January 5, 2024

Hogan: A New Year, A New Approach

EDMONTON, AB - Oct 21, 2023: Toronto Argonauts vs Saskatchewan Roughriders at Mosaic Stadium on Saturday afternoon.(Chris Lindsey / Toronto Argonauts)

In a lot of ways, the 2023 season was an extremely memorable one for the Toronto Argonauts. The overwhelming majority of it was positive, but it ended in the most gut-wrenching way.

The calendar flipped on January first. Gone is the year of 150th anniversary, the 16-2 record, defensive coordinator Corey Mace, and yes, the heartbreaking Eastern Final. As we’re just under a month away from free agency there will be more changes in terms of roster composition as some familiar Argos will leave.

It’s all part of the football life cycle.

“What do you do after you break a team record for wins?” asked general manager Michael Clemons in a discussion with Argonauts.ca. “You go after the most important thing, and that is to win the Grey Cup.”

Roster reconstruction is well underway. The Argos have re-signed 10 players, while adding seven players new to Double Blue. Some fan favourites will undoubtedly find new homes next month through free agency, while the team will add players from other teams via the same process.

The lineup has an incredibly solid foundation from which to start, but if you think Clemons’ ambition in 2024 is to be competitive, you’d be wrong.

“To put together another competitive team is really not the goal,” he explained. “We don’t want to compete; we want to win championships. Anything short of that, as this past year was an example of, is just not enough. That’s the overwhelming reality in our situation, our goal is to ultimately be dominant.”

Ryan Dinwiddie’s record as the Argos head coach would fall into the category of dominant. In his three seasons he’s led the team to a first place finish each time, winning the Grey Cup in 2022. He’s been the East nominee for CFL Coach of the Year three times – winning it this year – and has put together a regular-season record of 36-14. His winning percentage of .720 is the fourth best in team history, and the best of any Argo coach since 1921.

But unlike in ’22, Dinwiddie’s team didn’t win its final game of the season. The loss was tough; the way it was lost was even tougher. The head coach needed some time before completing the necessary evil of watching the game film.

“It was tough,” the coach told Argonauts.ca. “I didn’t watch it until well after the full CFL season. We had to grade it, we had to see where we’re at as far as evaluating and seeing where we’re going as an organization. It was tough to watch, like all losses are. Now we’re trying to get our free agents back, see where we can financially make that work and evaluate some other players across the league.”

The ’23 Argos averaged just under 33 points per game. CFL Most Outstanding Player Chad Kelly will be back to quarterback the offence, the o-line is virtually intact, and receivers like DaVaris Daniels, Kurleigh Gittens Jr., David Ungerer III and Tommy Nield are under contract. Dinwiddie, who also serves as the Argos offensive coordinator, says with that group, combined with some of the new players under contract, he likes what he sees as a starting point.

“We’re comfortable with where we’re at right now. We feel like we’ve got some guys we need to get back in the building. It was nice we got (left tackle Isiah) Cage done early. Maybe we want to add a few guys too; get some different skill sets to add to our offence.”

But in the business of football, nothing is guaranteed. When a player has individual success his asking price during free agency goes up. When his team has success, the asking price also goes up. When a successful player on a successful team becomes a free agent, the requested dollar amount can skyrocket.

“It’s going to be a tough free agency,” admitted Dinwiddie. “To have the season we did, with some of these guys’ asking prices, we’ve got to do our best to work with both parties to make sure we can get this thing done and get guys back in the building.”

Assembling the roster won’t be easy, especially with the constraints of the salary cap. Clemons knows that this year’s team will have a different look.

“We had such a finished roster coming into the season I don’t know how much we continued to improve, especially the final third of the season,” said the G.M. “As we look forward, I think you will find a sense of being incomplete. Although there is excellence here, there is so much more to be done. As we get ready to put together this team, I think we’re looking a roster that may have a little less experience because we won’t be able to bring every guy back, but I believe we will also have a roster that grows through the year rather than a roster that’s already fully grown.”

Clemons is looking to replicate the team’s regular season success, only this time, hoping for a better ending than the one that happened in the Eastern Final. That’s what’s stuck with the general manager from that day.

“We had our best crowd of the year. Our fans came out and supported us in such a great way and momentum just grew throughout the year, and with our best audience we didn’t put on our Sunday best.”

He’s hoping he and his staff can assemble a tailor-made Grey Cup champion for this season.