Argonauts turn corner, and win over Riders would move the chains: Cox

Thank goodness the whining and guilt trips are over. Maybe now we can get somewhere with three-down professional football in this city.

The tone surrounding the Argonauts has certainly changed. The organization and its hardcore supporters seem to have finally stopped presenting Argo football as some sort of civic duty that we, the citizens of Toronto, are ignoring. For too long we’ve been lectured that the people in Edmonton and Regina and Winnipeg have it right, while snooty Torontonians are essentially un-Canadian not to embrace the CFL.

That blame-the-customer philosophy left the team exactly where it belonged.

Nowhere, lost, losing, ignored and virtually unloved.

Last season was absolute rock bottom. Everyone, from Larry Tanenbaum to George Cope to president Michael Copeland, seemed to acknowledge they’d taken on a bigger task than was initially understood, and that simply branding the Argos with a giant “MLSE” to create an association with the Leafs, Raptors and Toronto FC wasn’t going to work by itself.

Similarly, just moving to BMO Field wasn’t on its own a panacea for a badly neglected sports property. By the fall, the Argos had unofficially fallen to fourth in the city’s pecking order, perhaps a distant and fading fourth.

The highlight of the entire Toronto football season was a thrilling Grey Cup game at BMO in which the Argos were not a participant. The game was sold out, Ottawa and Calgary played a wildly entertaining game and an actual pulse was detected for the three-down game in Canada’s largest city.

Still, the memory of David Braley’s stewardship seemed to hang over the organization like a bad smell. Braley had taken over from excitable David Cynamon and enthusiastic Howard Sokolowski, then operated the club from a distance while presenting a bare-bones operation to the public with little marketing and no frills.

This went on for years, as did the excuses. Braley paid the bills, why should he have to do more than that? The dome was no home at all, their schedule was unfair, and why oh why were they so ignored by many of the major media outlets?

All that whinging seemed to come to an end last winter, however, right around March when GM Jim Popp and head coach Marc Trestman were hired, the same tandem that had delivered championship football to Montreal. Popp was there when U2 booted the Alouettes out of Olympic Stadium and the team had to remove a tree from the stands of the dilapidated 14,000-seat facility on the campus of McGill University just to play a game there. He came to understand what it meant to try and rebuild a relationship between a team and a city.

With the Popp/Trestman combo in place, Copeland and the rest of the organization rolled up their sleeves and got back to the hard work of selling a sports entertainment product. No more complaining about the customers. No more civic guilt trips. No longer did the Argos seem to operate as if under the impression the city owed them something.

“People would complain about the attendance, and say CFL football just wasn’t going to work in Toronto,” recalls Copeland. “And you know what? They sort of had justification for thinking that way based on the three previous decades. All I can do to prove them wrong is to change things.

“If you start with excuses, you’re basically giving up.”

The Argos got back to just trying harder, a return to the days when Keith Pelley literally would go door to door selling season tickets. The response was slow and halting, and an average of fewer than 14,000 fans showed up for nine home games.

Still, the Argos won six of those home dates, a vast improvement. The old joke is, when you find yourself in a hole the first thing to do is stop digging. This may have been the season the Argos stopped digging. For the Eastern final on Sunday, they announced they’d sold 20,000 tickets by this past Wednesday, with another 5,500 to sell by kickoff.

“It’s more about finding the way,” says Copeland. “We have to be flexible. It’s a completely different scenario now. The past is the past.”

A win against Saskatchewan and the Argos are back into the Grey Cup game for the first time since 2012. At 9-9, they actually have a worse record than the Roughriders, who finished fourth in the West and are trying to become the first crossover team to make it to the big game since the format was introduced in 1996. Nine teams have tried, nine have failed.

Against Ottawa last weekend, the Riders used an effective ground game to knock off the defending champion Redblacks in the nation’s capital. Marcus Thigpen, out of football for two years before getting a call from Saskatchewan due to injuries, ran for 169 yards. That meant 38-year-old quarterback Kevin Glenn just needed to play mistake-free football, which he did.

Both the Riders and Argos appear to be more dangerous now than they were in the first half of the season. Toronto won five of its last seven, but lost both regular-season matchups against Saskatchewan.

“Are we peaking? I don’t know,” says Popp. “I just think we’ve got to play a clean game on Sunday.”

All in all, it’s a compelling matchup, with Glenn going up against another ancient signal-caller, 38-year-old Ricky Ray, who threw more completions than in any previous season in his long, illustrious career. Toronto has created some new marquee names this season in James Wilder Jr., S.J. Green and Bear Woods. The Riders, meanwhile, will offer up 35-year-old Chad Owens, who won CFL most outstanding player honours with the Argos five years ago, and receiver Duron Carter, who sometimes also plays defence when he’s not being disruptive.

There are clearly reasons for a football fan to want to see this game live or on TV. Other than the Rams and the Vikings, there’s not a more compelling NFL contest to watch at the same time on Sunday. There may even be a few snowflakes at BMO to create the kind of conditions under which many a memorable CFL playoff match has taken place.

It’s been two trying seasons for the new Tanenbaum/Bell ownership group. But the team has survived the worst a distracted and/or disinterested city can throw at it.

It’s still going to be a long road, but perhaps the Argos have started to change a few hearts and minds.