As we head into the 2021 season, this seemed like a perfect time to reflect on how far the Argo roster has come from the four-win team of 2019. This is a much deeper and more talented roster and one that is easy to get excited about but how will we know if it is going to travel down a different path? The answers are both simple to state and difficult to achieve, which is ideal for me as an author and considerably more challenging for the Argo franchise. Join me if you will for a quick look at the key areas that must be improved if the team is going to make a run at the playoffs. I won’t spend this article beating up on the 2019 Argonauts who were essentially in the bottom two of almost every offensive and defensive category in the league. They were terrible, we have all moved on. What this article is going to suggest are some key signposts to be reached in the first four games of the season.
As you watch the first couple of games, use these statistics as a measuring stick. I will not go too deep into the weeds with analytic categories, because in truth, you don’t have to dig very deeply into the stats to recognize where the improvements must happen. Starting on the offensive side of the ball, there actually were some decent offensive accomplishments in 2019, with the team coming third in the league with 5303 passing yards and first in the league with 33 passing touchdowns. But both of these stats suggest garbage time boosting and the offense was generally ranked in the bottom two of every category.
The first area that must be improved is the points per game average. I know. Score more points, very insightful but it is a key metric that is absolutely tied to success. The Argos must average above 25 points per game if they wish to be a Grey Cup contender. I will get into how they might achieve this, but the reality is that the top 5 CFL teams in 2019 all averaged about 26 points per game and that is the bar that MUST be met. A strong point per game average indicates a successful offensive system and ability to game plan for opponents. Look no further than this stat early in the season.
Let’s get into a more detail breakdown of key offensive goals. The 2019 rushing game was non-existent and huge advances are needed. If there was any doubt as to the importance of this part of the game, Winnipeg, Saskatchewan, and Hamilton all excelled at the running game. The Argos had five rushing touchdowns in 2019. FIVE. So the team has to improve upon the ability to run the ball effectively and to count on it in the red zone. A red zone run play for a touchdown in the first or second game will absolutely suggest a vast improvement. And the team HAS to average 100 yards rushing per game, this still only puts them mid league and would be behind the 146 a game Winnipeg averaged in 2019 but it is a quantifiable way of observing improvement. A quick way to get that average up is to double the number of times the Argos ran on first down in 2019, it was less than half of the league leader and the confidence in the offensive line and run game must translate into more first down runs. Being able to be successful on both sides of the ball is a key aspect of any winning season and I will be paying special attention to these rushing stats early.
The running game is a direct reflection of the state of the offensive line and this year, I feel enthusiastic about this unit. New O-line coach, Stephen McAdoo will have a much-improved unit and it can be hard for football fans to judge the improvements, but the rushing stats will definitely help, and the other key metric is the number of sacks given up. The Argos led the league with an average of three sacks given up per game and the league leaders averages two. It doesn’t feel like a huge difference, but sacks are absolutely offense killers. They fire up the defense, they speed up the clock in the quarterback’s mind, they chip away at the O-line’s confidence in their scheme, and they kill drives. That number can not reach three this season.
The last signpost to look for on the offensive side comes early for the fans. Good teams push for early leads and half time leads. The numbers are undeniable, in 2019 teams leading after the first quarter were 44 and 24 and in 2018 the number was even more impressive at 53 and 20. The Argos must improve on their first quarter readiness and aggressiveness. They were last in the league, averaging a field goal in the first quarter, Winnipeg led averaging a touchdown. First quarter success and touchdowns over field goals needs to be the mantra and I hope we see it.
On the defensive side of the ball, improvements across the board are needed too. Starting with the most generic but easiest to spot, allowing an average of 31 points per game is clearly not going to make you a winner. The Argos defense must set the average of the top five teams as the goal, 23 points per game. Yep, I can do the math too, a full touchdown needs to be cut out every game. I believe this team has the skill to achieve this, a quick study of the average after four games will show us how far along the team is with improvements.
So, let’s dig into how these changes can happen. The first area to be dealt with is reducing the number of big plays, 20+ yards rushing or 30+ yards passing, the Argos gave up 42 of these plays, the league leader in this category, Calgary only 20. I am definitely hoping that the influx of Calgary coaches can get the Argos closer to this number. The Argos did not have a particularly high number of turnovers in 2019, so while it is always smart to protect the ball, that is not the issue. The issue is the number of points scored by the opponent off turnovers. We were second last in this category behind only Ottawa at the number of points scored on turnovers. Turnovers are a part of the game; the offense has to make sure that they don’t give teams short fields with a turnover and the defense has to turn turnover touchdowns into field goals.
My last area to look at after the first four games is the improvement in stopping the run. The new talent infusion at defensive line and linebacker should help this become a reality. I certainly don’t expect a jump from the 118 yards allowed per game to Winnipeg’s league-leading, eye-popping 64 yards but getting that number down into the 90s is crucial. Rushing success against a defense is demoralizing, forces the defense to stay on the field for long drives and allows opposing offensive coordinators a wide array of choices on every down. This will absolutely be an area I think the Argos will improve and I will be watching to see.
So there you have it, a few measurables to look out for after game four. Does failing to meet any of these mean that the team will have a losing season? No, obviously a team can improve over the course of a season, and I will take a look again after eight games, but they are the major concerns and I can’t wait for the rest of the league to see what is so clear to me from this offseason, that this Argos team is for real.