TORONTO - Jeff Johnson surveyed the carnage of the weekend — a 30-3 loss to the Hamilton Ticats during which Toronto’s normally reliable special teams took the equivalent of a pie to the face.
“It’s good that happened,” said Johnson, finding the silver lining.
Toronto’s special teams have been the best thing to happen to the offence this side of a handoff to Cory Boyd. They are often what has given the Argonauts field position when all else seemed lost and broken.
“We’ve gotten better every week and sometimes your head gets swollen and this put us in check.
“It happened at the right time,” Johnson added. “We know we still have to work hard. Basically special teams is about one-on-one battles, it’s about a lot of heart and guys busting their butts to get the job done.”
Hamilton’s Marcus Thigpen was doing something else to their backsides when he took back the opening kickoff 32 yards and then, at the end of the first quarter, returned a punt 53 yards. That set up DeAndra Cobbs touchdown and a 10-3 Hamilton lead they never surrendered.
“They beat us on the weekend but that won’t happen again,” vowed Johnson, after Thigpen also returned a missed field goal 33 yards and a return on a fumble by punter Noel Prefontaine set up another Arland Bruce TD. “I’ve been around some phenomenal special team players over the 11 years and ... this is probably top to bottom one of the best units I’ve been around.”
That’s saying something grand.
Johnson has played with Bashir Levingston when he was named the CFL’s Outstanding Special Teams Player in 2003. Dominique Dorsey was the league’s most electrifying kick return specialist in 2007-2008.
“Today we have Chad Owens. He and Dorsey were similar, Bashir was just a flat out speed guy we’d get around the edge and set up a wall and he was gone.”
The Argos lead the CFL with 1,667 kickoff return yards and “as far as cover guys go we have one of the best ever in Brian Crawford,” said Johnson, who leads the league with 21 special team tackles and co-ordinates the Argos’ coverage.
While special teams often are regarded with a jaundiced eye by players who would prefer to start on either offence or defence, Johnson says it may actually be the most important position on any team.
“I think special teams is the most important because its the greatest exchange in yardage in one play,” Johnson said. “It can be a huge momentum shift in one play. If you make a big play either way, it gives the team momentum, the guys on the sideline are going crazy, the fans get excited.”
And, those fans he said, shouldn’t lose hope yet in this edition of the Argonauts. It’s been a struggle to score points.
There’s inexperience but said Johnson there is also budding talent.
“When we won (the Grey Cup) in ’04 it was a very similar situation. We had Bashir Levingston and the offence was mediocre throughout the year. And we made big plays on special teams.
“We had numerous touchdowns on punt returns, kickoffs, missed field goals. You look at our team this year and it’s been kind of the same. When we got to the Grey Cup the offence had its best game of the year (beating B.C. 27-19). Anything can happen in this league.”