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Andrew Bucholtz

Can the Argos turn around Toronto's sports malaise?

Andrew Bucholtz
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In most cities and sports, a 5-5 team would understandably lead to more soul-searching than pride. At the moment, though, the Argonauts appear likely to be the first major professional Toronto team to make the playoffs since 2008, when the Raptors snuck into sixth spot in the NBA's Eastern Division (and promptly lost to the Orlando Magic in five games). That's remarkable, because over the last few years it would have been easy to argue that the Argonauts were in worse on-field shape than any of the other Toronto teams. This year's turnaround, combined with other franchises' ineptitude, might just have them in the best on-field position.

It hasn't been all that long since the Argos' glory days first passed them by. Their recent high-water mark was the 2004 season, which saw owners David Cynamon and Howard Sokolowski take over the club and add some front-office stability. Keith Pelley, recently named the president of Rogers Media, was named the club president at that time, and renowned former Argos' quarterback Kent Austin (now in his first season as Cornell's head coach) was brought in as offensive coordinator. Austin's old teammate, legendary franchise running back/slotback Michael "Pinball" Clemons, ran the show as head coach, with general manager Adam Rita putting the roster together. The team went on to a 10-7-1 record, a surprising playoff run and an eventual victory in the 2004 Grey Cup thanks to a superlative effort from ageless quarterback Damon Allen. The team's on-field success led to off-field success as well, as they recorded 10-year attendance highs and drew more fans per game than any other Toronto team.

The decline wasn't immediate for the Argonauts. They actually improved during the 2005 regular season, putting up an 11-7 record and finishing first in the East Divison, but lost the division final 33-17 at home to the Montreal Alouettes before a crowd of 44,211. Their per-game attendance was even higher in 2005 as well, with an average of 30,196 fans heading to each home game. The 2006 campaign saw another solid performance, with the team putting up a 10-8 regular season mark and then beating Winnipeg in the East semi-final before falling to Montreal in the East final. In 2007, the Argos won the division again with an 11-7 record. That was despite a quarterback carousel that included Allen, Michael Bishop, Mike McMahon and Rocky Butler. The team featured a tandem of running backs with NFL experience, John Avery and Ricky Williams, and also demonstrated the solid defence that had been their trademark through most of the good years. The season ended on a disappointing note, as they lost the East final 19-9 to the underdog Winnipeg Blue Bombers, but it looked like they were still in pretty good shape for the coming season.

Everything went wrong for the team in 2008, though. The offseason saw a couple of key departures, with Allen hanging up his cleats for the last time at the age of 44 and Clemons moving upstairs to become the team's new CEO. Former defensive coordinator Rich Stubler took over as head coach, and Rita made a massive off-season trade, shipping offensive tackle Glenn January, defensive end Ronald Flemons, a 2008 first-round pick and a 2010 second-round pick to the Grey Cup champion Saskatchewan Roughriders for quarterback Kerry Joseph and a third-round pick in 2010. The move looked promising at the time, as Joseph had just been named the league's Most Outstanding Player after throwing for over 4000 yards and rushing for 737 more. It didn't work out nearly as well as they'd hoped, though.

The Argonauts started the year with an auspicious 23-16 victory over reigning East Division champions Winnipeg, but things quickly went downhill. Stubler was fired on Sept. 9 with a 4-6 record. He was replaced by the CFL's all-time winningest-coach at the time, the legendary Don Matthews. Matthews had led the Argos to back-to-back Grey Cups in 1996 and 1997, but he was unable to spark that old magic, and the team went 0-8 under him to finish the year 4-14.

