February 12, 2020

Hogan: Inside the War Room on day one of free agency

The Toronto Argonauts granted Argonauts.ca writer Mike Hogan full access into the team’s War Room for the first day of free agency. The only stipulation was that he not use the names of players that did not sign with the Argos. Here is his exclusive behind the scenes look at perhaps the most fascinating day on the CFL calendar.

It began like most mornings in the Argos football operations office. As usual, Director of Canadian Scouting Vince Magri and Coordinator of Logistics Alex Russell were at their desks at 7:30 watching player video, unrelated to what was about to happen in the next few hours.

That preparation had been completed days and weeks ago.

Unlike most days at the offices, located on the second floor of the Coca-Cola Coliseum on the CNE grounds, there was a sense of anticipation, of nervousness, of uncertainty, as there were only a handful of hours left before the beginning of CFL free agency.

The Argos had a desire to sign the top two players on the CFL.ca ranking of best available free agents. The second player on that list, quarterback Matt Nichols, had already agreed to terms with the team, but the player whose name appeared at the top, defensive end Willie Jefferson, had agreed to return to Winnipeg at roughly 4:00 Monday afternoon.

That led to some obvious disappointment, but that feeling didn’t last long. It couldn’t, there was too much work to do to dwell on something that was beyond their control.

Things were also busy in the offices across the parking lot at BMO Field. More video was being reviewed as Ryan Dinwiddie and his offensive staff were gathered in the larger of two coaches’ offices. It’s there where each coach has his own workspace, with a large rectangular desk situated in the middle of the room.

A few yards down the hall, Defensive Coordinator Glen Young and his staff were also going through film in the defensive coaches’ room.  Both groups were discussing what would end up in the Argos playbooks this season.

General Manager Michael Clemons and Vice-President of Player Personnel John Murphy were having a discussion outside the room before moving back with the group. Magri, Russell and Player Relations Advisor Matt Black entered the room, as did a reporter from Argonauts.ca.

Murphy would set up shop in Dinwiddie’s office, adjacent to the larger room.

As the clock approached noon, word of players re-signing with their teams trickled in. None were major surprises, nor would they have a major effect on what the Argos planned to do.

At 11:48 Clemons and Magri went over the details of a contract offer that would officially be made to receiver Juwan Brescasin when the clock struck noon.

This year’s exercise would be completely different than a year ago; not because of the people in the front office, but because the free agency process had dramatically changed, and a giant albatross had left the building.

In 2019 the Argos made a humungous offer to quarterback Bo Levi Mitchell, one that made them wait for three hours before eventually being informed the QB had opted to remain in Calgary. That scenario would not likely have happened this year, even if the Argos had presented a large offer to one player.

Which they did last weekend.

The courtship of Willie Jefferson became a glowing example of why the week-long lead-up to free agency worked. Had that process not been allowed, Jefferson may have been hit with substantial offers from three teams at noon and asked to make his decision immediately, causing two teams to wait for a potentially significant amount of time before receiving bad news.

This year’s timeline allowed Jefferson to visit Toronto and Hamilton and select a team before the free-agency window opened. In this example, the Argos, Ticats and Blue Bombers all benefitted because they had time to make their sales pitch, in the Ontario teams’ cases, they could fly the defensive end in for a visit and a tour, then get an answer before noon Tuesday. It allowed all three teams to hit the reset button Monday night and revise their game plans before the frenzy began.

As noon hit, coaches Dinwiddie, Jarious Jackson, Stephen McAdoo, Markus Howell and Fred Reid continued to scheme the offense, not unaware of the discussions about personnel, both with the Argos and around the league.

Matt Nichols also entered the room, mostly to sit in with the offensive coaches, but also curious to find out about who was about to join him in Double Blue.

Just after noon the league sent out an email, updating the free agent list to include any offers made during the previous week that were accepted. That meant five additional names would come off the board.

The Argo choreography was pristine because of the immaculate preparation. After talking to agents and players throughout the preceding week, Clemons, Murphy, Magri and Russell had prepared contract offers that were ready to go out as soon as the team wanted to send them.

The first offer sent was to Brescasin. The Mississauga native had visited the Argos offices during the previous week. He hadn’t played football at home since grade 10, having moved to a prep school in Indiana for two years before playing his college ball at Northern Illinois, then in the CFL in Calgary for four seasons. Coming back to friends and family in the GTA appealed to him.

The deal was accepted relatively quickly, and the Argos had landed their first fish on their first cast. It would be a good omen for the rest of the day.

Murphy sat at Dinwiddie’s desk; his hands apparently welded to his cell phone. For the most part, communication with agents was done via text message. He would speak to agents as well, though likely far less than one would think. It was almost all done through texting.

For the better part of the next hour Murphy didn’t move; his head down, thumbs blazing. He rarely spoke, he just texted, and texted, and texted, and texted.

Murphy was not only texting agents, but was also texting Magri, telling him when to send out the next contract offer or offers. Magri would let Murphy know when the contracts came back.

When a deal was agreed to there were no high fives, no fist pumps, no acknowledgment at all. In fact, several times a deal was done without any verbal acknowledgment at all – just texts between the pair.

A few minutes after noon Magri decided to move into the smaller office, not only because it was closer to the action, but because it was quieter – a rare occurrence for a room when Murphy is in it. A man of Irish heritage, Murphy didn’t need to kiss the Blarney Stone to receive the gift of gab. It’s a trait that would come in handy on such a long day, as his sense of humour was definitely an asset.

