February 16, 2019

Exclusive: Mike Hogan goes inside the War Room

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

Argonauts.ca was given full access to the Argos War Room for the first day of free agency. Mike Hogan was one of six people inside the room as offers were made, and watched as the strategy changed after one enormous offer was declined. Hogan brings fans inside the room in this article.

Little did they know it as the bidding began, but the Toronto Argonauts brain trust was about to go through an extraordinarily exciting, yet incredibly frustrating day, though the disappointment would prove to be short lived.

The first day of CFL free agency can be among the highlights of the year. A club has unfettered access to non-contracted players, and free reign to convince them to join their organization. It is also the day where mistakes can be made.

The Argos were about to become involved in one of the most talked about contract offers in the history of the CFL. One that would keep their early-hour expenditures in check until they received an answer.

The team’s front office and coaching staffs prepared for free agency – and the season itself – by meeting in the Phoenix area. By the time they returned to Toronto, a game plan was in place. Now all they had to do was execute it.

When Argonauts.ca arrived in the football operations offices on the second floor of the Coca-Cola Coliseum, a short par three east of BMO Field, everyone was already in place. It was eight o’clock in the morning on February 12th, a date teams had circled on their calendar months earlier.

Head Coach Corey Chamblin was sitting with Jim Popp in the General Manager’s office. Twenty steps away, the other three people who would spend the next 14 hours in the War Room had already settled in for the day. Newly-hired scout John Murphy was joined by the Magri brothers; Vince, the team’s Director of Canadian Scouting, and Jon, the Argos’ Video Director, who had video highlights of any player they may want to take a quick look at any point. Everyone had a laptop computer in front of them except Murphy and V. Magri, who had two each.

Those five men, along with a columnist from Argonauts.ca, were about to embark on a day filled with emotional highs and lows, along with enough surprises to fill more than a dozen articles.

The War Room is no more than average sized. Perhaps 15-by-15 feet, with a round table smack dab in the middle. On the north wall was a white board with six names written on it. These were the main targets on this day. On the south wall was a magnetic board that is a year-round fixture. It is a giant depth chart featuring magnetized rectangles, each magnet featuring the name of a player currently under contract. It had been updated that morning, as for the last four months the alignment was from the final game of the regular season, November 2nd in Ottawa.

But most of the attention for the rest of the day would be on a giant video screen set up along the east wall. It contained a spreadsheet with the names of all the free agents the Argos had an interest in. They were ranked by position, and separated by colour coding. The six priority free agents were highlighted in yellow. There were another 20 players in orange, these players represented the second tier. A third group of 32 players were not designated a colour, this represented the third-tier targets. In all there were 58 names on the screen, some potential returning players, but mostly athletes who played for other teams in 2018.

By day’s end eight of those names would either be found on the dotted line of Argonaut contracts, or had agreed to terms. Several more would sign over the following two days.

To have the incredible access Argonauts.ca was granted, it was agreed that the names of any player not signed by the Argos would not be used. There was one exception, the name that sat atop the whiteboard on the room’s north side. It would be impossible to tell this tale without including it.

The CFL community does not exactly have the same reputation as the Mueller investigation in terms of keeping information a secret. It was no surprise that with Mike Reilly seemingly determined to re-sign in the west, Bo Levi Mitchell was the Argos main target. It had been reported that Toronto and Saskatchewan would try to lure the QB away from Calgary, the third team in competition for his services.

At 11:12, with everyone gathered in the War Room, Jim Popp spelled out his strategy. He wanted to come out of the gate with the strongest possible offer for Mitchell. The G.M. spelled out the term and the dollar figure he wanted to lay out for the QB. Popp wanted to get a deal done as quickly as possible, and wanted to ensure Mitchell’s camp that they were serious.

There was a mixture of nervousness and camaraderie in the room in the final few moments before noon. The final assignments were handed out as to which front-office type would be calling which agent. Popp would obviously be handling the discussions about BLM. He spelled out in detail what the offer would entail. By any CFL standard, even with the reported numbers on the Mike Reilly contract as a comparable, the dollar amount that would be offered was staggering.

As high noon approached, the room was quiet as the staff members went over what they wanted to say to their assigned agents. With two minutes to go Murphy, whose sense of humour would become evident over the next several hours, asked “Does anyone have twelve o’clock on their phone yet?”

