Takeaways from the Argos pre-season thumping of the Alouettes

By Paul Woods

It’s silly to read too much into a preseason football game.

There are so many players, and teams take so many different approaches, that “ex games” seldom indicate what is to come during the regular season. Take last year, for example. Despite playing none of their regulars for even a single snap, the Toronto Argonauts walked all over the Tiger-Cats, in Hamilton, by a score of 36-18 that actually flattered the Ticats and their then-new quarterback, Johnny Manziel. Then the Argos managed to win just four games all season, falling to last overall after winning the Grey Cup in 2017.

So we’ll resist the urge to declare the Argonauts the new Beasts of the East after they clobbered the Montreal Alouettes 45-20 on Thursday in a rare daytime weekday game that was attended by a few hundred diehard Argo fans and a few thousand school kids. (The announced attendance of 4,313 looked to be an accurate count in Toronto’s Varsity Stadium, which holds about 5,000 on its flat benches.)

But we can make some Argo-centric observations about what we saw, in no particular order:

· Montreal did not play quite a few starters on both offence and defence, while the Argos used mostly projected starters in the first quarter. So the fact the Argos jumped out to a 20-0 lead should come as no surprise. Still, it must be noted that the Boatmen looked exceptionally crisp on offence for the first 35-40 minutes of the game. The score could have been higher had Derel Walker not dropped a sure touchdown pass behind coverage on Toronto’s first possession.

· The Argos operated a no-huddle offence for pretty well the entire first half. The first three quarterbacks –James Franklin, McLeod Bethel-Thompson and Brandon Bridge – all seemed in command of an offence that looks decidedly different than the one Argo fans watched (and in many cases ended up loathing) since 2012 when Scott Milanovich became the head coach. The Milanovich offence (adapted from the offence first brought to the CFL by Marc Trestman, who continued using it when he took over as Argo head coach in 2017) was heavily based on short passes with tons of checking down by the quarterback to seek out the safest option. If the first preseason game is any indication, the Argos under offensive co-ordinator Jacques Chapdelaine will not be afraid to stretch the defence. There were a few screen passes but they seemed to be designed plays, not safety-valve check downs. And astute Argo fans would have been pleasantly stunned to see Franklin roll out on the very first play he ran, which resulted in a sharp completion to S.J. Green.

· Despite how well Bethel-Thompson and Bridge played, it’s clear that Franklin is the man for Toronto this year. He played well in a couple of series to open the game – throwing a TD pass to a wide-open Jimmy Ralph on a broken play – but perhaps more importantly, his demeanour on the sideline indicated he has embraced the leadership mantle after a season in which he lost the starting job and went into a months-long funk.

· Still, general manager Jim Popp and head coach Cory Chamblin have got to be happy with their apparent QB depth. Bethel-Thompson – who starred in his first start last season, then regressed badly – looked extremely sharp, zipping accurate passes all over the field. Bridge also looked like a reliable veteran, and on a couple of deep passes – including a TD strike to Rodney Smith that hit the receiver in full stride – he demonstrated the strongest arm Argo fans have seen since Michael Bishop a dozen years ago.

· The Argos managed the rare feat of playing six quarterbacks, including no fewer than three Canadians: Bridge, Noah Picton and third-round draft pick Michael O’Connor. Picton, the Doug Flutie-sized University of Regina product, played only a single series and seems destined to move into coaching. Last year’s third-stringer Dakota Prukop got extensive playing time in the second half, and mostly struggled.

· While Prukop had appeared to move past Bridge on the depth chart earlier in camp, he now seems likely to be released unless the Argos trade MBT or Bridge to a team in need of a solid backup. And even if that were to happen, Prukop might be supplanted by O’Connor. The UBC quarterback did not get into the game until halfway through the fourth quarter, but looked poised in his brief stint, and became the fourth Argo QB to throw a touchdown pass on the day. Considering that O’Connor was focused on trying to make the NFL’s Seattle Seahawks until shortly before camp opened, and missed some of the QB preparation sessions, he seems to have picked up the offence. At this point he appears to be no worse than the fourth-best QB on the Boatmen. His playing time was against the Als’ scrubs – but so was Prukop’s.

