Argonauts.ca’s Mike Hogan was allowed inside the Argos “War Room” for a behind the scenes account of the first day of free agency 2022. The only parameter was that he was not to mention the names of anyone discussed that did not sign with the Argos.
“The waiting is the hardest part.” – Tom Petty
February 8th, 2022 could not come quickly enough for the Toronto Argonauts, ditto for the CFL’s eight other teams.
After a roller-coaster week filled with hope, relief, frustration and gratification; the team would officially find out how its week-long fishing expedition had paid off.
This year, beginning at noon on Sunday, January 30, teams were allowed to speak with players who eligible to become free agents. They could discuss what it would take to sign or re-sign a player, find out what other teams had offered, or come to a verbal agreement that could officially be announced when teams were legally permitted to finalize deals. Teams could also submit a written offer to the league that could be accepted by a player in the two-hour period preceding the noon kickoff on the 8th.
Just before the negotiation window began, Argonauts.ca was presented by the personnel department with a list of 11 names. These were some of the key players the organization would be targeting during the week-long leadup.
This was not a final list mind you, but a working list with the names of those there was a definite interest in. That list would be refined over the next several days.
Three of the players would re-sign with their previous teams before hitting the market, meaning the list would immediately shrink to eight names. More players would be discussed internally mind you, but the roster of main targets had shrunk to eight and would by decrease by one when it was announced that another player had agreed to terms with a new team.
Another key player on the Argos list had verbally agreed to terms with another team, taking him off the list. Free agency hadn’t yet begun, and the list of targets had shrunk from eleven to just six.
Another player’s name was to be removed from the board, but for good reason. Safety Royce Metchie, a Brampton native who had spent the first three years of his pro career in Calgary, had agreed to terms with the Argos and would be coming home. In the same time span, linebacker Cameron Judge, who had spent 2021 in Double Blue, had agreed to terms with Calgary.
Each team knew of the two players’ decisions and agreed to trade one player’s rights for the other’s so contracts could be finalized in advance of Tuesday’s busy day.
As of the Friday, before free agency opened, a total of five of the 11 names remained on the list. That list would be sliced by two on Saturday as a pair of those players agreed to come to Toronto.
Defensive back DaShaun Amos, a West Division All-Star in 2019, had agreed to terms, as did offensive lineman Justin Lawrence, whose ability to play guard and centre will come in handy. He started at both guard positions last season and has also played centre.
There were just three names remaining on the original list. One belonged to a player that had been offered enough money elsewhere to take the Argos out of the race. Another player was there more as a plan B in case another deal or two didn’t work out.
That left one name; the name that appeared at the top of the list of eleven.
The Argos first call during the negotiation window happened one minute after it opened. At 12:01 General Manager Michael “Pinball” Clemons contacted Ja’Gared Davis, then was joined on a Zoom call by other members of the personnel department and coaching staff. The Hamilton Tiger-Cats defensive end has been a menace to opponents, earning All-Star recognition in each of the last two seasons. His addition to the front four would immediately improve the Argos pass rush.
Not only that, there would be the added bonus of taking away arguably the best defensive player from the team’s hated rival. Davis has also played in the Grey Cup in each of his five CFL seasons and the Argonauts were hoping he’d make it 6ix for 6ix with Toronto.
He’d soon find out that Clemons and company were not messing around as they made the Southern Methodist University product a substantial offer.
Would it be good enough? The team had been waiting over a week by the time it was time to go to bed on Monday night. They were fairly confident, but Davis had not let them know if he would be accepting the offer. The uncertainty did not make for a comfortable sleep for all.
Director of Scouting Vince Magri was the first one to arrive at the Argos football operations offices at Coca-Cola Coliseum; located a par-3 east BMO Field. After a deep but short sleep, Magri was at his desk at 6:30 am. He’d be joined within the hour by Manager of Football Operations Alex Russell, and Jim Barker, who has been with the team for a couple of weeks in his new role as Senior Advisor. Clemons was not far behind.
