TORONTO - The education of Cleo Lemon muddles on, with no indication he is anywhere near graduation.
He runs when he should pass, passes when he should run, trips over himself and fumbles the ball far too often.
In a league that is all about quarterbacks, the Argos remain needy. Friday night was Lemon’s 15th start in the Canadian Football League and somewhere you look for some kind of progression. Step by step. Week by week. Little by little. Something to tell you this is the guy. Something to believe in, if not today, then maybe tomorrow.
Just not here with Lemon. Not now.
He isn’t the answer today, may not ever be the answer. You search for a sign, a statistic, something to tell you that you might be able to build a football team around the former NFL quarterback. You search for it - but it is not easily evident.
And all the while you wonder: If Lemon is this ineffective, this non-commanding, what does that say about the Argos second and third string quarterbacks? How not ready for prime time are they? How can you get a reluctant football team excited when the Argos run a reluctant offence with a quarterback who is supposed to be learning on the job, and not necessarily learning well.
This was Game 3 against the Hamilton Tiger-Cats. Lemon has thrown no touchdown passes in three games. He has thrown interceptions. He has fumbled the ball away — in fact, doesn’t protect the ball well for a quarterback. The Argos have scored one touchdown in three games against the Ticats, and that one came from their best offensive player, Cory Boyd. The presence of a quality back like Boyd, behind an improving offensive line, with a receiving corps that is ordinary but better with Jeremaine Copeland back, and what’s holding back the offence — no quarterback.
No quarterback and play selection that doesn’t seem to give Lemon any help. Maybe he needs an offence that better suits his skill set. Maybe he needs to be allowed to throw down field more. Or maybe the coaches don’t trust him to do any more than he’s doing.
The good news on Lemon, a rookie by CFL standards but not officially a rookie because he played a long time in the National Football League, is that the Argos have seven wins. “When’s the last time a rookie quarterback had seven wins in a season?” asked Argo general manager Adam Rita. “If you look it up, it doesn’t happen often.”
The seven wins, though, weren’t quarterback wins. They were defensive wins. They were special teams wins. They weren’t come-from-behind, lead a late-charge, kind of football wins. quarterback victories. You need one or two of those in every successful season. You need someone to lead, look like they’re in charge, someone to take control of the game.
And the statistics tell the story of Lemon and don’t tell the story all at the same time. In the first half Friday night, the Argos didn’t manage a touchdown. Lemon competed seven of 10 passes — that’s good — for 73 yards, that’s not good. He led the Argos in rushing with 38 yards, which is good for him, not for the team. When it mattered, with the Argos in near scoring situations, in makeable second down situations, the kind of place a quarterback can change a game, he wasn’t up to the challenge.
He is just there: Not good enough to win games, not terrible enough to lose them, not selfish enough to be Casey Printers, and awkward enough to garner some boos from the Rogers Centre crowd which seemed about half Argo-half Ticat fan. And late in the quarter, coach Jim Barker had seen enough. Lemon had 82 yards passing when the Argos coach pulled him from the game.
The patient coach Barker then went to backup quarterback Dalton Bell. But only for two series. The Argos trailed 10-3. If Bell is the answer, we’re not certain what the question is. He threw an interception on his second series. He didn’t get a third series.
Lemon came back but didn’t save the day. You can’t win when you don’t score touchdowns. This is still a quarterbacks league, and the Argos don’t have one.
The two best quarterbacks in the building Friday night were Damon Allen and Matt Dunigan. And last we heard, neither was planning a comeback.