“Murph” sat at Dinwiddie’s desk at the end of a rectangular room, a bookshelf behind him containing several books about, or written by various NFL coaches. There was a couch along the wall in front of Murphy’s desk to the right, then a chair at the other end of the room facing the desk. That became Clemons’ perch for the day.

Magri moved to the couch in that room at about 12:30, joining Clemons and this reporter, who was sitting in a chair to the left of the desk.

Two other members of the Argos team were sitting a few steps down the hall, having set up shop in the BMO Club. Manager of Football Media Chris Balenovich was preparing news releases for anyone the Argos were in discussion with, while Social Content Coordinator Adam Krueger, the evil genius behind the Argos social media accounts, was at his side, making sure any new player was announced in style with a Tweet featuring a cool jersey change graphic, a process that took roughly an hour to complete.

Slowly, the Argos Canadian content was improving. At around 12:30 offensive linemen Phillip Blake and Dariusz Bladek were signed. This put a smile on the face of offensive line coach Stephen McAdoo, who popped into the smaller office to congratulate Clemons and Murphy on signing two players “Coach Mac” worked with the previous couple of years in Saskatchewan.

The signing of Blake becomes another reunion of sorts. The Etobicoke native was the left tackle back in the day on an Etobicoke Eagles team which featured Magri at centre.

Things were starting to take shape. Linebacker and special teams ace Nick Shortill and defensive end Craig Roh would agree to terms, which made Defensive Backs Coach Ike Charlton and Linebackers and Special Teams Assistant Coach Kevin Eiben happy enough to pop into the office to congratulate and thank the men who made the signings possible.

The day progressed and several reports, which would eventually prove to be accurate, began to surface – though they were premature at the time.

As an aside, later in the day as the frequency of signings slowed down a bit, there was a great deal of amusement in the ‘War Room’ as media members announced deals just two or three minutes after a contract was filed. It was great work by Justin Dunk and TSN’s insiders, but the speed of the leaks, obviously coming from the agents, was always good for a laugh in the room.

The deal with Deveris Daniels was finalized. The main terms were agreed upon fairly early in the process, but there were structural aspects of the contract that needed to be worked out at the agent’s end before the deal was etched in stone. With so many players trying to sign deals, sorting out the short strokes on a contract would take some time and would understandably be pushed to a side burner.

While it’s a stressful day for teams, the day is obviously hectic on the agent’s end as well. (Note to other writers, please think about doing a behind-the-scenes story from an agent’s office on free-agency day, it would be fascinating).

Coach Dinwiddie came in and spoke to Clemons and Murphy about which still-available free agents interested him. Some contract offers were either drawn up, or reworked and sent out.

When asked by Argonauts.ca if he had been a major contributor in recruiting Daniels in the week leading up to free agency, he said the pair had spoken a bit, but his wife Abby had been working on them, having gotten to know the couple well during their three seasons together in Calgary.

As Dinwiddie was acting the role of visitor in his own office, the Argos had guests of their own. Free agent defensive tackle Drake Nevis and his wife Reese were in town and had arrived at BMO Field to head out for dinner with Clemons. That would take the G.M. out of the building for the rest of the evening, though he was in contact with Murphy throughout.

The Pinball magic obviously worked as Nevis put pen to paper at 2:00 Wednesday and officially became an Argo.

Defensive tackle Fabion Foote agreed to terms. Defensive end Alex Bazzie agreed to terms. The plan was taking shape.

Foote’s addition also has a cool local connection. He’s a product of Thistletown Collegiate, whose football program was started thanks to the Argos “Level The Playing Field” initiative. He joins Jamal Campbell from C.W. Jeffreys as Argos who may not have played high-school football had it not been for the program.

Long after the sun had set, and as the coaches eventually called it an evening, the midnight oil was still burning in an office now inhabited by Murphy, Magri, Russell, Balenovich, Krueger and this reporter.

Murphy was now speaking to agents more than he was texting them. When not talking to agents he was contacting general managers and had multiple trade discussions on the go, none of which were completed before everyone would eventually call it a night.

By this time, Murphy’s theory of not being overly aggressive, but letting the cards play themselves was paying off. Some talented players were still looking for a place to play and from the team’s perspective the contract demands were became more attractive as the day progressed.

At around 9:00 another player agreed to terms, though at the time of this story’s release no contract had been signed. Forty-five minutes later linebacker/defensive back Chris Ackie agreed to head back to Ontario, then at 10:30 special teamer Denzel Radford agreed to terms. Those two would sign the next day.

One other target was still very much on the radar and several contract offers were sent to his agent in an attempt to lure that player from his current team. It was a dance that lasted several hours and was still without an answer at 11:30 when Murphy decided to call it a day – but what a day it was.

Eight players were under contract. One more, Nevis, was expected to be added in the immediate future and signed the next day. Two players agreed to terms but hadn’t signed, while another player was still deciding which contract offer to accept. That offer would eventually be taken off the table the next afternoon and the club would move on.

There were also multiple trade discussions, one of which with Hamilton would be completed at about 8:00 Wednesday morning, as the Argos acquired linebacker Jordan Moore.

As people packed up their bags and prepared to exit the building there were some encouraging words exchanged, but there was no real celebration; it was just another day in the process of turning the team around from back-to-back 4-14 seasons. There was more work to do, starting at 7:30 the next morning, the same as always.

The Toronto Argonauts were a different team than they were eleven-and-a-half hours earlier. It was a team that suddenly had options aplenty as to where to start Canadians.

To paraphrase Michael Clemons, you must build the foundation before you add the chandelier. The overall talent base was upgraded on Tuesday, strengthening the team’s structure, while still adding some attractive pieces to the structure’s décor.