· The Argos have five guys competing for probably two kicking spots: two internationals (holdover Drew Brown and YouTube sensation Donald De La Haye) and three nationals (veterans Ronnie Pfeffer and Zach Medeiros, and former Roughrider Tyler Crapigna). All acquitted themselves well most of the time although De La Haye, who wore day-glo yellow shoes, got in only for a couple of well-placed, deep kickoffs. Pfeffer managed to angle two punts out of bounds deep. Crapigna missed an extra point but complained that it had actually gone through the uprights.

· The starting Argo defence had no trouble whatsoever with the Alouettes’ undermanned offence. Montreal managed just a couple of first downs in the opening quarter and seemed to be on endless string of two-and-outs. The front four (ends Shawn Lemon and Tobi Antigha, tackles Cleyon Laing and Cory “Poop” Johnson) looked aggressive and active. The secondary (corners Jonathan Dowling and Kevin Fogg, halfbacks Abdul Kanneh and Alden Darby, and safety Jermaine Gabriel) moved around a lot (as is customary in a Chamblin defence) and dished out some hard hits. Linebackers Micah Awe, Ian Wild and Qudarius Ford looked comfortable, and ran a few effective blitzes.

· Toronto has a lot of young =nationals who will compete for jobs, but a few recent draftees stood out. Defensive end Robbie Smith racked up a QB sack and seems to have potential to be part of the d-line rotation and not just a special teamer. Matthew Boateng laid out a defenceless receiver at one point. He played both cornerback and safety, as did fellow draftee Jamie Harry, who recovered a fumble. Robert Woodson played defensive halfback and had a pick.

· Another of this year’s draft picks, receiver Kurleigh Gittens, had a couple of nice punt returns. (The Argos dressed but did not play Chris Rainey, who is expected to be the primary returner. Fogg can also return kicks but did not do so Thursday.)

· Ralph and Llevi Noel look to have made the team and will potentially start in the receiving corps. Both made a few nice catches. Noel had an ice pack on his left knee in the second half but did not seem to be in much discomfort. The oft-injured Anthony Coombs did not dress.

· Brandon Burks, who won a backup running back job last year based on his performance in the preseason opener in Hamilton, had a number of productive carries and receptions. Fellow running back Tyrell Sutton, signed as a free agent, did not get into the game until the fourth quarter and may be on the bubble. Another free agent signing, national Mercer Timmis, looked smooth at tailback in the third quarter.

· The Argos dressed three players from abroad under the league’s CFL 2.0 initiative. Finnish receiver Kimi Linnainmaa played a few snaps on offence and special teams but did not touch the ball. Mexican defensive lineman Jose Cassarubias Santiago got into a couple of plays near the end of the game. The other Mexican, Christian Hernandez Delgado, dressed but did not appear to see any action.

· Both teams came out in their new uniforms. The Alouettes wore white from top to bottom – their new look is understated, clean and simple, and a lot nicer than the busy monstrosities of the past two decades or so. The Argos wore Oxford Blue jerseys with Cambridge Blue numbers, and white pants with a single Cambridge stripe to match the single stripe on their Oxford helmet. Despite a surprising lack of adornment – no stripes of any kind on the jersey, nor even a logo – it’s a sharp look. But it is also, as some predicted, difficult to read the numbers from the side. Still, major style points for going with contrasting jerseys/pants/socks – far better than the monochrome pyjama look that too many teams have adopted in recent years. The Argos also sported We the North patches in honour of their fellow MLSE team, the Toronto Raptors reaching the NBA Finals.

Author’s note: Paul Woods is a longtime journalist, news executive and CFL historian. His first book, Bouncing Back: From National Joke to Grey Cup Champs, told the story of the 1983 Argonauts. He is currently researching a book about the 1991 Argos, and working to unravel a 28-year-old mystery: who threw the beer can at Rocket Ismail?

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