Jim Barker didn’t have concrete plans to rid the Argonauts of the negative mindset that seeped in during a disastrous 2009 season.
But the Argos head coach, in taking over from Bart Andrus, might have done that during training camp. Barker has made the bulk of his cuts, which means the players that convene for practice on Tuesday largely will make up the cast that takes on the Stampeders in Calgary for the 2010 opener on July 1.
No matter what the potential is for the regular season, gone, apparently, is the devil-may-care attitude. Carelessness won’t be a hallmark of this team under Barker, who is coaching for the first time since 2003. Too many times last year the players were an extension of a coaching staff that failed to give much direction.
“For me, it was about setting a foundation for what we’re going to be about and the way we’re going to practise,” Barker said on Sunday, “and the way we’re going to do things and do things correctly.”
It might seem like just a statistic printed on an official CFL game sheet, but the Argos were penalized just eight times in their second and last pre-season game in Montreal against the Alouettes on Saturday afternoon. A week earlier, the Argos, the most penalized CFL club a year ago, were flagged 16 times against the Hamilton Tiger-Cats.
“I was ecstatic about eight penalties, cutting in half from the previous game,” Barker said. “It’s those little things you’re excited to see.”
It’s evidence that Barker’s words are getting through the skulls and into the brains of his players. Offensive tackle Rob Murphy told the Toronto Sun on Saturday that Barker ran the toughest pro football camp he had been a part of, but it was a pleased observation, not a complaint.
“Doing the little things right, that was the gist of camp,” Barker said. “It wasn’t about beating them up. It was not about changing the mindset of how we do things.”
The savvy of the returning veterans, and the rookies to a lesser extent, might have put Barker’s plans for turning the attitude around on a faster track.
“We’re maybe a little ahead (of where he thought the Argos would be at the end of training camp) because the character of these players is so far superior to what I thought it would be,” Barker said. “Their desire to be good and their desire to want to do things the way they have to … When you have veteran players who care that much, they’re going to do what it takes.”
Having the proper mental approach in place is one thing. How much it transfers on to the field is another.
Barker gave the players Father’s Day off and they will not practice on Monday either. He has not yet named a starting quarterback, perhaps wrestling with the fact that Cleo Lemon and Dalton Bell are on a steep learning curve. The general rule is that as the quarterbacks go, so goes the team, and the Argos are no different.
“One of the major goals was to run the ball and that came to the quarterback’s understanding,” Barker said. “They made huge strides in their ability to run the read-zone play. When (Lemon) pulled the ball down a few times early, that opened up the running lanes. The running game took great strides because of the way the quarterbacks played.
“On defence, the effort level was very good. The pass rush was good, and we had them on their heels. We just have to do a better job of tackling in the open field.”