfully Wynton McManis made up for one of Banks’ drops when he ran back a pick six, which also bailed out Boris Bede. Although he only had two tackles this week McManis made the play of the game in scoring the winning points. All three Argo linebackers are all star material. Together with a stout defensive line they limited the Rider’s running game to under 100 yards and sacked Fajardo 5 times!

Argos’ offensive stars Banks and Bede still need to be more consistent. MBT is up and down but has done what was necessary to win in consecutive games. I would still like to see him release the ball earlier or lead Banks further as he had to slow down and wait for the ball on deep throws v Bombers and Riders. Bringing down contested balls is not Banks’ biggest strength but he had created enough separation that these passes did not get intercepted by a closing defensive back. Bede and Banks need to be among the Argos best performing players if they are going to finish first in the division.

Bede has missed his three most important kicks in the last two games (including his botched, not so short kick vs Montreal). Sending a kick off out of bounds this week was not something that should be happening to a veteran kicker either. If he has another sub-par game in Regina it may time to try more two point converts. The directional punting and kick coverage was good. The kick return game remains moribund. Given Chandler Worthy’s electric success in Montreal since being released it begs questions about the Argos special team’s coordination and coaching. Great to see that there haven’t been any punts blocked yet this year. Also, great to see Daniels used more effectively in the passing game.

It’s going to be very difficult to go back-to-back and beat the Riders at Mosaic next week but the Argos did prove they could win without gaining much on the ground. That is a good sign. The offence did score points on this strong defensive unit. Sask will no doubt focus on getting better pressure on MBT and taking away the deep ball in Regina. It’s by no means impossible but I just don’t see the Argos beating the Riders, whether Fajardo plays or not (he will). MBT will need to play his best game of the season, so far, and Banks will need to get the ball several times in space for the Argos to win. Bede will also need to get off the schneid in what would likely be a close game.

On the subject of expansion, the league hosted another Touchdown Atlantic for what seems like the umpteenth time. I’m all for expansion, along with the rest of the country, but the problem seems to be that not enough Maritimers agree that it should be there. The visuals at the game looked fantastic but there seemed to be an overwhelming number of Rider nation in attendance. They are like the travelling Wilbury’s of the CFL, which is great, but unless they take up a Halifax address soon expansion isn’t going to happen.

The first mention of expansion to Halifax was in 1973 when Liberal Minister of Sport, Marc Lalonde, and the federal government banned the World Football League (and Leo Cahill) from becoming the Toronto Northmen and instead, along with Csonka, Kiick and Warfield they became the Memphis Southmen. Lalonde implored the CFL to expand. Fifty years later the league has put failed franchises in San Antonio, Las Vegas, Shreveport, Sacramento and Baltimore but still no franchise in Halifax. Commissioner, Randy Ambrosie, stated earlier this year, that the chances of having a team in Halifax in the near future were 11 out of 10. Seems like the Commissioner is employing the same quality of mathematical probability that he used during his jaw dropping ultimatum demanding $150 million from the federal government at the beginning of the pandemic.

Add these communications train wrecks to his sabotaging of the CFL brand by throwing Canadians under the bus prior to the new collective bargaining agreement and you leave people pleading, show me don’t tell me Mr. Commissioner. Less Willie Loman and a little more Adam Silver please. The fact that the notional owners of the new franchise distanced themselves from Touchdown Atlantic, ostensibly due to the meager prospects for a new stadium, makes pretty clear that this is an east coast vacation not a new address for the league.

Nevertheless, if those weren’t all Riders fans who flew to Acadia, and filled the stadium, maybe its time the CFL confronted the difficult truth, made a decision to bet on itself, added some additional temporary seating and just got on with it. It’s not like there aren’t some teams in the league that have drawn less than 15,000 to a game in the last 20 years (cough, cough).

The league isn’t putting a man on the moon here and if you can’t put a team there in 50 years, its probably time to move on. If you need a larger stadium, put a team in Quebec City, otherwise go somewhere else and expand a USports stadium in London, Kitchener or even Victoria. Goodness knows the CFL needs an even number of teams to fix its crazy scheduling dilemmas.

Finally, there has been much handwringing again over the dominance of the eastern teams by the west and collapsing the divisions into one. Relax, there has yet to be a crossover team make the Grey Cup since Winnipeg left the east division. The difference in winning percentage correlates with the nature of ownership as much as geographical location. The teams in the west are almost all community owned, or behave that way. The teams in the east are privately owned although one is a self -described caretaker. It’s another way of saying that western teams take a longer view and are more integrated with the community. Like the book, Good to Great, says, success requires continuity of leadership. Community ownership offers it.


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