Playing a dangerous game

STEVE SIMMONS -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 8:07 AM ET

Pinball Clemons was clear in explaining why he dressed a replacement Argos lineup for a meaningless game with a meaningful crowd.

That was the great question and even greater dilemma last night at the SkyDome.

"The fans can't run our football team," the Argos coach and fan favourite said. "We gave (fans) the best we could with the guys we had healthy.

"You lose by one, you lose by 40, you still lose."

They lost by 48 to the Montreal Alouettes with 31,212 on hand when the game began and about 3,121 in the quiet stands when the Canadian Football League game ended.

A big crowd and a small performance. There were so many replacements on the field for the Argos you would have thought Gene Hackman was coaching and Keanu Reeves was playing quarterback.

It was, at times, so bad that the most excitement of the fourth quarter came when an idiot -- an idiot, mind you with pretty good moves -- ran on to to the field before being chased rather weakly by security guards, apparently also the second string.

The truth is, the Argos lost last night because anyone with a bruise, a strain, a nick or a nickname didn't dress last night.

They lost because they didn't put their best team on the field.

They lost because they were playing for next week, disregarding this week, and in the interim toying with the loyalty of a very frail fan base.

It is a fine line, a very fine line. No one wants to pay for The Producers and end up with the understudy playing the lead.

Keith Pelley, the Argos president, wasn't completely certain about how to proceed with the last game of the regular season. The whole thing, in truth, bothered him.

Part of him wanted the Argos performance to measure the size of the crowd. Part of him knew what Clemons wanted to do -- rest his team. Getting ready for the playoff game next week was proper thing to do.

"Honestly, I met with Adam (Rita) and Michael about this," Pelley said. "I talked to them. But I leave those decisions to the coaching staff."

The difference between this Argos season and other Argos seasons is there would be no reason to explain in other years. Last year or the year before that, the crowd was so small Michael Bishop could have overthrown all of them.

Now, it's not so easy. The Argos are suddenly, shockingly, popular again. Never mind that there were more than 30,000 here last night. A legitimate 30,000. They were loud, involved, full of life.

PLACE TO BE

The much-hated SkyDome looked and sounded like a place to be. When was the last time Argos football looked this good and sounded this good?

But what happens now?

Do you turn off those who pay for tickets and didn't see the best?

Will the crowd for next Friday's playoff game against Hamilton be affected by last night's on-field indifference?

"We can't sacrifice trying to play for the crowd in what we're trying to accomplish," Clemons said.

"Our whole season hinges on next Friday." The playoff game at the SkyDome against Hamilton.

They have to win to justify what happened last night, to justify giving their fans less than is expected.

When your audience is as frail as Argos crowds have been there are no easy answers. There are only replacement questions.


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