- Reeve Batstone
Free Radicals: MBT We Hardly Knew Ye
Free agency has largely played itself out, and so, it seems like a time to take stock of where the Argos and their competition made out.
Overall, the Argos improved the depth, if not quality, of their roster. However, there are some areas where they stayed the same and one where they are significantly worse off, namely at the game's most important position. Ben Grant set the tone for this discussion with his excellent analysis on 3DownNation this week.
Let’s start with MBT. The free spirit QB who refused to be pigeonholed had a checkered career in Toronto, but left his best for last. He wore a lot of the negatives that were not of his own doing in Toronto but left the team on his own terms and after a Grey Cup championship. He deserves our respect and I hope his NFL dream comes true no matter how unlikely it is. After all, it’s really about the journey isn't it?! What is the next mountain to climb?
He came to the Argos from the Bombers and soon made QB whisperer, Marc Trestman, a believer. After an apprenticeship behind the incomparable Ricky Ray, he had the misfortune of getting some starts due to injury and on the other side of an Argo defence that completely disintegrated in 2018 and 2019. The Argos missed the playoffs these two seasons chiefly because they ranked close to last in defence. Had their defence been ranked 5th in the CFL or better they likely would have made the playoffs both seasons. A QB is judged primarily by his win/loss record. MBT received a disproportionate amount of blame behind a porous offensive line (and defence) and three head coaches in three years. Still, he ended remarkably high on the list of all time Argo QBs statistically. His is a redemption story.
He took so many hellacious hits to get the ball away it was easy to lose count. I have said this before and I will say it again, he was quite simply the most resilient, if not toughest QB to play in the league over the last three seasons. In fact, he was the league's only starter last year who started from start to finish without missing a game due to injury. Only a dislocated thumb prevented his finish of the Grey Cup game. He is one tough hombre. The Argos offensive line has been fluid during his time. It began to heal up and with the addition of Ryan Hunter, improve markedly half way through this past season, and the team's fortunes changed with it. Average yards per carry began to improve as did pass protection. Meanwhile, the defence started recording more sacks than the opposition.
When I saw that he did not attend the Grey Cup civic celebration it was hard to imagine him coming back. No winning QB does that indiscriminately. MBT revels in being a bit of an iconoclast. His constructive criticisms of the league and some of its leadership, before he had won a championship, is very unusual and takes courage. He never mailed it in and leaves a massive hole in the team.
The Argos have a big challenge in filling his shoes. No teams in the CFL get through a season with one starter from start to finish. QBs get hurt and miss games. The Argos don't have a QB with significant CFL experience. This is a big problem which could derail their entire season. Notwithstanding his stellar cameo in the Grey Cup game, Chad Kelly is essentially a rookie. He still has a lot to learn. There are only three quarterbacks in the last 50 years who have mastered the CFL game inside of two seasons. Two of them have played for the Argos. They are Chuck Ealey, who won the Grey Cup in his first year with Hamilton, and Ricky Ray who threw four TDs in his first game and went on to win 4 Grey Cups. The third is Nathan Rourke who missed half his second season due to injury. Anthony Calvillo was in his sixth season before he completed 60% of his pass attempts!
The odds of Chad Kelly having a completely healthy and successful season are long. Certainly he will be playing behind a much-improved offensive line and with a strong supporting cast. The Argos will almost certainly need to run the ball more often this season and rely on a smothering defence should he be the starter. The longer he plays the better he should become. If they can play well enough around him it will lessen the pressure on him while he learns the nuances of the Canadian game on the fly. Marc Trestman knows of what he speaks when he says playing QB in the CFL is harder than in the NFL. Rookie starting QBs in the NFL are not uncommon now, its a rarity in the CFL unless the team is desperate. It doesn’t often end well.
I wonder if we might still see Dane Evans come via BC. Vernon Adams is now the established starter in BC (he beat Winnipeg). Evans might have had a better chance of playing time behind an older and more injury prone Bo Levi Mitchell (BLM) in Hamilton than Adams in BC. Let’s also not forget that BLM put up pedestrian numbers behind an offensive line in Calgary that only gave up 18 sacks. He won't get that level of protection in Hamilton even with Joel Figueroa at left tackle. Who else are the Argos going to sign with any CFL experience to compete or even back up Kelly? Michael O'Connor? He and Head Coach Dinwiddie did overlap in the lost covid season before leaving for Calgary. Anthony Pipkin has unfortunately not shown any obvious progress despite more opportunities to start in his career.
