One of the stories that I felt was going to be interesting to watch this CFL season was how each team's offensive line was going to develop. A football team's foundation of success is built from the strength of the big boys up front. Heading into the season, many teams were weak and lacking experience and continuity along the offensive line.
I have enjoyed watching the evolution of the Toronto Argonauts this season. There was plenty of cautious optimism about the team heading into the 2012 season. Argonauts general manager Jim Barker did a good job assembling a young promising coaching staff and equipping it with skilled players. Although the Argos showed promise on paper, I was interested to see if they could win some games.
An organization becomes a champion when talent merges with a depth of conviction that you have what it takes to be a champion.
Coming out of training camp, I believe that the Argos felt that they had plenty of young talent. But until they beat Montreal at Molson Stadium in Week 5, they were unsure of what they were capable of.
Toronto is no longer a team that will accept simply being competitive. The belief that it can win is brewing.
After winning just six games last season, it was understandable that the Argos roster was going to change considerably. And if incoming rookie head coach Scott Milanovich was going to have success implementing his pass-first system, protecting the quarterback was going to be critical. What was concerning was that right tackle Chris VanZeyl was the only holdover offensive lineman from 2011.
As training camp broke, it was obvious that the Argos were attempting to play an all-Canadian offensive line. However, the question was whether they had the right players to pull it off. There was plenty of discussion as to who would start at guard. There was plenty of chatter that Cedric Gagne-Marcoux was going to be replaced by 8-year veteran Marc Parenteau when he was signed as a free agent in February. However, the decision was made to keep Gagne-Marcoux and Joe Eppele as the starting guards through July.
At 6-foot-4, non-import Wayne Smith does not fit the typical body type for an offensive tackle. Although Smith is a great player, I questioned whether or not he would have success playing tackle.
For the first five weeks of the season, the Argos proved that their offensive line was good enough to be competitive. However, if they wanted to becoming a championship team, Milanovich knew that he would need to make some tough decisions to beef up protection.
If Toronto continues to have success this season, I believe that we will point to an 18-9 loss to the B.C. Lions on Aug. 6 as the turning point. After the previous week's victory in Montreal, the Argos had emerged as a team, hungry to be the best. If you want to be the best, you have to be able to beat the best.
The loss to the Lions revealed that the Argos did not have the pass protection necessary to deal with B.C.'s pass rush. Argos quarterback Ricky Ray was pressured all night long and the Lions' pass rush made it very difficult for him to see the play develop downfield. If the Argos were to compete with the best, changes needed to be made to improve their pass protection.
Many shook their head in disbelief at Milanovich's explanation for releasing running back Cory Boyd. There had to be more to the story than just the simple fact that he can't block. Have you seen Boyd attempt to block? Yes, he can run the football. But for the Argos to be a championship team, Ray needs to throw the ball 40 times a game and he can't when he is laying on his back.
Although Boyd and Chad Kackert, his backfield replacement in Toronto, stole the headlines during the Argos' bye week, I believe many missed the changes that were made on the offensive line.
Milanovich was very clear in his statements to the media that Boyd would not be the only change to the roster in an attempt to strengthen the pass protection.
When the dust settled prior to Week 8, the only two players on the offensive line that kept their jobs were centre Jeff Keeping and Van Zeyl.
Parenteau was finally inserted at right guard with Smith shifting to his more natural position at left guard and Gagne-Marcoux made a healthy scratch and placed on the nine-game injured list.
The most significant move on the offensive line -- and the most interesting -- was the insertion of Tony Washington at left tackle. Released late in training camp, Washington was picked up by the Argos in early July from the Calgary Stampeders.
I find this to be one of those feel good stories.
Standing 6-foot-7, Washington is built to be an offensive tackle. However, when you look at his football resume, there is nothing that leaps off the page. Washington played one year of high-school football and then learned how to play the game in obscure programs at Abilene Christian and Trinity Valley Community College.
There is no reason why Barker should have taken a look at Washington. My assumption is that a phone call was made by Barker to his buddies in Cowtown and he asked if there were any players that they would recommend him taking a look at. Often good players get caught up into the numbers game and organizations are legitimately saddened by being forced to let a good players go. However, there are a few GMs that will give a good word to other teams. After watching what Washington was able to do to Lions defensive end Keron Williams last week, I can appreciate why Barker would have decided to disrupt how the Argos play their ratio.
Barker owes someone a favour.
Building a championship team is about putting the right bodies into the right places and then having the players buy into the belief that, as a group, they can beat anybody.
With 52 seconds left in the game, Toronto had a chance to beat the best. Yes, they came up short. But they are getting really close.
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