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Argos active participants in wild early start to the CFL off-season

12/22/2011 04:21 EST | Updated 02/21/2012 05:12 EST
Jim Barker has never been afraid to step into the CFL spotlight.

He emerged as a pivotal figure in the 2010 CFL Canadian college draft when he gave up the first overall pick in a three-team deal that landed the Toronto Argonauts the second and third overall selections. Last year, he entered the draft without a first-round pick but sent two later selections to the Saskatchewan Roughriders to move up to the No. 7 spot.

And less than a week after the 2011 campaign ended, Barker was the central figure in a wild start to the CFL off-season.

Since the B.C. Lions hoisted the Grey Cup on Nov. 27, three teams — Toronto, the Lions and Saskatchewan Roughriders — have made coaching changes with a fourth (Hamilton) also having a vacancy to fill. And Barker engineered the biggest trade thus far, landing veteran quarterback Ricky Ray from the Edmonton Eskimos for quarterback Steven Jyles, kicker Grant Shaw and the Argos' 2012 first-round pick (No. 2 overall).

"When you look at it, it was kind of a rare year with two coaches (Barker and B.C.'s Wally Buono) stepping down and another (Saskatchewan's Ken Miller) retiring," Barker said. "When people step down you usually have a plan about what you want to do so things happen rather quickly.

"I think with most people when they have an opening they know which direction they want to go and regardless of how diligent they are they usually follow through with it.''

And the time for change is now for Barker with Toronto hosting the 100th Grey Cup next year. The Argos finished last in the East Division with a 6-12 record last year, drawing just 20,000 fans per game. Interest in the club especially began to wane late in the season when it became clear it would miss the CFL playoffs for the third time in four years.

The Argos must be much more competitive — and therefore more relevant — in the CFL's biggest marketplace in 2012. The franchise can't afford to again drive away fans leading up to the biggest championship game in league history.

On Dec. 1, Barker unveiled former Montreal offensive co-ordinator Scott Milanovich as Toronto's new head coach. The move came less than a year after Barker was named the CFL's coach of the year, then was given the GM job as well by the Argos.

Despite Toronto's finish, Barker was steadfast at season's end he'd continue doing both jobs in 2012. That was until Milanovich became available.

"When I evaluated the whole thing, there was no way I could do what I was trying to do," Barker said. "It was being realistic about knowing I wasn't going to turn the offence over to just anybody and the only guy I trusted and knew I could turn my back and go with was Scott.

"I felt he was strong enough that we needed to have him in our organization.''

Barker's first priority as GM was securing a veteran quarterback for his rookie head coach so he quickly re-signed Jyles, who finished the season as Toronto's starter. But Barker then delivered Milanovich a serious upgrade in Ray, an established nine-year CFL veteran and two-time Grey Cup champion.

"I wake up every morning wondering how I can improve this club, how can we get better,'' Barker said. "I don't know if it's a flair for the dramatic, I think it's stuff that's well thought out.

"Does it always work out? Never. But when you do what your experience tells you is proper, things usually work out.''

Ray fills a definite need for the Argos, who sported the CFL's worst offence last year. Toronto's inability to consistently hold on to the ball, let alone score, all too often left the club's defence on the field way too long, allowing opponents to pound the Argo defenders into submission.

The deal was a peculiar one from Edmonton's perspective given the club was 11-7 under Ray, who finished as the league's third-leading passer. Jyles, who has made just 20 career starts over his six CFL seasons, will enter the Eskimos' training camp as Rays successor.

But it seems the quarterback carousel won't stop there.

With the emergence of Drew Tate in Calgary, veteran Henry Burris' days appear numbered. The expectation is Burris will eventually land in Hamilton, where the Tiger-Cats are deciding upon a new head coach to replace Marcel Bellefeuille, who was fired after posting an 8-10 regular-season record. The Winnipeg Blue Bombers won the East Division title this year, but both starter Buck Pierce and backup Alex Brink are scheduled to become free agents in February.

