Argos shoulder the weight of expectation
Last season, Jim Barker and the Toronto Argonauts had the element of surprise working for them.
That won't be the case in 2011.
Barker made a triumphant return to Toronto last year, leading the club to a 9-9 record and a berth in the CFL playoffs. It was the Argos' first post-season berth since 2007 and the team upset Hamilton in the opening round before losing to the eventual Grey Cup-champion Montreal Alouettes in the East Division final.
In the off-season, Barker was honoured for Toronto's turnaround — the franchise had won just seven games the previous two seasons combined. He was named the CFL's coach of the year by the Football Reporters of Canada.
But what comes with that now, though, is expectation because Toronto won't be sneaking up on any opponent in 2011.
Rivals will fully understand the impact tailback Cory Boyd can have in Toronto's offensive attack after the CFL rookie finished second overall in rushing with 1,359 yards. And defensive coordinators will have plenty of game film to pour over when preparing to face second-year starter Cleo Lemon.
"We don't want to be a team that surprises, we want to be a team that's solid week in and week out, year in and year out that does things the right way," Barker said. "People can call us 'Smoke and mirrors, whatever," that's their opinion.
"For us, our players came back in very good shape and very focused and we were able to start on a different level. Where last year we started on level zero, now maybe we're on level 10 and that's a huge difference for us."
For the second straight year, Lemon emerged from a quarterback competition in training camp with the No. 1 job. Barker declared the starter's position wide open after acquiring veteran Steven Jyles from the Winnipeg Blue Bombers to compete with Lemon, backup Dalton Bell, sophomore Canadian Danny Brannagan and rookie free agent B.J. Hall.
Jyles missed most of training camp recovering from shoulder surgery, leaving a leaner Lemon and Bell to again battle for the starter's job. Unlike last year when Bell outperformed Lemon during camp, Lemon captured the No. 1 position legitimately this time around.
And Barker said having a season of Canadian football under his belt will help Lemon this year.
"He's got a better command of our offence," Barker said. "He knows better what to expect from us and from the other teams in the league."
While he helped Toronto secure a playoff berth, Lemon endured a roller-coaster first season in the CFL.
The six-foot-two 215-pounder completed 61.7 per cent of his passes, but had more interceptions (19) than touchdowns (15). And with Lemon, Toronto's offence was last in the CFL in scoring (20.7 points per game), total yards (316.3 per game) and passing yards (221.1 per game).
Instead, Toronto used the combination of stout defence and stellar special-teams play from returner Chad Owens to manufacture wins in 2010.
Owens, the CFL's outstanding special-teams player last year, was nothing short of sensational. The 28-year-old led the league in combined yards (3,288), punt return yards (1,060), punt return average (12.6), kickoff return yards (1,216), missed field goal return yards (425) and tied for the league lead with four kick-return touchdowns.
Owens joins elite company
Owens also became the fifth player in league history to accumulate 1,000 punt and kickoff return yards in the same season. And under the leadership of rookie special-teams coach Mike O'Shea — a former standout Argos linebacker — the unit came up big throughout the season with either timely Owens returns or important third-down gambles.
But Owens also saw action during training camp on offence and Barker hopes to have him contribute more this year on that side of the ball.
"We'll use him a lot more," Barker said. "He didn't come to us until after training camp last year and it's tough to implement guys in after camp is over.
"He was just trying to learn our stuff so we couldn't move him around. Now we're able to do that and he's going to create problems for people. He'll play all over the field and be used in a multitude of ways. Him with his hands on the ball is trouble."
Defensively, Toronto's bend-but-don't-break approach worked very well. The Argos finished in the middle of the pack in most defensive stats but were the most difficult to score against (league-low 24.6 points per game), which often kept the Double Blue in most games.
Toronto will have to do without veteran defensive lineman Adriano Belli. The colourful defensive tackle retired in the off-season after missing much of last year with a leg injury.
But the Argos will have rush end Ricky Foley from the start of the year. The former B.C. Lions star, who had a CFL-best 12 sacks in 2009, signed with Toronto midway through last year after being released by both the Seattle Seahawks and New York Jets.
The six-foot-two, 258-pound native of Courtice, Ont.. only had one sack with the Argos and said he never really settled in because he was seemingly always playing catchup
"That was pretty much the whole year," Foley said. "It was kind of like you just don't have the connection with the guys.
"Training camp is when you put things in like how your team is going to be. It's when you mould your identity and what you're going to be like and when you miss out on that it's rough to come in halfway through the year and jump in. Now we're all on the same page, we're all flying around and I know the defence inside and out.
I can just be an athlete instead of being like a robot and thinking about what I have to do."
Added Barker: "I'm excited to see Ricky play. He just seems to have a knack about him. He takes the wrong gap sometimes and goes the wrong direction but is always making plays."
Toronto's top defensive lineman last year was Kevin Hunley, who was fourth in the CFL in sacks with nine, one more than unheralded teammate Ronald Flemons.
The secondary will be minus cornerback Willie Middlebrooks. The former first-round draft pick of the NFL's Denver Broncos suffered a season-ending neck injury late last year and opted to retire prior to the start of training camp.
Although Toronto won't have the element of surprise in 2011, Barker's message to his team remains the same.
"Our goal remains the same, which is to win a Grey Cup," he said. "The players who are here are the ones we believe give us the best chance to win.
"You can talk about all that other stuff all you want, but that's what this is all about."