This isn’t just about a quarterback and a coach and a team going nowhere. Like most things, it’s more complicated and much more personal than that.
This is as much about hurt feelings and loyalties assaulted as it is about the grim realities of managing the Canadian Football League’s salary cap.
The very public firing of Cleo Lemon, quarterback without vision or in the end, sense, came down to three basic items:
1) What he did when he played, which wasn’t very good;
2) How he behaved when he was benched, which was worse;
3) The salary he earned meant that the Argos would have to do some kind of salary cap two-step to keep both Lemon and the newly appointed starter, Steven Jyles, on the roster simultaneously.
And in the middle of all this is Jim Barker, head coach, general manager, trying to support his quarterback, trying to find a way to win games, attempting to balance the budget and playing the role of coach-dad and salesman all in a day’s work. It was his decision to bring Lemon in, his decision to make him the starter, his decision to promote him and back him when all the evidence pointed otherwise, and now his decision to put his own reputation on the line as this Argo season fizzles on.
All year long, and through Barker’s entire time as coach, the Argos have had a quarterbacking problem in a quarterback’s league.
But in his inability to solve the issue has put his own employment at issue. Some have suggested the Argos have a coaching problem. Some have suggested the Argos need a better GM. Soon, without success in either area, he will be forced to make a decision on himself, if it’s not made for him by owner David Braley.
The truth on Lemon: He wasn’t much of a CFL quarterback, although he did look better in this losing season than he looked in his first three-down season. In fairness, he didn’t have an A-receiver to throw to. In fairness, the play-calling never seemed to suit his talents. In fairness, in his final start as an Argo, he completed 11 of 15 passes against the B.C. Lions with three drops.
In other words, he could have completed 14 of his 15 passes (there were three dropped passes), still been benched at halftime, and fired a few days later. And in the big picture, how bizarre is that statistically?
But what Lemon did post half-time played a role in his own demise. He didn’t take his benching well. He didn’t support his backup, Dalton Bell, or even look interested in being part of the Argos. Essentially, he gutted the one man who had believed in him through the worst of Argo offensive times. And by doing that, he either quit on the Argos and his coach or was simply the author of his own demise.
Through Lemon’s first season in Toronto, looking unlike a quarterback of the present or future, Barker kept a stiff upper lip and continually offered support in public. Even in quiet conversations, with notepad and tape recorders put away, Barker was a vigilant about Lemon. He just needed time, a tweak of the offence. You watch, he’d say. He’s getting there.
If the coach didn’t believe, then he’s a helluvan actor. But he did believe, until he had to make a determination that went against everything he was selling just a few months ago. He could no longer stand with a quarterback who wouldn’t support his team and the coach’s decision.
If the release of Lemon was unusual, so, too, was Bell’s unchanged situation. When Lemon was 11 of 15 in his final Argo start, his backup Bell was truly atrocious. His first two passes were picked off and looked amateurish. Explaining how it is that Lemon is gone and Bell remains is indeed puzzling. But then, there are economics involved here. There always are.
Because Lemon does not have enough CFL service time in, his salary is not guaranteed after Labour Day. So cutting him now costs the team nothing in terms of dollars. But a few weeks ago, the Argos did have the option of prematurely bringing Jyles off the injury list and they chose not to, probably because of the salary-cap constraints. Now, without much notice, he’s the guy.
And a bad situation for a struggling football team, even with a quitter gone, may be worse today than it was yesterday.