Two minutes later the clock struck twelve, yet a funny thing happened. There was no mad dash, no phone frenzy as soon as the digits on the smartphones hit 12:00. Instead, there was another moment of reflection. For whatever the reason – none was spelled out – the first phone calls were made at 12:02.

Popp didn’t budge from his position at the table. Murphy turned his back to the group and began dialing, as did Chamblin. Vince Magri stood up and walked into the hallway. The chase was on.

The Mitchell situation would play the role of traffic cop, determining which direction the Argos day would take. They had to know if Mitchell had any intention of leaving Calgary. The Argos had enough in the budget to make two firm offers that would not depend on the QB’s decision. One offer was to linebacker Micah Awe, the other to Mitchell.

Popp dialed Mitchell’s agent Dan Vertlieb and laid out the offer. Despite the amount of money being offered, the conversation was remarkably brief. Less than two minutes after the call was made the discussion was over, the agent said he would take the offer to his client.

The GM sat back, and stared forward. His facial expression and body language seemed to be a mixture of relief – that he had finally been able to make the offer that been bottled up inside him, and disbelief – that the man who had negotiated over a thousand contracts in his quarter century as a CFL general manager had just made an offer that involved that much cash.

Now the waiting began. The Argos brass continued to make calls to get an indication of what the market was starting to look like. They also fielded calls from agents, either looking to find their client a home, or simply to drive up the price with another team. This was all a part of the annual dance that happens between parties, just with more frequency and urgency on the first day of free agency.

Things started slowly around the league, perhaps because the asking price from some of the agents was much higher than anticipated. Eventually, some teams would cede to the request, biting the bullet and signing a contract that undoubtedly made them feel excited by acquiring that player, but also a tad squeamish because of the dollar amount involved.

The Argos quickly found out that one of the players on their wish list had priced himself out of their range, though they weren’t about to throw in the towel on him should Mitchell sign elsewhere.

Things began to slow down. Their hands were tied until they found out Mitchell’s status. Popp and company went in with their best offer so they could find out as early as possible if the QB was interested in heading east. There was conversation about whether there was anything they could do to sweeten the pot. It seemed like all the chips were on the table. The Boatmen were all in.

The clock hit 2:30, but the waiting made it seem much later than that. Suddenly Chamblin was startled by something he heard behind him. As Toronto was getting drilled by a severe ice storm, the roof of the Argos venerable office venue had sprung a leak of its own. The comic relief was much needed. The metaphor was priceless, a slow drip was hitting the floor of the War Room in the same manner that players were slowly dropping off the team’s wish list.

The leak was quickly fixed, but the waiting for Mitchell’s decision continued. A half an hour later the group talked about any way of sweetening the pot.

CFL contracts are divided up into three areas. A base salary, a housing allowance, and a signing bonus.  As an example, and to make the math as easy as possible, let’s say a player is offered a $100,000 contract. A team could make an offer of $75,000 base, $20,000 signing bonus and $5,000 housing. The housing allowance is tax free to players – in the Argos case – who are from outside 60 km of Toronto. The signing bonus is taxed at roughly 15% as opposed to roughly 30%, meaning a big signing bonus on a big contract can make a significant difference to the player. The downside to a team making that offer is that the higher the bonus offer is, the less cap relief they’d get if a player were to be injured or released.

At 3:00 Popp talked to his crew about making the already spectacular offer to Mitchell even better. It was agreed that the Argos would gamble that the QB would stay healthy and they’d substantially increase the signing bonus, lowering the base salary, and giving Mitchell several thousand dollars more in tax savings.

The GM called the agent at 3:10. Vertlieb’s reaction was two words, “Oh s**t”. He said he’d call his client immediately. At 3:15 he called Popp with the bad news. Despite one of the richest contract offers in CFL history, outbidding the Stampeders and Roughriders by a significant amount – reportedly over $500,000 more than Calgary’s offer over the course of a four-year deal – Mitchell opted for red-and-black over Double Blue.

There was zero time to hang heads or feel sorry for themselves, there was work to do. Immediately Plan B was put into place. The phones in the War Room were buzzing. Agents were told that Mitchell was no longer in play for Toronto and there was now money to offer other players. Arrangements were quickly made to fly Derel Walker – the number two name on their short list – to Toronto for a medical and a Raptors game the next night. Combinations of defensive players were talked about. How could the Argos fill their needs most effectively? It was exceptionally well-organized chaos.

