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“Our goal this year, is to come out and be ahead of where we were last year, as far as being together as a team, what’s expected of us and our execution.”
– Argos QB Ricky Ray
Across the CFL, coaches use many of the same descriptors when they’re talking about the season.
It’s a grind. It’s a marathon, not a sprint. It’s a second-half season, anyway, some who stumble out of the gate say.
In Toronto, things are different.
“He calls it a six-month leadership course,” Argonauts quarterback Ricky Ray says of his coach, Marc Trestman.
“He’s really giving us a lot of information on what it is to be a good football player, a good person, a good teammate. He really does a great job of getting that across and everybody can kind of know what to expect and buy into that.”
Ray, of course, went through his first leadership course with Trestman last year. You could say it went well. Ray had his best season in nine years, putting up 5,546 yards and took the Argos to a shocking Grey Cup win over Calgary.
It was just two seasons ago that the Argos finished 5-13 and out of the playoffs. A new GM in Jim Popp and his go-to coach from his time in Montreal, Trestman, brought about what Ray called a drastic change in culture from one season to the next.
“It’s a lot of the same philosophies as far as what we did in practice, how we practiced. Offensive systems, all that stuff,” Ray said. “But what Marc does, he’s such a good communicator and he’s good at creating that culture from Day 1. It’s, ‘Here’s the standard, here’s what we expect of each other.’”
“We’ve got the right group of guys in and the right coaching staff in,” said Argos defensive end Shawn Lemon, who came to Toronto just in time to be a part of that five-win team in the 2016 season. “We mesh well together. We understand what the standard is here and it’s just been working out good for us.”
The standard extends beyond football. Spend any amount of time around Trestman, or get within earshot of him addressing his team after a practice and you hear can hear it yourself.
“He understands the league, he understands what it takes to be a better person,” Lemon said. “He tries to help you be a better person and football is the bonus after that.”
Does being a better person impact the football side of it?
“Most definitely,” he continues. “It’s understanding a different outlook on it. That seemed to work for us last year, just caring about your teammates. Not just acting like you care, but really caring about your teammates and one another, whether it’s from any staff, from the video guys, the cafeteria workers, the bus drivers. It seems to translate well on the football field.”
As the Argos embark on their second six-month leadership course with Trestman, they’re taking their coach’s advice. The defending Grey Cup champions (despite Trestman and co. trying to distance themselves from that moniker) have left last year’s picture-perfect win in that snow globe in Ottawa. They’re focused on the present, their view not extending past a trip to Saskatchewan this week.
With any team, there will be turnover. Receiver and Grey Cup MVP DeVier Posey will try to catch on with the Baltimore Ravens in the NFL. Defensive backs Mitchell White and Rico Murray have moved on to Montreal and Ottawa, respectively. Victor Butler retired from football when his contract dispute didn’t go in his favour. Kicker Lirim Hajrullahu is now a Hamilton Tiger-Cat. Corey Chamblin left his defensive coordinator role and was replaced by Mike Archer, while Tommy Condell assumed offensive coordinator duties after Marcus Brady was hired by the Indianapolis Colts as assistant quarterbacks coach. Anthony Calvillo left Montreal and joined Trestman’s staff as a quarterbacks coach.
When you look at this year’s Argos on the field, you see a lot of familiar faces and talented ones behind them.
It starts with Ray at quarterback, with James Franklin and McLeod Bethel-Thompson (or maybe it’s the other way around) backing him up. So many key familiar faces are back in each phase of the game — S.J. Green, Armanti Edwards, James Wilder Jr., Llevi Noel, Bear Woods (though injured), Lemon, Marcus Ball, Dylon Wynn, Cleyon Laing, Cassius Vaughn, to name a few — that the pieces seem to be in place for what’s become something of a rarity in the regular-season. This could be a dominant East Division team.
“We definitely can (take a step forward). I think we’re definitely ahead of where we were (last year),” Popp said ahead of the team’s final preseason game last week.
“I think we’re a deeper team than we were starting out last year. We had our struggles, I think we were 4-7, we’d lost three in a row. We went through our growing pains, our ups and downs. That happens.
“In some earlier games that we lost (last year) maybe if we were together a year earlier we might have won. We have that advantage coming in this year.”
The Ottawa REDBLACKS went 12-6 in 2015, the East’s only first-place finishing team with a record better than .500 in the last five years. Even with a tough schedule that sees them start by running a Western gauntlet of Saskatchewan, Calgary and home-and-home series with Edmonton and Winnipeg, the Argos could still be the team that sets the pace in the East.
“It took us a while last year to kind of be the team that we wanted to be,” Ray said. “We had our struggles early on in the season and that’s our goal this year, is to come out and be ahead of where we were last year, as far as being together as a team, what’s expected of us, our execution, all of those things that coach talks about. We’re trying to be better at that so we can get off to a better start.”