With CFL free agency imminent, the Toronto Argonauts are faced with a decision that could have significant implications for both their football team and business: what to do with Chad Owens?
The “Flyin’ Hawaiian” could hit the market Tuesday, February 9, at noon eastern time and negotiations on a new deal that would keep him in Toronto do not appear to be going well. Losing Owens, the team’s most recognizable player, could further damage a team desperate for fan support as it makes the move to BMO Field this season.
“It’s tough. Would I rather not be in this situation? Yeah. I think a lot of people would rather have had a contract done and have a purpose while training knowing where you’re going to be,” Owens says. “I never thought I would be in this situation to be quite honest.”
Owens will turn 34 on April 3 and has played six seasons in the CFL, the last five the Argos. While his career numbers are Hall-of-Fame worthy – including a 2012 season that saw him set a league record for all-purpose yards and earn the CFL’s Most Outstanding Player award – his production declined last season and he missed five games due to injury.
“As important as it is for a player to be able to make a guy miss a tackle or to be able to tackle or to be able to run the ball – a player’s ability to be able to stay healthy is part of the body of work that goes into making the decision on a players’ value,” Argos general manager Jim Barker says.
“There’s no doubt age wears on all players. It’s rare you see people who are returners-slash-receivers that play into their late 30’s. Time slows us down.”
That’s a red flag for Toronto’s GM, who at the same time recognizes that Owens has made a significant contribution to a franchise that has struggled for relevance in a crowded Toronto entertainment scene.
“When Chad came in 2010 this franchise was floundering – it won seven games in the previous two years – and he gave the franchise a face,” Barker says.
“This organization owes Chad Owens a lot for what he did. But unfortunately the way things work moving forward in this business, if you pay for the past it ends up costing you in the future. So we have to be very prudent in the way we approach this. At the time when Chad was at the top he got paid that way.”
Owens was among the top paid non-quarterbacks in the CFL the last several seasons, earning in the neighbourhood of $200,000 annually. But with a cap of $5.1 million and a some key players still unsigned – including quarterback Trevor Harris – the Argos are unwilling to continue paying Owens a top-tier salary.
“Now it’s a difficult situation because we cannot afford to pay him what he’s made [in the past],” Barker says.
“That is the essence of what general managers do: place hard dollar values on players’ worth – trying to project the future.”
That’s put the Argos and the face of their franchise in an awkward situation. Last winter, Owens purchased a house in Mississauga and his family – wife Rena, kids Chad Jr., Areana and Sierra-Lynn – now live in the community year-round so the idea of picking up and moving to another Canadian community isn’t appealing.
“I saw and still see Toronto as my family’s future post-football. That whole scenario is what enabled Rena and I to make the decision to move and live here full-time,” Owens said. “It was about us deciding to commit 100 to the team, the league and this country.”
“We hope all of our players want to move up here and want to become a part of the community, Barker says. “It’s what you want in a player who is going to be the face of your franchise, and that’s what he’s been.”
With the team under new ownership and moving into a newly-renovated BMO Field, there is finally a sense of optimism surrounding the franchise. But losing their most recognizable face could stifle some of that much-needed momentum.
“In fact, there’s no question in my mind that he wants to be here,” Barker said. “But from a business standpoint you have to make difficult decisions.”
Owens admits that if you cut him open you’re going to see double blue. He would rather stay with the Argos, but he’s come to the realization that moving on to another team is at least a possibility.
“I have a family to take care of and at the end of the day I’m going to ultimately do what I have to do.”