There wasn’t a lot to do at this stage. As a group they were still nervous about Davis. The offer was on the table, but the big Texan hadn’t revealed his decision yet. There was guarded optimism, but there was still a chance he would return to the Ticats or be lured by a noontime offer from another team.
The group had set up shop in Magri’s office, a 15’ X 15” former boardroom that features his desk, a conference table, and a couch. Magri was at his desk, Russell took his position at the table, Barker claimed the couch, while Clemons sat in a chair next to Barker. Argonauts.ca set up shop next to Magri’s desk.
On one wall was a huge screen that could show a depth chart from any of the nine CFL teams, or a list of targeted free agents. The free agent list was laid out in grid fashion on the screen. Positions were written along the top, the priority number was listed down the left side. Players names were placed inside a square on that grid, one on each horizontal line under their playing position listed at the top. That showed what the overall priority was; the player on the top line was target No. 1, the player on the second line was the next priority, and so on. When a player signed with another team and was off the board, his box was highlighted in red.
The first name on the list was in the quarterback category and belonged to McLeod Bethel-Thompson, who officially re-signed on January 29. The Argos top target had been safely under contract for over a week.
The next name down the list was that of Davis; followed by a player that would not be signed by the Argos. After that the list read Royce Metchie, Justin Lawrence, then three players all on the same line under WILL linebacker, with one of those names being that of Wynton McManis. He had signed with the team on Monday, less than 24 hours before free agency opened.
Much further down the list was a name that didn’t appear on the first list provided, but a name that would come into prominence in the next few hours.
Before the day truly got started the Argos had signed three of the top six players listed on the final board. They assumed they were out on another and had agreed to terms with Lawrence.
They were still were waiting on Davis, the player they were most anxious about.
The list of the next five players included Chris Edwards, who re-signed on February 3, Juwan Brescacin, who re-signed on February 6, and DaShaun Amos, whom they had also agreed to terms with.
While they didn’t for a second doubt that Amos and Lawrence would join the Argos, nothing was 100-percent certain until a deal was signed.
There was much talk about how painful the waiting process was. The personnel team just wanted to find out what Davis was going to do.
Tom Petty was prophetic.
At 10:30 the group started watching film of some players that they may have an interest in should they not be signed early in the process, and the price became more buyer friendly later in the afternoon. They would also look at some players who were either currently on the negotiation list, or players they were considering adding to it.
Fifteen minutes into the film study, Head Coach Ryan Dinwiddie joined the personnel group after spending the first part of the morning with his coaching staff in the offices at BMO Field.
With one hour remaining before free agency began, those in the room were talking about the current Argos roster and what may happen to some of the players if and when other players were added. It was evident that with some of the potential incoming talent involved there were going to be some difficult decisions ahead.
In one stretch where everyone was looking at their devices, Russell matter-of-factly said “Forty minutes to go,” which not surprisingly received zero response as everyone was just as anxious as he was.
At one point, Magri announced that a player the Argos were interested in kicking the tires on had re-signed with his current team. That elicited a “Shaving cream” from the general manager, as much of an expletive you will ever hear from Clemons.
At 11:47 Pinball began his board room version of a pre-game speech. It wasn’t as animated as his well-known 2004 Grey Cup address, but he laid things out for those in the room. For the first time Argonauts.ca heard a name mentioned that hadn’t been offered up before: Andrew Harris.
The discussion became one of was Harris a necessity or a luxury. Would it make more sense to offer him a significant amount of money, or would it be wiser to spend it at another position? This had been discussed the night before as the group put together its final list. After sleeping on it, the decision was as easy as it was Monday night; talk to the talented back, just to see if there’s any interest on his end.
It had been decided – somewhat surprisingly to Argonauts.ca – that the first phone call would be not be to Davis, which would have been the presumed first call.
Instead, at 12:01, the general manager made the day’s initial call to Harris, who picked up on the first ring. The two had spoken during the negotiation period to see if there was any chance the running back would consider coming to Ontario. The Winnipeg legend showed enough interest at that time that Clemons thought the day’s first call should be to him.