How could they sign a linebacker and a defensive end with who was remaining on the board? Would they go after an extremely high-priced player and settle for a bargain bin player at the other spot? The one combination they desperately hoped for was Micah Awe, Tobi Antigha and Shawn Lemon. It seemed that trio would complement each other, as well as the other players currently under contract. Did they want to come to Toronto? What were the offers on the table from other teams? Could they do that, potentially pay Walker and still address the need for another quarterback?

At 3:30 the Argos landed their first new player as Kevin Fogg agreed to a deal. Not only would it give them a versatile, ball hawking starter in the secondary, but it would give them an impact returner should they not sign another player high on their wish list, one whose name graced the list of six players on the white board.

Chris Rainey’s agent had been in discussion with the Argos. If you looked at the board with the top six players you would see Rainey’s name immediately following the number four. The top name, Mitchell, had a horizontal line thought it as he was no longer available. The B.C. Lion was looked upon as not only someone who could give the Argos instant field position with his elite return ability, but added an immense amount of speed in certain offensive packages.

The Argos had an offer on the table. At 4:11 Popp was informed that Rainey wanted more money. He had a four-word response., “Give it to him.” They did, and the Argos suddenly had signed one of their top targets.

In a 41-minute span the Argos had signed two of the, if not the top two returners in the Canadian Football League. The Toronto return game weather report had turned Rainey with Fogg. Suddenly, the football field just got a lot shorter for James Franklin and company.

Speaking of weather, the ice storm in Toronto was not helping things. A flight for Walker was quickly booked, but after he arrived at the airport he found his flight had been delayed because of the storm in the GTA. His 8:30 ET arrival was now scheduled for just after midnight.

Running back Mercer Timmis agreed to terms at 4:21. Nine minutes later, with the men in the War Room making calls at a rapid pace, Popp called his staff together to discuss a back-up quarterback plan. Agents had been talked to and the waiting was continuing, as was the math.

How could they sign the second QB they wanted and still be able to go after another big fish, or assemble the Antigha, Awe, Lemon trio?

The answer was they wouldn’t be able to do that. Conversations focused on players who were not on the board, but may be able to help. Agents were kicking tires, trying to find their clients a landing spot after things dried up for them with another team. Some of the players had priced themselves out of the Argos parameters. Chamblin worked the phones as the team’s version of Mariano Rivera, attempting to close deals through lengthy conversations with the players directly.

The down periods were excruciating for everyone in the room. Waiting to hear back from players and agents became extremely frustrating. At 7:30, offensive tackle Will Campbell agreed to come back. At 10:07, Cory “Poop” Johnson finally came aboard after lengthy conversations. Shawn Lemon called to find out what was happening. The room was pleasantly surprised when Tyrell Sutton called, seeing if there was a fit.

Late in the evening, one of the potential second quarterback candidates opted to sign elsewhere. That was good news for Lemon, as suddenly the money that was needed to close his deal became available, and the fan favourite was coming back to the 6ix. It was something that seemed inevitable all along. Antigha also agreed to a deal late in the evening.

But what about Walker? Vince Magri was the contact on that front. He had booked a car to pick up the receiver once Walker cleared customs, but there was another problem…he was stuck on the plane. It was on the tarmac, but it wasn’t given access to a gate. He was finally able to get off the plane and be taken to his downtown hotel. By the time he checked into his room it was well past 2:00 AM.

The next day Antigha signed early, Awe came through at around noon eastern. Later that night Walker, Lemon, Fogg, James Wilder Jr., Alden Darby Jr., Armanti Edwards, and another potential signee joined Popp, Chamblin and company in a private suite to watch the Raptors beat Washington, another benefit of the relationship between MLSE teams.

Walker left for Houston on Thursday morning after canceling meetings with two other teams. He had found a new home, bringing the total to nine new players, not to mention the players who re-signed with Toronto.

In the span of 52 hours the Argos had added two of their top four targets, five potential starters on defence, two of the league’s best returners, re-signed two starters on the offensive line, and added mega-depth at running back.

There was still work to be done, but the Boatmen had significantly improved their roster since John Murphy asked the War Room if anyone’s watch read twelve o’clock.