TORONTO (Feb. 6) — Thank you, Kilmer Sports (Larry Tanenbaum). Thank you, Bell Canada. It was so kind of you to grab our ticket money for next year in mid–November… then proceed to gut the best regular–season club in Toronto Argonauts history. Yup, that 16–2 record, which equaled the Canadian Football League mark set by the 1989 Edmonton Eskimos, will be a fond and distant memory for the rabid supporters of our country’s oldest sports franchise. While the Winnipeg Blue Bombers re–signed their two most–important free agents (running back Brady Oliveira and receiver Dalton Schoen) days after reclaiming quarterback Chris Streveler from the National Football League, the Argonauts bade an unceremonious goodbye to six of their most–critical and recognizable players.
None more–so than power runner A.J. Ouellette, who has defected to the Saskatchewan Roughriders.
Not since the venerable Mike (Pinball) Clemons played slotback from 1989 to 2000 have the Argonauts developed such an uber–popular figure. Now, Ouellette and his wild game–day look (running eye–black and bushy beard) are gone. The defensive secondary has been decimated by the choice to not re–sign starters Adarius Pickett and Jamal Peters, allowing them to join division rivals Ottawa and Hamilton, respectively. Rookie–of–the–year Quan’tez Stiggers will leave, uncontested, to the NFL. Gone, too, is the beloved kicker Boris Bede; gifted Canadian receiver Kurleigh Gittens Jr. and dynamic kick returner Javon Leake, all to Edmonton. Apart from quarterback Chad Kelly, the two most–identifiable Argos from 2023 were Ouellette and Leake. Remember, it was Tanenbaum who told the Globe and Mail that his football team was essentially value–less. Now, he’s showing it.
THE GAME DAY LOOK FANS OF THE ARGOS CAME TO LOVE AND IDENTIFY WITH. NOW, THE POPULAR A.J. OUELLETTE WILL BE WEARING SKASKATCHEWAN GREEN. A HORRIBLE LOSS.
Yes, the team re–signed (and, later, re–structured the contract of) Kelly, who captured the CFL’s Most Outstanding Player award before choking like no figure in modern franchise history in the Eastern playoff final against Montreal. Not sure why ownership made that commitment if it planned on cutting Kelly’s legs from beneath him by allowing Ouellette, his No. 1 weapon, to escape. The gregarious A.J. loved the football environment in Toronto and how the fans took to his bruising, brash style. Now, the ticket buyers and TV watchers have lost that important affiliation. Good luck, in this football city, trying to forge something similar (same applies to Leake). As of today, Kelly has no one of particular quality in the offensive backfield. Not with Ouellette and Gittens Jr. out of the picture.
Even with Pickett, Peters and Stiggers, the Toronto secondary gave up gobs of passing yardage last season. On most nights, Kelly had to put up 30–35 points for his team to win. God only knows how porous the defensive backfield will be in 2024. But, ownership evidently doesn’t care. We understood there would be some change to last year’s roster, given the restraints of the CFL salary cap (of course, the same ceiling applies in Winnipeg, but you’d never know it). What we didn’t expect was an impetuous roster purge. Perhaps we should have.
Tanenbaum and Bell purchased the Argos in 2015 amid great fanfare. They were going to utilize the club’s new (and pleasant) home, BMO Field, to revive the brand. Only to welch on their promise and practically throw in the towel on the club. If it was such a horrid investment, why did Tanenbaum get involved? He’d been around the Toronto sports scene long enough to understand there was no easy path to reclaiming CFL interest. If he thought the stadium, alone, would provide momentum, he was dead wrong. And, most billionaires don’t made lousy business decisions. So, now, ownership has apparently sanctioned management to unload anything (other than Kelly) that costs money. Personnel director John Murphy is good at his craft and will unearth cheaper players that can stand in for the departed veterans. But, to what end? As soon as they perform well; become identifiable to the fanbase and worthy of higher salaries, the Argonauts will let them go. That’s been proven, beyond doubt, in the past few days. If such maneuvering is merely a product of the salary cap, why didn’t Winnipeg lose one of Oliveira or Schoen? How did the Blue Bombers add Streveler to team with starting quarterback Zach Collaros?
No team in Toronto professional sport requires recognition between players and fans more than the Argos. The Leafs could dress 23 clowns each night and the joint would be hopping. The Blue Jays tease every year and fall desperately short. The Raptors won the National Basketball Association title in 2019 but are now a laughingstock.
The Argos soared to unprecedented heights last season before the disastrous playoff match of Nov. 11. Kelly looked as if he’d never before picked up a football. In one terrible afternoon, he became the gridiron version of the Leafs Corpse–4. So, he still has tons to prove. Depriving Kelly of his No. 1 offensive weapon and best ground gainer will help in no way whatsoever. And, given that player began to approach a level of popularity closest to the Pinball in his prime, letting Ouellette walk will prove disastrous for the product — on and off the field.
But, if no one in the ivory tower gives a damn, why should any of us?