There will be no quarterback change in Montreal, with veteran Anthony Calvillo announcing he'll return for a 19th CFL season. The 39-year-old was the CFL's lone 5,000-yard passer this year but will have a new offensive co-ordinator in former quarterback Marcus Brady, who replaces Milanovich.

Quarterback won't be an issue for the new head coaches with B.C. and Saskatchewan.

Defensive co-ordinator Mike Benevides gets his first taste as a CFL head coach with the unenviable task of replacing the legendary Buono. Buono was the league's most successful coach with a record 254 regular-season wins and ended his amazing 22-year run with a Grey Cup title win on home soil in November.

But Benevides will be able to count on Travis Lulay under centre. In his first full season as the Lions' starter, Lulay was named the CFL's outstanding player, then capped his amazing campaign as the MVP of the Lions' 34-23 Grey Cup win over Winnipeg.

Meanwhile in Regina, the Riders look to another first-year CFL head coach to get them back into the playoffs. Corey Chamblin, Hamilton's defensive co-ordinator last season, takes over from Miller, the former vice-president of football operations who replaced the first Greg Marshall on an interim basis before retiring at season's end.

Chamblin was the runner-up to Marshall last year but got the nod this time around from GM Brendan Taman, who took over as the head of football operations.

After making consecutive Grey Cup appearances, the Riders posted a league-worst 5-13 record. However, Chamblin will have a dependable starter in Darian Durant, a former CFL passing leader who battled injuries in 2011.

While Toronto, B.C. and Saskatchewan wasted little time hiring new coaches, Hamilton GM Bob O'Billovich isn't rushing to a decision on Bellefeuille's successor. The Ticats have reportedly narrowed their list of candidates down to Calgary offensive co-ordinator Dave Dickenson and Winnipeg defensive co-ordinator Tim Burke, but the name of Buffalo Bills assistant George Cortez keeps being mentioned.

Cortez is in his second season as Buffalo's quarterbacks coach but spent 18 seasons coaching in the CFL, winning four Grey Cups and developing a reputation of being one of the league's brightest offensive minds. Cortez has also worked with current Hamilton GM Bob O'Billovich, prompting suggestions the Ticats are waiting to name a head coach in case Cortez becomes available.

The hiring of Benevides, Chamblin and Milanovich shows a change in thinking by CFL general managers. They're going younger, infusing new blood into the head-coaching ranks rather than opting for an older, more experienced coach who has succeeded — and failed — with other teams.

Benevides, Chamblin and Milanovich are all in their late 30s or early 40s, and have served as co-ordinators. They have enough separation from the players they're in charge of but are still young enough to be current and in touch with them.

"It's a time where when you look at the guys who are being hired, they're bright young guys who've come into our league and demonstrated leadership and those sort of things," said Barker. "It's certainly an interesting time."

Once Hamilton fills its coaching vacancy, the next date worth circling on the CFL calendar will be Feb. 16 when free agency officially begins. Topping the talent pool will be Saskatchewan slotback Andy Fantuz, the native of Chatham, Ont., who missed much of last year while attending the Chicago Bears' training camp.

In 2010, Fantuz led the CFL in receiving with 87 catches for 1,380 yards and six TDs, becoming the first Canadian to do so since Calgary's Dave Sapunjis in 1995. A popular notion throughout the CFL is a reason why Edmonton GM Eric Tillman dealt Ray to Toronto was to secure cap space to take a hard run at signing Fantuz once he becomes a free agent.

Fantuz tops a free-agent pool that features many veteran offensive linemen such as Montreal's Scott Flory, Hamilton's Simeon Rottier, Rob Murphy, Taylor Robertson and Dominic Picard of Toronto as well as Glenn January, Brendon Labatte and Steven Morley of Winnipeg. Paul McCallum, the CFL's top special-teams player, and Hamilton's Justin Medlock will be the top available kickers while Hamilton defensive end Justin Hickman, who was tied for most sacks this season with 13, could also garner attention.

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