TORONTO — In their home opener and the first game of the Jim Popp-Marc Trestman era, the Toronto Argonauts put on a show last weekend which promised brighter days for this franchise.
Ricky Ray — who’s clearly jazzed about playing for Trestman, the quarterback-whisperer — threw for 506 yards in the Double Blue’s 32-15 beat down of Hamilton as three different Argos’ receivers went for over 100 yards.
Included in that trio was marquee free-agent S.J. Green who also contributed a pair of highlight-reel catches. On the other side of the ball the Argos didn’t allow an offensive touchdown while sacking Zach Collaros five times.
Coming on the heels of two disastrous seasons in the CFL’s most troubling market, the win ticked about every box imaginable for the new-look Argos and, Friday, they’ll see if they can sustain that momentum when the B.C. Lions visit BMO Field.
Yes, for the first time in five years it can reasonably be said things are looking up for the Argos; that maybe, just maybe they’re ready to turn a corner.
Then you learn they’re expecting a smaller crowd for the Leos than the meagre throng of 13,583 which took in the big win over the rival Ticats. Then you begin to understand the scope of the challenges which confront this team.
“Everyone in our organization knows where we are and there will probably be smaller crowds,” Argos president and CEO Michael Copeland said Thursday. “But we still feel we’re going in the right direction.
“I’ve got to be honest. It’s a process. This is a rebuild and we can’t expect it to change over night. The previous ownership and management operated under incredibly difficult circumstances but it did leave a mark.”
And, like it or not, that mark continues to define the Argos as much as those good things which are happening with the team.
The presumption in CFL circles has always been the Boatmen could prosper under the right circumstances, that if they had the right owner, the right venue, the right front office and the right players, they could find their place in the Toronto omni-market and, finally, enjoy success and stability.
The problem is they never had that perfect convergence on or off the field, resulting in a series of calamities which has defaced their brand. We don’t have the time or space to recount that history here. Suffice to say two years ago, they played their home games in four different cities.
Go ahead. Try to sell that to an already reluctant fan base.
This year, however, there is alignment and symmetry in the Argos’ operation. The ownership, with Larry Tanenbaum’s Kilmer Group and Bell Canada, is rock-solid. Copeland, the young CEO, has a multi-faceted background in business and marketing and spent a decade as the CFL’s COO.
Popp, who ran the Montreal Alouettes for two decades, is one of the most successful executives in CFL history. Trestman, who’s been coaching for 36 years, led the Als to back-to-back Grey Cups in 2009 and ’10 and was head coach of the Chicago Bears in 2013 and 2014.
As for the product on the field, Ray seems to be rejuvenated under Trestman’s watch. Now 37, the future Hall-of-Famer endured two injury plagued seasons in 2015 and ’16 and seemed to be in the waning moments of his career. But, when he was hired in late February, Trestman immediately committed to Ray as his starter.
The least you can say is the early returns have been encouraging.
“I was definitely excited to learn from him and learn this offence,” Ray said. “As player you’re always trying to get a little bit better. Even at this stage of my career, there are always ways to improve. He says master your craft and I’m trying to learn everything I can from him.”
This is also Ray’s sixth year in Toronto and, as much as anyone, he understands everything that’s in play this season. As such, the job for Ray isn’t only reading the safety or finding the single coverage. It’s exciting this market. It’s turning on the Millennials the way they’re turned on by Toronto FC. It’s creating distance between the Argos’ unfortunate history and the 2017 team.
It’s a lot to ask but, it could be, the pieces are finally in place to do all that.
“I don’t know,” said Ray. “Maybe we need to take a different approach. Instead of complaining all the time, let’s thank the fans who do come out and support us. They have a great time and it’s a great game. Hopefully other people will see that and say, ‘I’d like to check that out.’ “
And, hopefully, that will be enough.
B.C. Lions at Toronto Argonauts
4 p.m., BMO Field
TSN, TSN 1040 AM
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