Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Tillman the genius...

Yesterday saw some more incredible news out of the Toronto Argonauts when new head coach [Sporting Madness, Sept. 9] Don Matthews announced [The Canadian Press, via The Globe and Mail] that he would start backup quarterback Cody Pickett in place of Kerry Joseph Friday night against Calgary.

Now, Pickett did play well in relief of during the Argos' 39-9 loss [James Mirtle, The Globe and Mail] to Winnipeg Friday night, completing nine of his 13 pass attempts for 100 yards, but that was his first game action for the Argos. It's a risky move by Matthews, but one perhaps justified by Joseph's poor play, and as Duane Forde pointed out on TSN yesterday, benching, reducing or changing the role of established players in favour of unknowns has given Matthews two Grey Cups (changing Pinball Clemons from a running back to a slotback in 1997 and benching running back Mike Pringle in favour of an offence centred around then-unknown quarterback Anthony Calvillo in 2002). This may yet work out for the Argos.

The real story, though, is how Pickett is set to replace the league's outstanding player last year, the quarterback so good that Toronto traded offensive tackle Glenn January, defensive lineman Ronald Flemons (who, incidentally, they reacquired [Wikipedia] in July with a fifth-round pick for receiver T.J. Acree, the rights to NFL free agent Brian Smith and a third-round draft pick), and first- and second-round draft picks to Saskatchewan for him and a third-round draft pick. After the trade, a quarterback controversy developed between Joseph and Michael Bishop, the man he was brought in to replace, forcing the Argos to unload him cheaply last month. Guess who was more than happy to trade? Saskatchewan, and they only gave up a conditional pick in 2011 [Murray McCormick, The Regina Leader-Post].

In case you're keeping track, that's a net loss of an offensive tackle and quarterback who are bothnow starting for the Roughriders (only the best team in the CFL by record at the moment) [Saskatchewan depth chart], a wide receiver on their injured list and draft picks in each of the first two rounds in 2010 for Joseph. That is one high-priced backup quarterback.

What's clear here is that Saskatchewan general manager Eric Tillman played Toronto GM Adam Rita like an electric guitar with an amp cranked up to 11. Joseph is 35 this year, and it wasn't too farfetched to imagine that his skills might begin to slide. In fact, even his Most Outstanding Player award last year was somewhat questionable, as Winnipeg quarterback Kevin Glenn had better passing stats. Still, trading your franchise quarterback after you win the Grey Cup would be regarded as lunacy by most, and many thought Tillman had lost his mind. Well, it looks like he got rid of Joseph just at the right time: his Riders are leading the league with an 8-3 record, and he's managed to acquire a starting right tackle, a starting quarterback (Bishop, who's only 32), a skilled receiver and two high draft picks in exchange for a man who's riding the pine in Toronto and a conditional draft pick. That sort of highway robbery is illegal in most states and provinces.

Saskatchewan is a strong franchise because of a brilliant GM who doesn't buy into the hype around players, frequently makes swaps to maximize his assets and gets rid of them before they go down in value. The Argos, on the other hand, seem to be overpaying for old players a la another Toronto team. Success starts with the man at the top, and the Bishop/Joseph situation suggests that Tillman is a far better GM than Rita.

Update, 10:38 A.M. Sept. 17: Some good stories in the Globe this morning on Pickett/Joseph, including this excellent profile by Allan Maki and this story on how he was chosen over Joseph by David Naylor. Naylor also shares my skepticism on the Joseph trade, writing that the move to go with Pickett "also casts further questions about the Argos' trade for Joseph, the Saskatchewan Roughriders hero who has looked like a fish out of water through 11 games in Toronto. Sources say part of the reason Toronto's staff was split on the need to acquire Joseph in March was the belief that Pickett was a more than capable backup to Bishop. Sources also say Buratto has often been frustrated with Joseph's play this season, something Matthews seemed to pick up on immediately."

P.S. Regardless of what actually happens in Friday's game, I want to see "Pickett's charge" [Wikipedia] used in a headline somewhere. If they win, it could be something along the lines of "Pickett's charge worked this time," or if they lose, "Pickett's charge fails again." I may have to write a post about the game to get these in, but darn it, they're going to be used. The parallels are too perfect.

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