Two late-season wins helped take a bit of the sting of the Toronto Argonauts' ugly season from defensive end Ricky Foley.
Players cleaned out their lockers and spoke a final time with head coach and general manager Jim Barker on Friday following Toronto's 33-16 win Thursday night over the Hamilton Tiger-Cats. The Argos (6-12) finished last in the East Division and out of the CFL playoffs for the third time in four seasons.
But Foley and his teammates were at least able to draw solace from winning three of their four final games before heading into an off-season of uncertainty.
"It was a nightmare season, no one can sugar-coat it and say it wasn't," Foley said. "It was a season from hell and that sucks.
"Every other year in my career when I had to leave the last day and clean my locker it has been after a loss and you're out of the playoffs and you're not going to win the Grey Cup. Being out of the playoffs six weeks ago, mentally you kind of adjust and know you're going to take the next six weeks and build for next year. That's what my mentality was and to leave on a positive note with these last two wins is good."
The Argos' late-season charge did little to mask the inefficiencies they had this year and must address quickly considering Toronto hosts 100th Grey Cup game next year at Rogers Centre.
Barker's cloudy future
The biggest question, though, surrounds Barker and what his role will be in 2012? Toronto was 9-9 and reached the East Division final in 2010 when Barker was just the head coach but finished with three less wins and out of the playoffs with him handling both jobs.
Barker has yet to speak with president Bob Nicholson and owner David Braley regarding his future but said whatever decisions are made will be in the club's best interests.
"I have no other interest than getting this club to the Grey Cup," Barker said. "If that's with me just as a coach, great.
"If that means it's better with just me as the GM, great. If it's better right now for me to do both jobs, then that's what I will do. All I can say is I promise you the best interests of the Argonauts and not Jim Barker will be at heart of every decision that's made."
Once again, Toronto was plagued by an offence more able to run than pass. The Argos, under sophomore offensive co-ordinator Jaime Elizondo, led the CFL in rushing (126 yards per game) but were last in passing (209 yards per game) and total yards (318.5 per game) and second-last in scoring (21.4 points per game) while tossing a league-high 27 interceptions.
What to do with Jyles?
Barker acquired quarterback Steven Jyles from Winnipeg last off-season to battle incumbent Cleo Lemon for the starter's job in training camp and generate more production under centre. But it never materialized as Jyles was slow to recover from off-season shoulder surgery and spent the first nine games on the injured list.
When Jyles returned, he was thrust immediately into the starting lineup as Lemon was abruptly released.
Without training camp or extensive practice time, Jyles predictably struggled learning and developing a chemistry with his receivers on the fly. In eight starts, Jyles finished 124-of-218 passing (56.9 per cent) for 1,430 yards with seven touchdowns against 11 interceptions. He also missed Thursday's game against Hamilton recovering from a head injury suffered last weekend against Winnipeg.
Argos' officials have gushed about Jyles' football acumen and understanding of the game. But the harsh reality is his numbers paled in comparison to the much-maligned Lemon, who completed 145-of-218 passes (66.5 per cent) for 1,636 yards with seven TDs and four interceptions.
Jyles is slated to become a free agent in February and Barker maintained again Friday re-signing him remains a priority. But even if Jyles returns, he could find himself in another training camp battle as Toronto has been mentioned as a potential landing spot for veteran Henry Burris, the CFL's outstanding player last year who has been supplanted by Drew Tate as the Calgary Stampeders' starter.
"I always anticipate competition, that's just professional football, period," Jyles said. "When I was a backup, I came in to compete every training camp and I've always encouraged whoever they had to come in and compete.
"We (himself and Argos receivers) had some rhythm. We still have some things to work on and get better at. But next year the guys will have that feel for how I think and the decisions I make on the field."
Improving the receiving corps is also essential.
Special-teams dynamo Chad Owens — the first player in pro football history to surpass 3,000 all-purpose yards in consecutive seasons — was the unit's top performer with 70 catches for 722 yards but no TDs. Veteran slotback Jeremaine Copeland became the 15th player in CFL history to surpass 10,000 career receiving yards against Hamilton but finished with 43 catches, 633 yards and no touchdowns, a first in his 11-year CFL career.
Canadian Andre Durie, a transplanted running back, was a bright spot with 54 catches for 665 yards and four TDs. The former York star had eight catches for 144 yards (his first 100-yard CFL receiving game) and two touchdowns against Hamilton.
But Toronto never had a consistent big-play receiver. The Argos acquired Maurice Mann from Hamilton on Oct. 11 but he didn't have nearly enough time to fit in.
"No, I wasn't happy with how the offence played," Barker said. "But those are things we are going to address."
Crawford leaves void
Barker also has a big hole to fill on special teams with the retirement of captain Bryan Crawford after seven seasons to concentrate full-time as the OUA's program co-ordinator.
"Seven years is a long time in football," Crawford said. "I'm at that point in life where it's time to move on and do some other things.
"My wife and I talked about it and I made a decision to come back this year and was pretty certain this would be it. It really didn't have anything to do with the season in terms of the record or anything like that. It's not an easy decision, for sure it's hard, but I feel very at ease with it."
Barker must also improve his defence's pass rush. Toronto entered the final week of the season tied with Calgary for fewest sacks (25) and the inability to pressure the quarterback left the Argos vulnerable against the pass, allowing 299.8 passing yards, 28.4 points against and a 66.7 per cent completion average — all league highs.
Defensive co-ordinator Orlondo Steinauer will have the benefit of experience come training camp. He began the season as the secondary coach but took over the co-ordinator's job when Chip Garber was fired at mid-season.
"He was able to change the personality of our defence," Barker said of Steinauer. "It became a lot more aggressive and was able to do a lot more things."
Barker feels Toronto is much closer to contending for a Grey Cup now than it was two years ago when he arrived following a 3-15 campaign.
"Had we won six games last year and nine games this year, that's the natural progression people expect," Barker said. "But when I look at it now, we needed to go through many of the things we went through this year.
"There were a lot of things exposed and we'll be able to move forward in a diligent matter that will get us to where we want to be."