2016 was one of the least memorable years in the long history of the Toronto Argonauts. The 5-13 season was marked by inconsistencies on both sides of the ball, as well as a mid-season trade that divided the locker room. It also included a roster purge which saw multiple players released before season’s end. There were question marks in coaching, in management, at quarterback, on offence – everywhere. But then the off-season began, and it all kicked off.
From the Bottom: the 2017 Toronto Argonauts
Jim Barker was fired from his post as general manager, and head coach Scott Milanovich resigned to take a coaching job with the Jacksonville Jaguars. Despite going into the opening day of free agency without a general manager, they were on the verge of landing some major front office free agents. On February 28, the team announced the hirings of Jim Popp as general manager and Marc Trestman as head coach. Both had served in the same roles with the Montreal Alouettes, Popp for 21 years, Trestman for 5.
The team then addressed their roster, making a number of high profile additions, including former Alouettes Bear Woods, S.J. Green, Jeff Finley, and Alan-Michael Cash. They also traded for receiver Armanti Edwards and signed veteran defenders Marcus Ball, Rico Murray, Cleyon Laing and Cassius Vaughn. Their American mini-camp tryouts also landed them some interesting new players, including defensive linesmen Victor Butler, Dylan Wynn and Troy Davis, and running back phenom James Wilder Jr.
The team asserted themselves early on, playing their way to a 2-0 preseason, and there were many players who impressed in their early June performances, including Cole Watson, Davonte Neal, Joseph Morgan, Jamel Johnson, Ralph-David Abernathy, and Cariel Brooks, all of whom were released before the season began, while others like Jimmy Ralph, Chandler Worthy, Dakota Prukop, Mcleod Bethel-Thompson, Cam McDaniel, and star returner Martese Jackson made the cut, and made their mark on the season.
The team suddenly looked solid in every position, until the end of the preseason when Popp decided to release quarterback Drew Willy, the man who was initially tagged as the team’s new starting quarterback going into the off-season. Popp still had plenty of faith in veteran Ricky Ray, so Willy was cut loose, leaving Jeff Mathews and Cody Fajardo as the backups.
In the first six weeks, they played to a 3-3 record and showed early signs of progress. Ray continued to play like an all-star, averaging 380 yards a game, while Green quickly rose up the leaderboard in receiving yards, including a career-best 210 in Week 3 against Ottawa. Devier Posey began his sophomore season with 280 receiving yards in the first three weeks before getting missing the next six games to injury. He came back to finish the year with 958 yards, including playoff games.
Butler was also quick to rack up the stats, notching eight of his 10 sacks in his first three games, but he also lost time to injury along the way. Fullback Declan Cross proved to be one of the real unsung heroes of the season. He snagged his first career touchdown in Week 5 against Ottawa and went on to catch five in the season – including two two-point conversions in the Grey Cup. He racked up 417 receiving yards while playing in all 22 regular season and playoff games.
But they then went 1-4 in the next five games, averaging just 20 points a game, and scoring less than 10 twice in that span. The first of those games was also played without Ray, who was injured the week before against Calgary, with Mathews and Fajardo picking up the slack for just the one week before Ray returned to action.
They were okay, but not great, and yet still very much keeping pace in a perennially weak Eastern Conference. By this point, however, their only real competition was in Ottawa, as Hamilton had fallen out of contention early on, and Montreal was in the midst of falling off the grid completely.
They then changed their fortune by hiring Jonathan Himebauch as an offensive lines coach. He not only gave Ray more protection to make more great passes but also opened the door for Wilder to give the team’s running game much more presence and stability. They were also able to further bolster their defence with the signing of former Ottawa Redblack Mitchell White after his NFL tryout, and longtime NFLer Akeem Jordan. The team averaged nearly 33 points in their last 7 games and finished the year with a 5-2 run to end 9-9 and captured first place in the East, one point ahead of Ottawa.
After their first-round bye, the Argos entered the playoffs as a surprise underdog, with many predicting Saskatchewan to be the first crossover team to make the Grey Cup Final. Toronto held the Riders to just three points in the first 45 minutes, but just managed 18 of their own in that same span, including a long rouge in the third quarter, before Canadian quarterback Brandon Bridge and the Riders mounted a sizable comeback, including a late 79-yard punt return touchdown. With 3 minutes left, Ray led his own comeback, passing for 67 yards on seven passes, and Fajardo made the one-yard scoring run to reclaim the lead, followed by a forced fumble by Akwasi Owusu-Ansah to secure the victory.
It was a somewhat similar story in the Grey Cup game at TD Place in Ottawa, except it was the Calgary Stampeders leading most of the way until a critical 109-yard forced fumble touchdown return by Vaughn late in the fourth quarter to level the score, followed soon after by another incredible three minute offense drive by Ray leading to a go-ahead field goal by Lirim Hajrullahu, and a game-clinching interception by veteran safety Matt Black.
The 2017 Toronto Argonauts season was one of the greatest narratives in Canadian sports history. To take a rock bottom team to where it is now in just 12 months took a whole lot of dedication, commitment, and cunning. Jim Popp put together a tremendous roster while retaining the best of last season’s riff-raff, and Trestman managed to keep everyone in check all year round. There were no rifts in the locker room, no conflicts in training camp, no disputes about playing time. They knew their roles, and they played the ways pros should. In the end, their hard work and undying faith to turn the franchise’s fortunes around paid off in the ultimate way possible: winning the 105th Grey Cup and capping off Canada 150 in style.