“We came to the process with Andrew just a little later,” Magri explained of the decision to call Harris first. “We had done enough work with Ja’Gared to get to where we needed to go and felt comfortable and confident there. We told Andrew we would be contacting him as soon as the free-agency window opened and we made sure we followed through.”
Argonauts.ca asked Magri why Harris’ name didn’t appear on the initial list provided or rank higher on the free-agency board.
“The reality is we just didn’t think he was an attainable target. We thought with where he was in his career and what he’s done the last couple of years that he was likely going back to Winnipeg. We didn’t spend a lot of time talking about him; we did our due diligence and did discuss him briefly, but all the discussions led to us anticipating he was going to stay home in Winnipeg.”
When they spoke to Harris during the negotiation window, they let him know they were interested and would have an offer for him Tuesday at 12:01.
“When things changed and we saw a pathway to potentially make it happen, we tried to see if we could make it happen,” said Magri.
As Clemons spoke with Harris, Magri sat at his desk and sent contract offers to Davis, Lawrence and Amos for review. For Davis, the contract offer included the dollar figure they had mentioned the week before.
At 12:05 Amos’ agent replied with an “All good,” and now they just had to get the document signed.
The G.M. turned his attention to Davis. The first call went straight to voicemail. Were the Tiger-Cats upping their offer? Was another team on the line letting him know they were as interested in him as the Argos were? The answer would have to wait.
Clemons would call back a few minutes later. Again, the call went straight to voicemail. Thoughts that a contract isn’t official until it’s signed were no doubt entering the minds of those in the room, though nobody openly talked about it.
The wait for Harris and Davis continued, as it did for the other contracts sent out. In the interim, other players were discussed. Who would the Argos turn their attention to if Harris opted to stay in Winnipeg, or bolted for another team?
It was during that time span that two agents reached out to say their clients would love to play in Toronto if the Argos were interested. Those players were discussed at length, but the waiting for the other players to respond continued.
At 12:47 there was a surprising message from Andrew Harris to Magri giving him a dollar figure “(Undisclosed dollar figure) to get this done.” It was just a shade higher than the Argos had anticipated.
The next four minutes led to a discussion involving Clemons, Magri, Russell, Barker and Dinwiddie; weighing whether or not they were comfortable with that number. They felt that losing a player of that calibre for the relatively small amount of money between the asking price and what was budgeted would not make sense, so four minutes after Harris’ text was received the Argos let him know they had accepted his financial request.
It was then that Ryan Dinwiddie broke into a gigantic smile. To say the coach was excited to add a fantastic downhill runner would be a grotesque understatement. There was one problem though, Harris hadn’t yet accepted the Argos offer and had some serious thinking to do. For him, the thought of leaving Winnipeg was settling in.
It was at that time, exactly 1:00, that Barker received a call from a number he didn’t recognize but answered none-the-less. He put it on speaker. A voice asked if he wanted someone to clean his air ducts. Considering the serious nature of what was happening in the room, the comic relief came at a perfect time.
There was more discussion about the roster makeup and ratio should Harris agree to accept the Argos’ offer. His addition would be icing on what was becoming a very sweet cake. McManis had signed, Metchie had signed, contract offers had been sent out to Davis, Amos and Lawrence, while Harris was mulling over his offer.
At 1:34 the Argos had their first contract offer of the day signed and returned; Justin Lawrence was an Argo. Two minutes later came the call they had been hoping for; Ja’Gared Davis had agreed to terms and was about to trade black-and-gold for Double Blue.
When did the Argos identify Davis as such a high priority?
“It could have been in the Eastern Final,” a happy Clemons said, followed by a long laugh. “It was a collective decision. I believe the entire league wanted him. We made a really solid plan about who we wanted, and we reached out at 12:01 (on the Sunday that the negotiation window opened) to let him know our level of interest.”
