Les Miserables: Argos, Lions, 'Riders

Toronto Argonauts quarterback Cleo Lemon reacts on the sidelines in the dying minutes of their CFL...

Toronto Argonauts quarterback Cleo Lemon reacts on the sidelines in the dying minutes of their CFL football game against the Hamilton Tiger-Cats in Hamilton August 13, 2011. It was the sixth loss in a row for the Argoanuts.(REUTERS/Fred Thornhill)

BILL LANKHOF, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 9:51 AM ET

TORONTO - Greg Marshall, Wally Buono and Jim Barker are all preaching from the same pulpit these days. Each is trying to accentuate the positive. Each is trying to calm the troubled waters of seasons gone awry; trying to calm a wavering confidence from within and a growing criticism from outside the locker room doors.

Each is trying to find a positive spin but, with 1-6 records, there will be a happy ending for only one of these teams in crisis as they stumble toward a playoff spot. The other two will get what they deserve — a nice warm spot on the couch like the rest of us who can’t actually play this game.

Marshall’s Saskatchewan Roughriders got booed off their home field last weekend. Barker’s Argonauts played one of their best games, and still wound up high-fiving the loss column. Buono’s Lions, in what was described in one news dispatch as one of the “worst offensive performances in over a decade” got mugged 30-10 by Winnipeg.

So, say hello to the Futility Bowl: Saskatchewan at Toronto. Thursday. Rogers Centre. It’s BYOB — bring your own barf-bag. OK, maybe that’s cruel. But so is what these teams have inflicted upon their skeptical (and in Toronto’s case dwindling) yet fiercely loyal fan base. It’s not even Labour Day but it’s pretty much win or turn out the lights for either team.

Rarely have three teams with such a dog-eared pedigree looked down the home stretch with the Grey Cup still in sight. But that’s what the league’s cross-over rule has created — playoff life for the D.O.A.

Only two teams have ever won a cross-over game, the 2008 Edmonton Eskimos and 2009 B.C. Lions. However, both teams did not end up challenging for the Grey Cup. But call him deluded; call him crazy; call him anything you want but Barker has not given up hope.

“It’s disappointing. One and six: It is what it is. There’s a reason we’re going through this. I talk to the team about perseverance. Maybe it’s a test of our perseverance. When it’s real tough and we get this thing turned around and we’re playing in the Grey Cup and we’re behind 13-0, maybe this is what we need; to learn to come back from this.”

And, so the dream lives for each of these teams.

That Toronto and Saskatchewan have joined B.C. — like lemmings over the precipice — came unexpectedly. Despite losing several key players, the Riders still had the sublime Darian Durant, one of the CFL’s brightest young quarterbacks, Wes Cates to run the ball and Weston Dressler to catch it. But the offence went splat!

The ground game has a CFL-worst 93 yard average per game. Cates is gone. Injured. Hugh Charles came in and provided a lift with 6.9 yards a carry. But now he’s hurt. This is not how it was supposed to start for Marshall after waiting 17 years as an assistant to get his first head coaching job.

The Argonauts?

They were expected to improve on last year’s 9-9 record but an inability to score early in the season, and lately an inability to stop teams from scoring, has proved disastrous.

An indication of how unexpected this all is comes from the CFL website’s own power rankings where Saskatchewan and Toronto both were ranked as high as third in the early weeks of the season but now have dropped to seventh and eighth.

In B.C. the passing game was an issue and they’re going to need more than Arland Bruce to turn around an offence that averages fewer yards per game than any other team. The Argonauts and Roughriders have similar problems. One week the defence goes AWOL; the next there’s a key fumble, a missed assignment or penalties that wipe out points or big gains. A time violation and missed field goal cost the Argos big-time against Hamilton. It’s always something — and it always adds up to nothing. Nothing but frustration. Nothing but failure. Nothing but another loss.

“When you have the Jekyll and Hyde thing going on, it makes it tougher to identify exactly what the problems are or may be. You just have to keep working through it, sifting through it, and trying to find answers,” Marshall said this week.

Argonaut fans are familiar with such vexing conundrums; Rider Nation is decidedly not. The Roughriders’ recent misfortunes are in pronounced contrast to the past four seasons — which included three Grey Cup berths (2007, 2009 and 2010).

This is their worst start since 2000 when they went 0-7 under rookie head coach Danny Barrett. They have scored a league-low 147 points. Five of the six losses have been by double digits. They do lead the league in one category. Unfortunately, it’s penalties.

That’s difficult to sugar-coat, even for a head coach. “You can talk about it, but the reality is that it weighs on your mind,” Marshall said on a Regina chat room this week. “As coaches, we’ve tried to stress the positive and look at what we have to do moving forward. But it’s never easy, whether it’s football or any other sport or even in life, if things aren’t going your way, it’s tough to relax and not be concerned about things.”

One peek at the bottom of every offensive and defensive category shows why these teams are in their current state. The Lions, Argos and Riders rank sixth to eighth in points scored. Their defences rank sixth to eighth.

“I believe we have the people in this locker room to turn it around. There’s nobody here who has thrown in the towel,” Barker said.

Reality says, if either team wants to right itself, a win this week is paramount. The Lions did come back from a 1-7 start last season. So it’s possible.

