By Dan Falloon, sports reporter
Honestly, it’s been a blast watching the floundering state of pro sports in Toronto.
I’ve had a healthy hate-on for the Maple Leafs since before I could talk (slight exaggeration), and I think I was born under a good sign given the top story in Winnipeg on my date of birth way back when was a Bombers’ season-opening win over the Argonauts.
Part of it, I think, is that teams from the “Big Smoke” generally lack players I’m inclined to root for. All I can name off the top of my head is Blue Jays’ infielder Aaron Hill and maybe Raptors’ superstar Chris Bosh.
But the Argonauts made a move last week that might make me cheer against them less.
On March 15, the Boatmen signed former Queen’s University quarterback Danny Brannagan along with, well, a slew of other quarterbacks as they revamp their roster at the pivot position.
Seeing as how it’s been 13 long years since a homegrown quarterback took a meaningful snap in the CFL (it was Toronto product and former B.C. Lion Giulio Caravatta for you trivia buffs out there), it awakens the patriot in me for Brannagan to have the chance to be the first-string signal-caller as the Argos end up in the CFL cellar at 3-15 or something.
Normally, there would be some “In all seriousness” caveat. But no, all signs point to Toronto being dreadful again this season. The Argos are on their fourth head coach in three years and have just seven wins over the last two seasons.
Fortunately for the Boatmen, however, they actually appear to have some sort of promise of a future beyond this season.
First, they’ve made a wise hire to lure Jim Barker back to the team from the Calgary Stampeders. In various management positions, Barker helped resuscitate the floundering Stamps and helped secure the players that won the Grey Cup in 2008.
And as a head coach with both the Argos (1999) and Stamps (2001), Barker has posted a decent 20-16 record.
Neither of the head coaches who began the season with Toronto—Rich Stubler in 2008 and Bart Andrus last season—had any pedigree as a head coach in the league. Stubler at least was credited for many years of superb work as a defensive coordinator, and his 4-6 record doesn’t look so garish considering that his replacement, coaching legend Don Matthews, was unable to conjure a single win in eight tries with the ragtag bunch.
Andrus, meanwhile, flopped in his move from the NFL’s Tennessee Titans, and just never seemed to fully grasp the Canadian game. So it would appear that Toronto might have been better off keeping Stubler around and given him an entire season to sort things out.
At any rate, Barker’s the man now. And if the Argos’ brass gives him more than one year to turn the squad into a legitimate contender, then Brannagan at least should be given a real shot at a spot on the team.
Barker is entering training camp with a cast of CFL question marks under centre. At this point, the odds-on favourite probably is former NFL’er Cleo Lemon, who started eight games over two seasons for the Miami Dolphins back in 2006 and 2007, garnering a grand total of one win.
That’s hardly encouraging.
Toronto is a tough CFL market, given the looming threat of the NFL sliding in to whet the public’s pigskin appetite, and the present competition the Buffalo Bills provide with their close proximity to Hogtown.
On the one hand, with two years of absolute treachery behind them, it’s easy to get the sense that the Argos have to get their act together posthaste. The problem is that Toronto was brutal while starting many players who should be in the primes of their careers.
A couple of younger players, such as wide receiver Tyler Scott and slotback Mike Bradwell, performed well in a limited role over the past two seasons, but outside of those guys, it was hard to believe the team had any bright hopes for the future, which is essential when going through some lean years.
On the other, fans don’t seem to have voted for change with their pocketbooks. The Argos have drawn significantly better crowds in the past two years with a combined 7-29 record than in 2003, when they went 9-9 and didn’t break the 20,000 mark in any of their regular-season games.
That’s not to say the number of behinds in seats wouldn’t improve with a better team on the field, but being able to hold relatively steady in recent years is a plus, although a precarious one, for the Argos.
What hopefully should help is that the team has brought in a number of younger players, including Brannagan, who won the MVP award in the Golden Gaels’ Vanier Cup victory over the Calgary Dinos.
Because Toronto doesn’t employ an experienced CFL quarterback, the time to experiment at the position is right now. It’s not like in recent years where a team like Hamilton lined up proven quarterbacks like Jason Maas and Khari Jones—and still were abominable.
Granted, one of Lemon, Gilbran Hamdan, and Dalton Bell may come out of the woodwork and steal a starting job, like some question marks do from time to time, but if it’s essentially a toss-up, throw the Canadian kid in there.
Brannagan has the second-most career passing yards in CIS history, and he seems to be as much in contention for the job as any of the others in camp. Barker feels the 23-year-old has a legitimate shot at making the team, so here’s hoping he takes advantage of it.
The last supposed hotshot Canadian quarterback—Tommy Denison, a two-time Hec Crighton Award winner (as top CIS player—saw some pre-season action with the Stampeders back in 2004.
Denison was the last Canadian quarterback to even dress for a CFL contest of any stripe.
Part of the reason for this is because carrying a Canadian quarterback doesn’t count towards a team’s Canadian content since a team must dress 20 Canadians, or “non-imports,” per game.
One theory is that the rule is in place so a team doesn’t name a token Canadian as its third quarterback. But in recent seasons, third-stringers have seen action after the top two fiddles were injured and/or grossly ineffective over the course of a single game.
If the CFL was a pure “best-man-for-the-job” league, then no harm, no foul. But since a Canadian can be slotted in at any other position, it’s likely a handful of more deserving Americans were sent home.
And that’s fine. Watching the homegrowns do their thing is a great part of the league’s appeal.
And what would be more exciting for an Argonaut fan to see a kid from just down the road in Burlington tear up CFL defences? Or maybe he’ll struggle, but he can’t be any worse than the Kerry Joseph-Cody Pickett tandem they were treated to over the past couple of seasons.
But quotas or not, Brannagan still would have to show he’s the guy for the starting spot.
And here’s hoping Danny Brannagan has what it takes to carry the Argos back to respectability in the sport’s premier position.
By Dan Falloon, sports reporter