Meanwhile, former Argos Trevor Harris and Cody Fajardo were essentially traded for each other. Saskatchewan gave up a record 77 sacks last season, about 70 of which were against Fajardo. Nevertheless, he managed to limp his way through the season with the best passer rating next to Rourke. You could argue that he was gaslit in Regina for getting sacked so often. I was sorry Toronto wasn’t able to sign him. He has something to prove and is still very mobile and tough. However, if Montreal had not signed him, their season would have gone up in smoke even before training camp. That would not have been good for anyone. Trevor Harris will be a good fit in Saskatchewan as he releases the ball faster than any QB in the league with the exception of the now-departed Nathan Rourke. That should take some pressure off an offensive line that has not yet been shored up much.
It was interesting to see former Winnipeg defensive tackle, Casey Sayles, sign with Hamilton. It was Sayles whose block was defeated by Robbie Smith to block Winnipeg's go ahead FG in the Grey Cup. I was surprised that the TSN commentators did not point this out and explain to the viewers why a DT was playing offensive line in that situation.
Speaking of blocked FGs, not surprisingly, the Argos re-signed kicker Boris Bede. Bede will be looking to have a bounce back season. His FG success rate fell under 80% last season (85% is the target at this level). Blessed with one of the strongest legs in football, he missed a game-tying convert against Winnipeg in the regular season and only hit on 3 of 6 attempts in the Grey Cup. One of these was blocked in large part because he began his approach late and was too slow in getting the kick away. He is capable of better. Robbie Smith saved him from ignominy. Bede also occupies a roster spot for an American. Having said that, the Argos had little reason not to sign him. There are precious few seasoned Canadian alternatives short of former Argo, Lirim Hajrullahu, who is the last Argo to kick a significant FG in a Grey Cup, but is still churning through the NFL looking to stick. Unless someone unexpected turns up, the next stellar Canadian kicker may not be available for three more years. Tyler Mullan, the freshman kicker for the Queen's Golden Gaels kicked all 17 of his FG attempts and all 32 of his converts last season. Not bad for a rookie.
I was sorry to see Philip Blake move to the Roughriders. He was Mr. Versatility for the Argos in a crazy year for injuries on the o-line last season. However, at 37, all good football playing things come to an end and the Argos have depth along the o-line that has never been better in their history, ever. Not since 1991 when the Argos featured hall of famers Chris Schultz, Kelvin Pruenster and Dan Ferrone has their offensive line looked so good going into a season. Incidentally they scored well over 600 points that season, an astounding 50% more than they scored in 2022!
Speaking of the Argos embarrassment of riches on the offensive line, they have a 2021 Canadian draft pick, Sage Doxtater, who has signed with the XFL's Houston franchise. Will he someday be the next Philip Blake or Ryan Hunter and don the double blue? Time will tell.
Two other draft choices who are probably a lot less likely to play north of the border are Washington DB Benjamin St. Juste and Minnesota DE Luiji Villain. These two have made NFL rosters where St. Juste is playing good football and being well compensated for it.
The Argonauts football ops has done a phenomenal job of drafting, recruiting and adjusting to injury over the last three years. The only obvious weakness in experienced depth at this point is at the quarterback position.
From Adversity to Diversity
Some of you may recall that I wrote a post last July detailing some of the pioneering Black quarterbacks who played for the Argos and in Canadian football. If you found that interesting you may want to read Robert Silverman's article in Rolling Stone, "Why It Took So Long for Two Black Quarterbacks to Face Off in the Super Bowl." It’s a thoughtful analysis that mirror some of the points I made in my article last summer. There was much attention to the importance of two Black QBs facing each other in a Super Bowl this year. Something that occurred almost 42 years ago in the CFL when Warren Moon and JC Watts faced one another in a classic Grey Cup game. I was disappointed that Silverman did not mention the role that Bernie Custis and Chuck Ealey made in making history, but I guess the oversights continue.
Bon voyage, Big Mac!