“We felt we were in pretty good shape when we got off that call,” the G.M. confessed to Argonauts.ca. “He gave us his word at that point that he would be ready to transition. I felt really good in the middle of our hour-long talk and really felt there was a real fit.”
When was he sure that Davis was coming?
“I was nervous last night,” he said, again followed by a chuckle. “To the very last minute there’s always some anxiety there.”
Then, more waiting. Davis was grabbing a flight to Toronto and would arrive later in the day when he would officially sign the contract.
While the group waited for the other offers to be accepted, it was a chance for the folks in Magri’s office to relax a bit; everyone began telling stories about days gone by. It helped kill some time as the waiting continued.
At 3:15 Amos texted Magri. He said he was just waiting for his agent to okay everything and that he was excited to be coming to Toronto. The group in the room was equally thrilled by his decision.
Again, more waiting. Then just before 4:00 Clemons left Magri’s office and decided to talk to Harris again, this time away from the group. It was not a pressure tactic; it was a case of Pinball being Pinball. He called to speak with Andrew Harris the man, not the player. He wanted to talk to him about what Harris was going through and to lend his support in the decision-making process.
Clemons came back into the room, standing just inside the doorway, and shared with the group the conversation that had just taken place. Everyone listening mentioned the amount of respect they had for Harris and understood how difficult the decision to leave his hometown of Winnipeg would be for someone in his position.
At 4:08, a mere three minutes after he entered the office after talking to Harris, Clemons’ received a text message. His face lost expression for a moment. He read the two-word text aloud.
When ya get the text from @andrewharris33 pic.twitter.com/Gy6H8RD9k2
— Toronto Argonauts (@TorontoArgos) February 9, 2022
Those in the room stared at the G.M., waiting for him to give more details. Who’s in? Harris?
“I’m in,” repeated Clemons, who immediately broke into a high-pitched gleeful laugh, followed by a quick high five with Barker, seated to his right. His usual million-dollar smile would at that moment be worth about five million bucks. The Hall-of-Fame running back didn’t have to say anything else to let everyone know that a future Hall-of-Fame running back was coming to town.
Pinball Clemons could challenge Mariano Rivera as the best closer in sports history.
There were fist bumps around the room as Harris delivered the great news. Clemons, still with phone in hand, called the newest Argo to officially welcome him. Again, Harris answered on the first ring.
“Heyyyyyyyyyyyyyyy!” was how Clemons opened the conversation. “Big hugs! Big ol’ virtual hugs!”
The newbie was finding out what it was like to work for Michael Clemons.
The phone was immediately handed to Coach Dinwiddie, who said to Harris the team “Was excited to add to his legacy,” and how much he was looking forward to working with him.
After the football talk was done, Harris asked some off-field questions about the move, then let everyone know he was planning to head to Toronto to spend a couple of days to get to know the staff and the layout of the city.
Mid-way through the call Clemons summed up his feelings in a couple of sentences to Harris.
“I admire you so much,” he told the back. “I look forward to having a chance to be around you and to be in your space and to learn more about you. If you have things you’re interested in, our goal is to be the most player-centric team in the league. We are not just concerned about your today, but your tomorrow.”
A reminder, this was said after Harris had agreed to sign here.
Immediately after the phone call there was an enthusiastic conversation about what Harris brought to the team and how he may be used in concert with the other talented weapons the team has on offence.
Then everyone seemed to pause and take a deep breath. There was reflection on what had happened that day. How a handful of talented players had agreed to join a team that was already in a good position to win even if none of those players had agreed to sign here.
The day wasn’t over, as veteran defensive lineman Adrian Tracy agreed to terms as he attempts to give the CFL another shot.
Clemons had one more duty to perform. He wanted to drive to the airport to meet Ja’Gared Davis and make sure he got to his hotel safely.
How many general managers do that? It’s part of the culture Clemons and everyone involved with the team is working to establish; that playing with the Argos isn’t a job, it truly is becoming part of a family.