February 10, 2021

Hogan: Inside the Argos free agency war room

For the opening day of free agency, Argonauts.ca’s Mike Hogan was granted access to the virtual war room, to sit in on discussions and track the events of the day. The only restrictions were that he was not allowed to mention any player who had not been signed, is on another roster, or any pending offers the club has out.  


When Michael Clemons took over as the general manager of the Toronto Argonauts, he said one of his goals was to ensure the team would become boring. Not on the field, as the recent rash of pre-free agency roster moves demonstrated, but to become an organization that is expected to make the right decisions all the time. Boring, yes, but in the best possible way.

This year the Argos got the jump on other teams with a wild flurry of activity leading up to the opening of the CFL’s silly season. A trade was made with Calgary to secure the rights to three pending free agents, all of whom were signed. A new starting quarterback was added. Substantial big-play potential was added to the receiving corps. A starting Canadian centre was added via trade to create some flexibility with the ratio. Defensively, there were some unheralded additions to the secondary, while the addition of four sack-happy defensive ends has no doubt caught the attention of every opposing offensive coach in the league.

That advance work made the opening day of free agency relatively boring, so from the GM’s perspective, it was mission accomplished.

But there was still more work to be done as the curtain rose on the free-agency period, albeit done in a different way. There would be no gathering inside the offices at BMO Field this year. Instead, the war room would be virtual, with all members of the personnel department, coaching staff, video team, medical staff and communications department on the call, including this humble typist from Argonauts.ca. In all, twenty people were assembled.

The meeting room opened an hour before free agency officially started at noon, and almost everyone logged on as soon the room opened. Perhaps suffering a bit from video meeting burnout, there literally wasn’t a single word spoken by anyone online until Clemons entered the room just before noon and said, “Today’s the day.”

As one would expect from the loquacious executive, those three words were followed by a message of thanks to everyone on the call for their contributions that prepared the team for this day, and for the hard work done on the roster overhaul that has been in progress over the last year.

Tracking the events was tougher this year because of the virtual nature of the proceedings. Vice President of Player Personnel John Murphy was in the room, but never on camera. He would be talking all day to Clemons, Director of Canadian Scouting Vince Magri, agents, players, and staff, but doing it with microphones muted. Those in the meeting room were waiting for something to happen, or for the coaches, to be asked their opinion on a specific player or players.

Clemons would appear on camera if he had something to say.

The first bit of news came shortly after noon as it was announced Antonio Pipkin had agreed to terms. The coaches, both from the offensive and defensive side of things, were genuinely happy with the skillset and attitude that the quarterback would bring to the organization. While the paperwork wouldn’t be officially filed for another three hours, Pipkin was the first new Argo on this day.

“We knew there was going to be a battle over (free agent QB) Mike O’Connor’s services,” Murphy told Argonauts.ca. “We had to have another option. Antonio is athletic, he’s still very young, we think there are some things we can tweak and work on with him.”

Within the next ten minutes, 1,000-yard running back John White was the next player to verbally agree to terms, though there was some confusion because he still hadn’t officially signed and there was word that another team was still trying to get him to sign with them.

“It’s not surprising that when they (White and his agent) said they did have a verbal agreement with us that some other people would have kept taking a swing at a good football player,” said Murphy. “Because I know we would have if the shoe was on the other foot. If he said he had a verbal agreement with somebody else, I would have tried to change that opinion. That just showed you people’s respect level for John White.”

At 12:25 Clemons appeared back on screen and said “John White is official,” which again, drew an extremely positive reaction from the coaches.

Then came the first lull of the day, roughly half an hour where nothing was going on, at least from an Argo perspective. Offers were out, including one to O’Connor, who had not indicated if he was leaning toward staying in Toronto, or heading west.

At roughly 1:10 it was learned the Ottawa native had chosen the Stampeders. After he opted for red and white over Double Blue, he phoned Clemons and other coaches to thank them for the opportunity he had in Toronto and let them know that it wasn’t an easy decision for him to make.

Within the hour the Argos filled his spot on the roster by reaching an agreement with former Clemson and Missouri quarterback Kelly Bryant, a cousin of recently signed receiver Martavis Bryant. It meant the Argos had lost one but gained a pair of quarterbacks within a three-hour span.

“We’ve been working on Kelly Bryant,” explained Murphy. “The playmaking is there, the intangibles are there, and he’s got a live arm which lets you know that he can make all the throws. He runs very well. He’s so gung ho to keep playing football and wants to get on the field. I really like taking a guy like Kelly and putting him in a room with a couple of former quarterbacks (Head Coach Ryan Dinwiddie and Offensive Coordinator Jarious Jackson) and seeing if we can improve on what has been successful at the ACC and SEC levels.”

The general manager entered the process anticipating something would be done at QB.

“We did expect to do some work at the quarterback position,” Clemons told Argonauts.ca immediately after the virtual meeting had broken up. “We had conversations during the period with Pipkin. We also had discussions with John White and conversations ongoing with several other guys.”

That said, the G.M. admitted he wasn’t expecting a flood of signings on day one.

“We were expecting some dialogue (Tuesday) and we also knew it wasn’t going to be a busy day. It certainly wasn’t going to be as busy as last year because we had done a lot of the work ahead of time. That really speaks to the time and effort our guys put in. They had such a firm grasp of what our team was composed of, where we’re hoping to get better, and with the leadership of John Murphy we had some very exciting things take place in the last couple of weeks.”

That was it for day one. It was an early finish, contrary to the last couple of years where the first day lasted near, or past midnight. This time it wrapped up a dozen minutes before six o’clock, though management was still waiting to hear back from players who had been offered contracts as the waiting game continued.

Yes, contrary to what you may read online, the general manager says the Argos have plenty of cap room left.

“The reality is, we are in the middle of the pack,” explained Clemons. “Not only have we not exceeded the salary cap, we are behind several other teams.”

It allows the team the flexibility to add additional players if and when it sees fit. That news may disappoint Clemons, because that prospect is anything but boring.