Upon Further Review: The 2019 Argos
When I wrote about the 2019 Toronto Argonauts at this time last year I believed they were building a team specifically designed to take down the presumptive East division favourite Hamilton Tiger-Cats.
Systematically throughout the first two months of 2019 the double blue acquired powerful running backs, defenders with multiple skill sets, pass rushers and a big money, big play receiver in Derel Walker capable of breaking games open in ways the Argos passing game has not consistently since the beginning of Ricky Ray’s decline.
I thought it was perfect. I thought they would knock off Ottawa for 2nd in the East. I thought they would challenge Hamilton in the Eastern Final if both were so lucky to get there.
Then week two of the 2019 CFL season came, and I immediately knew my judgement was way off.
That day, in the Argos first game of the season they never led, at one point trailed by 52 points and eventually ended the day outscored by seven touchdowns. All of this against Hamilton, the team I thought they were designed to challenged.
It was a sign of things to come in what would eventually result in a four win season finishing third in the East well out of a playoff spot creating a crossover in the CFL for yet another season.
While X’s and O’s and personal strife inside the locker room are always up for debate, the numbers on Toronto’s dismal 2019 are not.
Through six games before the Argos upset the eventual Grey Cup champion Winnipeg Blue Bombers in week eight last season, Toronto had taken 334 offensive snaps.
EIGHT (2.3%) of them while holding a lead.
The Argos were slow starters who rarely found the gas pedal when it mattered, but were still able to rack up some gaudy offensive numbers.
Not unlike the guy who is always down a couple grand at the blackjack table, Toronto constantly swung for the fences not because it was their preference, but because it was a necessity.
The man who swung that big bat was McLeod Bethel Thompson. The journeyman leader of the Boatmen was asked to throw Toronto back into games time and time again with varying degrees of effectiveness.
There was the nightmarish Western road trip suffering defeat to the Bombers, Eskimos and Stampeders. The mic’d up end of game against the Lions which resulted in Chris Rainey giving up a single stepping on the back line after only being there to receive the kick after then Head Coach Corey Chamblin was convinced to send Rainey back and the false positive of claiming a four win season when three of the victories came against the only team in the league to finish lower in the standings.
Through it all McLeod kept throwing - when allowed to start - and the yards kept piling up.
Like a jugs machine in a jersey, the Argos kept sending the man of a million nicknames out in an attempt to pacify fan frustration and take stock in the small victories. At one point in the Labour Day Classic Toronto actually led Hamilton by 13-points. That was thanks in large part to Bethel-Thompson’s 337-yard, two touchdown performance but would eventually fall to a Dane Evans led Ticats comeback.
Amongst all the GTA head scratching in 2019, the largest mystery as the season progressed became ‘where is Derel Walker’?
The prized off season acquisition who left what you would have to imagine would have been a standout season paired with Trevor Harris in Edmonton only to average two catches and 46.3 yards receiving per game through his first three Argos contests.
The reaction was inevitable. As the losses and desperation level piled up, the Argos offensive coaching staff made a clear statement.
‘Get the ball to Derel’.
They would in week five when he made nine catches on thirteen targets for 188-yards and two touchdowns. A monster game by any metric, but unsustainable and it came in a losing effort 48-21 in Winnipeg and would be followed by a predictable drop-off until Labour Day.
After a heroic week twelve Labour Day game Walker would only flash his brilliance once more - in a 47-point loss to the BC Lions - before essentially shutting it down for the season and actually shutting it down for the final three games as he watched from the injured reserve and sideline.
In many ways Derel Walker was a small example of the 2019 Argos season.
Hype, promise, and opportunity followed quickly by reality, frustration and withdrawal.
Walker is a free agent now with the chance to come back and try again or find a fresh setting for his skills. With a new top of the football operations power structure, new head coach and possibly new quarterback at the controls there is still much to be decided for the 2020 Argos, but it would be a mistake to ignore the many lessons learnt from their 2019 cascade.
Marshall Ferguson is a former U SPORTS Quarterback, now serving as TSN 1150 Hamilton morning show host, voice of the Hamilton Tiger-Cats and CFL.ca analyst