September 17, 2018

Hogan: No bye for the front office

Jim Popp and Spencer Zimmerman during the CFL Draft Day at the Argonauts office downtown Toronto on Sunday, May 7, 2017. (Photo: Johany Jutras)

When the Toronto Argonauts first took to the field this year it was May 20th. The memory of the Grey Cup victory was fresh, in fact, they had just received their championship rings the afternoon before.

Since then they’ve played two pre-season games, eleven more in the regular season. There have been a seemingly endless number of meetings, video sessions, and visits to the weight room. Most players have had to undergo physical therapy for varying degrees of injury, all are appreciative of the bye week like the one the team just experienced.

It’s a time for player to get some rest and relaxation, a much needed opportunity to break from the daily mental and physical grind of a six-month CFL schedule that can drain the energy from even the most enthusiastic of players.

While the athletes enjoyed the break, the coaches took some time to reacquaint themselves with their families, many traveling to their hometowns where their loved ones maintain a home base.

For those in the Argos football operations department, the beat went on. There may have been a break in routine, but not in workload, nor in hours spent at the job.

The most obvious example of this was the Martese Jackson trade.

General Manager Jim Popp sent the diminutive return specialist to Edmonton on Monday – along with a conditional 2020 sixth-round pick – in exchange for a third-round pick in the 2019 CFL draft.

Popp has the final say, but discusses any proposed deal with his staff before saying yes or no.

The General Manager’s office faces east on the second floor of the historic Coca-Cola (formerly Ricoh) Coliseum. His office is fairly non-descript, especially for someone with such a successful track record in the CFL. There are three framed photographs and a pair of autographed footballs. Practicality triumphs over glitz.

If there’s a distinctive feature of his workspace it’s a lack of privacy. The office has no front wall, just two giant 12-foot windows that barely surpass the mid-way point to the building’s exceptionally high ceiling. It creates a fishbowl existence for the executive.

It also means that while people can look in, he’s constantly looking out. What he sees in front of him is a series of cubicles, occupied by members of the football operations department, and two members of the communications team, including your humble scribbler.

Anyone who arrives at the office at seven o’clock in the morning would see four people in their cubicles studying video. If you popped into the office at seven at night, the quartet would all be there, still glued to the screen in front of them.

So how did the Toronto-based members of the Argos football operations staff enjoy the bye week?

“What bye week?” deadpanned Vince Magri, the team’s Director of Canadian Scouting. He, along with Spencer Zimmerman, Justin Hickman and Timur Malik comprise the foursome that devours football the same way someone binge watches a new television series they’ve fallen in love with. The four men are in front of their screens, watching video for hours on end.

Magri, a four-year starter on the offensive line at McMaster, was at least able to escape the clutches of his desk and video screen for a few days, but it didn’t mean downtime.

“I was at four U Sports schools in four days,” he told Argonauts.ca. “Visiting with all the coaches, going to practices and seeing the kids up close.”

These visits are invaluable to a scout. Seeing a player live in a game is one thing, but digging a little deeper to explore a player’s character is equally important. That especially rings true for a team coached by Marc Trestman.

What did Magri get out of his stops at Western, Laurier, Waterloo and York?

“You get some important background information on all the prospects,” continued the Toronto native. “Their academic records, how they learn, injury histories, practice habits, learning habits. You get to see them in a practice environment, how they interact with their teammates, so it’s not just what you see on film on game day.”

“You also get to see what the film doesn’t catch,” continued Magri. “How they carry themselves off the field, how they interact with their teammates, how they react to coaching.”

It’s an opportunity to add to the mosaic of the player.

Justin Hickman has graduated to become the evaluator after being the evaluated for ten CFL and NFL seasons, including 2016 with the Argos. The former defensive end’s cubicle faces Magri’s with both computer monitors constantly displaying game film.

In his second year as an Argo scout, Hickman usually arrives at the facility each morning at 6:30, before calling it a day sometime after 7:00 pm. Right now he’s scouring film from NFL teams, looking for a diamond in the rough that may become available soon.

There’s one small detail though, every other professional football team is doing exactly the same thing, making the task highly competitive and exceptionally difficult.

“It’s hard,” confessed Hickman, “Especially in our league, with the new league opening up, trying to get guys in. It’s almost like college again, it’s like a recruiting process.”

That’s where the combination of video analysis and football savvy comes into play. Even the most casual of fans can look at a player and make a quick determination if they think he’s any good. The art of the scout is finding someone that could be good, or at least be better, determining if they could be available at some point, and then figuring out how to lure them to another country.

It’s something that Hickman – who was born in El Paso, Texas and went to high school in Phoenix, Arizona before attending UCLA – can relate to first hand.

“A lot of guys, they don’t know about the league,” explained Hickman. “They don’t know, depending on the position, the different rules, the rule changes, and possibly having to uproot family and things like that. It’s hard.”

CFL fans know the rules are different, as is the size of the field, but there’s also the minutiae of various positions.

“It’s a different skill set,” elaborated Hickman, “A receiver in the NFL is going to be different from a receiver up here with the waggle. Playing DB down there is different from DB up here. Linebacker up here is different than linebacker down there. It’s trying to find those intricacies in the positional skill set that we think will transfer up here.”

The youngest of the staff is 23-year old Timur Malik, who has lived all over the world, but claims Toronto as his hometown. While others in the office are busy evaluating talent, Malik is paying his dues by doing some of the operational duties required. That doesn’t mean he’s not a part of the personnel preparations.

“One of my main things this season has been getting the advance scouting template ready,” said Malik in advance of this week’s game against Saskatchewan. “I’m watching their special teams formations, who’s in the game, what key backups are there, then sending if off (to the other members of the personnel department, then to the coaching staff).

The bye week allowed him to get some – you guessed it – additional video work done.

“It gave me a chance to watch more NFL film as it came in,” said Malik. “Trying to keep up to these guys and still learn and grow my mental NFL data base of players.”

It was also a different week for Assistant General Manager Spencer Zimmerman. There was no roster to tinker with in preparation for a game, so it gave the personnel department, aside from those who were on the road scouting, a chance to do some serious evaluation of Argos players, without having the distraction of preparing for an upcoming opponent.

“After each game we evaluate that game,” explained the former Waterloo Warrior offensive lineman. “We watch it together, we watch it individually and we build notes off that on a game-by-game basis. This week we were allowed to really go game, after game, after game, all three sides of the ball, and really see how the roster has developed. Trends, what we do well from a personnel standpoint, how we feel we match up, that’s what we spent the entire week on.”

From the outside, a life in football can be enticing. Fans usually see what happens on game day and never really think about all of the leg work that leads up to the opening kickoff.

With the implementation of a third bye week this season, the CFL has not only given players some much appreciated recovery time, but also given administrators a chance to catch up on the work that is necessary, but far from glamourous.

“I think it’s important, especially in season,” said the London, Ontario native. “I think sometimes with the size of our department, with all of the different areas that the members of our football operations are exposed to, managing the logistical, the administrative, the personnel, the financial component, having a week to really focus on the personnel side is really an advantage.”

In practical terms, the gap between the best and worst teams in the CFL is incredibly small. Adding the right player to the mix at the right time is often the difference between a team making the playoffs or not, or making a playoff team a Grey Cup contender.

While others took some time off, the members of the Argos Football Ops staff just spent the bye week trying to find that type of player.