TORONTO - In one of those moments of clarity that happens when a tipping point is close at hand, Jim Barker called Cleo Lemon into his office.
Whether you like Barker or dislike him, whether you agree with his decision making or take exception to his game management, he has a way of cutting to the chase that is eerily reminiscent of Don Matthews, minus the condescending attitude and arrogance.
And so Barker huddled with his quarterback as the Argos were preparing to play host to Winnipeg in Toronto’s long-awaited home opener.
That meeting would begin a transformation that hasn’t transformed the Argos from hard-luck losers to winners, but one that has kept the many dissenters at bay.
Listen to players and they’ll tell you the light has gone on with Lemon, who enters Thursday night’s battle of 1-6 teams having put together back-to-back 300-yard passing games.
Listen to Barker and he’ll tell you a tale that was as blunt as it was impactful.
“When I told him if his play didn’t pick up, he was done,’’ Barker revealed at Wednesday’s pre-game availability when the question of Lemon and his sudden improvement became a topic of conversation and, as it would turn out, enlightenment.
“It kind of clicked in a hurry. I don’t know if that’s what it was, if Cleo needed that kind of pressure,” Barker added.
Obviously he did, because Lemon has responded.
Whether it’s the sight of Steven Jyles throwing the football with an arm strength that suggests a return appears more likely than ever before or whether it was watching Dalton Bell leading the Argos on a touchdown drive last week in Hamilton when Lemon had to sit out a series when his calf cramped up in the humidity.
Everything Lemon was doing wrong before, he is suddenly doing right — being accurate with his throws, making good decisions, not turning the ball over and not giving up sacks.
He nearly did the ultimate act by almost leading the Argos to a win last week when Toronto had final possession.
Barker admits it’s hard in today’s sporting world where immediate results are demanded to develop a quarterback such as Lemon, who came to three-down football last year following years down south.
With so much scrutiny, Barker argues, the process isn’t allowed to run its course.
“I’m not saying Cleo Lemon has turned the corner, by any stretch,’’ Barker added. “He’s got to continually play the way he’s been playing. If he does that for the next few games, then you can say this guy has turned the corner, he’s a guy who could be an elite quarterback in this league.
“He’s had back-to-back 300 games, but can he do that on a continuous basis? That’s the question.”
That’s one of the most pressing questions with these Argos, a team that is only now beginning to understand just how much went their way last season when so much has gone against them this year.
In a losing climate, character is revealed and Barker can now begin to fully assess his team and its mettle, how it handles this adversity and how it ultimately shapes its identity.
Given the importance and profile of the position, identifying a quarterback in a quarterback-friendly league has to be the No. 1 priority.
If Lemon continues to put up not only numbers but also play the position with the poise, precision and game management that come with it, decisions will have to be made.
Realistically, a decision would have been made once Jyles becomes eligible to come off the nine-game injured list.
Logically, one of Jyles, Bell or current third-stringer B.J. Hall would have to be moved.
Jyles was acquired from Winnipeg, the price being a first-round pick, an asset the Argos may want to consider re-acquiring if Lemon continues to play as he has and assuming there’s a team willing to fork over such a pick for a quarterback.
Despite their struggles, the Roughriders have been to a place Barker is hoping to take his Argos.
And it starts at quarterback.
“His (Lemon) developmental stage is nearing where he either has to show he can be the guy who can take us to the Grey Cup or he can’t,’’ said Barker. “There’s not a lot more of the development phase for him.”