Matthews resigned after the 2008 campaign and the Argos brought Bart Andrus in as their new head coach for 2009. Andrus had significant coaching experience in the NFL and NFL Europe, but had never worked in the CFL and struggled to adapt to the Canadian game. The Argos again started promisingly with a 30-17 win over Hamilton, but that was one of only three games they'd win all year. Joseph proved unable to get it done as the starter, so the team went to Cody Pickett, which turned out about as well as a desperation attempt led by another man with the same name. The team finished 3-15 and Andrus was fired soon after. The on-field turmoil was matched with off-field turmoil thanks to revelations that B.C. Lions' owner David Braley had been secretly loaning money to Cynamon and Sokolowski. Braley later bought the team outright while still owning the Lions, sparking more questions.

The focus this year has been on the field, however. A 5-5 record so far in 2010 under new head coach Jim Barker might not be seen as dramatic improvement in every city, but it's a significant step forward from where the Argos have been. The team's found a new star in running back Cory Boyd (seen celebrating a touchdown above), who leads the league through 10 weeks with 903 rushing yards on 155 carries. They still have other issues on offence, including deciding if Cleo Lemon should remain their starting quarterback, but they've regained their typically solid defensive form, even if defensive player of the week Ronald Flemons has displayed an inability to hang on to the ball. There's a long way to go still, but in a league where six of eight teams make the playoffs and three teams currently have three wins or less, the Argonauts appear set to snap their playoff drought at the very least.

A playoff appearance by the Argonauts would represent more than just their own turnaround, though. It would also be a significant step forward for Toronto's big sports teams, none of whom have made the playoffs since the Raptors' last appearance in 2008. That team's been particularly hard-hit since then, going 33-49 in 2009 and finishing 40-42 this past year. They also lost star forward Chris Bosh to free agency this offseason, and their future doesn't appear terribly bright. A large portion of NBA success comes down to star players, and there are precious few of those on the Raptors' roster at the moment. Some, like RaptorBlog's Scott Carefoot, are already predicting the team will lose 50 or more games this coming season.

The Raptors may be in less turmoil than Toronto FC, though. TFC joined Major League Soccer as an expansion franchise in 2007 and went three straight seasons without making the playoffs. They appear likely to extend that streak to four this season, and fired coach Preki Radosavljevic and director of soccer Mo Johnston yesterday. TFC players have been quick to speak out against the Preki regime since his departure, and the whole club will be looking for a new direction after turfing Johnston, their inaugural general manager.

The NHL's Toronto Maple Leafs are still the dominant team in the market, but on-ice success has been remarkably elusive for them in recent years. They haven't made the playoffs since before the 2004-05 lockout, finished in last place in the Eastern Conference last season, and recently suffered the ignominy of watching the Boston Bruins use their draft pick (which the Leafs sent to Boston in the Phil Kessel trade) to select Tyler Seguin second overall in this year's draft. There are still questions as to if and how Seguin will contribute to the Bruins this year, but he looks set for stardom sometime down the road, and probably not in Maple Leafs' colours. The team does have an experienced management group in general manager Brian Burke and coach Ron Wilson, but patience with them may not last forever without results. You can understand why optimistic thoughts about the team are greeted with some skepticism.

Major League Baseball's Toronto Blue Jays have shown some potential this year under new general manager Alex Anthopolous, and they've got baseball's leading home-run hitter in Jose Bautista. The team has a core of talented young pitching to build around, and they've got plenty of up-and-coming position players as well, including shortstop Yunel Escobar, outfielder Travis Snider and recently-promoted catching prospect J.P. Arencibia. There's some excitement around them this week, with hot pitching prospect Kyle Drabek (the centrepiece of the Roy Halladay trade) set to make his debut tonight. Still, the Jays are always going to be facing an uphill struggle to make the playoffs in a division that features the financial might of the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox as well as the young talent of the Tampa Bay Rays.

When you add it all up, it certainly looks like the Argonauts have better short-term prospects for making the playoffs than any of the other big Toronto teams. There's still a lot of season left, but their recent additions of Ricky Foley and Justin Medlock should help as well. Making the playoffs alone is just a start, but it's more than any big Toronto team has done in a while. If the Argos can maintain their resurgence, they could wind up carrying the banner of sports optimism in a city that's been lacking it lately.

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