The Argonauts are clinging to two excuses. Oops. I mean two reasons they can rally. First, with five of seven games on the road early they now have a comfortable run of home games. Plus, they figure (perhaps rightly) that they haven’t gotten a lot of credit or breaks.

“I tell the players if praise or criticism affect you, then you’re weak,” Barker said, of the 1-6 fallout.

“We don’t talk about wins and losses. We didn’t last year either when we were 5-2 at this time. We talk about are we playing as well as we’re capable. Can we walk out of the stadium Thursday night with our heads high knowing each of us has played as well as we can play.”

So, either the Argos just haven’t been good enough.

Or, they’ve underachieved.

Either way, for a pro sports franchise that is unacceptable.

And there has to be more than just lousy luck or an arguable call by an official that has derailed all hope outside their own dressing room walls. For instance, despite suggestions the Argos have been savaged by officiating this season, they have been penalized 67 times, that’s a middling fourth-highest in the league.

Mostly these teams have had only themselves to blame. The Roughriders defence fell apart in a 45-35 loss to Calgary prompting this analysis from defensive coordinator Richie Hall. “We stunk the joint up ... We didn’t tackle. We didn’t cover. We didn’t execute at a very high pace. For whatever reason our minds weren’t into it.”

The Argos have averaged just 343 yards offensively, allowing 405. And, when the other team’s offence has the ball almost 10 minutes longer every game, it’s a recipe for too many four-letter words.

The Roughriders might have had a hint that trouble was looming. In the off-season they lost receiver Andy Fantuz to the NFL. Since then they have lost captains Jeremy O’Day and Omarr Morgan as well as veterans Chris Szarka, Tad Kornegay and Luc Mullinder.

“I think losing (players) who really meant a lot to the locker room, it’s tough,” Durant told reporters recently. “... they were great leaders and mentors. We’re missing that in the locker room right now.”

Seeing the problem and fixing it are different things. Shortly NFL cuts will be flooding the market. But neither Barker, or Saskatchewan vice president of football operations Ken Miller, seem inclined to run a shopping cart through NFL camps.

Miller has kept faith in his rookie head coach and a lineup that bears scant resemblance to the one he himself took to the Grey Cup.

The loss to Calgary left them 0-4 at home. They got booed by fed-up fans. This is a football team devoid of consistency. They do good things. They even do great things. But, like the Argos, they sustain nothing.

The Argos are 0-2 at home ... and counting.

Barker says his team deserves to be 1-6 the way they’ve played. He also believes they’re better than 1-6. It’s time to prove that. Now.

“We can’t control what Saskatchewan does. They’re going to come in like a wounded dog in a corner and they’re going to play hard,” Barker said. “They have Darian Durant who’s been to the Grey Cup two straight years. They’re very formidable. All we can do is play as well as we can and the wins will start coming.”

For the Lions, for the Roughriders, for the Argos there is hope. There must be hope because, to be honest, there is very little else.

SAVED BY THE CROSS-OVER RULE

The cross-over rule gives fans something to cheer for and teams something to play for but it also can be argued that it rewards ineptitude.

Introduced in 1996, the rule allows the fourth-place team in one division to bump the third-place team in the opposite division if they have a better record. So, even though B.C., Saskatchewan and Toronto are all 1-6, all will continue to remain in playoff contention well into the second half of the season.

For instance if the Argonauts go 8-3 over the rest of the season and finish with a 9-9 record it’s likely they’d finish fourth in the East and without a playoff spot. But if that was better than the third-place team in the West (which isn’t unlikely) they’d still win a spot.

Of course it’s never gotten cross-over teams very far. In the 15 years since the rule was adopted a cross-over team has only won two playoff games.

*In 2009, B.C. crossed over defeated Hamilton 34-27, but lost 56-18 to Montreal in the East Final.

*In 2008, Edmonton crossed over and beat Winnipeg 29-21, but lost 36-26 to Montreal in the East Final.

*In 2005, Saskatchewan crossed over and lost 30-14 to Montreal.

*In 2003 B.C. crossed over and lost 28-7 to Toronto.

*In 2002 the Roughriders crossed over and lost 24-14 to Toronto.

*In 1997 the Lions crossed over and lost 45-35 to Montreal.

IMPROBABLE COMEBACKS

(Teams that bucked the odds)

*Never having finished higher than ninth in franchise history, The Miracle Mets of 1969 won the National League pennant; then beat Baltimore in five games to win the World Series.

*The Cardinals overcame a 6 1/2 game Phillies lead with 10 games to play in 1964 to win the pennant and go on to beat the Yankees in the World Series.

*Last year, the Eagles' DeSean Jackson ran back a punt with 14 seconds remaining to complete a comeback from a 24-3 halftime deficit as the Eagles beat the New York Giants in one of NFL history’s most improbable comebacks.

*And, if the Saskatchewan Roughriders want to find a remarkable story about fortitude being rewarded all they have to do is ask head coach Greg Marshall.

The year was 1981 and Marshall was a defensive end with the Ottawa Rough Riders. It was a bad year for teams in the East but Marshall’s Rough Riders scrambled to a 5-13 record.

“I remind them at times that the way the CFL is you just have to get into the playoffs,” Marshall said. “It doesn’t matter if you’re first, second or third, just get into the playoffs. After that, you let the chips fall where they may.’’

Those Rough Riders came within a field goal of a Grey Cup championship, losing 26-23 to the Eskimos.


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